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Posted on: April 2, 2018

Iranian Artist Spotlight

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Sculptor and Illustrator

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was born in Qazvin, a city now associated with being the calligraphy capital of Iran, in 1922. Qazvin has deep roots as a cultural center, in part due to its title as capital of the Persian Empire during the early reign of the Safavid dynasty. This period in Persian history marks a philosophical, political, and artistic renaissance whose legacy would continue to influence modern day artists like Farmanfarmaian.

Art was always a part of Farmanfarmaian’s life. As a child, she enrolled in drawing lessons and continued on to study fine art at the University of Tehran in the 1940s. She then decided to further her education in the United States. She moved to New York to attended Cornell, and later Parsons School of Design, studying fashion illustration. Her drafting skills and interest in pattern would later lead her to a position as a graphic designer at the prestigious New York department store Bonwit Teller. During this time, Farmanfarmaian became entrenched in the New York art scene, spending her time with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning.

Farmanfarmaian’s mirrored “disco balls”

By 1950, Farmanfarmaian had returned to Iran. It is at this point that she begins painting directly on glass. Initially, she began replicating the impressive Qajar-era paintings she had been exposed to as a child in Qazvin, but eventually her practice led her create her own unique style of geometric patterning that she is known for today. It is also during this time that she met and learned from Hajji Ostad Mohammad Navid, a master craftsman of mirror mosaic. By the 1960s, Monir had begun to forge her own style, blending what she had learned during her time in the United States with her knowledge of Iran’s handicraft artistry.

Farmanfarmaian in front of painted class

Farmanfarmaian’s body of work successfully balances her Eastern roots with the Western design sensibilities of the time. In the 1970s, there was a shift in art and architecture to return to the knowledge behind indigenous traditions and repurpose them for the modern world. There was also greater interest among Westerners of Eastern traditions and cultures. Her pieces follow the modern trend of geometric patterns and forms, but in a meaningful context as they allude to traditional Persian handicrafts and Islamic mathematics and cosmology. Rather than using modernism as a vessel for abstraction and non-referential designs, she used her geometric abstraction to reference the mathematics that are the basis of the Islamic art and architecture that she had encountered throughout her life in Iran. Monir is most known for her geometric illustrations and mirrored sculptures. The drawings complement the sculptures as they can be her roadmap to the final mirrored piece. She has said that she enjoys the infinite possibilities, and thus experimentation, that her process allows.

illustration

Similar to many Iranians of her generation, the Iranian Revolution in the late 70s and early 80s completely impacted the trajectory of Farmanfarmaian’s career. Not only did she lose much of her work during the revolution, but unable to return to Iran, her mirror work slowed due to the lack of resources and skilled aid in New York. She took this as an opportunity to focus more on drawings and textiles, as well as commissioned pieces. After decades of exile, she returned to Tehran 1992. Today, she continues to live and work in there, cementing her legacy in the local art community. She has exhibited her work all around the world, recently returning to New York for a 2015 exhibition at the Guggenheim. She also has permanent installations in such esteemed museums as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

a shot of Farmanfarmaian’s exhibition at the Guggenheim