Spiritual Abstraction
Fahrelnissa Zeid’s cosmopolitan modernism

The Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid was both a princess and pioneer of modernism. On the way to finding her own style, she left all conventions behind—and even painted her own inner hell. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the rediscovery of her cosmic art.
Fahrelnissa Zeid’s abstract paintings are among the boldest visual art works produced after the Second World War. They were executed within just one decade, between 1947 and 1958, in London and Paris. The Turkish artist’s painting is akin to a cosmic dance. Countless geometric shapes join together into mosaic-like compositions, forming vortexes, waves, explosions of color. Zeid’s pictorial worlds are full of dynamic energy. At the same time, she paints infinitely vast spaces, which can be glowing hot or full of meditative coolness. Everything in this world is fragmented yet simultaneously strives for unity. In this shimmering all-over, it seems as though life forms, feelings, and memories come together and fall part in a continual process of becoming and fading away.

My Hell is the title of the monumental work that Zeid showed to great acclaim in 1951 at the Salon des Réalités at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. In the city where she had had her studio since 1946, progressive artists from all over the world met and loosely formed the Nouvelle École de Paris. After the National Socialists’ reign of terror, which defamed any kind of non-representational art as “degenerate,” artists sought freer expressive possibilities. The gestural, improvised painting styles of Tachism and Lyrical Abstraction found a paradoxical manifestation in Zeid’s work. She created incredibly emotional, personal paintings with geometric abstraction, of all things, a vocabulary of form that was rejected by many of her contemporaries as passé.

But Zeid knew no conventions, neither in her search for new forms nor in her quest to discover her artistic self. On the way, she went through a personal hell. My Hell is a masterpiece. The over five-meterwide, two-meter-high painting looks like a crystallized Jackson Pollock, as though his drippings froze into ice and burst into a thousand pieces. To be able to paint it at all, Zeid had to remove the canvas from its frame and nail it to the walls of her studio across a corner of the room. As a result, she was literally surrounded by “her hell” while working. The astronomical term for that which gapes in the middle of this painting was coined later, in the 1960s: a “black hole,” which produces such a strong gravitational field that it devours any light or material around it.

The blackness in Zeid’s picture is just as absolute and also threatens to absorb everything around it: the delicate, almost architectural constructions, the flaming-red and cool-yellow geometric forms that seem to have settled on the canvas like crystals. My Hell depicts the primal fear of absolute emptiness and meaninglessness yet also celebrates overcoming them through the picture itself. For Zeid, painting was a mystical act of ideational realization: “When I am painting,“ she said at the end of her life, “I am always aware of a kind of communion with all living things. … I then cease to be myself in order to become part of an impersonal creative process that throws out these paintings much as an erupting volcano throws out rocks and lava. Often, I am aware of what I have painted only when the canvas is at last finished.”

Fight against Abstraction (1947) or Resolved Problems (1948): These work titles reflect Zeid’s inner struggle and the courage she had to muster to pursue her vision. The painter was nearing fifty when she devoted herself entirely to abstraction at the end of the 1940s. In doing so, she entered an arena in which women, let alone Muslim artists, were the exception. And she was not just some woman painting her abysmal depths, but the wife of Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, the brother of the King of Iraq, who had resided in London as an ambassador since 1949. Fahrelnissa commuted between the two cities: In London, she mainly fulfilled her obligations as a diplomat’s wife, but in Paris she devoted herself entirely to painting. Her salons at the embassy, where she had set up a studio, were known all over the city as a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, and Giorgio de Chirico were guests there, as were the photographer Lee Miller and her husband, the artist and curator Roland Penrose, who in 1954 mounted a solo exhibition of Zeid at the ICA in London, the first woman artist to be presented there on her own. In the early 1950s, Zeid was one of the protagonists of European postwar Modernism. In terms of the their force and presence, her paintings could hold their own against the works of the Abstract Expressionists in New York. In the press, she was often referred to as the “painter princess,” as though her art was an exotic hobby.

Indeed, Zeid led an extremely privileged life. But it was precisely this life, her commuting between East and West, age-old traditions and Modernism, selfliberation and family tragedies that spawned her art. Born in 1901 into an intellectual aristocratic family that belonged to the political elite of the Ottoman Empire, she had a bright future ahead of her. But in 1914, her favorite brother fatally shot their father under mysterious circumstances. The family almost fell apart as a result. Zeid fled to art. During the First World War, she went to boarding schools, and she was one of the first women to study art in Istanbul. Nevertheless, for decades she would view her painting as a private matter. At the age of nineteen, she married the wealthy entrepreneur and writer İzzet Melih Devrim, with whom she traveled through Europe. At the end of the 1920s, she studied painting in Paris with Roger Bissière, the spiritual father of the Nouvelle École de Paris, and hobnobbed with the circle of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

At the beginning of the 1930s, she divorced her husband and married Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, thus becoming a member of the Iraqi royal family. Her husband was posted in Berlin as an ambassador during the National Socialist period. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, the couple went to Bagdad. But Zeid became depressed and spent the chaotic war years traveling between Paris, Budapest, and Istanbul, where in 1944 she joined the avant-garde d Group, which sought to create an independent Turkish Modernism. Already in Istanbul Zeid experienced a creative phase, though she continued to work figuratively until the mid-1940s, and geometric abstraction only gradually penetrated her visual cosmos. When she went to England in 1948, abstraction had the upper hand in her work. Her view of Loch Lomond transformed the Scottish countryside into an undulating web of triangles, crescents, and rhombi—like a kaleidoscope that distilled the colors, moods, and movements of the moment, relegating the actual landscape to the background.

“Zeid addressed in her work stylistic influences and pictorial languages that were close to her heritage,” says Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, co-curator of the exhibition Fahrelnissa Zeid which after its premiere at the Tate Modern is now on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. “Like the different artistic traditions that defined the Ottoman empire, or even Byzantine or Mesopotamian elements she was aware of when she was living in different places.” The ornament, the geometric abstraction in her work was a way for her to mediate between inner and outer worlds, between tradition and modernity.

As a small child, Zeid recalled later, she observed passersby on the street through the lattices of the windows at her parents’ house. In Islamic architecture, these grilles adorned with geometric patterns not only protect people from the sun, but also afford them a view outside without their being seen themselves. Everything penetrates these bars as a shimmering play of color, movement, and light. Decades later, these stroboscopic effects could be seen in her abstract paintings. ”She was interested in specific Koranic verses,” says Oikonomopoulos, “particularly in elements that refer to the cosmological understanding of the Koran, the relationship between the body, the wider cosmos, nature, representation.” He says that in Istanbul she repeatedly painted dervishes. She was fascinated by the dancers, who whirled until they fell into an ecstatic trance. In this state, the dancer becomes “empty” to create room for an encounter with the divine. The word “dervish” comes from the Persian word for “gate” or “door,” and Zeid’s abstract paintings can be viewed as gates to another dimension containing a new kind of spiritual perception.

In July 1958, the entire family of Prince Zeid Al-Hussein was murdered during the coup in Iraq. He and his wife only escaped death by chance. They had to leave the embassy and move into a small London apartment. Zeid’s world fell apart. Her last abstract painting from 1958, titled Nightmare, is like a sea of blood. She stopped painting for years. When she began making art again in the mid-1960s, she mainly did portraits of her dead family and her closest friends from the past. The melancholy faces with the oversized eyes that seem to follow the viewer have something ghostly about them. During this same period, she developed her Paléokrystalos, painted turkey and chicken bones that she cast in synthetic resin like archeological finds. While Zeid painted stones in the 1950s and placed them in the space as counterpoints to her abstract paintings, now bones accompanied her portraits. “They were installed on turntables, on revolving surfaces,” relates Oikonomopoulos. “She projected light on them from different directions. When they turned they created strong light effects. The diffused light covered the entire space. The sculptures with the portraits can be considered a kind of environment.” Zeid’s living room in her house in Amman, Jordan, to which she moved in 1975 after her husband’s death and where she maintained a private arts school for nearly two decades, is like an overflowing installation in which portraits, abstract paintings, and sculptures combine into a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Zeid’s later work, from the 1960s until her death in 1991, can be interpreted as a nostalgic return to figuration. In her abstractions and portraits, however, one can also recognize an artist who relentlessly invented border-crossing forms and formats in order not only to come closer to herself and the world in her art, but also to the divine.