- Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian : HeartachesBy Monir Farmanfarmaian
- A Mirror Garden: A MemoirOur PickBy Monir Farmanfarmaian and Zara Houshmand
- Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Mosaics Of MirrorsBy Monir Farmanfarmaian
Progression of Art
Farmanfarmaian's best known series, Mirror Balls, was a watershed moment in her artistic production. Despite their superficial resemblance to disco balls, these pieces were inspired by her background in the traditions of Iran, especially her revelatory visit to Shah Cheragh mosque, whose 14th century redesign was undertaken by a Persian queen, Tashi Khatun. Khatun ordered a nondescript mausoleum to be covered with millions of pieces of colored glass mirrors that, in Farmanfarmaian's words, seemed to set the space "on fire, the lamps blazing in hundreds of thousands of reflections."
Farmanfarmaian attributed the globe shape of these pieces to when she happened to be driving by a group of children playing soccer in the streets of Tehran and being fascinated by the flash of light created by the moving ball. A photograph from the 1970s shows Faramafarmaian throwing a mirror ball up in the air, the camera catching both her and the ball as a double image.
In seeking to recreate the impact of Shah Cheragh in a much more everyday object, Farmanfarmaian was attempting to bring the sacred, dematerialized quality of the mosque to everyday life. The effort, moreover, brought her deeply into the ornamental craft tradition of her homeland, a tradition known as Ayeneh Kari, the art of inlaying finely cut mirrors on plastered surfaces. In Mirror Ball, pieces of reverse-painted colored glass are interspersed to create a minimal but deliberate design, while the rest of the pattern is created from the shape and placement of the cut mirrors. Not quite traditional and yet not quite Western, sometimes characterized as "gaudy" or "kitsch," these pieces show Farmanfarmaian's capacity for reinvention and recombination, her ability, as one critic noted, "to cull what she needed from the best of two worlds." In an apparent nod to what could be considered the Pop-art quality of these works, Farmanfarmaian gifted one of these pieces to Andy Warhol in return for one of his Marilyn silkscreens when he visited Iran in the 1970s.
Mirror, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood
The humble materials Farmanfarmaian used for these works on paper reflect the fact of her exile from Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution. Without access to a studio, or her artistic collaborator, Farmanfarmaian could no longer produce her mirrored pieces. Instead, she found ways to experiment with a similar pictorial language of geometry and ornament using simple materials and methods, drawing in felt-tipped pens and colored pencils on paper.
Although two-dimensional, the drawings exhibit the sculptural qualities of Farmanfarmaian's other work, as well as her reliance on a visual vocabulary that references both Islamic art and Minimalism. The geometric shapes formed from outlines of different colors create spatial ambiguity and a mesmerizing layering effect, at times appearing to interlock, at other times to overlap or simply end in a suggestion of infinite movement. There is, in these works, a quality not unlike that found in early Cubism, of forms blown apart, as the architectonic lines and ornamental details recall the elements of an Islamic mosque in a fractured, multi-perspective view.
Felt-tipped pen and colored pencil on paper - Haines Gallery, San Francisco, California
Heartache No. 7
Following the death of her husband in 1991 and while still in exile from Iran, Farmanfarmaian created a series of twenty-five sculptural assemblage memory boxes referred to as Heartaches, filled with family photographs, jewelry, and other ephemera she had either collected or produced that reminded her of her homeland. She explained that she called them "Heartaches" because they evoked a strong sense of nostalgia within her and recalled memories of the homes and people she had lost.
Used to working in a workshop with a team of artisans and craftsmen, Farmanfarmaian produced these works on her own, inside her apartment, engaging in a highly personal exercise in representing both grief/despair and beauty/happiness. As she told curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, "Each of them have a lot of meaning. For instance, I have two, three boxes that were made out of the fabric my mother used to wear and use. It was leftover and she gave it to me." As the Heartaches were meant to serve as memory boxes, the references to her homeland abound. In this instance, the reference to Persian carpets is evident, ¬as are the allusions to Persian miniature paintings, which often borrow from carpet design and are characterized by jewel-like colors.
Untitled (Faravahar wings, Zarathustra)
This large sculptural "painting", comprised of series of triangular mirrors set rhythmically upon a panel backing, was inspired both by the mirrored decorations that cover the interior of the Shah Cheragh mosque in Shiraz, Iran, as well as by the Faravahar, one of the most important symbols from ancient Persia. Although typically the Faravahar is represented by a male figure at the center of a winged sun disc, here, Farmanfarmaian has removed the figural elements to create a more abstract and universal suggestion of expansiveness and flight. Some critics have seen a clear influence in this piece of the American artist Frank Stella, who was a close friend of Farmanfarmaian's since they first met in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Although visually simple, the piece thus represents an admixture, typical of Farmanfarmaian, of various histories and traditions. Moreover, the reference to Zoroastrianism in the title heightens the complexity. Zoroastrianism, based on the teachings of the Iranian-speaking prophet Zoroaster, is considered to be the world's oldest known monotheistic religion, and one which predates the presence of Islam in Persia. Farmanfarmaian's interest in this ancient religion was sparked when she herself attended a Zoroastrian high school. But it may also be that the piece contains a celebration of persistence and survival, especially given Farmanfarmaian's years of exile during the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini; interestingly, the Faravahar icons were one of the few traditional national symbols not banned after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Mirror, reverse-glass painting and plaster on panel in aluminum artist's frame - Private collection
Back in Iran, toward the end of her life, Farmanfarmaian returned to her mirror work, continuing to experiment with geometric form and introducing greater amounts of color into her work. Gabbeh features a complex pattern of mirrors and colored, iridescent, porcelain pieces made by Persian ceramist Abbas Akbari. The work blends vertical and diagonal lines, triangles, hexagons, and circles. Unlike in many of her previous mirror works, Farmanfarmaian leaves the white plaster seams between each fragment visible, explaining that "Revealing the plaster opened a whole new vista of possibilities. The snowy matte surfaces made a beautiful contrast with the glistening mirror, like earth and water distilled into two different faces of purity, the colors of painted-glass accents gleamed with startling clarity against the white."
The title of the work, "Gabbeh", references a centuries-old rug-weaving tradition practiced by nomadic tribes in Persia. Gabbeh rugs are characterized by their bold colors and either geometric, or stylized human, animal and plant forms. They served many purposes, functioning as floor coverings, blankets, saddle pads, drapes, and more. Works such as this were an inspiration for Farmanfarmaian's great-nephew, Taher Asad-Bakhtiari, a textile artist who uses ancient techniques and traditional materials to create unique, modern re-interpretations of traditional tribal gabbeh works.
Mirrors, plaster, and ceramic - Haines Gallery, San Francisco, California
Fourth Family, Hexagon
Although she continued to experiment with increasingly complex forms and compositions right up until her death, the main geometric underpinnings of Farmanfarmaian's art remained the same from the beginning to the end of her career. Fourth Family, Hexagon, a three-dimensional form comprised of tessellating and interlocking series of geometric forms, with an overall hexagonal shape, serves as a prime example of this.
From her early years of making mirror balls, Farmanfarmaian referred to her pieces as "geometric families", at once referencing the importance of family in her personal life and in Iranian culture, as well as the tendency toward seriality in Western Modern art. More crucial, however, is the form of the hexagon, which, according to Farmanfarmaian, "reflects the six virtues: generosity, self-discipline, patience, determination, insight, and compassion," and was the most important geometric form she employed throughout her career. As she explained to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in a 2013 interview, "Sol LeWitt had his square, and it was wonderful how far he went with the square. For me everything connects with the hexagon. And the hexagon has the most potential for three-dimensional sculpture and architectural forms."
Mirror and reverse-glass painting on plaster on plastic - James Cohan Gallery, New York