It is a story that is becoming a legend. In 1951, Fahrelnissa Zeid was going through a bout of severe depression for which painting was her only cure. As she sat in front of her canvas, inspiration eluded her until she saw a solitary fly snaking its way across her wall. Suddenly, in the presence of that simple insect she saw life and death combined and, almost unconsciously, she let her paintbrush follow a similar path on the canvas. And so it was that she began what was to become one of her most important masterpieces: My Hell. It is a work that sprawls across more than five metres with bursts of yellow and red dissected by intense black, geometric shapes, which converge at its centre forming a dark and ominous heart. The observer is drawn to that blackness and, if the legend is true, it is as if Zeid is trying to tell us that we, like the humble domestic fly are also buzzing aimlessly across the canvas of life only one day to be extinguished and to fall, forgotten into that black hole of nothingness.
Unknown photographer. Fahrelnissa Zeid as a young girl. Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein
The beauty of the painting, however, is that while a bleak reading is possible, it is just one interpretation of a wonderfully complex piece. The biographical tale is only one aspect of the full and varied life that Zeid led and that she translated onto her canvases. In a tightly curated retrospective currently running at the Tate Modern in London, Zeid’s oeuvre is mapped out from the 1940s, when she first started exhibiting through to 1991, when she died at her home in Amman, Jordan. There are early works, which depicts her fascination with people and places and depict social scenes such as Third Class Passengers (1943) of travellers on a boat in Turkey and also a portrait of her grandmother that showcases her technical skill. There is also great emphasis placed on her self-confessed fight against abstraction. It is fascinating to see figures in her paintings, at first so clear and visible, break down into shapes and colour blocks while still maintaining their presence in the movement captured by her brushstrokes.
Unknown photographer. Fahrelnissa Zeid in her studio, Paris. circa 1950s; Raad Zeid Al-Hussein Collection © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein.
The exhibition is presented in such a way that the viewer can almost experience the tension the artist was feeling during the 1950s as she moved from figuration towards abstraction. So much so that by the time the visitor reaches the largest room and lays eyes upon Zeid’s most famous abstracts such as My Hell (1951) and Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life (1962), they exhale in wonder and also relief. Other rooms focus on her portraiture, which she practiced at the same time as abstraction and landscapes, often painted while on holiday in Italy.
The exhibition is not presented chronologically because Zeid’s life journey was as circuitous as the lines she drew in her paintings. She was born in Istanbul into high society and married her first husband—a Turkish novelist—at the age of 19. They had three children but divorced in 1934, when she met and married her second husband Prince Zeid Al-Hussein of Iraq. With him she travelled to Germany, where he was the Iraqi ambassador, and immersed herself in European culture. But after the war broke out they moved back to Baghdad and then Istanbul before relocating to London in 1946. Her artistic talent was recognised and, in 1948, the Queen Mother of England visited her exhibition at St Geoge’s Gallery. She was also the first woman to show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London in 1954.
However, at some point over the ensuing decades, Zeid seems to have been written out of the Western canon. It could have been her gender or her nationality that marginalised her but it could have also been her talent. Perhaps she was an artist with so many strands of influence and thought, that the singular tradition of Modernist art did not know how to interpret her. “She did not want to be pinpointed and she hated labels,” explains Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, the curator of the Tate Modern show. “In that way she was ahead of her time and it could be to do with why she was consequently forgotten.” Regardless, Zeid’s biography shows us that she never stopped painting. Princess Nissa Raad, daughter of Prince Raad, Zeid’s only child from her second marriage has colourful memories of her grandmother, particularly her domestic space. “Her house was like an abstract painting itself. As a child, I felt as if I was walking inside a kaleidoscope of light, colour and form. It was filled to the brim with art, antiques, trinkets and mementos.” Paintings covered every surface of the artist’s home, including the floors and ceilings.
Triton Octopus. 1953. Oil paint on canvas. 181x270cm. Istanbul Museum of Modern Art Collection, Eczacıbası Group Donation (Istanbul, Turkey) © Raad Zeid Al-Hussein © Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
Towards the end of her life Zeid suffered from arthritis and colour blindness and the family helped by making her an extra-long brush to reach the corners of the canvases as well as coming to her aid to distinguish certain shades of paint. “Driven by an insatiable need to create, my grandmother painted up until her last days,” says Princess Nissa. “I remember her borrowing my childish crayons and fruit-scented pens, which were something new to her, and sketching happily in a chair in my parents’ garden. She was always, always looking for new mediums in which to express herself.”
Zeid also faced her fair share of tragedy, namely her battle with depression. “[Art] was truly the only thing that could save her from troubling thoughts and allow her to express herself,” explains Princess Nissa. “Art was something she needed to do in order to feel whole and healthy.” Oikonomopoulos states that she was an artist who was not restricted by the boundaries of a single painting but who used art to create environments. “Zeid’s work was not about the two-dimensional painting,” he says. “Instead, the paintings were like actors or parts of a bigger picture that she was trying to achieve. Her medium was space, line and form rather than paint itself.”
Fahrelnissa Zeid runs at The Tate Modern, London from 13 June–8 October 2017. Tate.org.uk