Monir, modern mirror of Iran

23 janvier 2018

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Iranian nonagenarian artist, is featured in Tehran since the inauguration of a museum dedicated entirely to her work. This institution is the first in the country dedicated to a single female artist. After years of exile and a chaotic relationship with her homeland, Monir is finally a prophet in her country.

In the end of 2017, Iran has experienced three earthquakes. If the first two were dramatic piling up rubble and hundreds of deaths, the third is nothing like these tragic natural disasters. Yet its impact, its resonance and especially its symbolism are just as powerful. On Friday, December 15, 2017, Iran inaugurated its first official museum dedicated to a female artist: the legendary Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. A stone's throw east of the National Jewelry Museum, the Forum of Iranian Artists and especially the National Museum of Iran, the Monir Museum opened its doors in the historic gardens of the nineteenth century, in the heart of Negarestan Park in Tehran.

"A truly historic moment", is how the opening of the museum structure was described by the main critic of Iranian art, Shiva Balaghi. "It's a fitting tribute to one of today's most important living artists, a museum that truly becomes a window onto Iranian modernity, showing how Monir has brought together abstraction and Islamic geometry to create a form of Unique Iranian art."

From postcards of Tehran to Andy Warhol

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is not the best-known artist in Western art microcosm, yet she is a true superstar in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

The artist was born in the ancient Persian capital of Qazvin in 1924. In this religious city of northwestern Iran, resolutely turned towards the textile industry, cotton and leather, she acquires very early artistic skills by performing all kinds of needlework, sewing, knitting, crochet, embroidery and lace. Rather well-born, her father being from a long line of ayatollahs and merchants, while her mother is from the Ottoman aristocracy, she grew up in an idyllic setting between the walls of a dwelling surrounded by lush gardens and adorned to the doors of many pictures of flowers, nightingales and other birds. When her father was elected to the Iranian Parliament as Qazvin's representative in 1932, the family moved to Tehran in a large building filled with plaster busts of old Kings and great poets. Monir's first concrete encounter with Art is when she takes drawing lessons from a private tutor who has traveled and studied in Europe. In the absence of art books in Iran, she learns by copying postcards of Western landscapes, still lifes and portraits using small colored pencils. After brief semester studies at the Fine Art College of the University of Tehran, she quickly realized that to become a full-fledged artist, she had to fly abroad and drop small postcards.

The World War II breaks her dream of flying to Paris. Instead of the French capital, she arrived in New York after a trip by steamboat, far from the sources of her Art and her initial inspirations. Finally at the right place, at the right time, in an urban city in full artistic effervescence, she feeds abundantly on Art from all sides. She frantically visits museums, galleries and artists' studios. She is attending courses at Cornell University, Parsons School of Design, and the Art Students League. From start to finish, from meetings to meetings, she joins the private and informal circles of various avant-garde and progressive artists, some of whom will become world luminaries in the history of Art. The little unknown Iranian finds herself sharing her ideas with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers and Barnett Newman... In 1953, she joined the artistic department of the Bonwit Teller & Co store where she operates as a fashion designer and commercial illustrator. One of her closest coworkers is a certain Andy Warhol, with whom she quickly becomes friends. Prolific, her first stay in the United States ended in 1957 when she decided to return to Iran.

Iran: complicated relationship and deep love

Returning to Tehran in February 1957, she married Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian, a young and brilliant lawyer trained at the University of Chicago and Columbia. After a honeymoon in Abadan and Isfahan, wonderful cities of ancient Persia, Monir (re)discovers the historical artistic riches of her own country. She then began her work by experimenting with the monotype technique. First representing flowers, this will be her first solo show at Tehran University in 1963. But her true signature and trademark, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, finds it when she visits Shah Cheragh Mosque in Shiraz in 1966. Sparkling and incandescent, this mosque will mark the starting point of the Art that will make the young woman famous. "Imagine going into the center of a diamond and looking at the sun" she explains, as she sits for hours in the high domed hall, admiring the tiny mosaics of mirrors that cover every centimeter of the religious structure.

For a decade, she leads with determination, an experimental, prosperous and fulfilled artistic life. Using mirror mosaics in her Art, she incorporates fragments of glass painting. Constantly traveling in her sculptures between Islamic folklore and abstract geometric motifs, her work attracts international attention. Unfortunately, in 1979 Iran experienced a political crisis and an unprecedented revolution. Regarded as close to the Shah, the Farmanfarmaian couple must flee the country, abandoning much of Monir's artworks. Confiscated and destroyed, her flamboyant mosaics disappear little by little, while she sets foot in New York for a second stay, which will last almost 30 years. On the other side of the Atlantic, she tries to get into mirror mosaics, but she quickly discovers the difficulty of working in the United States. Without technical support, without skilled workers, faced with the lack of materials and resources, she struggles to continue her experiments on her favorite medium. She then works on other aspects of Art, such as commissions, textile designs, monotype and drawing.

The work of a life finally celebrated

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian becomes a widow in 1991, when her husband Abolbashar succumbs to leukemia. She travels to Iran in 1992 to explore the possibility of living in the country as a single woman and artist in an Islamic regime. It was only at the beginning of 2005, after 26 years of exile, that she finally returned home. In Tehran ends the second term of President Mohammad Katani and the period is marked by a more open culture and relaxed censorship. Soon, she reaffirms her place among the Iranian artistic community, gathering her former employees to work again on her adored mosaics. Shiva Balaghi said that the artist's return to Iran stimulated her creativity. Monir called it her "graceful twilight" but in fact, it was the most productive and successful moment for her as an artist."

In the historic gardens of Negarestan Park, the Monir Museum exhibits 51 works of the artist's "graceful twilight". In the spotlight are the obvious mosaic mirrors, abstract monotypes and paintings under glass, inspired by geometric motifs related to ancient Iranian architecture. "All my inspiration comes from Iran, it has always been my first love. When I traveled in the deserts and the mountains, throughout my early years, everything I saw and felt is now reflected in my Art." All artworks exhibited in the museum, managed by the University of Tehran, were donated by Monir, who wished to honor the memory of her last husband. "He was a professor of law at the University of Tehran, so I gave them 51 pieces".

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian has established herself as one of the most innovative and influential artists of her time. Its presence in Iran suggests that things are moving once again in this country where earthquakes and revolutions will never be as powerful as the creative and innovative wind infused by an elderly woman of 94 years old.