‘I am the descendant of four civilisations. In my self-portrait, the hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan, and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it.’
The current retrospective of the work of Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901 – 1991) at London’s Tate Modern tells the story of one of Turkey’s most remarkable women. Born into a prominent family in Ottoman Turkey, she was educated in Istanbul and Paris, and lived the life of not only a princess, but also a diplomat’s wife and painter, in Baghdad, Berlin, Paris, London, and Amman. Until now, Zeid has largely been neglected in the West; but, in the first exhibition of its kind in Britain, with all but one of the paintings having been loaned from outside the country, the Tate Modern show is shedding light on her diverse oeuvre.
The exhibition moves chronologically, following Zeid’s extraordinary life in colour and paint from her birth in Istanbul to her time in Amman, where she is widely recognised for transforming the reception towards art there. It begins with a watercolour portrait by Zeid of her grandmother, composed at just fourteen years of age. Alongside it are details of Zeid’s upbringing in Ottoman Turkey, where she joined the Academy of Fine Arts for Women at just nineteen, and soon after married her first husband, İzzet Melih Devrim, a novelist whose career allowed Zeid to travel and expose herself to European galleries and museums, as well as enroll in an art school in Paris.
The works marking the beginning of Zeid’s career are comprised of narrative scenes replete with figures in thick black outlines. Turkish Bath brings to mind the odalisques favoured by French Orientalists like Ingres, with its portrayal of nude women in a blue oasis, grouped together and enjoying themselves. They appear as though they are oblivious to the painter’s gaze, and are not, as in many of the works of the Orientalist painters, shown as sexual objects, resulting in a sort of subversion of Western stereotypes. Also on display in the introductory section are Zeid’s sketchbooks, which are not only full of preparatory sketches, but also fully constructed paintings and notes, offering a glimpse inside her artistic process. Audiences are also shown catalogues from shows that took place in Paris, New York, and London.
Beyond Zeid’s initial figurative pieces, the large abstract canvases the artist is renowned for are highlighted in another section of the exhibition. Although human forms can be seen in the 1943 piece Third Class Passengers, they become more and more amorphous towards the end of the decade. In Three Ways of Living (War), the canvas is divided into three island forms by large bubbles of what looks like smoke, with dark black birds (or perhaps war planes), swooping into the bottom right-hand corner, arriving to disturb the piece. The painting details a unique view of the Second World War, in which Zeid played the role of a diplomat’s wife following her marriage to her second husband, Prince Zeid bin Al Hussein, brother to the King of Iraq and the country’s first ambassador to Germany. Following the outbreak of the War, the prince was recalled to Baghdad and later became the ambassador to Britain, giving Zeid the opportunity to live between London and Paris and mingle with the avant-garde artists there.
One of the most poignant pieces in the exhibition is perhaps 1947’s Fight Against Abstraction, which documents Zeid’s struggle to embrace the trend towards abstraction that was gaining popularity in Europe at the time. Amongst dozens of shapes that have been tessellated together, one can make out a number of faces and arms. The most prominent part of the painting can be seen in a grey fist moving in from the left of the painting. The limb is the only part of the image that has not been fragmented, and it appears to be punching the rest of the painting. Zeid’s technique of breaking up the forms within her works into smaller pieces is similar to that of Byzantine mosaics, and others have also likened it to the process of Persian carpet weaving.
I am the descendant of four civilisations. In my self-portrait, the hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan, and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it
The focal point of the exhibition is comprised of a series of several large abstract canvases executed during a period of depression in the forties and fifties. The process of fragmentation that begins in Fight Against Abstraction is carried through here in images composed of dozens upon dozens of tiny splinters of bright colours, which are either dispersed with heavy black or bright white. In My Hell (1954), a five-metre long work, shades of yellow and black seem to serve as a sort of warning, while danger is evoked through the use of hot, fiery red. As well, the red and yellow edges of the painting draw the viewers’ attention into a vortex of black, grey, and white in the centre, in which colour is entirely absent. The Arena of the Sun (1954), on the other hand, with its sprinklings of yellows, blues, and greens interspersed with tiny shards of white, presents an emotional contrast, moving away from darkness towards light.