ISTANBUL — Fahrelnissa Zeid may be the most fascinating modernist you’ve never heard of. A painter of monumental abstracts and intimate portraits, the Turkish artist contributed to the language of mid-20th century art, but was largely forgotten after her death in 1991. That’s finally changing. The Tate Modern held Zeid’s first retrospective in Britain last year, part of its effort to showcase artists overlooked in a canon dominated by Western men. The show then moved to Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin.
Now, the abstractionist’s work has returned to her hometown of Istanbul in a non-commercial show at the private gallery Dirimart. Ode to Passion consists of 21 paintings, including some previously never exhibited, from her family in Jordan and private collections in Turkey. It is a deeply personal show, reflecting key moments across four decades of Zeid’s turbulent personal and artistic life and is accompanied by the publication of a Turkish translation of the 2017 biography, Fahrelnissa Zeid: Painter of Inner Worlds, by her former student and now director of the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit in the West Bank, Adila Laïdi-Hanieh.
Defying neat categorization, Zeid transcended boundaries. She combines some Eastern traditions in her embrace of European expressionism and abstraction. A progressive Muslim woman, she glided between avant-garde Turkish collectives, the Nouvelle Ecole de Paris, and, through marriage, into the Iraqi royal court. She moved through the heart of global modernism into relative obscurity by the end of her life.
At Dirimart, enormous abstract paintings are spliced with examples of Zeid’s figurative works, including the oil-on-plywood “Three Ways of Living (War)” from 1943, an explosion of Breughel-esque figures simultaneously picnicking, fleeing violence or, presumably, buried in a Muslim graveyard as Zeid contemplates World War II from the remove of Turkey that remained non-aligned for most of the war
“We chose works that reflect different periods of Zeid’s life with priority given to what the family could provide,” says Ceren Erdem, Dirimart’s senior director who organized the show. “Reading her life story along with the paintings is an opportunity to rediscover the artist.”
Born in 1901, into the upper echelons of Ottoman society, Zeid was confronted with tragedy early on. Her older brother, Cevat, killed their father, a military officer and diplomat, under mysterious circumstances. Soon after, Zeid began painting at her home on an island off the Istanbul coastline, selling handmade postcards to cover her school expenses. She would become one of Turkey’s first women to receive formal art training and later continued her studies in Paris and Berlin.
At 19, she married a wealthy literary figure, and they socialized with the political elite that emerged with the new Turkish Republic, including its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was Atatürk who initially Latinized Zeid’s first name at a session of his language commission, when he discarded the Arabic script of the now defunct Ottoman Empire. Her first marriage ended when she fell in love with Prince Zeid bin Hussein, the younger brother of King Faisal of Iraq who served as ambassador to Turkey. This began the next, royalty studded era, in her career and life. She accompanied her new husband on his postings to London and Berlin. She was invited by Hitler to tea in 1938 for an uneasy discussion of art. British royalty attended the opening of Zeid’s first show in London in 1948. In this period, Zeid shifts away from expressionism to depict the abstract. Subsequent shows, including the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ first female solo exhibit in 1954, were critically received.
“Now I feel that I am at last understood and accepted, whether in London or in Paris, as an artist rather than as a kind of freak.”In the artist biography, Laïdi-Hanieh describes Zeid’s unhappy role as the painter princess, forced to contend with whispers at home describing her as an aristocrat merely dabbling in art.
In 1958, her fortunes changed after a revolution resulting in the assassination of the Hashemite royal family in Baghdad, forced them from the London embassy, leaving behind her studio, for a rented flat. Zeid learned to cook for the first time in her life. Her dalliance with the domestic inspires new forms and work. It was in this period that she creates her polyester-resin panels adorned with painted chicken bones, objects on view at the 2017 shows.
For this show, however, the emphasis is painting. The oil-on-canvas “Fatality” from 1958 is born in the aftermath of a massacre in Iraq. A moody silhouette of a faded, ancient cityscape imagines her new life, in exile. It is also a glimpse into Zeid’s lifelong struggle with depression that earlier had included a suicide attempt. “Her life circumstances, that she was a princess, that she came from one of Turkey’s most prominent families attract people but it is also a distraction from her art,” says Laïdi-Hanieh. “Her work stands on its own merits.” she emphasizes, “She mastered the large expressionist abstract gesture — the expansive symphonic gesture — with the minute, the small, the kaleidoscopic, in the same painting. Artists usually do either one of the other, but she managed both throughout her lifetime.”
Zeid’s break with Europe came in the mid-1970s when she moved to Amman and founded an art school to mentor female students. Portraiture became her focus anew in the last decades of her life — she even painted, in the 1980s, a likeness of the eventual American president, Donald Trump. “Her departure from Europe creates a disconnect. Unable to exhibit her work, she fades into the background. But she has remained the most important Turkish, and Middle Eastern, female artist,” says Dirimart director Erdem.
Turkish art goers became reacquainted with Zeid with the opening of the Istanbul Modern in 2004, when her family gifted the country’s first modern art museum her epic “My Hell” from 1951. The kaleidoscopic abstraction occupied pride of place in the gallery before the Modern’s move earlier this year to a temporary facility.
The undulating fractal “Break of Atom and Vegetal Life” at Dirimart seems an accompaniment to “My Hell.” Her son, Raad bin Zeid, who attended the show’s opening, recalls watching her create the five-meter-wide color field. “She managed to execute [it] in a very short time, at an amazing pace. While painting, she was in a state of trance and was incommunicado, not to be in any way disturbed,” the 82-year-old prince tells Hyperallergic.
The Istanbul Modern has hosted exhibitions of Zeid’s work, including a joint show with her late son from her first marriage, Nejad Devrim, a formidable abstractionist in his own right with whom Zeid was estranged. Art runs in the family. Zeid’s sister Aliye Berger was one of Turkey’s first engravers, and her niece, Fureya Koral, was a ground-breaking ceramicist. Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli, her brother, became a popular novelist after serving his sentence for the murder of his father.
Granddaughter Nissa Raad is showing her bold, bright canvases in a concurrent show at a second Dirimart space. Raad’s brother, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, recently completed his term as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The inclusion of Zeid’s work at the Istanbul and Sharjah biennales in 2015 grabbed the attention of Western curators, leading to the shows in Berlin and London, and helping Zeid regain her rightful place in the western oriented global art circles.“The past year has, for me, been the most exciting, overwhelming, and invigorating experience,” Raad bin Zeid says. “Her East-West dialog was due to her ancestors’ liberal education, which is why this could be a feeling of ‘homecoming’ that is truly cemented in her artistic international legacy.”
The denouement at the Dirimart exhibit is the iconic “Someone From the Past,” a self-portrait from 1979 in which viewers see an amalgamation of influences. Clad in a Byzantine robe, her eyes are almond-shaped, and her long thin fingers are posed in the Persian style. Yet the work is firmly rooted in Western figuration. Laïdi-Hanieh believes the idealized portrait’s references to the Orient were unintended. “She considered herself a universal painter, not a national painter,” she says. “Her driving force was always to express her inner world on the canvas.”
Fahrelnissa Zeid: Ode to Passion is on view at Dirimart (Haciahmet Mahallesi, Irmak Caddesi 1-9, Dolapdere 34440 Istanbul) through November 4.