Iranians enjoy feast of modern Western art that has been locked away for decades

Art teacher Sabrina Poursayyadi stood mesmerized in front of the oil painting, admiring the contrast of the dark, tear-shaped tree against a horizon of mountains and a starry blue sky.

"It was like a dream," she said of "Le Chemin du Ciel," a 1957 work by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. "I could show the students what I taught them in class."

Poursayyadi and her 33 high school students were among the thousands of Iranians that have flocked to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts for a show of paintings rarely seen in Iran.

Called the Modern Art Movement, the exhibition offers works by the giants of American 20th Century art such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock as well European masters such as Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro.

Most of the paintings have been locked away in the museum's vaults since shortly after the Islamic revolution of 1979. They were acquired during the rule of the U.S.-backed Shah, but fell out of favor with his overthrow. The ruling Islamic clerics banished them as examples of decadent Western culture.

An average of 1,000 people a day have strolled through the exhibition, said museum spokesman Hasan Nofarasti.

Local newspapers have published glowing reviews. Abrar called it "a stop for art-deprived audiences." Farhang e Ashti ran the headline "Giants of modern art in Tehran."

Art lovers have less than two weeks left to view the exhibition as it closes on Oct. 21.

One visitor, Shahla Hodai, a 21-year-old art student, was fascinated by three Andy Warhol prints of the Rolling Stones front-man Mick Jagger.

"I cannot believe it," she said. "I am seeing a great artist, Mick, portrayed by another great artist, while I used to see him just by chance on satellite music channels like VH1."

The value of the 170 works in the museum's collection is not clear, but "some works had been covered with US$20 million insurance policies when they were lent to Western museums in the past," spokesman Nofarasti said. The show was guarded by an alarm system.

Some of the paintings from the collection were displayed when the museum first opened in 1978 _ a year before the revolution _ and in 1998. But this exhibition is the first time the whole collection has been on display at once.

"The way for me to see some great western works of art always involved the expense of going to Europe," said Mehdi Maleki, a medical doctor. "But now, unexpectedly, there is this feast for the eye in walking distance."

Three works in the collection _ including Gabriel, a semi nude by Auguste Renoir _ were not hung to avoid offending Islamic hard-liners.

But tolerance is expanding in Iran, notwithstanding the victory of a hard-line candidate in the June presidential elections.

"The exhibit was initiated during the reformist government of former President Mohammad Khatami," Nofarasti said. "The desires of Iranian art lovers played a large role in making it happen."

The museum is one of 24 museums in Tehran that display contemporary art.

"I never expected to see such great works in Iran," said Nazanin Hosseini, a 19-year-old art student standing before a Jasper Johns painting called Decoy. "I will visit them again and again."

But when the show closes, the paintings return to the vaults. "It's not yet clear if the exhibition will be repeated any time soon," Nofarasti said, AP reported.

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