'The three of us sat for hours in a high domed hall that was covered entirely in a mosaic of tiny mirrors cut into hexagons, squares and triangles... The very space seemed on fire, the lamps blazing in hundreds of thousands of reflections. I imagined myself standing inside a many-faceted diamond and looking out at the sun.'
(Monir Farmanfarmaian quoted in M. Farmanfarmaian & Z. Houshmand, A Mirror Garden: A Memoir, New York 2007).
At the forefront of Modern and Contemporary Iranian art and undeniably a pioneer, the prolific and interdisciplinary artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, whose career spans over 70 years, is internationally celebrated for her exploration of the traditional art of mirror-mosaic and reverse-glass painting. Christie's is proud to be offering in this sale, a masterpiece by the artist, Zahra's Image, a seminal work that leaves an indelible mark on the minds of those who have seen it.
Monir was born in 1923 in Qazvin into a liberal family - her father was respected for opening the first girls' school. She enrolled at the Zoroastrian High School where she encountered students from various backgrounds and later studied at the Fine Arts College at Tehran University where a certain Madame Aminfar introduced her to Modern Art and to Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin by sharing with her postcards that she had brought back from France. In 1944, amidst the Second World War, Monir decided to move to Paris to discover the art scene that she had been acquainted to, but the war and the German occupation made it impossible. Via Mumbai, Monir boarded an American battleship to California and travelled to New York in 1945, where she settled for more than a decade.
In New York, she attended art classes at Cornell University and later enrolled at the renowned Parsons School of Design to study fashion illustration. Her evenings as an art student would be spent at the Tenth Street Club, where she became friends with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, John Cage and Joan Mitchell. Employed in a department store on Fifth Avenue as a designer, she met Andy Warhol, then a young commercial illustrator in charge of the store's window displays, and acquired from him a few of his coloured illustrations of shoes in exchange of a mirror-ball that he famously kept on his desk until his death.
In 1957, Monir moved back to her homeland Iran. There she painted flowers and produced monotypes, which she exhibited at the 29th Venice Biennale in the Iranian pavilion, an exhibition that made her win the gold medal in 1958. She soon travelled around the country to rediscover traditional handicrafts and folk art, coffeehouse paintings that she would collect painted ceilings and panels of the Safavid era. Most importantly in 1966 in Shiraz, she was awed by the 14th century Shah Cheragh shrine adorned with endless mirror mosaics, a discovery that left an lasting impression on her and influenced her artistic production for the rest of her life.
The 1960s and 1970s saw Monir's career take a new turn. Her distinctive aesthetic language was rooted in a strong passion for her Iranian heritage. Resonating traditional art, her works are yet undeniably modern and avant-gardist. Her influences ranged from Islamic geometric and architectural patterns to science and philosophy. She was fascinated by the Sufi cosmology and the symbolism in geometry and soon began to incorporate various shapes and colours - circles, triangles, squares, polygons - in her works, each of these shapes a metaphor for metaphysical values and ideas. As she experimented with geometry, she skillfully combined mirror, reverse-glass painting and in some cases stainless steel. As a result, her works, refracting and reflecting light, revealed a kinetic facet. Through her works, her vision of the surrounding world was therefore altered, as she immersed the viewer and herself into a kaleidoscopic experience that was ultimately intangible.
To create her three-dimensional panels, Farmanfarmaian worked closely with local craftsmen who helped her draft her initial designs. The mirror pieces, most of which were manufactured and imported from Belgium, were cut to fit the required shape and geometrical patterns and she recreated - adding to her works a modern twist - mirror mosaics that were reminiscent of the aristocratic homes of 17th and 18th century Iran.
The present work Zahra's Image, a shimmering installation in the shape of an hexagon, is an exceptional study to a larger and major six-panel mirror mosaic work entitled Lightning for Neda - as a reference to the heroic act of bravour of a civilian named Neda during the 2009 Green Movement in Iran.
Commissioned for APT6 and the Queensland Art Gallery Collection in Brisbane, Australia, the six-panel work was dedicated by the artist to the loving memory of her late husband Dr. Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian. Like a multi-faceted diamond that refracts and reflects light, Zahra's Image is a study, but an undeniably exquisite and outstanding masterpiece on its own. It epitomises the artist's distinctive approach to geometric abstraction and her fascination with the concepts of repetition and progression, merged with the aesthetic traditions of Islamic architecture and cultural heritage as well as American Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. The remarkable animate quality of the work is captivating and almost hypnotising and as in most of her monumental kinetic mirror works, the work explores the infinite possibilities that drive the artist's practice.
A highlight in several exhibitions including East-West Divan at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Zendegi, an exhibition dedicated to Iranian artists at the Beirut Exhibition Centre in Lebanon and The Fold at the Contemporary Art Brussels (CAB), it encompasses the variety of inspirations that marked Monir Farmanfarmaian's life and career. Zahra's Image reveals the legacy of traditional Iranian architectural adornment while it is reminiscent of the artistic scene the artist encountered when the artist settled in New York and discovered the works of her friends Frank Stella, Robert Morris or Joan Mitchell.
Monir Farmanfarmaian was awarded the Gold Medal for her solo exhibition in the Iranian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1958 and more recently, she was granted the Jameel Prize in 2009. An acclaimed exhibition of her works was recently at the WIELS in Brussels. A highly anticipated retrospective dedicated to the survey of geometric mirror works and drawings by Monir Farmanfarmaian was held at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto from October 2014 to January 2015 with an important monograph published on the occasion. This historical retrospective exhibition will travel to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, opening in March 2015.
The artist's works are featured in several public collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Museum and Tate Modern in London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Grey Art Gallery in New York, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi.