Soft Power

  • Words Kirstie Clements

Vanishing Pictures Productions is committed to communicating the stories of women who have influenced the world through vision and compassion. By exploring the concept of ‘soft power” friends and collaborators Miranda Darling and Viola Raikhel-Bolot are articulating the profound contribution women have made throughout history, whether they be monarchs, muses or mistresses. Their first book, Iran Modern, explores the life of the exiled Empress, Farah Pahlavi and puts a feminine lens on an important and almost forgotten period in Iran.

Soft Power

There is a tangible sense of female solidarity when strong women choose to tell the story of noteworthy women, especially those who may have been overlooked or their contribution to society undervalued. Miranda Darling and Viola Raikhel-Bolot are the impressive duo behind Vanishing Pictures Productions, a company which uses books and film to tell the stories of the women who have wielded ‘soft power’, in order to change the course of history. “I came across the term during my studies and it has become a bit of a resonant theme for us “ says Darling, who is a writer, having published two thrillers and a novel, (with a Master’s degree in Strategic Studies and Defence from ANU) and an adjunct scholar at a public policy think tank (CIS).

“Soft power is a way to wield inf luence without missiles, a way to shape the fate of your nation, if you are in that position, via a more meandering and gentler path that women traditionally take. We look at women throughout history who have used this power and whose stories have remained largely untold because of gender, political situations, or because they have been called crazy. This is the lens we use to choose the stories we tell.” Raikhel-Bolot, who is the managing director of an international art advisory service, feels there was a reason why the pair met. “We discovered a very common obsession with espionage, history, political intrigue and certain regions of the world, that’s where we really started to bond. As our friendship developed, and the conversations deepened, our worlds collided. Art and politics, is where the passion and excitement for the subjects that we choose, comes from. We were meant to meet, as we feel we have a duty to tell the stories of these women."

Their first book, Iran Modern: The Empress of Art (Assouline) is the fascinating story of the former empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi, who along with her husband the Shah was exiled during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, a woman who had the foresight to create one the greatest collections of Western art outside of the US or Europe. Pahlavi, who now resides in Paris, was the first crowned Empress in Iranian history, and became a striking cultural emissary for the times, creating festivals such as the Tehran Biennale in 1962, and curating museums across the country to inspire a new generation of Iranian artists, including her crowning achievement, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The Empress, who had a keen appreciation of fine art and was very well advised, went on a global art spending spree, purchasing more than 300 modern works during the period 1970-1979, including Mark Rothko, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-August Renoir, Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock, an extraordinary and near forgotten collection estimated at US$3 billion that now resides in the basement of the Tehran Museum, unseen by the outside world. She also commissioned works by a young Andy Warhol, who visited the Royal Palace in Tehran in the mid-seventies, and his pop art portrait of the glamorous Empress is the cover of Iran Modern. “The Empress used art as cultural diplomacy: it was a way to bring people together. Art connects rather than divides,” says Darling. “She was perfect as a choice to be our first subject, because she embodied so many things: she studied, she was a girl scout leader, an architect, she started literacy programs, she was a third wife, and an empress who was then exiled and lost her husband and children. She has lived on an epic, IMAX scale but her story had all but been erased”. Through connections, the pair was able to gain unprecedented access to the now 80-year-old Pahlavi in Paris, and she even wrote the forward of Iran Modern. “We all know what happened politically,” says Raikhel-Bolot, “what we are unearthing is her voice, it’s her story. You can’t find that in the history books. We don’t pass judgement; we simply say this is what happened. The regime has done everything to pretend she was never there, or vilified if she is ever brought up.” Darling concurs, “It is a record of her legacy and a portrait of a lost world, one that doesn’t exist anymore. Frankly, even if something changes in Iran, it will never be the same.”

Soft Power
Empress Farah Pahlavi at her coronation in Iran 1967. Courtesy Getty Images.
Soft Power
Empress Farah Pahlavi pictured in her apartment in Paris.

In Vanishing Pictures Productions search for subjects, they intend to put a lens on powerful women in categories they call the ‘M’s’ – monarchs, mistresses, muses and moguls. “We want to make the connection between the past and the present, looking far and wide in the depths of history, telling stories of women that need to be retold and are ultimately uplifting and inspiring, not tragic, no dying in a fire in an asylum” says Darling.

In her flight from Iran, Pahlavi packed for a week, leaving everything behind, including the famed jewelled crown by Van Cleef and Arpels that she wore at her coronation in 1967, designed by Pierre Arpels. This masterpiece was created in the vault of the Central Bank, using the Iranian crown jewels which were not permitted to leave the bank vault, Arpels making 22 trips between Paris and Tehran over 11 months. This, and all her jewels remain in the vault to this day, owned by the state.

The writing of the book was a three-year process, consisting of countless interviews and face-to-face meetings with the captivating former empress. “We now have a better understanding of the dynamics of power in Iran past and present,” says Raikhel-Bolot, adding that a film about the last empress is already in the works. “Politically there is a lot happening in that region and in the film, we can explore more of that. But the book is her story. It’s niche but the message is global. A woman, who lived life on an epic scale and has been through the wars, yet her legacy remains and is more relevant than ever.”

Iran Modern: The Empress of Art, available via www.assouline.com