Monir Farmanfarmaian cited in: Robin Wright, 'Two Iranian Artists and the Revolution' in: The New Yorker, 15 September 2015.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is considered one of the most celebrated and revered contemporary artists of our time. With a style that recalls Iran’s past and her own nostalgia of this ancient culture alongside her Western education and exposure, she is inimitable among her peers. As her longtime friend and gallerist Rose Issa says; “Monir has never fitted any classification, any art movement, any school of thought; her work, free from human tragedy, sentimentality and political statements, has a recognisable universal idiom. Hers is the journey of a passionate artist who has always admired the unexplored geometry craftsmanship and aesthetics of her country.” (Rose Issa cited in: Rose Issa, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Mosaics of Mirror, Tehran 2006, p. 20). Recollections I is an amalgamation of this journey from the earliest days of her artistic career in the 1950s dating back to her youth in Iran and extending to the present day as Monir’s practice continues.
Monir was born in 1922 and her childhood was spent in Qazvin, an important provincial city in northwest Iran which used to be the Safavid capital in the mid-sixteenth century. Since childhood, she was conscious of the beauty of Iranian traditional arts and crafts which would inspire her throughout her life and career. Monir acquired artistic skills early on, taking drawing lessons and practising with depicting flowers and nature around her, something she would always be fond of. “Growing up in a typically Iranian house brought striking visual memories, not only from the decorative flowers and nightingales on the wooden panels of her bedroom ceiling, but also from the centuries-old decorative arts that surrounded her… Her love of gardens, and her fascination with colour and form, led her to draw the flowers that grew in the family orchards… Drawing flowers was a habit that she retained for the rest of her life.” (Rose Issa cited in: Rose Issa, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Mosaics of Mirror, Tehran 2006, p. 10).
In Recollections I, the viewer is presented with a mirror image of two almost identical rectangular planes. These planes are filled with hexagonal mirrors with two medallions placed in the lower centre. The medallions are decorated with reverse glass paintings of flowers, reminiscent of the style and colours of the Persian gol a bolbol drawings, which translate as the rose and the nightingale, a theme of flower and bird painting which was a popular subject of the decorative repertory of the Safavid (1501-1722) and Qajar (1785-1925) periods. Gol o bolbol designs were used to decorate all manner of objects, from ceramics and woodwork to manuscripts. The use of this theme as a metaphor for spiritual and earthly love by Persian poets in epic and romance, lyrical and mystical works for nearly one thousand years attests to its deep significance in Persian culture. From the Safavid period onwards, the theme of rose and nightingale began to predominate in the decorative arts in Persia so that the term gol o bolbol came to designate all bird and flower designs. By the late Qajar period, it even came to be synonymous with the land of Persia and its culture. The flowers Monir depicts in Recollections I are reminiscent not only in colour but also in style of the Qajar gol o bolbol albums and also hark back to Monir’s now mostly lost or destroyed works from the 1970s.
Monir studied at the Fine Arts College at Tehran University and in 1945, Monir had decided to travel abroad to further her education. Since Paris was under occupation by the Nazis at the time, Monir took an arduous journey to New York which was a life changing decision. When she arrived in the United States, Monir first attended Cornell University and then went on to study at Parsons The New School for Design where she majored in fashion illustration. In the early fifties, she became part of the Eighth Street Club, a salon that included Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Alexander Calder, and Louise Nevelson, some of which were the leading names of Abstract Expressionism. Shuffling between various jobs, she would meet and befriend Andy Warhol who would later come to Iran in 1976 upon a commission to paint the portrait of Empress Farah Pahlavi.
Monir returned from New York to Iran in 1957 and shortly after set up a new studio for herself where she first started painting family portraits and created flower monotypes. In 1958, Monir exhibited her work at the Venice Biennale where to her surprise she also received a gold medal, and the same year she was granted an invitation to participate in the first Tehran Biennale. “She continued with a series of flower paintings and still lifes that resulted in some 100 monotypes of flowers on canvas or glass, inspired from her collection of antique reverse-glass Qajar paintings.” (Rose Issa cited in: Rose Issa, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Mosaics of Mirror, Tehran 2006, p. 14). This would also culminate to her first solo exhibition in Tehran the following year.
Monir’s artwork draws inspiration from classical Iranian culture and tradition, which is translated both conceptually and in the technical execution of her works. The intriguing combination of the traditional with the avant-garde creates an elegantly distinctive style which the artist applies to reinterpret Islamic geometric designs in a variety of mediums, often using glass or mirror as her primary support.
Following a visit to the Shrine of Shah Cheragh in Shiraz in 1966, Monir said “It has ceilings, domes and mirror mosaics with fantastic reflections….I said to myself, I must do something like that, something that people can hang in their homes.” (The artist in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Karen Marta, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Cosmis Geometry, London 2011, p. 19). She would further comment on the Shrine’s “high-domed hall…covered in tiny square, triangular and hexagonal mirrors,” similar to other ancient Iranian mosques. Mirror mosaics have decorated the interiors of the Iranian shrines and palaces since the 16th century. Monir strove to mix Iranian influences and the tradition of Ayeneh Kari - the art of cutting mirrors into small pieces and placing them in decorative shapes over plaster, a technique traditionally passed on from father to son - with artistic practices outside from Iranian culture.
While Monir’s use of traditional reverse-glass painting and mirror mosaics is rooted in her heritage, their placement and scale reflect an appreciation of her Western contemporaries. “I had been making paintings behind glass, mostly abstract paintings, but also flowers, roses and some portraits…I also was inspired in this by my collections of paintings behind glass from the Qajar period – mostly they were flowers and birds. But after I had seen all those mirror mosaics, I wanted to make glass paintings with mosaic work and geometric designs like in the shrines.” (The artist cited in: Hans Ulrich Obrist and Karen Marta, Eds., Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry, Bologna and Dubai, 2011, p. 19).
The artist’s use of the mirror also acts to record her own life experiences, each fragment reflecting the surrounding world, referring to notions of one’s self, nostalgia and memories. Due to the nature of Monir’s compositions, tessellating patterns give the impression of unending repetition, a symbol of infinity and the boundless nature and wisdom of God. Her artwork is a spiritual and visual amalgamation of Persian elements translated through her innately recognisable visual vocabulary to create cutting edge work with a modern aesthetic, resulting in an ever widening global audience that is fully able to appreciate Monir’s rich cultural heritage.
Mirrors play a crucial role in Monir’s hypnotic oeuvre, visuals and traditions reflect off one another, creating an infinite doorway to eternity. Guided by the Iranian craftsman, Hajji Ostad Mohammad Navid, Monir produced many mosaics by cutting mirrors and glass into a variety of shapes. These were then arranged into compositions that recall elements of Sufism and Islamic art. Monir was notably the first contemporary artist to reinvent the Persian craft of Ayeneh Kari. These typical Persian motifs would be recreated to become modern geometric artworks, each piece mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic in nature. By striving to mix Iranian influences and the tradition of mirror artwork with artistic practices outside of strictly Iranian culture, “offering a new way of looking at ancient aesthetic elements of this land using tools that are not limited to a particular geography,” Monir was able to express a cyclical conception of spirituality, space, and balance in her mosaics.
A master metalworker once told Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian that “everything is in geometry,” words that have stuck with the artist through her artistic journey as she employs geometric forms to connect the mathematical patterns of Iranian tradition with the minimalist shapes of Western abstraction. Though the artist’s oeuvre spans over multiple disciplines including pen and ink and marker drawings, prints on glass and metal, flower paintings and mixed-media collage, her career is best defined by her geometric mirror works: “My work is largely based on geometry which, as you know, always begins with a single point and can move from there into a circle. Or a point can become three leading to a triangle, or four to a square, five to a pentagon, hexagon, octagon, and so on — it’s endless.” (Monir Farmanfarmaian in conversation with Lauren Oneil Butler in: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Art Forum, 2015).
According to Monir, the six sides of the hexagon, “a polygon associated with heaven in the Islamic pantheon” represent the directions: forward, backward, right, left, up, and down. Monir continues, “The hexagon also reflects the six virtues: generosity, self-discipline, patience, determination, insight and compassion. All the mosques in Iran, with all the flowers and the leaves and curves and so on are based on hexagons… For me everything connects with the hexagon.” (Hans Ulrich Obrist and Karen Marta, Eds., Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry, Bologna and Dubai, 2011).
The mirror is also variously associated with purity, brightness, symmetry, veracity and fortune. Monir once again reinvents the idea of mirror mosaics and reverse-glass painting, transforming and elevating their purpose from decoration to an individual art form in its own right with explosive colourful reflections. The artist breaks the boundary between traditional arts and contemporary practices by pushing her creations in a new yet nostalgic direction while also creating a visual dialogue that surpasses time and history that no other artist masters.
Recollections I is an inherently personal and nostalgic work by this internationally revered artist. “For me inspiration always comes from Iran, from my history, from my childhood, for better or for worse. I always go with the feeling of my eyes, and with my heart, and that is my main inspiration.” (Monir Farmanfarmaian cited in: Hans Ulrich Obrist and Karen Marta, Eds., Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry, Bologna and Dubai, 2011, p. 22).
In this sense, Recollections I from the Recollections Series goes beyond the merely aesthetic and delves into multiples layers of symbolism. Farmanfarmaian reaches near perfection with a rare work blending intricate hexagonal mirrors carrying an ever growing mystical meaning close to Sufi notions such as a reflection of the self alongside the flowers on reverse-glass paintings, an ode to the old Qajar paintings. Monir had an extensive collection of these Qajar reverse glass drawins as she gathered traditional folk arts since 1960s including Turkoman jewellery, coffee house paintings and architectural ornaments, all for the sake of preserving these crafts beginning with the period when she was asked by the Iranian government to act as an advisor to several institutions and was to adapt the designs of traditional handicrafts to modern markets for the new Handicrafts Emporium. For her role she would travel around Iran exploring the traditional Iranian crafts. These architectural items, coffee house paintings and jewellery and others would define some of the earliest artistic influences on her practice. (Rose Issa, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Mosaics of Mirror, Tehran 2006, p. 13)
Monir Farmanfarmaian was awarded the Gold Medal for her solo exhibition in the Iranian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1958 and more recently, she was granted the Jameel Prize at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 2009. An acclaimed exhibition of her works was recently at the WIELS in Brussels. A highly anticipated retrospective dedicated to her geometric mirror works and drawings was held at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto in 2014-2015 which then travelled to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2015. The Monir Museum, first museum dedicated to a solo female artist in Iran has also opened in a nineteenth century former Qajar-era palace and gardens in Tehran on 15 December 2017. Monir's works are featured in several prestigious public collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and Tate Modern in London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and the Grey Art Gallery in New York, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi.
Monir Farmanfarmaian is a pioneer in the modern and contemporary Iranian art movements. She has been, and still remains, one of the greatest sources of inspiration and reverence for the current generation of Middle Eastern artists, who take her craft as a true stepping stone in their own careers.
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