SHAFAQNA – In an unusual move by Tehran’s mayor, hundreds of copies of famous artworks were plastered on some 1,500 billboards across the city. It transformed the Iranian capital into a gigantic, open-air exhibition.
The 10-day project stirred both appreciation and criticism. But whether people liked it or not, the message was simple, according to Ehsun Fathipour.
“It says Iranians are art lovers, too,” says the 57-year-old Tehran businessman.
There was plenty to look at. The art varied from Claude Monet’s iconic “Rouen Cathedral”, Rembrandt’s “Landscape with a Stone Bridge” and Mark Tansey’s 1981 work, “The Innocent Eye Test”, to the 18th century “Flowering Plants in Autumn”, attributed to Japanese painter Ogata Korin. The exhibition ended May 15.
In a city of 9 million people, 200 copies of works by world masters vied for attention. They appeared along with 500 works of Iranian artists. One was “Still Life”, by Iranian painter Bahman Mohasses. It was in Tehran’s Arjantin Square. In Jomhouri Street, just a few blocks from the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, known for his love of the arts, stood a copy of the 19th century “Indian Fisherman.” It is by German Albert Bierstadt.
The copies beamed down from the city-owned billboards. They could be seen along key throughways, from overpasses and from main intersections and squares.
The project was the brainchild of Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. He is a former Revolutionary Guard commander. Twice he has lost his bid to become Iran’s president, first in 2005 and then in the 2013 presidential election. The latest time was when he came in second to Hassan Rouhani.
Qalibaf has built his reputation on a host of quality-of-life projects around Iran’s capital. Parks, expanded subways lines and highways have been built. But he also has faced accusations that he took part in crackdowns against student protesters. Those occurred before he became mayor in 2005.
The Tehran municipality sponsored the exhibit. It was entitled “An Art Gallery the Size of the City.” The idea was to bring art closer to the city’s residents, officials say. The city has sponsored other unusual projects in the past. They include converting a prison, a garrison and a slaughter house into a museum and galleries.
Jamal Kamyab runs the Tehran Beautification Agency, affiliated with the municipality. He said the aim was to “improve the artistic literacy of the citizens” and decorate public areas.
Tehran-based analyst Saeed Leilaz said the project was likely Qalibaf’s attempt to re-vamp his hard-line image. Leilaz thinks Qalibaf was courting the middle class’ support, possibly for the next election.
Few among Iran’s population of 80 million go to galleries and museums. They favor shrines of religious figures and historical sites.
Movie actor Behzad Farahani told art website Banifilm.ir he saw “at least 20 good artworks … thanks to the billboards.” Pop singer Ali Ashabi said he hoped the idea would be emulated in other cities — and perhaps subway stations — to “improve people’s culture.”
With a cartoon, the pro-reform Shargh daily newspaper suggested the figure in “The Scream” was horrified at Tehran’s often gridlocked traffic.
But art critic Reza Simorgh, who writes for the sq72.com news website, said drivers only saw the billboards for just a second or two. He said the distraction could have been a traffic hazard.
“It’s impossible to learn about sophisticated artwork while driving,” he said.
Others criticized the low quality of the copies. They said the harsh sunlight on some of the billboards did the artworks injustice.
Much of Iran’s state-owned collection of priceless paintings were acquired during the reign of U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi. The collection includes pieces by European greats such as Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro. There also are some by American 20th century icons like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock.
The shah was overthrown by followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Afterwards, most of the art was locked up in the vaults of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. It only rarely emerged for brief public displays.