Art Review: Geometry of Hope - Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at Leighton House Museum

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Lemma Shehadi writes, last month the Geometry of Hope exhibition by acclaimed Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian opened at Leighton House Museum.  She is famous for her use of the traditional mirror mosaics and reverse glass painting as a medium for contemporary painting.  The exhibition is curated by Rose Issa, as part of her latest series of shows “Here we are” happening at Leighton House Museum this summer. [see Kazbah listings here]

Monir Farmanfarmaian’s pieces are mystical in the play of light and colour from the mirror’s reflection and striking in their mathematical precision, and slick reflective surfaces.  They come in a large scale and different shapes, some as a series and incorporate hundreds of tiny geometrical mirrors and reverse glass paintings, some only 1mm thick, carefully cut and positioned to fit.  The detail never cease to be alluring from 10 metres to 10 centimetres.  This is some of Farmanfarmaian’s most famous work, and has been previously exhibited at the V&A.

Farmanfarmaian first became interested in reverse glass painting and mirror mosaics as a student in New York, in 1978.  A classmate’s suicide had gathered Monir and her friends to mosque, where a ceremony was being held. She kneeled with the others in front of a shrine made of stone and shaved wood.

Monir became absorbed by the reaction of those surrounding her: “They start to cry heavily, heartily, and I start to cry too”, she reminisces, ‘Did you love him?’, Asks a woman, and I said, ‘No, but I am crying for all these people, who are so desperate and begging for the shrine to save them.’ Just like the reflection on a mirror shows the human body, their emotions, the shrine reflected the people’s despair.”

The traditional mirror mosaic designs revolve around geometrical shapes, notably the hexagon, rooted in ancient astronomical science.  Monir hired a maths tutor to teach her the algebra and geometry she needed to construct these intricate and precise pieces.  Curator Rose Issa highlights “the flexibility of design [that] geometry allows; Monir explores the different interpretations and variations of that theme.”

As an innovator, Farmanfarmaian has gone very far. She is the first contemporary artist to use the traditional reverse glass painting and mirror mosaic techniques in her work.  Her formula, using wood and plaster ‘canvases’ allows the pieces to be movable, whilst, traditionally, they would have been fixed to the wall.  Farmanfarmaian had been painting flowers at the time she decided to use the reverse glass method which is building up a picture in reverse on the back of glass.  When she first tried to add a mirrors to the work, she found that the oil paintings of flowers reacted badly with the adhesive she was using, and she had to drop the painting altogether.  Now Monir has perfected her technique using different adhesive and glass that cuts to any size, shape and colour in her works.

Rose and and the sprightly 84 year old Monir are like very old school friends. They sat next to each other and giggling to inside jokes when they answered questions, Rose’s long skirt waving as her legs dangled. “I chose to use ‘Hope’ in the title of the exhibition,” explains Rose, “because I am always so happy in Monir’s studio.”  The title pays homage to the beauty of Monir’s work, and refers to Sufi poetry where mirrors reflect life, light and hope.

Monir, explains that there is no ‘arty’ inspiration for her work, simply a love of geometrical beauty; she draws out a plan for each work and from this, she works with craftsmen to build the final piece.  Monir has a lot of input in the construction of each piece which usually changes from the original drawing. The craftsmen are very skilled in the mirror mosaic tradition and many reject Monir Farmanfarmaian’s innovations, however her tactful persuasion normally wins out. “…the [men] who work for me are very good, she says, and this one guy, he smokes opium, his work is sooooo good.”

Whilst these apprentices work very close to this international artist, they do not go on to be practising Fine Artists. “They are good at what they do, says Monir, but, when it come to being creative, they cannot do it, they are just craftsmen.” Rose Issa’s take on this is that money is a big preventative for their creative careers. Although the mirror mosaic crafting profession is very highly paid, the workers still do not make enough money to buy materials, build and develop a concept and later find the right people and the right space to set up an exhibition.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s work is displayed at the Leighton House museum until 12th July, and it is really worth seeing.

One Response
  1. Mahavir Singh :

    Date: December 29, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

    i liked the way you have described the geometry

    even i am working with mirrors pls help and guide me how to make my product popular,i will be grateful if u show me way

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