When Iranian protesters climbed the fence and stormed the British embassy compound in the Iranian capital of Tehran on Tuesday, there were few surprises in what the protesters focused on: embassy documents thrown into the air and several portraits of the Queen that were ripped apart in front of crowds chanting anti-Western slogans.
What did surprise was one image: an almost-confused Iranian protester holding a large print, believed to be retrieved from inside the British embassy, showing a scene from the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, played by John Travolta and Samuel Jackson, can be seen with guns locked and loaded.
For everyone who has seen the film, it is a scene that captures the intensity of the two central characters and the violence that runs through the film.
Now, which British diplomat is the Pulp Fiction fanatic? And how would such a print fit with the image the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is trying to project abroad - and in the Islamic Republic of Iran no less?
The choice of an iconic image from 20th century film is probably quite deliberate, and it may not have been the decision of any one diplomat or employee in the embassy.
The British government has a collection of more than 13,000 paintings, sculptures and prints. They are showcased in government buildings and embassies around the world.
Richard Dorment, art critic for The Telegraph newspaper and former member of the Government Art Collection (GAC) advisory board, describes how the art collection changed its focus in the 1990s as the government of Tony Blair tried to present a new Britain to the world, “youthful, fresh, and forward-looking.”
“Until Labour came to power in 1997, the GAC provided government offices with Old Master portraits and blue-chip 20th-century art. Soon after the election, out went the heavily framed historical paintings from 10 and 11 Downing Street and in came modern paintings, prints and sculptures,” Mr. Dorment writes in an article reviewing an exhibition of the Government Art Collection in London this past summer.
“With over 60 new ministers in office, the demand for contemporary art suddenly began to outstrip the ability of the GAC to supply it.”
The likelihood of a Hollywood film print belonging to the government's art collection?
A quick search of the Government Art Collection website shows some of the key pieces of art at the British embassy in Tehran depicting British royalty and even one portrait of Iranian royalty: Fath ‘Ali Shah (1797-1834), the 2nd Qajar Shah of Iran. But, as the web site point out, the listings do not show all the art and prints showcased at the embassy.
Whether the Pulp Fiction film print belongs to the government collection or an embassy employee, it would not be first time protesters have targeted the art and displays on British embassy walls.
The British embassy in Libya was attacked by protesters in retaliation against NATO air strikes. Thirteen works of art were believed to have been destroyed.