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Life Through a Kaleidoscope: Iran’s Queen of Arts

Monir with her work, Tehran 1970s
Monir with her work, Tehran 1970s
Monir with her work, Tehran 1970s (Photos courtesy of The Third Line)

Against the backdrop of the Second World War and the Iranian Revolution, Iranian born Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian has led a colorful life, to say the least.  At our meeting place in a London hotel lobby, she sits surrounded by an entourage. As two generations of family members—who have travelled with her from America to show support during her stay—are thoughtfully introduced, one by one, an added reason for Farmanfarmaian’s widespread appeal becomes apparent.

A veteran of the 1950s New York art scene, Farmanfarmaian’s charm secured her the close friendships of the likes of Andy Warhol and Milton Avery, among numerous other contemporaries. Today she still displays those strong Persian features, at that time an exotic look that captured the imagination of many, including the sculptor Alexander Calder who once trailed around after her at a party in his impatience to meet her. “Finally he said ‘I am following this young lady for fifteen minutes nobody has introduced me to her—Introduce to me to this girl!’ So I was introduced to this fat and white haired man and he was … ho ho ho… laughing like this” Farmanfarmaian reveals mischievously.

Described as a mixture of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, Farmanfarmaian’s own work combines the rich heritage of the Persian techniques of mirror mosaics, geometric patterns and reverse-glass painting with a modernist finish.Now eighty-seven, Farmanfarmaian, still adventurous as ever, quoted as saying that she is on a “constant quest for the new,” is enjoying a renewed prominence. Widely recognized as one of Iran’s most influential working artists, with a permanent collection in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA), she was this year among ten contemporary nominees for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel prize. Simultaneously she released her second book Monir Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry, a first, extensive monograph of her work (published October 31, 2011, Damien Editore & The Third Line). With one of her pieces having soared past bidding expectations at the UK’s Sotheby’s October 2011 auction of Arab and Iranian contemporary art, she is certainly maintaining her exhaustive mission.

Well-earned prestige and an intimidating repertoire of friends does nothing to prevent one from feeling at ease around Farmanfarmaian, whose art, as an imitation of life, is distinctive in its captivating use of colors and dazzling mirror work. She has grandmotherly warmth, a contagiously husky giggle, and is unexpectedly unassuming. Recalling her time in New York in the 1940s as a young woman straight out of Iran she says: “I became very friendly with and very popular in the social [scene] of art in America because I was very…” her companion has to interject “…beautiful, young, exotic!” And relaying a rather frosty meeting with the painter Jackson Pollock, she says: “once, we talked and he thought most likely I’m very stupid and ignorant, and left”—but she freely declares her admiration for his art.

Monir at Niavaran Cultural Center
Monir at the Niavaran Cultural Center

Described as a mixture of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, Farmanfarmaian’s own work combines the heritage of Persian techniques of mirror mosaics, geometric patterns and reverse-glass painting with a modernist finish. “I work very much with the old traditional Iranian art but I try to make it modern and up to date” she says. Her artistic inspiration and developed style has also come from extensive travelling: “I went to shrines, I went to private homes, I went to palaces and it was always some part that was mirror work.  I chose mirrors because of their 3,000 year tradition in Persia.” Farmanfarmaian has studied the traditional art making and rituals of nomadic tribes in Iran, touring ancient cities to absorb their vernacular architecture and complex ornamentation. “Little by little from flower painting to painting flowers behind glass and I said alright I’ll mix this one with mirrors. I love these shiny things.”

Less glowing episodes in Farmanfarmaian’s life were entwined with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. “It was really like any other revolution, like the messes you see in Libya, Syria and Egypt—it was awful.” She recalls. As her husband was a direct descendant of the Qajar era shahs, and therefore deemed an enemy of the revolt, she was compelled to abandon her home and country. “Everything I had in the house, it was confiscated, everything, my art, my drawing, my mirror work, painting, clothes. We came out with three suitcases for two weeks and never went back.”

Farmanfarmaian, born in 1924, experienced her first artistic epiphany as a child in Iran during her “First real contact with art” while living in the small town of Qazvin. She remembers: “The houses were colorfully decorated with painting on the door panels or on the ceiling, with beautiful flowers, nightingales and stained glass. When I was laid down for my afternoon nap I would count the rows of nightingales and flowers.” Years later, she felt dissatisfied at the Tehran University of Fine Art, having found more inspiration in the postcards brought in by her French teacher at school depicting paintings by the French modernists. “I was intrigued by their abstract nature—they reminded me of Qazvin’s flowers.” In a response, that later becomes apparent as typical spontaneity, Farmanfarmaian drew a conclusion “I said I must go to Paris then, that is the center of beautiful art!”

Cosmic Geometry
Monir Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry

But the Second World War thwarted her efforts to depart for occupied France. “So I decided that instead I would go to Morocco and from there to Paris, and they said ‘No’ the Germans are there you cannot go—heh heh heh!”  Finally, still determined, she decided to wait it out in America “And after the war I [could] go to Paris and study art.”  After landing a place on a US war ship with her brother and two of his friends, they traveled for twenty-seven days From the South of Iran through India, then Australia and from there to Los Angeles.” They put me in as a nurse and my three companions down in the soldier’s department.”

Once in LA, Farmanfarmaian decided she had to go to New York. “I had seen New York in the movies and I thought that that must be the best place for the school and that everything must be the best.” Subsequently she would attend the New York Parsons School of Design—a new experience in more ways than one: “They had a lot of nude drawings,” she says “In Tehran we never had nude drawings… sometimes we had a man but with a long shirt, shorts and tucked in here that was all.”

After graduating in the early 1950s, beguiled by New York’s world of Abstract Expressionism, Farmanfarmaian became friendly with a gentleman who lectured in the MOMA. “I used to go there very often, he came to me and said you are stranger looking than the others, where are you from.” He would introduce her to others in the MOMA curatorial crowd, as well as the co-operative galleries on Manhattan’s 10th street where she says: “Once a month the great artists would attend: Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Milton Avery, Phillip Johnson and Frederich Kiesler. I got to know these artists personally and went to their exhibitions.”

Farmanfarmaian was invited to many social parties after that. “I remember one friend’s house Peggy Rice, her husband was Bernard Rice. They had the magnificent long stone houses. The antiquity and the modern art.” It was here that she would meet Calder, and later become friendly with his wife. “He was very kind and sweet. He invited me to his studio in Connecticut and gave me a small piece of mobile. I still have it.” She would also form a close bond with the artists Milton Avery, Louise Nevelson and Joan Mitchell, and while working in the now redundant department store Bonwit Teller as a fashion designer and layout artist Farmanfarmaian became friendly with a shy colleague, called Andy Warhol. Asking her what was he like, she says “Crazy!” then thinks a minute “No, as a young man… very quiet, thick glasses.”

Farmanfarmaian returned to Iran in 1957 to marry and rapidly established herself as an artist holding exhibitions across Europe, the US and Tehran. These years were described as her golden years of creativity when her signature style of combining ancient Iranian design techniques with her western experiences, came into fruition. Returning for visits to New York during the 1960s she would also witness Warhol’s growing success. “I saw him, all the time in New York Times, Time and Life magazine. It was wonderful. He was so popular, selling his work for 60,000 dollars.” In the early 1970s her daughter Nima—who would later organize and accompany Warhol on his trip to Iran—was writing for his Interview magazine. “She said mummy Andy wants to see you.” During their meeting Farmanfarmaian asked him: “Don’t you remember that we used to paint shoes for twenty-five dollars a shoe and how happy you and I were? He said ‘but Monir it was so much money!”. She adds,”He was fun, poor thing.”

Farmanfarmaian was also in New York during the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution. Her husband, an international lawyer visiting clients outside Iran, urged her to stay put. “My husband kept saying ‘Stay there for another two weeks, don’t come till I come and well come back together.’ Then they burned the cinema in south of Iran. I said to my husband ‘To hell with it I’m coming back I don’t wait for you anymore something is going to happen there’. So I went.” She describes the scene that she encountered “There was screaming on the roof ‘God was great god is great’ and I was really upset, crying.”  On her husband’s suggestion they took the children to New York for a short holiday. The plan was to return again once everything had returned to normal.

Breaking The Waves 2008, Mirror reverse-glass painting
Breaking The Waves 2008, Mirror reverse-glass painting

But they did not go back. In 1991, while exiled in New York, her husband passed away. “In 1992 because I was very sad, I thought maybe I can do better in Tehran. I came to Tehran it looked to me so miserable, so different, everybody in the black veil with the beard without the tie.  I said ‘no I cannot live there.’ I went back to New York.” She says. Farmanfarmaian did eventually return in to Tehran in 2003 because, she says “Fortunately my mirror work is successful and the only place I can do it is in Tehran.”

This latest segment of Farmanfarmaian’s life is considered to have inspired some of her best work. Drawing her mirror designs on paper to her specifications before they are cut by craftsmen, she seems gripped by the intricacies and endless possibilities of creating complex geometric shapes: “I became aware how these old masters can mix the form of their hexagon to pentagon and pentagon on octagon. I asked how they could do that. They said ‘Each of them is a shape inside a circle, all you do is divide the circle.’”

Farmanfarmaian never stops searching for new methods: “You can create a thousand different designs in each of these forms which haven’t been discovered yet by artists. I am touching just a corner of it I think, just a corner of it. I think the new generation and new artists can create magnificent pieces of this geometric design to integrate them.”

Her energetic productivity may well be attributed to a member of that new generation, which now stands to benefit from the timeless quality of her mirror works—infinitely glittering collages that echo the reflections of a life well-lived.

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Amy Assad

Amy Assad is an editor at The Majalla and an English–Syrian, London-based writer who specializes in the arts and culture of the Middle East. She received her BA in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies from Leeds University and has lived and studied in Syria and Morocco.

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