Iran, 1900 A.D.–present

  • Faces #10
  • Faces #53
  • Women of Allah
  • Poet Turning Into Heech
  • Flight of the Dolphin
  • Interrogation
  • Still Garden


1900 A.D.

1925 A.D.

Qajar dynasty, 1779–1924
Pahlavi dynasty, 1925–79

1925 A.D.

1950 A.D.

Pahlavi dynasty, 1925–79

1950 A.D.

1975 A.D.

Pahlavi dynasty, 1925–79

1975 A.D.

2000 A.D.

Pahlavi dynasty, 1925–79
Islamic Republic of Iran, 1979–present


The early years of the twentieth century witness an atmosphere of discontent and protest against the despotic rule of the Qajars and foreign intervention. Patriotic and nationalistic sentiments among the urban middle and religious classes lead to the creation of a constitutional movement and subsequently the Constitutional Revolution (1905–11). The British discover oil in 1908. The position of the last Qajar shahs becomes weaker and the military commander Reza Khan (1878–1944) topples the Qajar dynasty and establishes the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921. In the early twentieth century, artists such as Kamal al-Mulk (1852–1940) go to Europe and study old master and academic paintings, copying the originals by Raphael, Titian, and Rembrandt. They display a fascination with verisimilitude and realism, rather than contemporary artistic trends in Europe such as Impressionism. Upon their return, many artists found schools such as the Madrasa-i Sanayi-i Mustazrafa (Academy of Fine Arts).

During World War I, the country is occupied by British and Russian forces, but essentially remains neutral. Under Reza Shah’s reign, Iran begins to modernize and secularize and the central government reasserts its authority over the tribes and provinces. In 1941, after the British and Russian troops invade Iran and depose him, his son Muhammad Reza (1919–1980) is crowned shah of Iran. During his reign, Iran moves closer to the West, joining the Baghdad Pact and receiving military and economic aid from the United States. Muhammad Reza continues the modernizing efforts of his father. In the early 1960s, Iran initiates a program of economic, social, administrative, and land reforms known as the White Revolution. Modernization and economic growth proceed at an unprecedented rate, fueled by Iran’s vast petroleum reserves.

In the 1960s, the Islamic clergy headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who had been exiled in 1964), becomes increasingly vociferous. Economic growth benefits only a very small group and succeeds in disaffecting the vast majority of the population, culminating in widespread religious protests in the 1970s. Religious and political opposition to the shah’s rule and programs—especially the much hated intelligence and security service, SAVAK—eventually consolidates into full-scale rebellion. The shah flees Iran in 1978 and in 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini returns from France to direct a revolution resulting in a theocratic republic guided by Islamic principles, overthrowing the shah’s government. In 1979, militant Iranian students seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and hold it until 1981. This is followed by an eight-year war with Iraq with countless losses and casualties. After 1997, the moderate Muhammad Khatami (born 1943) becomes president, which leads to a rift between a government seeking reform and moderate liberalization against an extremely conservative clergy. Iran’s poor economic conditions deepen and its association with terrorism continues to erode international support.

After the fall of the Qajars and a period of transition, artists initiate the modern art movement, often referred to as the Saqqakhana movement. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is inaugurated in 1977. Contemporary artists in Iran produce art in modern as well as postmodern styles, while Iranian artists abroad keep up with current international and global trends as they grapple with issues of sociopolitical orientation, gender, religion, displacement, and cultural identity.

Key Events

  • 1896–1907

    Muzaffar al-Din Shah, who succeeds his father Nasir al-Din Shah to the Qajar throne, remains reliant on European financial support because of the dynasty’s poor economic condition. The Belgians are granted control of the customs business and Russia provides loans.

  • 1901

    Oil is discovered and rights to drill for the next sixty years are granted to the British entrepreneur William Darcy, who is to split his profits with the Qajar government. The British government buys out Darcy in 1909 and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company is founded in London, with the two administrations as business partners.

  • 1905–6

    The first protests of the Constitutional Revolution are triggered by an order to lower sugar prices. Muzaffar al-Din Shah finally agrees to proclaim a constitution and to establish a judiciary wing of the government, but is slow to institute the changes. Further protests staged at the British embassy lead to the creation of a parliament, or majlis, whose first session is held in 1906.

  • 1907

    The Russians and the British sign an agreement that divides Persia into northern and southern spheres of influence.

  • 1908–11

    Civil war erupts after the parliament refuses to grant concessions demanded by Russia and England. Russian troops enter Persia, occupy Tehran, and kill many prominent Constitutionalists. Other cities rise in rebellion against Muhammad cAli Shah (1872–1925), and he is forced to flee to Russia.

  • 1911

    The first Academy of Fine Arts (the Madrasa-i Sanayi-i Mustazrafa) is founded by Kamal al-Mulk (1852–1940), who directs the school until 1927.

  • 1914–18

    During World War I, Persia remains neutral but is occupied by British and Russian troops looking to control the country’s oil reserves. Between 1919 and 1921, Persia agrees to become a British protectorate in order to avert occupation by Russia.

  • 1921

    When the Persian parliament is reconvened, British protection is rejected and British troops are forced to withdraw. Reza Khan (1878–1944) takes advantage of the tumultuous situation, marching into Tehran and demanding that the shah name him commander of the military.

  • 1925

    Reza Khan (1878–1944) deposes the last Qajar shah and proclaims himself head of the country, founding the Pahlavi dynasty. Many of his reforms parallel those in Turkey, and are meant to free the government from religious control. The culama establishment is weakened as oversight of education and law are taken over by the government, wearing of the veil is banned, and a new solar calendar is adopted. Various secular holidays based on ancient Persian traditions are instituted to replace religious ones. Reza Shah also constructs a Trans-Caspian Railroad linking the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea.

  • 1931–34

    Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) excavates at the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis, founded in the sixth century B.C. by the king Darius and destroyed in the fourth century B.C. by Alexander the Great.

  • 1935

    Iran replaces Persia as the name of the country.

  • 1938

    The College of Fine Arts opens at Tehran University for the propagation of principles of modern painting.

  • 1941

    During World War II, the British and Russians demand free transit and military support from Reza Shah. When he refuses, their troops invade and depose him; his young son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), takes the throne. After the war, the USSR refuses to remove its troops, and backs revolts in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, which briefly proclaim themselves autonomous republics. After Muhammad Reza Shah visits the United Nations, the USSR is pressured to withdraw from the country.

  • 1949

    Iran becomes a constitutional monarchy.

  • 1949

    Iran’s first art gallery, Apadana, opens in Tehran.

  • 1951

    Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq (1880–1967) decides to nationalize the oil industry, until now under the partial control of the British and their Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The National Iranian Oil Company is then formed to manage the industry. Europe and the United States immediately impose a boycott, and British and American secret service agencies plot to take Mosaddeq down. He is removed from power in 1953, and the Shah negotiates new agreements with European oil firms.

  • 1958

    The first Tehran Biennial is organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture.

  • 1960

    Abby Weed Grey begins collecting Middle Eastern and Asian contemporary art, which becomes the basis for the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in 1974.

  • 1960

    The second Tehran Biennial of modern art is held at the Gulistan Palace.

  • 1962

    Art critic Karim Emami uses the term saqqakhana to describe the sensibility of Hussein Zenderoudi’s (born 1937) paintings, in which he incorporates motifs from Iranian folklore and Shi’i folk art. The term is then applied to a loosely affiliated group of artists who blend traditional elements and Western techniques, credited with initiating the modern art movement in Iran. In this year, the Exhibition of Iranian Contemporary Painters travels through the United States, the first modern Iranian art show to be presented there.

  • 1963

    The shah launches the White Revolution, which aims at many social reforms, including raising literacy, reforming land ownership laws, and improving rights for industrial workers and women. Many clergy, including the Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–1989), lead uprisings against the shah; Khomeini is exiled in 1964.

  • 1966

    The fifth and last biennial is held at the Ethnographic Museum in Tehran. It includes artists from Turkey and Pakistan.

  • 1967

    The first Shiraz Cultural Festival is inaugurated by Queen Farah Pahlavi.

  • 1971

    Iran occupies some Iraqi islands in the Persian Gulf and retains the territory after a 1975 settlement.

  • 1977

    The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is inaugurated. It is designed and directed by Kamran Diba (born 1937), the queen’s cousin.

  • 1978

    Jalal Al Ahmad’s book Westoxication (Gharbzadagi) is openly distributed for the first time since its release in 1960.

  • 1979

    While the country has prospered from oil sales and the shah has initiated various development projects, many Iranians are angry with the uneven distribution of wealth and the shah’s refusal to comply with all aspects of the 1906 constitution. Demonstrations against his rule begin in 1976 and reach a head in 1979, when he is forced to flee the country. Ayatollah Khomeini returns from exile in France to claim power. He announces the Islamic Republic of Iran and institutes a new constitution. The arrival of this government signals a shift in the direction the country is heading, away from Western-style reforms and toward the revival of Islamic traditions. Foreign arts and music are banned and women must wear the hejab; many Westernized Iranians leave the country. When the shah is allowed entrance to the United States for medical care, a group of the ayatollah’s student supporters occupy the American embassy to protest the shah’s ties to the U.S. Some of the people trapped in the building are immediately released, but some fifty-two remain hostage for 444 days.

  • 1980

    The war between Iran and Iraq commences. The ostensible cause for war is a dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway that lies between the two countries, control of which is still contested despite a 1975 agreement. Other causes might have been Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s fear that Khomeini’s rise in Iran would upset the balance between the Shi’i and Sunni populations in his own country, and his opinion that the new Iranian government would be an easy target for attack. Tensions between the countries heighten after a 1980 assassination attempt on Iraqi foreign minister Tariq ‘Aziz (born 1936) is organized by Al-Da’wah, a group backed by Iran. A number of border skirmishes quickly escalate into war once Iraq claims control of the Shatt al-Arab. The war rages inconclusively for eight years, with many casualties on both sides. Peace is finally brokered in 1988 after several other countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, become involved in the conflict.

  • 1980

    Abolhassan Bani Sadr is elected president of the Republic, but Khomeini removes him from power in 1981. After his successor is killed in a bombing, Ali Khamenei (born 1939) is elected president.

  • 1989

    Shortly before his death, Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill author Salman Rushdie (born 1947), who is accused of being disrespectful of Islam in his novelThe Satanic Verses.

  • 1995

    The United States imposes a total ban on trade with Iran.

  • 1997

    The election of Muhammad Khatami (born 1943) to the presidency allows for greater cultural and economic exchange with the United States and Europe. Khatami initiates the “dialogue of civilizations”.

  • 1999

    Students hold demonstrations at Tehran University, demanding greater freedom of expression.

  • 2000

    Reformist newspapers are banned.

  • 2001

    The exhibition Iranian Contemporary Art, curated by Rose Issa and Ru’in Pakbaz, opens at the Barbican Centre in London. In the same year, the first loan exhibition of Iranian art since the 1979 revolution opens at the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. Organized in collaboration with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibition is titled A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia: New Art from Iran.


“Iran, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)