Fahrelnissa Zeid was a Turkish artist who, at her peak in the mid 20th century, made epic abstract paintings. She is the subject of a new exhibition at Tate Modern, her first retrospective in Britain. The originality and power of the work makes her obscurity startling: how could an artist of this calibre have been so easily forgotten in the West?
A former student, the artist Suha Shoman, has no doubts as to the answer: Zeid has been “[thrown] out of history because of her gender and her origins.” When Zeid staged her first show in America in 1950, at the height of her powers, the New York gallery billed her as “The Oriental Painter”. The exhibition fell flat. She was regarded as exotic, a mere novelty, and while her monumental abstraction should have been fashionable, her backstory was entirely at odds with a muscular American chauvinism which scarcely deigned to acknowledge Europe, let alone the rest of the world.
Quite a backstory it is, too. She was born Fahrünissa Şakir in 1901 into a family of aristocratic Turkish art-lovers, which fell apart in 1914 when her brother was convicted of killing her father. At 19 she married İzzet Melih Devrim, a novelist with whom she toured the galleries of Europe. Fascinated, she studied art in Paris in the 1920s. By the early 1940s Zeid had divorced her husband and was back in Turkey, grappling with depression and exhibiting Fauvist-influenced paintings alongside the experimental d Group.
At the end of the war, her second husband, the Hashemite Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, was appointed Iraq’s ambassador to London. There, she set up a studio in the embassy’s former servants’ quarters, leading a twin existence as a diplomatic hostess and a painter whose blossoming artwork was frequently exhibited in Paris. In 1958, while the couple were on holiday, her husband’s family was slaughtered in Iraq’s military coup. She and her husband were evicted from the embassy and moved into a small flat. Traumatised, she gave up art until her early efforts at cooking inspired her to paint on the bones of a Christmas turkey. Encouraged once more to think of herself as a painter, by the early 1960s she had returned to her oils and canvases. After her husband died in 1970, she moved to Jordan, where she taught abstract art to female students and painted portraits until her death in 1991.
Like her story, Zeid’s art confounds expectations. Her early work, much of it painted in Turkey, suggests a European post-impressionist, while her mature work, made after she had settled in England, drew heavily on Byzantine, Persian and Islamic traditions. These highly distinctive abstract paintings recall the windows of Byzantine cathedrals and the tiling patterns of Moorish palaces. In their clarity of colour, sharpness of line and awareness of geometry, they suggest an orderly mind pinning meaning upon disorder; the impulsivness of abstract expressionism is nowhere to be seen here. But while her paintings evoke the Islamic world, there is nothing conventionally Eastern about them – those Americans seeking a whiff of exotica in 1950 were bound to be disappointed. Zeid was an abstract artist first and foremost, steeped in the Western tradition but using Eastern ideas to revitalise it.
“Three Ways of Living (War)” (1943)
This painting, along with “Three Moments in a Day and a Life” (1944), marks the point at which Zeid became more than a disciple of modernism. There are echoes of Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault in her depiction of the horrors of war set against the quotidian joys of a picnic party. But here her own style emerges: vivid yet foreboding colour, a triptych structure which lets her explore different moods across the breadth of a painting, and repeated symbols of depression and death (cemeteries, skulls, streams of tears).
“Fight Against Abstraction” (1947)
Zeid painted this at a time when she was torn between two styles: figurative art, which she had been working in ever since she took up painting, and pure abstraction. Here, faces and limbs disintegrate into multicoloured shapes, forming a mosaic-like pattern which would recur for the rest of her career.
“Resolved Problems” (1948)
Zeid once said that she did not intend to become an abstract painter but that she, and her art, had been “transformed” by her love of flying: “A whole city could be held in your hand: the world seen from above.” “Resolved Problems” was her first truly abstract work and, with its patchwork of triangles and squares, captures what it is like to fly over fields. With this painting she established her style and suffused her work with light and bright colour. Where “Fight Against Abstraction” glowers, this painting glows.
“My Hell” (1951)
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the room containing Zeid’s giant abstract paintings, the most striking of which is the 17-foot blockbuster “My Hell”. As well as the three-part structure and the mosaic-like technique, there is a contrast between the ominous black at the centre and the colours spinning out from it like splinters of stained glass. There is also a suggestion of concealed figures, as in a Magic Eye puzzle. The same is true of “Triton Octopus” (1953, above), where the creature can be glimpsed in its densely jewelled fragments. Don’t look at these works up close: you see into them most deeply by standing as far away as the walls permit.
“Someone From the Past” (1980)
Zeid returned to figurative art in the last two decades of her life. Her late-career portraits have a flat, exaggerated quality that, given the sure-handed naturalism of a painting of her grandmother from 1914, was surely intentional. They also evoke the postures and bold outlines of Islamic styles of portraiture. The “someone from the past” is herself, or rather, an idealised, emblematic self, representing the “four civilisations” of her heritage: “the hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it.”
Fahrelnissa Zeid Tate Modern, London, until October 8th