Iran plasters billboards with famous art
The mayor of Tehran made an unusual move. He had hundreds of copies of famous artwork plastered on some 1,500 billboards across the city. Tehran is the capital of Iran. The art transformed the Middle Eastern city into a gigantic, open-air exhibition.
It was a 10-day project. The exhibition 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." He is a businessman in Tehran.
There was plenty to look at. The art was varied. It included Claude Monet's iconic "Rouen Cathedral", Rembrandt's "Landscape with a Stone Bridge" and Mark Tansey's 1981 work, "The Innocent Eye Test. There was also the 18th century "Flowering Plants in Autumn", attributed to Japanese painter Ogata Korin.
The exhibition ended May 15.
Tehran is a city of 9 million people. During the exhibition, 200 copies of works by world masters vied for attention. They appeared along with 500 works of Iranian artists. One was "Still Life." It is by Iranian painter Bahman Mohasses. It could be seen 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 and from overpasses. They could also be seen 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. He ran for the first time in 2005. He ran again in the 2013 presidential election. 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. It is 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 image. Leilaz thinks Qalibaf was courting the middle class' support. That could be in preparation 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. From time to time, Iranian artists have also had their works banned. That was apparently for being deemed insulting to Islamic values.
In 2010, some 11 bronze statues of Iranian national heroes disappeared. They had been displayed in Tehran's public parks. The statues were never recovered. At the time, officials said religious motives appeared to have been behind the theft. Authorities canceled inauguration of more statues in the city.
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. He would like to see it in subway stations.
With a cartoon, the pro-reform Shargh daily newspaper suggested that the figure in "The Scream" was horrified. By what? Tehran's often gridlocked traffic.
Art critic Reza Simorgh writes for the sq72.com news website. He said drivers only saw the billboards for a second or two. The distraction could have been a traffic hazard, he said.
"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 an 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 masters. They include Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro. There also are some by American 20th century icons. Works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock can be seen.
The shah was overthrown by followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That was during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Afterwards, most of the art was locked up. It was kept in the vaults of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The art only rarely emerged for brief public displays.
Critical thinking challenge: Why is Iran displaying copies instead of original artworks?