‘When I’m painting, I am always aware of a kind of communion with all living things, I mean with the universe as the sum total of the infinitely varied manifestations of being.’ – Fahrelnissa Zeid
Fahrelnissa Zeid, born in 1901 into the elite Ottoman family in Turkey, her life began as an eventful one as she was always surrounded by tragedy. In 1913, her father was fatally shot and her brother was convicted of the murder. Loss at such a young age could well have been the beginnings of inspiration for her artistic career.
She grew fond of art in her teenage years by painting watercolour portraits, and the exhibit displayed a serene, pastel painted portrait of her grandmother, which she painted in 1915 when Zeid was fourteen years old. In 1919, she enrolled into the Academy of Fine Arts for Women, in Istanbul. During her first marriage in 1920, she was exposed to the European art scene for the first time where she travelled to Venice and Paris, falling in love with the European style.
Her impressionistic oil painting Beshiktas, My Studio (1943) features a boy sat in the background, among her workshop and brushes, perhaps depicting the balance between her motherhood and her artistic career. The work almost seems unsure of itself however, you can feel the abstract beginnings in the brush strokes, yet there is need for realism within the shapes and earthy colours of the work. It feels like a memory, perhaps of her first born son who died of scarlet fever in 1924 when he was three. Looking at it I feel as if I am in the studio with her watching the boy. She signed her name in Arabic on this piece making it feel as if she is confused about her heritage and who she identifies as.
In 1934, she divorced her first husband and married Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, officially making her Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid. This brought about official duties and relocation to Baghdad and Berlin. She suffered from depression during her time in Baghdad and often travelled to Paris to recover.
During the forties, she began to exhibit her work and the travelling she did broadened her horizons and creative vision, combining her Turkish roots with Byzantine patterns and European styles. The Prince became an ambassador for the Kingdom of Iraq and the United Kingdom, and Zeid along with her husband relocated to London. Despite this she often divided her time by travelling to Paris.
It was during this time that her work became larger, and bolder than it had been before. She submerged herself completely into the world of abstraction. Zeid was deeply influenced by nature and her emotions. Every painting feels like a fight, whether it is a struggle in nature or spirit.
Resolved Problems (1948) uses bright primary colours and geometric shapes. The work is an explosion of colour; its tone is luminous, bold and exotic. The colour spectrum bounces right off the canvas reflecting into the eyes. In contrast to the white walls of the exhibit it is like a portal delving right into the happy place of the soul. Feelings of relief and contentment swell, and its title is appropriate; it is like Zeid has fully worked through her dark days, and moved on with a new resolution into a realm of beautiful abstraction.
The mosaic patterns of this work reminds me of the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, with his use of patterns and shapes inspired by nature, Zeid’s work resembles Gaudi’s famous dragon fountain in Parc Guell known as El Drac. Except Zeid’s painting is de-constructed and arranged into a beautiful mosaic of shapes. The realism and impressionism, she experimented with in her earlier years is gone. Resolved Problems is fully abstract and could be shaped into anything that the human mind can make or feel, like origami paper before it is folded.
In 1958, while Zeid and her husband were away on vacation, the Iraqi Royal Family were assassinated. Had they not been away, it is likely they would have perished too. Her husband was forced to resign as the ambassador, turning their lives upside down. Eventually, at the age of fifty-seven she cooked her first meal.
In the sixties, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life (1962) reflects this chaotic time, the patterns curve and swirl on the canvas. The triangular blue and white shapes, contrasted by black, flow into the curving waves of red. On the far right, drips of black and purple ooze despair. The colours are composed and sad on the left, and they get more chaotic, angry and disorganised as the brush travelled across the canvas. The black oil paint creates violent gashes among the colour, depicting the sadness, grief and difficulty life must have shown during those first years after the royal family’s assassination.
There is more depth in this work, the colours fall back, as if I could reach in and be engulfed into Alice’s endless rabbit hole, as if I might morph into a kaleidoscopic monster. Zeid says: ‘Often, I am aware of what I have painted only when the canvas is at last finished.’ She gets swallowed in her own artistic vision, which is natural, emotional and trance-like.
In her final years as an artist, something drastically changed, she returned to portraits, bolder than her early years as an artist, but she has left the world of the abstract, and returned to the world of realism to capture the souls of her subjects. The portraits’ eyes are large and alert and their hair is big on top of their heads. In comparison to her abstract art, this feels beneath her, as if she is losing herself in her old age. These portraits lack the finesse and sharpness of the geometric shapes from her peak. They are flawed just like the subjects she paints. It is human, only too human. Her self-portrait Someone From the Past (1980) depicts her heritage. She says in response to her self-portrait: ‘I am a descendant of four civilisations… the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental’. She has painted herself wearing a gold, Byzantine patterned dress on a dark background, making it a prominent feature. She appears regal and proud, and much younger than she would of been in 1980.
I was awe-struck throughout the exhibit but as I left, I felt solemn especially as I reached the end of the exhibit finishing on her late years and her portraits. It was an emotional journey. I had lived the life of an incredible woman through paintings. The most bizarre feeling of the exhibit was how natural it felt. She was a woman who suffered great turmoil, success and creativity, and Zeid has shown me what the power of colours, shapes, paint and a canvas can achieve, and what can be felt when you put those elements together.
By Emma Seares
Fahrelnissa Zeid: Tate Modern, London, 13 June 2017 to 10 October 2017