Fahrelnissa Zeid

Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin, Germany

While details of an artist’s life can enrich our understanding of their oeuvre, when staging a retrospective there is always the risk of relying too heavily on their biography to make sense of the works on display. In the case of the late Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, whose retrospective opened at Tate Modern in June before traveling to Berlin’s Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in October, this tendency is almost impossible to avoid. Born into an elite Ottoman family in 1901, the artist’s life was marred by tragedy from a young age: when she was only 12 years old, her beloved older brother was convicted of fatally shooting their father. Thereafter, her biography is an uneasy mix of privilege and adversity: for a Muslim woman born at the turn of the last century, she was afforded unprecedented access to education, travel and high society through her upbringing and subsequent marriages, but she also suffered from bouts of depression her entire life. The worst of these occurred after she and her second husband, Prince Zeid bin Hussein of Iraq, narrowly avoided assassination after the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown and her husband’s entire family was killed.

In this exhibition, the curators thankfully adopt a restrained approach to revealing the more salacious details of Zeid’s life in sober wall texts that, nonetheless, provide important context for an artist who is little known in Germany – despite the fact she lived in Berlin prior to World War II. This is complemented by the inclusion of Zeid’s own words in the form of quotations. We learn, for instance, that her switch from figuration to abstraction was cemented in the late 1940s by her first trip on a plane: ‘[It] transformed me […] the world is upside down. A whole city could be held in your hands.’

web_zeid02.jpg

Fahrelnissa Zeid, Third Class Passengers, 1943, oil paint on plywood, 1.3 x 1 m. Courtesy: Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and Eczacıbaşı Group, © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art/ Raad Zeid Al-Hussein

Fahrelnissa Zeid, Third Class Passengers, 1943, oil paint on plywood, 1.3 x 1 m. Courtesy: Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and Eczacıbaşı Group, © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art/ Raad Zeid Al-Hussein

A large section of the exhibition is dedicated to works made after this transition. Large-scale, geometric abstractions, such as My Hell (1951), reveal Zeid’s style to have been closely informed by her artistic milieu – during the 1950s, for instance, she frequently exhibited alongside artists associated with the Nouvelle École de Paris – whilst preserving the Islamic and Byzantine influences of her early career. It seems extraordinary that an artist of such singular vision, who enjoyed significant success in her lifetime, should have been all-but-forgotten following her death in 1991. Fortunately, as institutions begin seriously to address historical discrepancies in their collections, Zeid’s work – and that of other previously neglected female painters – is finally getting the attention it deserves.

web_zeid11.jpg

Fahrelnissa Zeid, Someone from the Past, 1980, oil paint on canvas, 2.1 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection, © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein

Fahrelnissa Zeid, Someone from the Past, 1980, oil paint on canvas, 2.1 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection, © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein

If Zeid’s ‘rediscovery’ were to endure beyond this current series of exhibitions, however, I believe it would be due to the works that emerged from her later return to portraiture. This shift is not quite as abrupt as it might seem: Zeid continued drawing portraits privately while publicly exhibiting abstract works. Displayed in the last room of the KunstHalle, these portrait paintings – mainly of those closest to the artist in the later stages of her life – are similar in structure: face-on bust or half-length portraits, set against monochrome backgrounds, whose expressive almond-shaped eyes appear perpetually on the verge of tears. Zeid’s interest in the decorative arts – most evident in early works, such as Third-class Passengers (1943), which depict the exuberantly coloured fabrics of her homeland – returns here in the exquisite detailing of some of her sitters’ clothing and jewellery, notably in the self-portrait Someone from the Past (1980).

While this exhibition is, in many ways, positioned around the tension between figuration and abstraction in Zeid’s work, these intimate portrait studies show that there was never really any competition. While she eventually tired of abstraction, Zeid carried on making portraits until the end of her turbulent, remarkable, life.

Main image: Fahrelnissa Zeid, My Hell, 1951, (detail), oil paint on canvas, 2.1 x 5.3 m. Courtesy: Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Shirin Devrim Trainer and Raad Zeid Al-Hussain, © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art/ Raad Zeid Al-Hussein; photograph: Reha Arcan

Chloe Stead is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018