LONDON — “Colorists are epic poets,” said Charles Baudelaire, and here at the Serpentine Gallery we have both: a painter of abstract landscapes and a poet, not to mention activist, scribe, and filmmaker. Described as a polymath by Hans Ulrich Obrist in the exhibition’s catalogue, Etel Adnan certainly seems to be a woman of many talents. Born in Beirut in 1925, she has lived and worked in Paris and California throughout her life. She is primarily known as a political writer, first prompted to activism by the Algerian war, then Vietnam, and more recently the many troubles of the Arabic speaking nations. In the ‘60s she taught Philosophy of Art at the University of California and the story goes that it was not until a colleague asked why she did not make art herself that she picked up a palette knife and began scraping color onto canvas.
In the scant information we are given on the artist’s work in Etal Adnan: The Weight of the World she is described as having made a significant contribution to the cultural and political landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries, but I’m willing to bet many of the people walking through the doors of the gallery, fresh from a stroll in Hyde Park, have never heard of her. I myself was new to her work but fell in love with it instantly. And I wasn’t the only one — just a few steps into the show, a girl in a lurid pink T-shirt tugged at her mother’s sleeve and asked, “Mummy, when we get home can I paint a picture?”
Her paintings evoke sheer joy, their style unpretentious, not naive but innocent, at odds with her poetry and writings that bear witness to the violence of the world. They may seem like simple compositions at first — it’s the kind of work that makes people say ‘Hell, I could’ve done that’ — but these are not just a colorist’s paintings, they are visual poems, each color chosen as carefully as a word in a love letter to nature.
Her early works invite comparison with Nicolas de Staël, with their colored squares and evident use of the palette knife to apply the paint. But later they grow flatter, the colors bolder and a little less abstract as horizon lines are introduced, demarcating land, sea, and sky. Her time in Sausalito, California, is defined by Mount Tamalpais, a talisman for her, like Fuji for Hokusai or Sainte-Victoire for Cézanne. She constantly revisits it in ink and watercolor in a series of drawings and on canvas in a patchwork green with striking additions of primary colors: a bright blue sky, or a red dot or square that seems constant throughout her paintings.
These are not traditional landscapes; they seem abstract at first and yet, as the nonagenarian continues to paint in her Paris studio, unable to travel as she once did, they have become the landscapes of her memories. The latest series is entitled The weight of the world, a grid of 20 small canvases depicting floating orbs on bright backgrounds, popping out in pinks and blues, yellows and oranges, colors with all the sophisticated innocence of a cartoon landscape. Though light in color, the spheres come with their own gravity and seem heavy, like setting suns over the ubiquitous horizon line.
After a lifetime of philosophy and activism, Adnan’s paintings seem to offer a respite from the horrors of war she has been documenting, whether through her novel Sitt Marie Rose about a Palestinian resistance fighter brutally killed by right-wing Christian militia — based on the story of Marie Rose Boulos, a woman Adnan had met a few times — or painstakingly transcribing poems in Arabic by her contemporaries in her signature Leporello notebooks. These concertina fold-out books are displayed to great effect here, outstretched and casting a pleasing zigzag shadow on their plinths. They are also home to drawings that depicts lengths of landscape, whether it’s the New York skyline or the medieval towers of San Gimignano, which are then translated to alabaster room screens in the middle gallery. The pure white stone appears to let light through like the Japanese paper of her notebooks, but the screens seem a little heavy, failing to complement the works on paper as the tapestries do the paintings.
The tapestries are the first thing you see when you walk into the show, referencing the artist’s Lebanese heritage and adding yet another dimension to her work. They are not taken from paintings but the original designs are characterized by lines that mimic brushstrokes and the nib of a pen, complete with inkblots. Here are the same perfectly picked colors, more vibrant still through the texture of the wool, and given much more space; these are at least three times the size of most of her paintings, causing the smaller works to slightly pale in comparison.
Another middle gallery houses Adnan’s film of New York and its lesser known landscapes, a moving collage of sky, birds, buildings, seas, and suns. The artist’s hand is always present, if a little shaky, and the film has that special Super 8 quality that transports you back to the time before iPhones and YouTube, enhanced by an intermittent soundtrack — here an Eastern instrument is plucked, there we hear the sea, the wind, the white noise of a car on the road.
Trained as we are by canonical exhibitions, we are left wondering who this woman is, struggling to put her in a movement when in fact she appears to stands alone. We are told that for most of her life she was defined by her philosophy, her ideology and opinions; and this — her first ever show in a UK public institution at the age of 91 — aims to marry the two sides of her work without imposing theory. What remains is an artist and activist in love with color.
Etal Adnan: The Weight of the World continues at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London) through September 11.