The Sun Maiden is undeniably one of the most captivating works by the internationally acclaimed pioneer Monir Farmanfarmaian whose career spans over 70 years. Executed in 1974 at a time when Monir lived a vibrant life in New York amidst the city's hip and glamourous art circle and befriended artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, the present work encapsulates every facet of her admirable artistic identity. Exhibited in her first solo exhibition outside of Iran, this work was one of the star pieces in her New York exhibition at Jacques Kaplan gallery in 1975.
Born in Iran in 1924, Monir dreamt of the Parisian art scene during her teenage years, but as the war started, she was unable to reach the French capital. At the end of the war, in 1945, she boarded an American battleship to California via Mumbai. From California, she soon travelled to New York where she settled for more than a decade. While she attended art classes at Cornell University and at Parsons School of Design to study fashion illustration, her evenings would be spent at the Tenth Street Club where she mingled with contemporary Western artists. In fact, she met Andy Warhol, then a young commercial illustrator and acquired from him a few of his coloured illustrations of shoes in exchange of one of her famous Mirror Balls, which he famously kept on his desk in his Maddison Avenue home until his death. In 1957, Monir moved back to Iran and exhibited at the 29th Venice Biennale, winning the gold medal in 1958. She travelled across the country to explore each region's traditions and culture, discovered handicrafts and folk art, coffeehouse paintings that she collected as well as the fascinating architecture of her homeland. It is in 1966 during a short stay in Shiraz, that her life as an artist changed forever as she entered the 14th century Shah Cheragh shrine and was mesmerised by its endless mirror mosaics. Since, Monir has dedicated her artistic production to recreating the infinite reflections throughout her works, in variations of colour and form.
Monir's works resonate traditional art and reveal her various inspirations, ranging from Islamic geometry and architectural patterns to science, philosophy and spirituality while they remain essential pop and engaging. The Sun Maiden perfectly epitomises the essence of her artistic production as it plays around with mirrors, pop colours and geometric patterns. It skillfully combines mirror and reverse-glass painting in an attempt to refract and reflect light, thus creating kaleidoscopic vibrations that are almost hypnotising and recall the disco nights the artist experimented in New York City. It also recalls Monir's geometric drawings that she made in the early 1970s often in her living room, before she had her own studio space in the city; these enchanting, colourful and partly abstracted drawings reveal her architectural inspiration and highlight the multidisciplinary quality of her oeuvre.
Fascinated by the Sufi cosmology and the symbolism in geometry, Monir incorporated various shapes and colours - circles, triangles, squares, polygons - in her works, each of these shapes a metaphor for metaphysical values and ideas. In The Sun Maiden, the various geometric shapes and colours carry multiple layers of inspiration. Evocative of her glitzy and fashionable lifestyle as a young New Yorker, the present work equally hints at the Persian symbolism that surrounds the Sun known as the ruler of heavens, a symbol that is often combined with that of the Lion in the traditional Iranian iconography.
This auspicious symbol of good fortune rises from the back of a sword-wielding lion of Ali in the Qajar and Pahlavi flags. Highly emblematic, the Lion and the Sun indeed formed the central coat of arms in Iran's national flag from 1846 to 1979; it evoked the nation's ancient and modern traditions and remained the official symbol of the country, until it was forcefully removed from all public spaces in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution in an attempt to wipe out any signs of the old regime, considered by the revolutionary guards as being an oppressive westernising monarchy.
Moreover, The Sun Maiden, as the title suggests and as is reflected through the round female face decorated with sequins and delicate embroidery, refers to the mother figure, known throughout literature and urban legends to be overseeing the Persian life from above. Her benevolent smile and circular face adorns many openings in Iranian art and architecture. Her ancestors are among sun-discs of sun-worshipping Central Asians and its related iconography is present throughout Iranian handicrafts, such as in the renowned Suzani textiles. Her elaborately Persianate form conjures up the goodness of the ultimate Zoroastrian source of all life and light. She is depicted in the opening pages of manuscripts and often above the entrance portals of countless buildings, lovingly rendered in polychrome Qajar tiles.
An example of the symbolic importance of the sun - and in the same way Louis XIV's Sun-King symbolised the court of Versailles with the emblem of the radiating sun - Mohammad Reza Pahlavi identified himself as Aria-Mehr (the Sun of Aria). However, unlike the definitely male 'Le Soleil', Khorshid Khanom as she is called in Farsi is positively female. She is often viewed as a personification of Persia, alike a Marianne, personifying Liberty, Justice and Charity.
In an attempt to perhaps fuse her Iranian heritage and her Western style and artistic identity, Monir beautifully combines multiple features of her artistic exploration in the present work. Monumental in size and historically important in light of Monir's celebrated career, The Sun Maiden is one of her most important works to ever appear at auction; a beautiful and captivating rediscovery that was held since 1975 in private hands, The Sun Maiden is undeniably a collector's piece.
Monir's works have been exhibited extensively in Iran, in the US, in Europe and in the Middle East. Some of her important exhibitions include that at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Leighton House Museum in London, at the Haus der Kunst, Munich and in various editions of the Venice Biennale, respectively in 1958, 1964, 1966 and most recently in 2009. Monir's major commissioned installations include works for the Queensland Art Museum, Australia (2009), the Victoria & Albert Museum's Jameel Collection (2006), the Dag Hammerskjd building, New York (1981) and the Niyavaran Cultural Centre in Tehran (1977-78). Her works are held in important private and public collections around the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Grey Art Gallery at NYU, The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, the British Museum, Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi.