Art Cosmopolite:
Fahrelnissa Zeid in London

She was a very unusual artist: Fahrelnissa Zeid not only transcended the borders between East and West, between the Iraqi court and London high society, but also between age-old Byzantine and Ottoman art traditions and abstract modernism. The paintings of the artist, who was born in Turkey in 1901, have been rediscovered by the global art world for a while now. Zeid’s works were on view in the biennials in Istanbul and Sharjah and in the large retrospective  Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965. But now Tate Modern in London has mounted a large-scale retrospective that documents for the first time the full range of Zeid’s oeuvre, which was influenced by art movements as well as her multicultural and extremely eventful life. The exhibition at Tate Modern, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, will travel to the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin and then to the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum in Beirut. It presents paintings, drawings, and sculptures spanning forty years, from early expressive works created in Istanbul in the 1940s, to the giant shimmering abstract works from the 1940s, which brought Zeid international fame, to her later portraits. Istanbul Modern, which was among the lenders for the London exhibition, is showing works by Zeid from its own collection until the end of July.
Coming from an upper-class Ottoman family, Fahrelnissa Zeid was one of the first women in Turkey to attend the art academy in Istanbul, subsequently finishing her studies in Paris in the 1920s. In the French capital, she came into contact with European avant-garde art movements, including Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Zeid, who married the celebrated writer Izzet Melih Devrim in 1920, initially viewed her painting as a “private pleasure,” as did many upper-class painters at the time. But her very first, still figurative depictions of daily life and nature show that she took her own path as an artist. She was inspired by Italian Renaissance painters, Breughel, and Bonnard, and combined their styles with Eastern art traditions.

In 1934, she married Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, and they went to Berlin when he was appointed Iraqi ambassador to Germany. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, they returned to Bagdad. Regular trips to ancient sites such as Babylon and Nineveh inspired her but midst of the Iraqi court and its strict conventions, Zeid fell into depression. Subsequently she began traveling to recuperate—and to paint. Zeid travelled between Paris, Budapest and Istanbul.These were particularly productive years and her growing confidence can be seen in her sometimes large-scale interior scenes, portraits and landscapes. After her husband was appointed ambassador in London in 1945, Zeid promptly transformed a room in the embassy into her studio. From then until the late 1950s, she commuted between London and Paris, where she also had a studio. In the 1940s, she turned increasingly to geometric abstraction. She painted giant canvases with complex, incredibly detailed compositions that draw the viewer into a shimmering, organically proliferating allover.
The exhibition at Tate Modern documents Zeid’s bold experiments. In paintings such as the famous My Hell (1951), she fragments space and color kaleidoscopically, which gives her painting an almost architectural, three-dimensional quality. While the Abstract Expressionists in America commenced their triumphant advance, Zeid, the “Painter Princess,” created abstract explosions of color whose psychological tension and visual force could hold their own again Jackson Pollock’s work. She, too, drew on dreams and the unconscious. In doing so, she incorporated a formal language that was rooted in Byzantine mosaic art, Islamic architecture, arts and crafts, and philosophy.

Toward the end of her life, she returned to figurative painting, focusing on portraits and self-portraits that reflect her life and cosmopolitan background. She died in Amman in 1991. In Paris and London, the cities where she enjoyed her greatest success, she was virtually forgotten by this time. With the retrospective at Tate Modern her work has now returned to the city where she her first large gallery exhibition in 1948. Almost seventy years later, she is being honored here as one of the most important representatives of Oriental modernism—and as a woman who set completely new standards in male-dominated postwar art.

Fahrelnissa Zeid
Until 10/8/2017
Tate Modern, London

10/20/2017 – 3/25/2018
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
>From April 2018
Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut