Fahrelnissa Zeid was a Turkish-born painter, living the life of a democrat. The wife of the Iraqi Prince and ambassador, she dined at dinner tables in countless European countries, toasting and drinking in their diverse visual cultures. She synthesized Western and Byzantine influences into abstract, painting kaleidoscopes of colour onto monumental canvases—devoured by the critics of 1950s London and Paris. And then, on returning to the East, she made sure to paint the carcass of a Christmas turkey and convince the French that it was Mexican art. She was quite the rage.
All her success and scandal however have since been mostly forgotten. Her gender can be thanked for that. As can her Eastern origins—not overly helpful when seeking recognition within a largely European-American canon of art history.
In an attempt to lessen the ‘white man effect’, the Tate has launched the UK’s first retrospective of Fahrelnissa Zeid. And it’s definitely worth a visit. Not only does it show that paintbrushes do exist outside of Western Europe, but it delicately underlines the chaotic narrative of Zeid’s life—punctuated by murder and assassination attempts—without rendering her art itself the supplementary typescript.
Born into the Ottoman elite in 1901, Fahrelnissa Zeid was the first woman to attend Istanbul’s Academy of Fine Arts. Aged only nineteen, she married a prominent author and was whisked about Europe, feasting on its aesthetic. Her life, however, was no glittering Grand Tour—her brother was convicted of killing her father when she was only twelve-years-old, and she lost her eldest son to scarlet fever. Depression consumed much of her life.
It’s hardly surprising then, that Zeid’s early compositions seem a little disjointed and premature. The first rooms contain varied works (portraits, nudes, landscapes…) that are brimmed—to the point of being overstuffed—with differing visual influences. It’s a myriad of tiling and repetition, set in over-crowded interiors and landscapes that are populated with flattened figures. Not unlike my grandmother who religiously collects Russian (matryoshka) dolls, she doesn’t seem to know when to stop bringing in another piece.
The forties, however, brought significant change. Zeid had divorced her first husband, married the Iraqi ambassador (who was, naturally, also the Prince), and moved to London. Here she became engrossed in abstract, as shown by ‘Loch Lomond’ (1948). This painting transforms a local Scottish festival into an Eastern-influenced geometrical landscape, defined by rich black lines. People are small diamonds—they board lozenge-like boats into fractured water which burns red on one side, and muted blue on the other. The nearby work ‘Fight against abstraction’ confirms Zeid’s dedication to the style that would define her career, and win her international acclaim.
The central room of the exhibition contains seven large paintings—they’re products of the late 40s and 50s, and Zeid’s most famous works. It is an explosion of kaleidoscope colour—a splintered refracted ray is dizzily pasted, naked, onto the various canvasses, each claiming a different stake of the colour spectrum and possessing its own pattern. What makes Zeid’s version of ‘abstract’ so engaging is that, despite the presence of intense colour and severe edges, her works feel neither cold-blooded nor hyper-clean. This contrasts to the impression often exuded from similar cubist and modernist art—Zeid’s work is like looking through stained glass, which oozes the energy of a mosaic. As Bülent Ecevit put it: it was “abstract art that did not exclude human and natural elements.”
Zeid’s geometric jigsaws also seem to actually make sense next to their titles. Lapping up considerable audience attention is a five-metre long painting—red and yellow shapes, infected with pointed and greyscale shards, interlock and circulate around a central black chasm. Its form takes inspiration from Islamic art, and also looks like a deranged chessboard. It is, naturally, called ‘My Hell’ (1951)— I’m glad we share the same sentiments about chess.
In 1958, the coup in Iraq put an end to the abstract, as well as the monarchy. The entire Iraqi royal family were assassinated, but Zeid and her family were given twenty-four hours to vacate the London embassy. They had survived, but their way of life was changed forever—Fahrelnissa Zeid cooked herself a meal for the first time ever in her life. She also relapsed into simpler and enigmatic line drawings.
The exhibition concludes with the paintings crafted by Zeid in Amman, the city that she moved to following her husband’s death. Whilst establishing an art school for young female artists, Zeid played with chicken bones and, surprisingly, retreated back to portraiture. Stylized eyes, overly-arched eyebrows, lips pursed and smudged—her Byzantine-inspired portraits are a far cry from her previous crystallized creations. She died in 1991, aged 89.
Having had such a successful career, it is surprising that Fahrelnissa Zeid was forgotten so quickly. Her gender and origins surely played a part in her disappearance, but her lack of a coherent artistic style probably didn’t help either—not that we should purge creatives for being inconsistent. The Tate successfully showcases Zeid’s kaleidoscopes in all their glory, as well her experimentation of differing techniques, seemingly prompted by a life of political uncertainty. Zeid was an artist who used her privilege to fuse the East and West, creating utterly unique abstract creations that prove agreeable to a slight sceptic.