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Istanbul Museum of Modern Art Collection, Eczacıbaşı Group Donation (Istanbul, Turkey) (c) Raad Zeid Al-Hussein (c) Istanbul Museum of Modern Art

Fahrelnissa Zeid at Tate Modern

19 September 2017 Nina Avramova

Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-1991), or الأميرة فخر النساء زيد‎‎ in Arabic, was a Turkish-born princess, teacher, traveller and painter who constantly reinvented her art. As an ambassador’s wife she had tea with Hitler, travelled widely and studied art in several countries, and in her native Turkey was one of the first women to enrol in the Istanbul Academy for Fine Arts. If Zeid’s extraordinary life is intriguing, her artistic achievements are even more so. She was at the centre of many art developments, such as the avant-garde ‘d Group’ of Istanbul, and received widespread international recognition for paintings which captured major political shifts of the 20th century alongside watershed moments in her personal life.

Born into an aristocratic family of means, Zeid was inspired to start painting early by her brother and mother, both of whom quit Oxford University to study art. Tragedy also had a presence throughout Zeid’s life – when she was twelve, her brother Cevat assassinated their father – and the first canvas in the Tate Modern’s retrospective was completed soon after. One of her earliest paintings, such as Three Ways of Living (War) (1943), captures the concept of war with vibrant colours, dots and black lines.


Untitled c.1950s. Tate. Presented by Raad Zeid Al-Hussein 2015 © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein
 
During her marriage to Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, Zeid journeyed throughout Europe studying art and gradually moving away from her early nudes and portraits as she became exposed to European art. Fight Against Abstractionism (1947) symbolises this change in style, and represents her inner struggle to incorporate abstraction into her established practice of figuration. The large canvas requires long studying. It consists of de-constructed limbs and faces, and alludes to carnival masks and portraits of Greek gods. Zeid stayed true to her old influences by including these various types of faces, and creating a mosaic-like texture dotted by Islamic architectural aspects and Byzantine elements.
 
An intense period of work followed, as Zeid filled large canvases with abstract shapes, using colour to portray her feelings. During the 1950s, Zeid worked in her London and Paris studios simultaneously, exhibiting work in both cities with great success. One of the most remarkable works from this period of abstraction is My Hell (1951). As the title indicates, the five-meter long canvas – interlocking black and white shapes with specks of red, orange and yellow – sprung from depression. Walking along the patchwork canvas, the work creates a sense of movement. While creating this vast painting, following the death of a close friend, a fly caught Zeid’s attention and she followed its movement on the wall with her paintbrush.


Fahrelnissa Zeid in her studio, Paris, c.1950s. Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein
 
During this period Zeid travelled frequently with her husband, and the large-scale paintings she produced were often completed with rapid brushwork then rolled up for transportation. The slight dents visible on the canvas of My Hell are the traces left from her spontaneous journeys. Zeid enjoyed nailing her paintings to the ceiling, or laying them on the floor so guests had to walk on her art.
 
In 1958 Zeid convinced her husband to travel with her to Ischia in Italy, instead of returning to Iraq. Her spontaneity saved them both; the entire Iraqi royal family was assassinated in a military coup that July. Zeid and her husband were given 24 hours to leave the Iraqi embassy in London, and the political aftermath of the coup halted her career as a painter and socialite. Zeid cooked her first meal at age 57 and, after painting the bone of a Christmas turkey, began to experiment with sculptures of bone.


Triton Octopus, 1953. Istanbul Museum of Modern Art Collection, Eczacıbaşı Group Donation (Istanbul, Turkey) © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
 
In 1976, following the death of her husband, Zeid moved back to Amman and founded the Royal National Jordanian Institute Fahrelnissa Zeid of Fine Arts, where she mentored young women. She trained her students in abstraction, and is credited with transforming the way art was perceived in Jordan. Zeid’s style subsequently moved away from abstraction and returned to portraiture. On her self-portrait, Someone From The Past (1980), Zeid stated she was “a descendent of four civilisations. In my self-portrait the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face Cretan and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it”. Zeid painted many more portraits of family and friends, with particular focus on the subjects’ eyes, until her death in 1991.
 
Zeid’s journey from classical figuration, to abstraction, to new mediums and back to portraiture is a testament to her artistic genius. As exhibition curator Kerryn Greenberg explained, it is “astonishing that an artist of such force and originality should have been practically forgotten – particularly in London and Paris where she was active and prominent for decades”. Thanks to Tate Modern’s retrospective, Zeid’s work should regain the prominence it once had, and rightfully deserves.
 
Fahrelnissa Zeid runs at Tate Modern until 8 October. Tickets cost £11.50.  
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