“Inspired by her childhood in Qazvin, these mirror mosaics were used to decorate interiors of Iranian homes in a style which dates back to the sixteenth century. At that time, large mirrors were shipped from Venice to Iran, but many of these shipments arrived with the mirrors broken into small pieces. The Iranians didn’t want to throw away the precious pieces, so they put the fragments in plaster, and used them for decoration.” – Curator Taymour Grahne
Mounir Farmanfarmaian studied Fine Art at Tehran University. Born in Qazvin, Iran in 1924, Farmanfarmaian initially wanted to study in Paris, but the advent of war meant she would remain in Iran and study there. After the war, Farmanfarmaian continued her studies in New York, before returning to Iran where she now works and lives. Her work embraces the mystical qualities of Islamic art and creates a space for it in contemporary art where the language is understood and its beauty appreciated.
Her practice, namely in mirror mosaic and reverse-painted glass, is a creative marriage of the cosmic patterning of
her Iranian heritage and the style of modern Western geometric abstraction. She is also renowned for her paintings, drawing and collage.
Farmanfarmaian is very unique and unlike any artist I have featured on these pages. Her artwork has made history by becoming a prominent part of American social culture, featuring in several public spaces including hotels and department stores, as well as decorating the humble paper bag. Farmanfarmaian has not only bridged the fissure that often stands between art that speaks the language of the East and the art of the West. She has also afforded herself a place in American art history through the relationships she has made with prominent artists that have set the standard for contemporary art in the West.
An exhibition of her mirror works and drawings spanning the latter part of her career, is being shown at the Guggenheim museum in New York. Entitled: Infinite Possibility, Mirror Works and Drawings, 1974-2014, it marks the first major US outing of her work, reflecting the Guggenheim’s historical commitment to abstraction and the transnational nature of her artistic perspective.
What follows is a short interview with Farmanfarmaian about her career and current exhibition.
What is the inspiration behind your work?
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. I was
inspired by the geometry I found in old mosques with their tile, metal, wood, and plaster work. A master metalworker that I studied with once told me, ‘Everything is in geometry.’ I then found out that with a hexagon you could do so much. And today, I still work on geometry-it’s at the base of my art because it has an infinite amount of possibilities. You can create thousands and thousands of designs in textiles, metal, tiles, everything.
You started your mirror work after returning to Iran in 1957. What is the meaning behind this work?
Cosmic geometry. Look. It is like everything is moving. The surface is reflecting things and sometimes you don’t know where these reflections are coming from. You communicate with the art as you stand in front of it.
You work in so many different mediums, with the drawings, memory boxes and collages. Is there one you enjoy more?
The mirror boxes with geometry. There is symbolism in the hexagon, and the infinity of a circle. The triangle is human consciousness; the square is north, south, west and east; the pentagon is the five senses: hearing, smelling, seeing, taste and touch.
Your own work for [department store] Bonwit Teller — the sketch of violets — became iconic. The company used it for its shopping bags and advertising for years.
After studying at Parsons, I got a job through a classmate of mine at Bonwit Teller. I met the head of the art department, and they hired me for eighty dollars a week. I used to also do freelance work for them, drawing a bottle of perfume, slippers, or a bag. And one
agent liked this small sketch of mine which was of violets. He bought it for $150 and I was very pleased.
What has been your biggest lesson?
These recent shows have been a remarkable time in my life because for so long I was really a nobody. Little by little, I’ve become…I don’t know…better known? Certainly the Guggenheim wasn’t giving me a show until now.
[I was doing commercial art] some people said, ‘Your artwork is so highly beautiful, we cannot use it’. Others said, ‘No, no. It’s so bad. We cannot use it.’ Not to be disappointed in life, to go ahead with your art. I had so much tragedy, but I kept working.
A book of her work Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings, 1974-2014 is available to buy
[Interview extracts are courtesy of Artforum and WWD.com]