Fahrelnissa Zeid: Of layers and light

Fahrelnissa Zeid. Untitled c.1950s. Oil paint on canvas. Image courtesy of Prince Raad Zeid Al-Hussein and the Tate.

I did a quick Google search before heading over to see the Fahrelnissa Zeid show at the Tate Modern, London, and almost everything written about the exhibition was based on her life story. It was a little surprising. It is true that she had a pretty eventful life – her brother shot her father dead when she was 12, she had two high profile marriages and tragically lost her first son to scarlet fever when he was a toddler – but how important is it to know that when it comes to viewing her art?

Fahrelnissa Zeid in her studio, Paris, c.1950s Courtesy of the Prince Raad Zeid Al-Hussein collection.

I asked this question to Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, the curator of the Tate Modern show and he gave me a simple answer: “You can definitely appreciate the art without knowing the background, but, when you do know it, it provides an additional layer to certain aspects of the work.”

Zeid’s work is all about layers - both physical and metaphorical. She was so prolific that in her home and studio that paintings were layered over each other on the walls as well as covering the floors and ceilings. Her technique too, was mastering the medium of paint so that the movement and energy of her subjects is present in the geometric shapes and lines, although completely invisible in form. It is if she has painted a realistic picture and then shattered it into a million pieces whilst at the same time retaining light and spirit of her original subjects. Then, looking upon her abstract masterpieces is as if you are looking through an illuminated stained glass window. This is a stroke of mastery and one that warrants Zeid’s recognition – something that she partially achieved in her lifetime but that is only fully being realised now.

Someone From the Past, 1980. Courtesy of the Prince Raad Zeid Al-Hussein collection.

Each room of the Tate Modern show is named after a period of her artistic journey and many aspects of her colourful life are woven into it. You cannot help but be wowed by the central room where the giant five metre long abstract paintings are being shown, but there are wonderfully quiet moments too. The room dedicated to work she completed whilst on holiday on the Italian island of Ischia is contemplative and home to some real treats for the patient observer. The last room, filled with her portraits and some experimental bone and resin sculptures is one that really depends on biographical knowledge. Seen alone, these portraits are not nearly as entrancing as her abstracts but when you know what that Zeid saw portraiture as a way to keep the soul of her subject alive, then these paintings come into context. The bone works too were originally made to cast light shadows on the wall, similar to the shapes found in her abstract works but one needs to know that in order to fully appreciate them. The final piece is a self portrait completed at the age of 80 is perhaps an ode to a life she knew was in its twilight phase. Of that painting she said: “I am a descendent of four civilisations. In my self-portrait ... the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it.”

Her life and her art crossed many boundaries that placed her ahead of her time. To read more about Fahrelnissa Zeid and my interview with the Tate curator, make sure to look out for the September issue of Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia.

* Fahrelnissa Zeid. 13 June – 8 October, 2017 at Tate Modern, London

Fahrelnissa Zeid. Untitled, c.1950s, Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy of Prince Raad Zeid Al-Hussein