Looking back at the life of the artist Fahrelnissa Zeid is to take a drama-filled tour of 20th-century Turkey, Europe and the Middle East. Zeid, with works exhibited in Turkey and Europe this year, lived a life that is much like her work — colorful and big.
Kerryn Greenberg, curator of international art at the Tate Modern London and co-curator of the Tate's current exhibition “Fahrelnissa Zeid,” said about her to The National, “It’s astonishing that an artist of such force and originality should have been practically forgotten.” This situation has been somewhat remedied, as Zeid — Ottoman aristocrat, painter, princess, ambassadress and teacher — takes a turn in the international spotlight this year with an exhibition not only in London, but also in Turkey (Istanbul Modern), Germany (Deutsche Bank KunstHalle Berlin) and Lebanon (Sursock Museum, Beirut).
Zeid led a myriad of intriguing lives. She was born Fahrunnisa Sakir in 1901 to an affluent Ottoman family in Istanbul and was raised on Buyukada, the largest of the Princes' Islands, a short distance from the city. Her family, full of creative people, never lacked for drama. At the age of 12, her father, Mehmet Sakir Pasha, a statesman and historian, was shot dead by Cevat Sakir, her older brother, who would later become an eminent writer under the pen name “The Fisherman of Halicarnassus.” This tragedy left its mark on the entire family. Zeid suffered depression all her life and found refuge in painting, which she initially thought would be no more than a hobby.
At the age of 19, Fahrunnisa enrolled in the newly founded Academy of Fine Arts for Women but dropped out after marrying the novelist Izzet Melih Devrim in 1920. Through Devrim, the couple became members of the close circle around Kemal Ataturk, founder of the then-young Turkish Republic. In 1934, Fahrunnisa met Prince Zeid bin Hussein, Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, and divorced Devrim to marry him.
Acquiring the title of princess — Zeid belonged to the Hashemite royal family — Fahrunnisa accompanied her husband to ambassadorial postings in major European cities. She changed her name in 1949 to Fahrelnissa, the Arabic version of her Turkish name. During the 1950s, she essentially led a double life — one in formal, diplomatic London, the other in bohemian Paris.
In the 1940s, Zeid was also introduced to Group D, avant-garde artists central to the development of modern art in Turkey. She presented her first one-woman show in 1944, in her apartment in Istanbul. Zeid had initially been influenced by Anatolian culture and developed a style blending modern European painting traditions and Oriental themes, such as the tapestry motifs in her 1943 painting “The Third Class Passengers.” Later in Europe, in the 1950s, she moved toward abstraction, ultimately creating the large-scale kaleidoscopic paintings for which she is best known. Two works on display at the Tate — “Fight Against Abstraction" (1947) and “Resolved Problems” (1948) — illustrate her passage from the figurative to the abstract.
Many critics believe that Zeid's being swept aside in the history of contemporary painting stems from her being a female Muslim artist creating abstract paintings — that is, her being something an anomaly. Another reason that she is not widely recognized in the Western art world could be that she never needed to sell her paintings and therefore did not become a fixture on the art market.
Zeid viewed most of her paintings as personal possessions and carried them with her to the various cities in which she lived, from Istanbul to Amman, Berlin to Baghdad, London to Paris. In each place, she somehow managed to squeeze the large canvases into her home, sometimes even nailing them to the ceiling. In some instances, she unrolled them on the floor, as if colorful magic carpets on which guests walked freely. Many of her works show signs of physical damage from such treatment.
Zeid's personality, passion for painting and life inspired those around her. Her close relative Nermidil Erner Binark remarked in a 2006 documentary titled "Fahrünnisa and Nejad" that Zeid was the queen in her family. She was an authoritarian who did not like to be challenged. Her relationship with her painter son, Nejad Devrim, soured, perhaps due to artistic rivalry. Haldun Dostoglu, founder of the Galeri Nev Istanbul and curator of a 2006 Zeid-Devrim exhibition at the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, told Al-Monitor that Zeid envied the success her son achieved in his mid-20s in 1950s Paris, where she, influenced by the abstract masterpieces of the Ecole de Paris movement, tried to carve out a place for herself.
Zeid took pride in being inspirational toward others in her family. As noted, she soothed her depression by painting, and when her sister Aliye Berger lost her beloved husband, the Hungarian musician Karl Berger, Zeid introduced her to engraving. When her niece Fureya Koral suffered a traumatic divorce, she found shelter near Zeid. Koral would also become an eminent artist in Turkey.
After Zeid's second husband died, she continued to be an inspirational tutor for young women in Amman, where she established a school in her house, the Royal Fine Art Institute of Fahrelnissa Zeid, and encouraged women to become artists. Meanwhile, she painted endless portraits of the people close to her.
Although the institute lasted for only four years, from 1976 to 1980, Zeid's last attempt to sprout seeds of art in the Middle East proved to be fruitful. Her influence and legacy live on in several artists, including in one of her first students, Suha Shoman, founder of the Darat al Funum-Khalid Shoman Foundation in Amman.