Review: Etel Adnan, Serpentine Gallery ‘Glorious’


It is one of the great pleasures in life when art catches you by surprise. And, in this instance, it is the new display of works from Etel Adnan at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which I found to be utterly wonderful.

Born in Beirut in 1925 to a Greek mother and a Syrian father, Etel ‘s works are infused with the colours, landscapes and language of her childhood. Whether in paintings, ceramics, illustrated folding notebooks or even film, you sense a deliberate intent to capture the beauty in the world, rejecting its uglier side.

What draws the attention first are Etel’s landscapes – simple form in bold colours, these are sympathetic representations of the natural world. And even as Etel moves away from any obvious form of representation to extremely abstract works, the warm earthy palette continues, giving a sense that her inspiration remains the world around her.

Etel Adnan 1

More than a few visitors were taking the opportunity to relax and reflect in front of her films of waterfalls and rivers. I, though, was fascinated with Etel’s ceramics and her illustrated folding notebooks.

The ceramics are large single tiles brushed with warm hues. Often preparatory studies for subsequent work, the tiles seem to be almost abstract artworks in their own right. Brightly coloured triangles and crescents float on backgrounds of vibrant yellow, and the rippled surface of the ceramics adds a dimension flat canvases cannot.

The notebooks are also beautiful. Fanned open inside vitrines, their pages are filled with verse, poetry and even family memoirs. And across and around the text, Etel has illustrated the pages, or has underlined some of the words with great sweeps of burnt orange or soft pink watercolour paint. I particularly adored The Golden Retreat, where Etel had highlighted an Arabic poem with daubs of pinks and blues.

Etel Adnan 4

This show is inspiring in many ways. Not only do her pieces lift you, but Etel clearly sees no limitations to what her output should be. Not only is she multimedia but in the accompanying bookshop you can also buy books of her poetry. There are no limits to creativity; what you feel, what inspires you, can be expressed in whichever form you choose. Let Etel’s freedom inspire many others.

This is a glorious show – glorious in colour, glorious in form but, crucially, also glorious in its palpable joy and celebration of the world and its global community. Given its situation on the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, there was also a steady flow of curious visitors wandering in from their strolls. And it was touching to see that all seemed as pleasantly surprised and as excited about the works and the spirit of the show as me.

There is hope.

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London to September 11, 2016
Admission free


All photos by me.

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