This large survey of the work of Fahrelnissa Zeid continues Tate Modern’s series of retrospectives for artists from outside the transatlantic canon.
At Tate Modern until 8 October 2017, the exhibition brings together Zeid’s extensive body of work, as other museums in Europe prepare to show her art.
It is surprising that Fahrelnissa Zeid is not still more widely known as she showed extensively in London, Paris and New York after launching her career in 1944 with a solo show in Istanbul. The current renewed interest in her work is reflected in other museum shows, such as the recent one at Istanbul Modern (30 May – 30 July 2017) and the upcoming at Museumsportal, Berlin (20 October 2017 – 25 March 2018). Her reassessment was instigated by surprising performance at auction starting with a record breaking Bonhams’ sale of newly untethered works in 2012.
Life at the top
Turkish by birth Zeid’s mid-life was glamorous and cosmopolitan. At one point she is flitting between London, Paris and Ischia, a volcanic island in the bay of Naples, with her ambassador husband Prince Zeid Al-Hussein of Iraq. She maintained homes and studios in all three places.
Her schedule invigorated her creative energy and her work from this period – large in scale, vibrant in hue, panoramic and meticulous in execution – declaims that her status should not be as an ambassador’s wife but as a creative force.
There is an interesting tension between on the one hand, the advantages provided by status and connections, and on the other, the disadvantages of being extraordinary, a princess, a Muslim and a woman artist. The exhibition suggests that even in the urbane artistic milieu of Paris of the mid century, Zeid’s difference was hard to accommodate. The critical history of the period has been inclined to remember even quirky and recalcitrant figures such as Wols and François Fiedler, while forgetting and diminishing the contribution of artists like Zeid or Korean Seongja Lee who, by being exotic, were outsiders.
Zeid’s art of this period appears edgy. Biographical details suggest overtones of anxiety, later to come violently to a head, while confidence and scale speak of palatial accommodation and ease.
The setting of the Tate works well for the retrospective exhibition because rather than making visual connections with the Parisian abstractionists of spontaneous gestural painting, such as the Art Informel movement, her most impressive works resonate with more organised geometric abstraction, particularly that of the British Vorticism (c.1913-17), well represented in the Tate’s collection. William Gear (1915 – 1997), the artist who created an outrage when his grim abstract work Autumn Landscape (1950) was awarded a Festival of Britain purchase prize in 1951, is a presence in Zeid’s work too, reminding the viewer that her modernity was still radical in the London art world of the period.
The most difficult thing is, where the hell to begin with the paint? After deciding on your approach you must go forward in the physical realm, reaffirm, solidify and shape your ideas.
She says, reading from her notebook in Kat Mansoor’s short film, She was the East and is the West, shown on a loop in the exhibition.
Peaks and trough
The exhibition at Tate Modern is chronological in its organisation, with her mature work growing from vacillating styles of abstraction and figuration. Early work is typified by the painting Third Class Passengers (1943), a decorative image depicting a flattened out space. Privileged passengers deport themselves on rugs surrounded by a mass of schematic figures in a sort of caged gallery. The work melds “modernism with Islamic and Byzantine styles”, as Michael Hodges observes in The Daily Mail.
This introduction leads to a single room of iridescent large scale works, notably My Hell (1951), an expansive essay of flickering scarlet and yellow geometric shapes dancing against blackness. In 1958 the coup d’état in Baghdad triggered the execution of her husband’s family. Her leisured international lifestyle allowed her to escape the same fate, because she was on holiday in her home in the Bay of Naples in Italy. With Al-Hussein‘s Hashemite assets frozen at home in Iraq, Zeid’s affluent life changed. The exhibition lurches into a different mood with several works incorporating grimy poultry bones set in stained resin. Feral and informal, these works speak of the artist responding viscerally to a new world of raw experiences.
She had previously been chaperoned by domestic servants. Now, at the age of 57 she had to learn to do a share of the cooking and housework for the first time in her life. The family moved into a modest apartment in London. She comments:
Instead of the brilliant kaleidoscope that once seemed to surround me, I can only perceive a winding labyrinth of hard and heavy lines.
Following the death of her husband in 1970 Zeid moved to live in Amman. A final passage in her work returns to the figure as a medium for expressive colour and intuitive paintwork. These are the works that stray the furthest from the stylistic orthodoxies of high modernism. If they owe a small debt to Art Brut they succeed in affirming Zeid as an outsider who gained only temporarily acceptance on the crest of fortune.
Many reviews of the exhibition focus on Zeid’s marginalisation and expurgation from histories of 1950s abstraction. For example, Sarah Kent writing for Arts Desk says:
Now that Zeid had quit Europe, the process of erasing her from history began. In Amman she continued to exhibit alongside her students, but in the west her portraits were ignored in favour of her earlier abstracts and, gradually, they too were forgotten. Its a process that happens to many artists, but women whose success often seems to reside on the force of their personalities, are especially vulnerable to it.
In 1976 she founded The Royal National Jordanian Institute Fahrelnissa Zeid of Fine Arts and used this platform to mentor and encourage other women artists from the region.
The late portraits in the exhibition show that Zeid rejects convenient stylistic or thematic categorisation. The works are literally as well as metaphorically larger than life. Often signed in vermillion capitals bright as lipstick, they become increasingly strident in manner. In Someone from the Past (Self-portrait) (1980), she shows a younger self in a dress with a pattern redolent of her own abstract works. Her face is somewhat like a doll but her eyebrows arch recklessly and her eyes are powerful, rimmed with kohl. With her right hand she appears to steady herself against the picture’s frame as if art itself is one sure point in a colourful and momentous life. In an interview quoted in The Guardian her son, Ra’ad bin Zeid, who now lives in exile between London and Paris, remarks:
My mother worked so hard in her life and it wasn’t always very easy being a woman and being the wife of a diplomat and coming from the orient. People did not pay attention to her in the beginning. But she persisted and she kept on.
- “The Place is Here”: UK-based black artists in the 1980s at South London Gallery and and Middleburgh Institute of Modern Art – August 2017 – “The Place is Here” features black artists based in the United Kingdom, exploring the cultural landscape of the 1980s
- Exploring abstraction in art: “That Was Then, This is Now” at Sullivan+Strumpf, Singapore – June 2017 – 5 artists in the exhibition “That Was Then, This is Now” in Singapore explore notions of abstractions
- “HARBOR”: Turkey’s modern and contemporary art at Istanbul Modern – May 2017 – “Harbor” explores how port areas are reflected in the visual arts
- Cevdet Erek’s Turkey Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2017 – March 2017 – Turkey Pavilion releases plans for Cevdet Erek’s exhibition to be presented at the Venice Biennale in May 2017
- “The Incident of Art / The Art of Incident”: young Turkish artists at Akbank Sanat in Istanbul – in pictures – November 2016 – 10 young Turkish artists explore coincidence and art at Akbank Sanat in Istanbul
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on contemporary artists from Turkey