Fahrelnissa Zeid: Pioneering Artist

Fahrelnissa Zeid in her studio in Paris, circa 1960s © The Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection

I did not intend to become an abstract painter; I was a person working very conventionally with forms and values. But flying by plane transformed me… The world is upside down. A whole city could be held in your hand: the world seen from above.’  Fahrelnissa Zeid

Virtually unknown nowadays, Fahrelnissa Zeid was a Modernist, a uniquely pioneering artist, fusing European abstract art with Islamic, Arab, Persian and Byzantine strands. However, in the Middle East she is not invisible, and in 2013 one of her paintings sold for nearly US$3 million, a record price for a female artist originally from Turkey.

Zeid had said of herself, ‘I am a descendant of four civilisations. In my self-portrait Someone from the Past (1980), the hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental.’

Tate Modern has been dipping its toes into the untold wealth of non-European art in recent years, though so far hardly venturing beyond the Modernist genre, in which one could fit Fahlrenissa Zeid’s work, in terms of time-frame. Her first UK retrospective is on show there until the autumn, and it is time her story was told, since she is an important figure in the international story of abstract art, the exhibition demonstrating her affinities with and divergence from the emphasis on abstraction of the 1950s and 60s.

She was a prominent figure in the Turkish avant-garde in the early 1940s and in the 1950s of the Ecole de Paris, the city she loved and in which she lived for a considerable time. And in an intriguing journey, her creative career began with portraiture and ended with it. Hers was an extraordinary life and groundbreaking career, the Director of Tate Modern, says Frances Morris, adding that Zeid was ‘feisty, charismatic and prolific’.

Tate Retrospective of Fahrelnissa Zeid’s Work

The Tate retrospective, spanning 40 years of Zeid’s work, includes many of her monumental paintings, such as My Hell (1951), a 5.2 metre long canvas, on loan from the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, the city in which she was born. This disturbing abstract work with its central vortex of two black voids, features vibrantly coloured geometric shapes contained within black lines.

These recall Ottoman stained-glass windows, mosaics and glass lanterns. My Hell vividly encapsulates Zeid’s unique fusion of abstraction and the repetition of geometric forms characteristic of Islamic art and architecture. The anguished title relates to the tragedies that peppered her life, the swings between order and chaos that caused bouts of depression.

For instance, in 1958, Fahrelnissa Zeid’s world was shattered when the entire Iraqi royal family was assassinated in a military coup, except for her husband Prince Zeid Al-Hussein. At that time he was the Iraqi ambassador to Britain. They were given 24 hours to vacate their splendid residence, moving into a modest flat, in which, aged 57, Zeid cooked her first meal, having always lived a very privileged life.

For the time being, her career as a painter and society hostess was halted, her existence radically changed. ‘I no longer feel any magic in it, any enchantment around me. It is as if I had suddenly become afraid of colours and of life. Instead of the brilliant kaleidoscope that once seemed to surround me, I can only perceive a winding labyrinth of hard and heavy black lines.’ The black lines of My Hell were painted seven years before.

The exhibition also includes chicken and turkey bones, painted and immersed in polyester resin, morphing into panels. Ever resourceful, Zeid began painting those bones, the detritus of her enforced immersion into cooking. The Tate exhibition brings together paintings, drawings, a rare print portfolio, sculptures and the resin panels. It spans expressionist work created in Istanbul in the early 1940s, through the era of her huge abstract canvases exhibited in Paris, London and New York in the 1950s and 60s, ending with her return to portraiture in the closing phase of her phenomenal life, often referencing Oriental style.

Items From Zeid’s Personal Archive

The Tate show also includes fascinating items from her personal archive, providing insights into her personal and professional journey, not just as an artist, but also as a mother, a diplomat’s wife, and member of the Iraqi royal family. They span her long life from birth in Istanbul in 1901, via Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Baghdad, and finally Amman, where she died in 1991. For example, there are period photographs of Zeid meeting such luminaries as the Queen Mother outside St George’s Gallery in 1948, the venue for Zeid’s first exhibition in London; as well as a biography typed on Iraqi Embassy letterhead.

Zeid’s Early Life

Born into an elite and highly educated Turkish family, at the age of twelve the first of the tragedies in Fahrelnissa Zeid’s life occurred – her father was murdered, and her beloved older brother was convicted of the crime. While still very young she had begun drawing and painting, encouraged by the same brother who had studied art in Rome. Her mother too loved art and painted on silk.

For Zeid, art became a coping mechanism, an escape from the depression she experienced whenever disaster struck. During the First World War, her family experienced financial hardship, and art materials were scarce and expensive. Fahrelnissa Zeid’s daughter Shirin recounts how her mother, just a teenager, painted postcards and sold them to obtain the materials she needed.

Aged 19, Zeid married Izzet Melih Devrim in 1920, with whom she had three children. They went to Venice for their honeymoon, where Zeid first encountered European art. But it was not a happy marriage, and then in 1924, her first son, Faruk, died of scarlet fever.

Living in Paris

Four years later, there was a very significant creative breakthrough for Zeid when she and Devrim lived in Paris for a year, where she enrolled at the Académie Ranson. She was particularly inspired ‘by Cézanne’s technique of building up planes of colour through small repetitive brushstrokes’, as Kerryn Greenberg, Curator of the Tate exhibition and International Art describes in the catalogue. She was also introduced by her tutor, Roger Bissière, to cubism, another defining moment in her career.

In 1929, Fahrelnissa Zeid and Devrim returned to Istanbul where she enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, but soon became frustrated by the conservative teaching methods. She joined the ‘d Group’ of young artists whose basic aim was rebellion against academicism.

Marrying Prince Zeid Al-Hussein

Eventually, by 1934, the marriage had disintegrated, the couple divorcing. This freed her to marry Prince Zeid Al-Hussein of the Iraqi royal family, whom she frequently painted with great insight and immersion. The eyes are particularly mesmeric, evocative of Coptic images. While still in Istanbul Zeid painted constantly, but did not begin to exhibit her work until the mid 1940s. This may be explained by the fact that in 1935 her husband had been appointed Ambassador to Germany, and Zeid had many time-consuming diplomatic duties. But based in Berlin, there were rich opportunities to immerse herself in European art.

Recalled to Iraq

Then, in 1938, Prince Zeid Al-Hussein and his family were recalled to Iraq. Zeid was inspired by her visits to Babylon and Nineveh, as well as by Bedouin women walking along carrying pots on their heads. She compared watching them to observing space, speed and movement, adding that the only way to capture this in paint was through black lines and dabs of colour. Referring to the mashrabiyas of traditional Arab homes, she said: ‘When I was very little, there were machicolations in front of the windows, through which one could see daylight and from which one could see passers-by … But, in fact, they were not what one saw, for they were only colours passing by and between!’.

Moved to London in 1946

In 1946, Zeid and her husband moved to London, where he became the first Iraqi ambassador. Despite her diplomatic and social responsibilities, Zeid continued to paint, and later said how at last she began to feel at ‘ease as a painter … As long as I had lived and worked in Turkey, I had seemed to distrust my own artistic initiatives … now I feel I am at least understood and accepted … as an artist rather than as a kind of freak, I mean as a lady of the Turkish feudal nobility who has thrown her yashmak over the nearest windmill and set her heart, Allah knows why, on becoming the first woman painter of her country much as other emancipated women of her generation have become politicians, physicians or lawyers’.

Fahrelnissa Zeid’s Best Work Was in the 1940s and 1950s

Over the next decade or so, between the late 1940s to the 1960s, Zeid created her most iconic and admired work, as Tate Curator Greenberg describes them: ‘Monumental abstract canvases that submerge the viewer in a kaleidoscopic universe that is simultaneously familiar and disorienting. The influences of nature, patterns from Islamic architecture, Byzantine mosaics and the formal qualities of stained-glass windows with their heavy leaded lines and iridescent coloured panels can all be discerned. Seen from a distance, these elements appear to spin, collide, fragment, repeat and ripple out in numerous centres in ways that are absorbing and mystifying.’

In 1954, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) mounted a greatly acclaimed show of Zeid’s work. At that time the ICA was the most avant-garde arts institution in Britain. Her large-format, crisp, swirling abstractions, including My Hell, hit the spot with critics and admirers. They were also eclipsing work by many of her male counterparts.

Geometric Abstraction

Choosing the particularly dynamic style of geometric abstraction chimed internationally and successfully. Gravitating between London and Paris, exhibiting and living in both cities, Zeid was described by Sarah Wilson, art historian and critic, as: ‘Brilliant, dominating, well connected and fluently francophone; her sudden appearance (in Paris) in the 1940s, her success, her excess, her social position and her stylistic variations and eccentricities, assaulted the male bastions of Parisian art criticism’ . Katia Granoff, at whose gallery Zeid exhibited, gave her a fulsome tribute as ‘a messenger desired, expected – a star, a comet who passed through Paris… you will take our message in turn to those lands of the Orient’.

Gradually, Zeid’s style shifted from abstract paintings whose geometric forms were bounded by harsh black lines to what could be termed ‘lyrical abstraction.’ Zeid’s painting Fight against Abstraction was painted as early as 1947, and it really looks like a fight is going on, with clawing hands, three faces, one like a gladiator going into battle, two other female faces seraphically calm. Everything is bounded by those heavy black lines. Maybe the shift was one of attitude. Resolved Problems was painted in 1948, Shining in 1955. Various untitled mixed media works of the same era are ‘lyrical’ too. On the other hand the ‘Black Dog’ of depression may have reappeared at times, mirrored by Lost Horizon (1947), Nightmare (1958) and Fire (1964); though all are painted in an elegiac lyrically abstract style.

Again refuting the dominance of geometric abstraction, Zeid also dipped into ‘black noon experiments’, resonating with Oriental as well as Occidental references. Nocturn at Noon (1951) is particularly poetic – ‘inky nights pierced with white suns and stars, scratched with cosmic trajectories – which showed her mastery of the lithographic technique,’ as Sarah Wilson describes this departure.

Moving to Portraiture in 1960s

The next seismic development in this amazing woman’s career was to move gradually away during the 1960s from abstraction to portraiture, with which she had started her creative journey. However, she said that she saw no difference between abstraction and figuration. For her: ‘One cannot really separate figurative and abstract on the technical level … Everything is made by the hand of man, any creation is a manifestation of the spirit’. Discussing portraiture, she added: ‘the portrait is not only a figure, it is not just an image, it is not an exterior, it is not an envelope … it is much more than these. It is love. It is pure spirit’.

Zeid’s gradual return to portraiture in the 1960s was in tune with the painterly zeitgeist, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Bernard Buffet and others reviving the genre. Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, art critic and writer, points out that: ‘Zeid’s 1960s and 1970s portraits fall into two categories: the bust and half-length portraits of her gallerists, their families and her casual friends; and the close-up, full-face psychological studies of people to whom she was close’. The latter include family members such as the son she had with Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, Prince Raad, and her beloved husband, as we have seen.

A Move to Paris

In 1969, Zeid and her husband moved from London to Paris, where a year later Prince Zeid died. Zeid was bereft, but remained in Paris for another four years, exhibiting recent portraits and late abstract paintings. In 1975, she moved to Amman, to be near her son Prince Raad, Chamberlain of the Royal Court, and his family. She bought a house, reproducing the cluttered aesthetic of successive houses and studios, according to photographs of them.

In the Jordanian one, Laïdi-Hanieh describes the scene: ‘All of the walls and ceilings, including those of the bathrooms and kitchen, were covered with her watercolours, lithographs, ink and gouache drawings and exhibition posters, and by small and large abstract and figurative oils from her diverse periods of work. The house was a panoramic, decorative, chronological sedimentation.’

According to her daughter Shirin, in Amman her mother, at the age of 74, embarked on the most creative, productive and rewarding period of her life, her late style. She continued to concentrate on portraiture, ‘for itself’, she said and for herself too. In Amman, over 15 years, she painted many portraits despite advancing age and ailments. These are expressive psychological studies. She believed that portraiture should be free from reproducing physical appearance and should instead ‘give life’.

Later Portraits of Fahrelnissa Zeid

For these later portraits, she used a flattened perspective and very pared-down backgrounds. One could also say: ‘The eyes have it’. They remind one of Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits on sarcophagi and Persian Qajar portraits.

Katia Granoff, at whose Parisian gallery Zeid had exhibited, suggests exotic Eastern genealogy for both Zeid and her portraits: ‘She adored grandeur and the absolute like the King, descendant of Alexander, who erected a pantheon, half-Greek, half-Persian art at Nemrut Dag two thousand years ago; where at the foot of giant statues, colossal heads are raised.’

And Sarah Wilson suggests: ‘Her portraits with their enlarged heads and protruding permanently open eyes, “discs of lost time”, may indeed be compared to the giant fallen heads of sculptures from Antiochus’s Hellenistic temple tomb’.

Late Phase of Life in Amman

In Amman, during this late phase of her life, Fahrelnissa Zeid projected herself into the future by teaching, an avenue her innovative intellectual energy, mainly by mentoring a small number of adults who had never painted before, encouraging them and promoting their work. Completely opposed to her own concentration on figurative portraiture, she concentrated her teaching on abstract art. Strangely she did not introduce her students to contemporary art trends of the time, the 1970s and 80s. She also avoided the spectacular developments in Middle Eastern and Iranian art. Instead she constantly reminded her students of the essentially Modernist concept of ‘un-learning.’ She said: ‘You must forget what you know because what you know is what you have learned, but what do not know is what you really are’.

Mentor and students came together in a major group exhibition in Amman in 1981. This format of exhibiting together was unprecedented in the region, but then Zeid always was one to push boundaries.


Until 8 October, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Tate Modern, London, www.tate.org. It travels to Berlin in November to the Deutsche Bank Kunst Halle and on to Nicholas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Beirut. Catalogue available, ISBN 978-1-84976-456-8.

A video of Zeid’s family and friends in Jordan discussing her work can be seen http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/fahrelnissa-zeid