Fahrelnissa Zeid at Tate Modern: Exhibition Review

Fahrelnissa Zeid is renowned for her vibrant abstract paintings – a colourful and energetic fusion of Islamic, Byzantine, Arab and Persian influences with a pronounced European touch: the result of her being trained at École de Paris (School of Paris) in the 1950s and leading a cosmopolitan life as Prince and Iraqi ambassador Zeid Al-Hussein’s wife. Fahrelnissa Zeid was also an important figure in the avant-garde d Group that opened the doors for contemporary art trends in Turkey during the early 1940s.

Tate Modern is currently hosting the first major retrospective exhibition of Zeid’s work and having read ravishing reviews about it by both friends and Time Out London magazine, this is where I found myself on a sunny but crisp Saturday morning.

It’s hard to connect with an artist whose origins go back to Ottoman aristocracy and has sat down with Hitler to discuss art over afternoon tea. Fahrelnissa Zeid led an extraordinary life that is reflected in her art but also adds an element of upper-class eccentricity to it. The notion that she lived a sheltered as well as privileged life is palpable throughout the exhibition.

At the same time, this element becomes the wild card that is laid on the table to make her look a bit more approachable to the visitor’s eyes, a more likeable and current to the feminist visitor’s eyes: Zeid was a woman artist at a time where (some) women were allowed but not necessarily encouraged to make art. She became the first woman to attend the Istanbul Academy of Royal Arts. She also had a hard time being taken earnestly as an artist in general because of her gender and her distinguished position in society. Her wish to create art could easily be interpreted as a rich woman’s whim to tinker with paint and brushes.

Tate Modern captures her entire evolution but in a rather distracting manner; a sense of linearity goes missing in the layout of the exhibition. Zeid starts out classically trained but eventually finds her true calling as an artist in abstract painting, creating the bold, kaleidoscopic works she’s best known for. Towards the end of her career, whilst located in Amman and training young women in painting, she returns to portraiture, creating captivating portraits of friends and students. In a video interview, Zeid suggests that when she works on a portrait, she distances herself from the sitter. As a result, she is no longer able to see his or her features so clearly but can get an better, unimpeded view of their aura. The effect is mesmerising – close-up, bigger-than-life portraits, their facial features drawn in bold strokes that evoke almost caricatural impressions but succeed to communicate the entire idiosyncrasy of a stranger to the viewer.

Exhibition lasts until October 8th so hurry. Credits for the images: Tate Modern website.

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