Fahrelnissa Zeid, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, 1962, Oil paint on canvas , 210 x 540 cm, Z. Yildirim Family Collection, © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein
Fahrelnissa Zeid, Loch Lomond, 1948, oil paint on canvas, 102 x 192 cm, © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein
Fahrelnissa Zeid, Fight against Abstraction, 1947, Oil paint on canvas, 101 x 151 cm, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art Collection, Eczacıbaşı Group Donation, © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art / Raad Zeid Al-Hussein
Fahrelnissa Zeid, My Hell, 1951, Oil paint on canvas, 205 x 528 cm, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art Collection, Shirin Devrim Trainer and Raad Zeid Al-Hussain Donation, © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art / Raad Zeid Al-Hussein, Photo: Reha Arcan
Fahrelnissa Zeid, Someone from the Past, 1980, Oil paint on canvas, 210 x 116 cm, Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection, © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein
Fahrelnissa Zeid as a student at the İnas Sanâyi-i Nefîse Mektebi (Academy of Fine Arts for Women), 1920, Ömer Faruk Şerifoğlu Archive, © Erdal Aksoy, courtesy Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University
The retrospective »Fahrelnissa Zeid« introduces one of Turkey’s most important pioneering modernists to an international audience. The artist, who was born in 1901 on an island off the coast of Istanbul into an upper-class, intellectual family and died in 1991 in Amman, Jordan, was a cosmopolite throughout her life. Her painting, which has been rediscovered beyond Turkey and Jordan in recent years at biennials and international exhibitions, synthesizes a wide range of influences, which relate to her multicultural and very eventful life. A retrospective conceived by Tate Modern in London that is now on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle shows the wide spectrum of her oeuvre for the first time, encompassing works and documents spanning eight decades.
Born into the Ottoman gentry, Zeid lost her father at a young age. Shortly before the First World War, he was shot by her brother in unexplained circumstances. Her family was devastated, but remained close. After the war, she was one of the first women in Turkey to study fine art. Subsequently she studied in the late 1920s in Paris, where she came into contact with European avant-garde art movements, including Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Zeid, who married the well-known writer İzzet Melih Devrim in 1920, initially viewed her painting as a »private pleasure,« like many upper-class painters of that era, which was therapeutic for her and served as a means of self-discovery.In 1934, she divorced her husband and married the Hashemite Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, with whom she went to Berlin when he was appointed Ambassador of Iraq to Germany. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, they returned to Baghdad. Regular excursions to ancient sites such as Babylon and Nineveh inspired her, but she also felt isolated there and fell into depression. In the hope of recuperating from her illness, she began traveling, commuting between Paris, Budapest, and Istanbul. In Istanbul she became a member of the d Group, an avant-garde artists’ association which, encouraged by the policies of Atatürk, sought to develop an independent Turkish brand of Modernism. Zeid’s growing confidence was reflected in her vibrant interiors, portraits, and landscapes of the early 1940s, with works like »Third Class Passengers« (1943) heralding her transition to abstraction.
When her husband was appointed Ambassador of Iraq to the Court of St. James’s in 1946, Zeid promptly transformed a room in the embassy in London into her studio. Works such as »Fight against Abstraction« (1947) and »Loch Lomond« (1948) show the radical transformation her work underwent. From 1946 until the late 1960s Zeid divided her time between London and Paris, keeping studios in both cities. Progressive artists from across the globe met in the French capital, loosely forming the Nouvelle École de Paris. Among them were Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, and Serge Poliakoff and Zeid exhibited frequently in this context. Following the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi’s reign of terror, artists sought freer, more spontaneous expressive possibilities in abstraction.
While many of her contemporaries turned to gestural abstraction, Zeid found possibilities of expression, at least initially, in a more geometric language. In paintings such as the famous »My Hell« from 1951, she fragmented space and color kaleidoscopically, imbuing the works with an almost architectural three-dimensional quality. While the Abstract Expressionists in America were taking the world by storm, Zeid created abstract explosions of color, whose psychological tension and visual force could hold their own against Jackson Pollock’s works. In doing so, she developed a formal language that was completely new in Western modern art, whether conscious or not, drawing on influence from nature, Byzantine mosaic art, Islamic architecture, as well as oriental arts and crafts and philosophy.
But a catastrophe changed everything. In July 1958, during a coup in Iraq, the Hashemite monarchy was toppled and Prince Zeid Al-Hussein’s entire family killed. He and his wife escaped assassination by chance as they were vacationing in Italy at the time. Zeid’s world fell apart and she stopped painting for a period. When she began again in the early 1960s, she primarily made portraits of her family and closest friends. During this same period she developed her »Paléokrystalos« sculptures, painted bones that she cast in resin and displayed on mechanized turntables. Zeid remained experimental in her late work too. With the exhibition at the KunstHalle, she is finally being honored as one of the most important protagonist of post war international modernism—as a woman who challenged conventions and the status quo in a male-dominated Eurocentric art world.
Curators of the exhibition:
Kerryn Greenberg, Curator International Art, Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern