An artist who needs very little introduction, the indefatigable nonagenarian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian has just opened her first solo show in Ireland – and her largest exhibition to date. Here, she shares some playful insights into what makes her tick
There is no mistaking her work – surfaces glimmer with a hundred thousand facets and facades, reflecting light like the glimmering scales of some magical fish, or the entrancing refractions of some sort of sophisticated celestial disco ball. In the instantly iconic works of Iranian living legend Monir Farmanfarmaian, geometric abstraction runs full force into the traditional mirror mosaic work of Iran to create a glorious, original and unique artistic practice.
Now well into her 90s, Farmanfarmaian is – always has been, and remains – a force to be reckoned with. As a young woman living in New York in the 1940s (the war disrupted original plans to study in Paris), the Parsons graduate specialized in fashion illustration, met Andy Warhol, and became friends with some of the 20th century’s greatest artists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Barnett Newman. A return to Iran the following decade saw her hone her practice as she learnt about Iran’s folkloric traditions and mirror mosaics, with career highlights including representing her country at the Iran Pavilion at the 1958 Venice Biennale (for which she won the gold medal). She was also an avid collector, as well as an artist, with one of the largest collections of coffee house paintings in all of Iran (a Qajar dynasty practice of depicting religious scenes to be displayed in, you guessed it, coffee houses).
However, it was during a visit to New York with her husband, in 1979, that the Iranian Revolution broke out – the Farmanfarmaians were to remain stranded there, as it were, for the better part of the next two decades. Her collection in Iran was, in most parts, broken up and seized, while her mirror mosaic practice suffered in the US, due to lack of materials and the specific expertise needed to put them together. During her time awawy, she worked on other aspects of her practice, and when she returned to Tehran for good in 2014, she took up mirror mosaics again in earnest.
Known in art circles for decades, and with a rich and diverse artistic career spanning different media, it seems sort of shocking that Farmanfarmaian only really got her first solo show in the US at the Guggenheim in 2015, and that it is so late in her career that the wider world in general has come to know her work. Her most recent show, Sunset, Sunrise, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin (running until 25 November), is the largest exhibition of her work to date, with over 70 works spanning four decades. Closer to home, she has recently donated a work to MAHAK (the Iranian Society to Support Children Suffering from Cancer) – the first public display of her work outside a museum. We caught up with her to ask her some quick fire questions about life, lessons, and everything in between.
The book that left a huge impact on me cannot be whittled down to one. I have been inspired by all of art history!
If I could pick somebody to play me in a movie of my life, it would be Rita Hayworth.
No regrets, but if I could do things differently perhaps I might have become a pilot or a surfer.
I hope my show in Ireland shows people that I started geometry in my works and I hope people can use more geometry in art.
Donating work to MAHAK was important to me because it was for children with cancer and public to be aware of geometry design.
It’s never too late to work.
The one thing I could never give up is honesty.
My spirit animal is a dog.
I make a really mean fish with yogurt sauce.
Everyone should experience love.
The best advice I was ever given was to be honest with your work.
Advice I would give to anybody who wants to be an artist: work, work, then work some more.
What most people don’t know about Iran is its glorious history.
I would tell young women to follow their feelings.
Don’t spend too much time on something you don’t like doing.
It might shock you to know that in my youth I once rode a donkey – backwards!
Images courtesy of the artist and The Third Line, Dubai