Faryar Javaherian, Tehran, February 2011
Monir Farmanfarmaian’s works are elegant – bold and uncompromising in their forms and angles, but also, gentle – gentle on the eyes and the soul. They are aesthetically beautiful, mirroring the spaces, faces and light that surround them, and they are spiritually enriching, once you learn more about the history and tradition of their craft.
The magnificent work presented here is Farmanfarmaian’s interpretation of the Three Graces. It is a piece that effectively subverts typical representations within classical mythological symbolism, most commonly presented in the form of female figures in a painting or sculpture – it is a mirrored, abstract triptych. At large, the work embodies Monir’s incredible contribution to both redefining Iran’s visual identity through the transformation of traditional craft, as well as her ability to re-imagine iconography in a way that is widely accessible on a universal level. We can also draw on her mirror ball works that take Warhol era inspired disco balls, re-envisioned through ‘Ayeneh Kari’. These are ironic conceptual combinations, given the crafts connection to Sufi and Islamic visual culture. This is also her genius – bridging concepts and cultures.
The history of this subject matter dates back to Roman philosopher Senaca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) who described The Three Graces, also known as Charites, as representing the threefold aspects of generosity: giving, receiving and returning of gifts or benefits. The Graces were widely appreciated for their feminine traits of fertility, grace and beauty – all three illustrating a certain joie de vivre.
The Graces have been represented from the Renaissance period to the modern day. Interestingly, the nature of their representation has evolved throughout time. Earlier works paint the Graces in a more traditional form by draping the Goddesses in delicate white fabric, arguably symbolising a kind of unattainable and eternal purity whereas modern interpretations of the Graces include sculptures of nude and curvaceous female bodies. Nevertheless, the essence of these varying representations remains consistent: they are reflections of beauty, mirth and elegance and illustrations of their interdependence.
Botticelli’s Primavera (1477-1482) is perhaps one of the most well known depictions of the Graces. Surrounded by mythological figures, the light that emanates from their three bodies through the sheer gowns draws you into an ethereal space.
Further well-known representations of the Three Graces include paintings by Raphael (1504-1505) and Rubens (1630-1635) and a sculpture by Canova (1813-1816). In contrast to Botticelli’s representation, the Graces in Raphael’s painting are based on a classical Roman marble statue, evident by their static and almost symmetrical poses – their complexion too, mirrors the coldness of marble statues. Rubens’ interpretation places the Graces in an Eden-like garden, beside a flowing fountain under hanging flowers – arguably, a reference to one of the Graces, Thalia (which means, flowering). Similarly, Canova’s notable sculpture constructs the Graces in a very delicate manner, with the three female figures' intertwining arms reflecting the interconnectedness of their relationship.
The versatility and similarity amongst the artists’ interpretation of the Three Graces highlights the significance and timelessness of classical imagery. Transcending centuries of style and art, the Three Graces remain an incredible source of inspiration, from Sandro Botticelli to Monir Farmanfarmaian. Nevertheless, while artists have evidently reinvented the Graces according to their unique perspectives, the abstract craft of Farmanfarmaian’s conception is one of a kind. Committed to her signature style, Farmanfarmaian draws inspiration from the traditional depiction of the Three Graces, without constraining them to human form. Whilst the artwork consists of cut mirror and glass, incorporating sharp lines and geometric patterns, there is still a sense of movement to the overall shape as it is curved on the sides.
Even in this abstract, contemporary interpretation of the Three Graces, typical traits used to depict them, such as the radiance of light from their bodies to the curvaceous form, can be seen in Farmanfarmaian’s triptych. The mirror work reflects any light that comes into contact with it, which is similar in essence (though different in representation) to the sense of light surrounding the traditional portrayal of the Graces in human form.
In Farmanfarmaian’s ability to “combine something old and something new”, she epitomises Edouard Glissant’s notion of mondalité whereby Glissant expresses the view that through the resistance of inevitable globalization, one can harness the great potential of our time. Farmanfarmaian indeed preserves the traditional technique fostered by Iran’s craftsmen while realising its potential outside of the confinements of Islamic architecture.
Three Graces is an exceptional work which beautifully (and cleverly) embodies the artist’s skill in integrating a subject matter so prevalent in the Renaissance period, and re-envisioning it, not only in a contemporary context, but through a medium so distinctly Iranian, yet so distinctly hers.
Rare are Farmanfarmaian’s works that draw inspiration so closely from European content and Greek mythology as they do in this work. Three Graces is an exceptional example of Monir’s ability to interpret classical forms into contemporary aesthetics.
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