Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Fahrelnissa Zeid:An Abstract Parrot in the Ottoman court.

"When I am 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. I then cease to be myself in order to become part of an impersonal creative process that throws out these paintings much as an erupting volcano throws out rocks and lava" - Fahrelnissa Zeid.

It was another Tate late with my friends Mark and Natalie. I always enjoy these evenings. We normally meet around six in the Turbine Hall, have a little catch up, check some art, then go for a 3x3x3 (three rounds of three pints for three people) and have an even bigger catch up. We talk about the art, of course, but we talk about a lot of other things too.

Last Friday we'd decided to take a look at the Fahrelnissa Zeid exhibition over in the Switch House. Fahrelnissa was an artist none of us had been familiar with before we went in but she was someone we were all fans of by the time we came out. Her life story is pretty spectacular but her art reflects it and certainly doesn't wilt in its shade.

Three Ways of Living (War) (1943)

Born Fahr├╝nissa ┼×akir in 1901 into an elite Ottoman family on the island of Buyuka in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul, her life (much like that of her contemporary Wifredo Lam) seemed to run parallel with many of the major political upheavals of the twentieth century whilst, at the same time, reflecting, and riffing on, the art world developments of the era too.

Before even the oldest works in the show, Zeid had witnessed the birth of modern Turkey, she'd married and divorced the novelist Izzet Melih Devrim, had three children (one of whom had died of scarlet fever), travelled to Venice where she was first exposed to European painting, and got married again - this time to Prince Zeid Al-Hussein of Iraq who was appointed Iraqi ambassador to Germany in 1935 when that country was, of course, under the Third Reich.

Living in Berlin she witnessed the rise of Nazism but after the 1938 annexation of Austria the now Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid and her husband moved to Baghdad. The Iraqi capital depressed her so, on the advice of a doctor, she moved to Paris. From there she triangulated between the French capital, Budapest, and Istanbul and it was during these years that her hobby of painting hardened into something more serious.

Three Moments in a Day and a Life (1944)

Third Class Passengers (1943)

There's a room at the start of the Tate's exhibition which looks at the seven key cities she spent her time in. New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Amman, and Baghdad. Budapest doesn't even feature but it's clear from the sheer amount of miles she chalked up that it's a tricky ask to try and get a sense of where she was, either physically or headspace wise, at any given time.

In London she entertained metaphysical maestro Giorgio de Chirico, French-Russian cubist Marc Chagall, as well as Lee Miller and Roland Penrose. Less impressively she took tea with Hitler in Berlin. The year Hitler died, 1945, she had her first show in Istanbul. The work she was making at the time, like Third Class Passengers and Three Moments in a Day and a Life, were huge, full of vibrant colour and detail, and yet intricate and enthralling at the same time. You can spend quite a lot of time looking at them and still keep seeing new things.

Self-Portrait (1944)

Turkish Bath (1943)

She'd occasionally dip into self-portraits but it was with works like Turkish Baths (which borrows from the same inky Cezanne palette as Chris Ofili's recent Weaving Magic at the National Gallery) and, quite bizarrely, Loch Lomond (Zeid visited Scotland on the advice of the Queen Mother) were the ones that entranced me. They're as exquisite as they're exotic, as free as they are formulated.

Zeid spoke of a 'struggle' between figuration and abstraction and in these works you can see her attempts to resolve that potential dichotomy. If Loch Lomond suggests figuration, eventually, won out then other works, like Alice in Wonderland and the fantastically titled Abstract Parrot, make a very different case. Yet they're equally adorable, Abstract Parrot itself almost gives the illusion of stained glass. The work that seems to have dealt with this duality of function most directly is 1947's Fight Against Abstraction. Is that a figurative fist punching through an abstract canvas or an abstract pattern encroaching upon the real world?

Loch Lomond (1948)

Alice in Wonderland (1952)

Abstract Parrot (1948-1949)

Fight Against Abstraction (1947)

Of course it's both. By the fifties her work was starting to resemble huge colourful maps of cities taken from overheard, and for someone who moved around so much perhaps that's hardly surprising. Octopus of Triton is nearly as good a title as Abstract Parrot and it's just as good a painting, My Hell cleverly uses three different colour schemes to suggest the illusion of depth. Zeid was never content repeating herself and she even questioned traditional protocols of art display. She'd hang works on the ceiling so you had to lie down to see them or put them on the ground in front of the door so you'd have no choice but to walk over them if you wanted to visit her gallery.

Arena of the Sun (1954)

Basel Carnival (1953)

Octopus of Triton (1953)

My Hell (1951)

Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life (1962)

In 1958 Zeid and her husband were at their holiday home on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples when there was a military coup in Iraq and the entire royal family, and scores of others, were killed. The overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy (which led to a system which remained in place until the death of Saddam Hussein) meant Zeid was no longer a princess. If she'd been in the country it's doubtful she'd have escaped with her life. 

This change of circumstances meant that at the age of 57 she moved in to an apartment in London and cooked her first meal. So enamoured was she by the texture and qualities of chicken bones, clearly something of a revelation to her, she took to painting on them. The finished products were displayed, rotating, inside her house. There's something of the Georgia O'Keeffe about them.

Puncta Imperator (Sea Cave) (1963)

London (The Fireworks) (before 1972)

In later life her abstracts took a more fluid, watery tone - as if the simple struggle between two opposing extremes had been rendered simplistic by the passing of time and all she'd witnessed. These works have a poignant, dreamy, melancholic aspect. London (The Fireworks) has the majesty of one of JMW Turner's epic late canvasses coupled with the quiet contemplation of Whistler's nocturnes. As these are two of my favourite things in all art of course I was impressed. As impressed with these as Natalie was with the portraits Zeid produced in her seventies and eighties and as impressed as we all were with Zeid's entire oeuvre.

How Zied and her work has been forgotten, or at least marginalised, in the narrative of 20c art history is anyone's guess (though that tea with the Fuhrer can't have helped) but the Tate, in their evolving quest to move away from the male Western narrative, have, again, unearthed another gem. Ellerine saglik. 

Someone From The Past (1980)

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