Review: Fahrelnissa Zeid at The Tate Modern

In classic British fashion, as soon as it became remotely hot this summer I felt compelled to dive for cover, and have spent every minute of every day since praying for winter. After a brief cool spell, and much to my chagrin, the weather looks set to heat up again. If, like me, you need an excuse to dodge the UV and give yourself a chance to dry off, head to the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building, and bathe in the restorative cool of the Fahrelnissa Zeid retrospective.

Thanks to some pretty ingrained muscle memory I’m still drawn to the original side of the building any time I enter the Tate from the riverside. I was there for Zeid, but ended up wandering around the Giacometti exhibition first. In comparison, the Zeid show feels tucked away. It’s relegation to what feels like a back room is pretty ironic, considering the opening blurb of the exhibition expresses incredulity that Zeid’s work hasn’t been more of a mainstay of the contemporary art consciousness. The irony deepens when I pick up a tiny booklet to help me round the exhibition, which is about a fifth of the size of the one I was given upon entry to the Giacometti show.

The size of the booklet in no way correlates with the amount there is to say about Zeid. Not only was she a formidable painter and investigative artist, her life was rich, and not just a little touched by tragedy. Born in 1901 into a pronounced Ottoman family, she weaved through some of history’s most significant moments, from living in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party, to taking up residence in Baghdad after Austria’s annexation, and residing between Paris, Budapest, and Istanbul after a period of depression. In 1958, she and her husband narrowly escaped death when the entire royal family of Iraq were assassinated. The coup put an end to her diplomatic duties.

Princess Zeid with her children Princess Shirin and Prince Raad, in Berlin.

Princess Zeid with her children Princess Shirin and Prince Raad, in Berlin.

Despite the constant upheaval, Zeid remained one of the greatest artists of her generation thanks to her journey from figurative painting to abstraction and back again. It’s this genre-splicing that makes her work so captivating. With clear Byzantine, Persian and Islamic influences Zeid’s paintings are a stark reflection of her turbulent life,  and although they may at first seem chaotic and frenzied, there's ultimately a hypnotic calm inherent in much of her work, thanks to her mastery of colour, form and space.

Considering this is the first time I’ve ever encountered Zeid’s work, the linear curation that can so often stifle the Tate’s exhibitions is actually a bonus here. Much of her very early work has been destroyed or lost, but a delicate painting of Zeid’s grandmother, produced when the artist was only 14 years old is an apt introduction, demonstrating her early figurative sensibilities. Other early works like Third-class Passengers, a vibrant scene of interlocking beings and objects, demonstrates Zeid’s capacity to imbue her figurative work with a sense of abstraction. Its impressionistic representation of form, and vibrant colour scheme are reminiscent of ornate carpets and the fashionable mosaics of the time, and features the black delineating lines that would become a consistent thread running through much of her work.

Tension between the figurative and the abstract persists through the subsequent galleries, culminating in the sublime Fight Against Abstraction (1947), in which whirling limbs battle against bright, segmented pools of colour. Abstraction prevails, and the next gallery is a full-on trip. It’s these monumental compositions that are, for me, the real triumphs. Photographs from her studios show every wall, surface or floor covered in experimental canvas and sculpture as Zeid became entranced by the power of large-scale, abstracted arrangements. Such is the size and complexity of My Hell (1951), for example, that it commands extended viewing. The enormous canvas is a sea of yellows, reds and greys, a small black void in the centre offering a place for the eyes to rest and re-energise before taking another searching journey around the picture plane.  

Zeid and friends: (left to right) Aliye Berger, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Robert Trainer, Şirin Devrim, Hakkiye Koral and Füreya Koral

Zeid and friends: (left to right) Aliye Berger, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Robert Trainer, Şirin Devrim, Hakkiye Koral and Füreya Koral

Zeid’s later experimentations, particularly those completed during her stay in Naples, see the artist attempting to develop her work away from the thick lines and vibrant colours she’d come to be associated with. For me, these works leave less of an impression, but are nonetheless an interesting inclusion, particularly given the Tate’s explanation that, following the assassination of the Iraqi royal family, Zeid’s experimentation was stifled, and she yearned for the safety of the thick black lines lines that represented the comfort of the known. An unexpected return to figurative painting is shown in the final gallery, along with experimentations with painting on turkey and chicken bones. Again, these works leave me a little colder than her confident abstract works, but the fact that the work with bones began when Zeid started to cook her own meals due to her loss of status after the assassination, is a poignant reminder of the violence she narrowly escaped.

The exhibition is not on the same scale as the Swiss counterpart over on the other side of the building, but frankly it’s far more interesting. Zeid is an artist we should all familiarise ourselves with, as not only an extraordinary talent and creative force, but also whose work represents her remarkable resilience. This exhibition is just the push I needed to reprogram my muscle memory, and to view the Blavatnik Building with the same high regard I have for the rest of the Tate Modern.

The exhibition continues until 8th October.