The Zeid exhibition sits within Tate’s mission to explore the work of overlooked artists from outside Western Europe and North America. This exhibition follows previous Tate shows on the Lebanese painter Saloua Raouda Choucair and the Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi.
It is an intimate but comprehensive insight – Zeid’s first UK retrospective – celebrating the artist's prolific career through a chronological journey from Istanbul to Amman, via London, Paris, Berlin and Baghdad. Kerry Greenberg, Tate's curator of international art and co-curator of the show, emphasises that its internationalist perspective aims to finally bring the story of this modest, almost entirely forgotten artist and her work back to life.
Zeid's biography is as intriguing as her art. Born into an affluent family, she began painting and drawing at an early age. She confounded expectations by becoming one of the first women of noble birth to receive a formal artistic training in Turkey, and later moved to Paris to pursue a career as an artist.
Self Portrait, 1944, is one of the best of her early works on display - unfortunately very few pre-1940s Zeid works survive. A stern profile evokes the self portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, while her vibrant use of colour and thick black lines, which would become signature aspects of her later style, exemplify her early preoccupation with form rather than detail.
Fahrelnissa Zeid, Detail: Self Portrait, 1944. Image courtesy of Culture Whisper.
Although Zeid predominantly painted figurative scenes, domestic interiors and portraits in her youth, she is best known today for her mid career abstract compositions. Her breakthrough moment arrived when exhibiting with the avant-garde d-Group in Turkey in the early 1940s. A move to London from Paris in 1945 with her diplomat husband, Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, followed by an exhibition at the ICA, confirmed Zeid’s status as a Modernist player on the international stage.
Fight Against Abstraction, 1947, is a heady concoction of abstract shapes and colours that exemplifies Zeid’s own kaleidoscopic visual language and her internal struggle between representation and abstraction. While the limbs in the composition are discernible, the crowded composition pays tribute to her determination, energy and rapid brushwork, that would characterise her later style.
Although Zeid's life was superficially glamorous, it was punctuated by personal tragedy. Her brother was convicted of the murder of her father when she was just 12 years old and the bitter divorce from her first husband, writer Izzet Melih Devrim – the father of her three children – along with the death of her best friend, plunged her into a deep depression.
Fahrelnissa Zeid, Detail: My Hell, 1951. Image courtesy of Culture Whisper.
It was during these moments of blackness, as Zeid acknowledges in the film, She was the East and is the West on loop in a side gallery, that she painted her most celebrated abstract works. My Hell, 1951, was painted after an episode of severe illness. The tempestuous palette of black, yellow and red makes it one of the most sinister compositions in the exhibition.
Yet on moving to Iraq with her husband in the late 50s, Zeid's style was to morph again. But following the coup d’etat in Iraq and the assassination of the Iraqi Royal Family in 1958, Zeid and her family were forced to flee Baghdad. They relocated to Jordan. The enforced domesticity and the sudden abandonment of ambassadorial life in Jordan, offered Zeid an unexpected source of creative inspiration.
Whilst in Jordan, Zeid returned to figurative portraiture and experimented with sculpture. Her 'paléokrystalos' (bone and resin) sculptures, made from painted chicken bones, later cast in resin and placed on turntables so they could rotate, are unusual and unexpected highlights of the show.
Image courtesy of Culture Whisper.
Influenced by her travels and contemporary politics, Zeid’s work is highly charged and deeply emotional. Her output was prolific – she painted right up to her death in 1991 – and is loaded with cultural and art historical references that make it far more complex than first meets the eye. Beside the rather underwhelming portraits in the final gallery and absence of early works, this is an engaging and insightful presentation of little-known work.
While Zeid enjoyed contemporary success, riches and social recognition - an original black and white photograph shows Zeid greeting the Queen Mother outside St George's Gallery, London, in 1948 – her work has fallen into obscurity. Presenting Zeid as one of the most pioneering of 20th-century women Modernists, this intimate but comprehensive exhibition gives her the recognition she deserves.
|Review: Fahrelnissa Zeid, Tate Modern
|Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG | MAP
13 Jun 17 – 08 Oct 17, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
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