The queen of mystical light

The queen of mystical light
Interview: Renowned Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian talks to al-Araby al-Jadeed about her art, her inspirations and why people should not be greedy.
5 min read
12 April, 2015
Farmanfarmain's art a recent Sotheby's auction [Getty]
Just before her Guggenheim event in New York in March, we caught up with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian.


Farmanfarmaian was born in 1923 in Qazvin, Northwest Iran. She remembers houses colourfully decorated with stained glass and paintings of flowers and nightingales – a memory that drew her to the French modernists.


Her art is both visually gorgeous and thought provoking. Her primary medium is light, her form is derived from the geometry of Islamic architecture and the spirit of her work is

     I always go with the feeling of my eyes, and with my heart, and that is my main inspiration.

- Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

derived from the mysticism.

Much has been written about the fusion of mysticism, numerology, Islamic pattern and modernist form in Farmanfarmaian’s work. Articles, interviews and reviews all refer to a cultural fusion, a melding of influences from her native Iran with the stimulus of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism discovered in New York.


But it is the concept of infinity that is one of the most important themes of the artist. She is the first artist to ever assign meanings to geometric shapes. Farmanfarmaian’s favourite shape is the hexagon. She arranges those shapes in geometric families in her geometric work.


Her minimalist and avant-garde style won critical acclaim even at an early stage of her career. She studied under Milton Avery, who helped her develop a talent for monotype prints, a technique she employed in works that would later be awarded the golden medal at the Iranian Pavilion of the 1958 Venice Biennale.


Her art remained mainly tied to her homeland. Ironically, as she maintained the Qajar decorative traditions, she later married into the Qajar dynasty. Her marriage definitely had an impact on her second exile to the US. Andy Warhol, a close friend and colleague, kept a piece of her work on his desk until he died. Ironically, the portrait of Marilyn Monroe that Warhol dedicated to Farmanfarmaian was confiscated during the Iranian Revolution in 1979.


Her work can be seen at The Third Line Gallery Dubai, co-owned by Sunny Rahbar. This interview was conducted there.


Was there inspiration from outside Iran?


Frank Stella is one of my heroes. De Kooning as well. And Rauschenberg too, and he even worked with glass. I’ll always remember when I first saw his work in 1958 when I was in Venice for the Biennale. I saw them again in Stockholm—the work with the goat in the middle of the tire, his Combine work. These pieces moved me so much. I said, my God where is art going? Look at how much possibility there is! But for me inspiration always comes from Iran, from my history, from my childhood, for better or for worse. I always go with the feeling of my eyes, and with my heart, and that is my main inspiration.


Iran is the land of Hafez and Rumi. How does mysticism influence your art?


Iran has an extremely rich Sufi tradition that I draw from. The shrines I go to, they’re very religious, you know, very Islamic. But I forget about all that, and the thing I like the most about Sufism is that idea of being a good human being, not being greedy. There aren’t many other philosophies that encourage you to be kind to other people.


 6-How did you discover the mirror mosaics? Was it spontaneous? You said that it is a calculation of geometry and design? How so? Why do you favor the hexagon?


I was drawn to the mirror mosaics through my travels in Iran. I used to travel a lot, and there were mirrored works in some rich houses and shrines I visited. In the 1970s there were several books coming out about geometric design that I was reading. During this time I asked the craftsman I was working with, how do you connect this form to this other one? He explained, “With this hexagon you can create many things, madam; you can raise it up and then the hexagons connect with pentagons, like on a soccer ball. It has one hexagon in the center and pentagons all around. And with these forms you can create infinite variations.” The six sides of a hexagon are the directions; forward, backward, right, left, up and down. They also reflect the six virtures: generosity, self-discipline, patience, determination, insight, and compassion. It’s a very important form in architecture in Iran.


7-Can you describe how you felt in the first time you visited Shah Shiraq Shrine in Shiraz? How did that particular visit influence your art?


I went to Shiraz with my guests Robert Morris and Marcia Haffif and took them to the shrine Shah Cheragh. It has high ceilings, domes and mirror mosaics with fantastic reflections. I said Robert, we have to sit here for half and hour and see. It is like living theatre where these people they will come with different outfits and the chador, the black veil, and so on they will beg the shrine to save their children or save their father not to have a second wife and so on, crying. After that I decided I had to do mirror work, to make something similar that people could place in their homes. I had already been painting on glass so the mosaics developed naturally from that but it was the start of the new works. I came away wanting to make something like what they had in the shrines but for people to have in their homes.


Art critics have dubbed your most recent stage of career from 2003, since you repatriated to Iran, until now as the most prolific and most innovative stage. Do you agree with that? What is different about this stage? What is unique about your collaboration with Third Line gallery in Dubai?


Well, I was working with mirror mosaics and geometry before and after the revolution started, so I was doing this geometric work the whole time. After I came back to Tehran in 2004, I was invited to do a show in the Museum of Contemporary Art. I started again with my mirror works from that point on and things went from there.


The Third Line is a special relationship for me, I’ve been working with them for almost a decade now and they been a great support, helping me gain exposure in the Middle East and internationally, working with Hans Ulrich Obrist on my monograph.