Cosmopolitan Abstractions
Fahrelnissa Zeid at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

Fahrelnissa Zeid was virtually forgotten for a long time. But not any more: In cooperation with London’s Tate Modern, the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle is presenting a comprehensive retrospective of the Turkish artist. With the exhibition Zeid is finally being honored as one of the most important protagonists of abstract postwar Modernism—and as a woman who set completely new standards in a male-dominated art world.
My Hell reflects enormous artistic confidence: a shimmering allover consisting of abstract, crystalline forms in red and yellow, black and white. The 1951 painting is extremely large: two meters high and five meters wide. Other than Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece Mural from 1943, which was shown at the KunstHalle in 2016, hardly any other paintings from this period had comparable dimensions, let alone a work by a woman.

My Hell is the result of a cosmopolitan and eventful life between Istanbul, Berlin, London, and Paris and the synthesis of myriad styles: Zeid combined the powerful colors of the Fauvists, the dissonant geometries of the Cubists, the precise lines of Mondrian. 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.

Zeid was born in 1901 in Istanbul into an upper-class intellectual family. Shortly before the First World War, her brother shot and killed her father in unexplained circumstances, the first of many tragedies that would cast a shadow over her life. After the war, she was one of the first women to study art in Turkey, attending an art academy in Istanbul, before finishing her studies in Paris in the late 1920s. Only a few of her early works have survived. Among them is the 1915 portrait of her grandmother, one of the works on exhibit at the KunstHalle. Like many upper-class women painters of the time, Zeid initially viewed painting as a “private pleasure,” which she pursued consistently despite strokes of fate such as the death of her son. It was also as therapy and means of self-discovery for the artist.

In 1934, she married the Hashemite Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, with whom she went to Berlin when he was appointed Ambassador of Iraq to Germany . They returned to Bagdad after the annexation of Austria in 1938. Regular outings to ancient sites such as Babylon and Ninive inspired her, but in the face of the strict conventions of the Iraqi court Zeid became depressed. To recuperate, she began to travel, commuting between Paris, Budapest, and Istanbul. In the Turkish capital, she became involved in the d Group, an avant-garde artists’ association which, inspired by Kemal Atatürk’s politics, sought an independent Turkish brand of Modernism. In the early 1940s, interiors, portraits, and landscapes boasted Zeid’s own artistic language. An example is Third Class Passangers (1943), a painting that heralded her transition to abstraction.

When her husband was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in London in 1945, Zeid promptly transformed a room in the Iraqi Embassy into her studio. She also held regular salons at the embassy. Among the artists and intellectuals, she received there were Henry Moore, Giorgio de Chirico, Lee Miller, and Roland Penrose. But Zeid also lived and worked in Paris, where she maintained a studio starting in 1946. In what was then the “art capital of the world,” she joined the Nouvelle École de Paris, a loose association of wide-ranging international artists, including Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, and Serge Poliakoff, who postulated a renewed abstract aesthetics after the end of the Second World War.     

In these years she executed works such as Fight Against Abstraction (1947) and Loch Lomond (1948), which document Zeid’s road to abstraction. This development reached its peak in her paintings from the early 1950s. In My HellThe Octopus of Triton, and Arena of the Sun, the artist produced at an unmistakable form of abstraction: She fragmented space and color kaleidoscopically, imbuing the works with an almost architectural three-dimensional quality, presaging Victor Vasarely’s Op Art experiments in the 1960s. Zeid was very successful. In Paris, she exhibited at important galleries; in London, the ICA devoted a solo show to her in 1954; and the great Surrealist André Breton and Marc Chagall were among her admirers.

But once again the life of the “Painter Princess,” as critics often called her, was overshadowed by a catastrophe. 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 murder by chance. Zeid’s world fell apart and she stopped painting for years. When she began working artistically again in the mid-1960s, she returned to figuration. She primarily made portraits of her dead family and her closest friends, showing melancholy faces with oversized eyes that seem to follow the viewer through the space. They are ghostly figures that recall ancient Egyptian mummy portraits and have an almost magical presence. During this same period, she developed her sculptures called “paléokrystalos,” painted birds’ bones that she cast in synthetic resin like archeological finds, mounted on spinning motors, and illuminated. Zeid remained experimental in her late work.

After her husband’s death in 1975, she moved from Paris to Amman, Jordan, where she remained artistically active. She died in that city in 1991. Zeid created one of her most powerful works there in 1980, Someone from the Past, an idealized self-portrait that shows her as a younger woman. Zeid explained it as follows: “I am a descendent of four civilizations … the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental.” That she fused this rich artistic legacy with the Western avant-garde is the great merit of this artist, whose work has met with growing interest internationally in recent years. Works by the artist were presented prominently at the 12th Sharjah Biennial, the 14th Istanbul Biennal or 2016 in Okwui Enwezor's exhibition Postwar at the Haus der Kunst in MunichHer rediscovery in the West ushered in the retrospective at Tate Modern, which after Berlin will travel to the Sursock Museum in Beirut, an exhibition that shows that this extraordinary artist has now finally found a place in the history of global Modernism.

Fahrelnissa Zeid
10/20/2017 – 4/9/2018
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
4/27/2018 – 1/10/2018
Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut