Review: Fahrelnissa Zeid, Tate Modern ‘Dazzling and Overdue’

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Chances are you’ve not heard of Fahrelnissa Zeid (b. 1901, Istanbul, d. 1991, Amman), despite the fact that she was a larger-than-life character and a pioneer for Turkish artists, as well as a trailblazer for female artists generally.

And as I walked the galleries in this new display of works from across her career, that struck me as a terrible shame. That such a vibrant artist could be overlooked for so long. So, I am thrilled that the Tate continues its commitment to platforming overlooked female artists by putting on this show, but also hopeful that by doing so, more will become familiar with the artist and her exuberant artworks.

If you read other reviews of this show, you’ll get pretty used to seeing the word, ‘dazzling.’ It’ll be used on repeat, I’ve no doubt. But here’s the thing, it’s just the best word to describe Fahrelnissa’s extraordinary paintings. They are brimming with excitement and vitality. Her portraits have the sitters gazing directly at you, their clothes and backdrops great blocks of brilliant colour. Her crowd scenes verge on the abstract with their collision of colour and energy, and her vast Kiefer-esque sized canvases of pure abstract art… Well, they’re practically kaleidoscopic. Her paintings do, quite simply, dazzle you.

The show may be relatively small (it is on display in the galleries in the Switch House extension, which recently hosted Elton John’s modernist photography collection), but, nevertheless, it is a terrific insight into the woman, the artist, and the development of her unique style.

Fahrelnissa was a woman of privilege, but her life was not without its tragedy. Her family was rich – she was the daughter of the Turkish Ambassador to Greece. But her world fell apart when she was only twelve when her older brother, whom she adored and who fostered her love for drawing and painting, murdered their father. That and the arrival of World War One tore Fahrelnissa’s world apart. But it was through art that she found sanctuary and an outlet for the depression that stalked her throughout her life.

She became one of the first women to receive formal training as an artist in Istanbul, continuing her studies in Paris in the 1920s. Opportunities that would not be possible to a woman without her means, no doubt, but it still took some years for Fahrelnissa to commit to art. Much of that was due to her personal life – the breakdown of her first marriage when she was in her early thirties was quickly followed by a second marriage into the Iraqi royal family, which required her to relocate to first, Hitler’s Germany (her husband was Ambassador), before heading off to post-war London (after a period in Baghdad, which depressed Fahrelnissa very much, with its rules and strictures).

So, it was in London, with these myriads of experiences in the memory bank, that Fahrelnissa committed to her art. In her paintings from the early 1940s, there’s an interesting blend of figuration and abstraction. You can sense the influence of the rise of abstraction in Western art in her scenes of Turkish baths and Bedouin women. Their figures are a blur, their forms more visions of colour than strict figurative representations. It gives her paintings, even at this early stage, a sense of energy and movement. Of people on the move.

The full immersion into abstraction came only a few years later, by the end of the 1940s, with such terrific pieces as Resolved Problems, 1948, and the monumental, My Hell, 1951 – a whopping five-metre-long canvas that blurs Byzantine tradition with European modernism. The piece is like a vast mosaic, the geometric forms nodding to Islamic art. But though the colours are joyous yellows and reds, the forms are spiralling, contorting into ever-decreasing circles. Is this Fahrelnissa’s own sense of identity in a spiral? Is she expressing the torture of having visited so many places but feeling truly not at home in any of them? Or do the patterns represent parts of her in constant conflict within her, trying to find some form of harmony? This painting hasn’t been seen in the UK for over sixty years, not since Fahrelnissa’s show at the ICA in 1954. It must have been exciting to see it then for it remains so today. I was transfixed.

And there are some great stories behind some of the artworks. Take Untitled, c.1959, for example. Following the Iraqi revolution of 1958, which saw all of her husband’s family assassinated (Fahrelnissa and her husband were, fortunately, out of the country at the time), the two were ousted from the London Embassy, losing much of the privilege and luxury that came with that lifestyle, Fahrelnissa found that, at 58 years old, she had to cook a meal for the first time in her life. She went with chicken. (One can only hope that the bird was thoroughly cooked.) But the stripped carcass that was revealed after all the meat was devoured inspired her. She painted those bones. And it is those very bones that we see in the final gallery.

Fahrelnissa spent the last years of her life in Amman, Jordan where she transformed her home into an informal art school. There is a short film that runs on loop in this exhibition (which I have also linked to above) that gives some understanding of the impact that she had on many other lives, including those artists who came to learn from her. A testament to the intangible legacy she left behind, as well as her significant contribution to the global history of modernism.

I loved this exhibition, I really did. The fusion of styles, the energy barely contained within the confines of the large canvases, the fearlessness in her bold strokes and composition…. You can tell just how remarkable Farhelnissa was, as a woman, just from her artistic output. Her pieces are on the front-foot, confident and full of expression. I left the show invigorated.

Tate Modern, London, to October 8, 2017
Admission £11.30 (without \gift Aid). Concessions available.

Image Credits:
1 Resolved Problems, 1948, © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
2, 3 Installations photos by me.

You can see more from inside this show via the album on my Facebook page.

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