Andy Warhol spent much of the 1970s exploiting his legendary ability to replicate the media's power to canonize and commodify public personas by producing commissioned portraits that fed his fascination with the cult of celebrity. In order to secure these lucrative assignments, Warhol happily threw himself into the station of modern day courtier and shameless art world mercenary, branching out from the milieu of fashion and entertainment, and gaining entry into the exclusive circles of powerful world leaders. Any occasion in which he was able to press the flesh with the world's social elite presented an opportunity to record the cultural icons of his era, and at a White House dinner in May 1975, hosted by president Ford in honour of the Shah of Iran and the Empress Farah Diba, Warhol worked every angle in order to become the official portraitist to the Peacock Throne.
At this period, the reigning couple were themselves courting the art world, hoping to establish Iran as the cultural hub of the Middle East by rapidly amassing an important and comprehensive collection of Western art for the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. Lured by this uncommonly generous patronage of the arts and the sovereigns' famously opulent lifestyles, Warhol finally secured an invitation to Iran in July 1976 to tour their kingdom, ogle the crown jewels and take Polaroid photos for his portrait of the Empress - whose popularity and grace had seen her dubbed the Jackie O' of Tehran. Following the Iranian Ambassador's advice, 'that when I paint the Shah to go easy on the eye shadow and lipstick', and that he should, 'keep it casual but conservative', Warhol's subsequent images of the Shah and Empress remained respectfully elegant in their execution. The chic black and white versions of the monarch's portraits convert the type of images eagerly touted in the world press into desirable objects of high style. They capture the stately glamour of the royal couple at the height of their power, shortly before the revolution that forced them into exile.
Although Warhol's diaries are peppered with references to the escalating troubles in Iran, the royal abdication and the Shah's death in 1980, he typically shrugged off politics, maintaining an air of impartiality that saw him draw significant criticism from many circles. This attitude of indifference was deliberately cultivated however; for a passive stance enabled him to get close to all those caught in the glare of the public eye and successfully secure his position as the definitive chronicler of his time. Hindsight of the dramatic events surrounding the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty has meant Warhol's portraits of the Shah and Empress of Iran have grown more poignant with time. By immortalizing their images at this significant moment in history, Warhol has left a lasting altarpiece to what they once were and what they once represented.