Born into a family of intellectuals in 1901, Fahrelnissa Zeid was brought up on Buyukada, one of the Princes Islands in Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire. Her uncle Cevat Pasha was the Grand Vizier to Sultan Abdulhamid and with her father Shakir Pasha, the two brothers were both historians, diplomats, skilled soldiers and amateur photographers with a command of six languages. Zeid’s brother Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli was to be widely known as the Fisherman of Halicarnassus in the history of Turkish literature, her niece was Fureya, the first female ceramicist and her sister Aliye Berger, a well known printmaker who have both decided to become artists with Zeid’s direct encouragement, her daughter Sirin Devrim, an actress, and her son Nejad Melih Devrim, a member of Nouvelle École de Paris.
Initially practicing painting at an early age in the confines of her home at Buyukada, Fahrelnissa was among the few female students at the Imperial School of Art in Istanbul when she enrolled there in 1919. After marrying the well known literary figure Izzet Melih Devrim in 1920, Fahrelnissa had the opportunity to travel around Europe and be exposed to its history, culture, art and architecture, closely studying everything from the Old Masters to the Renaissance, visit the iconic museums like Prado in Madrid to Uffizi in Florence and the famous sites like Doge’s Palace in Venice to the Alhambra in Granada. With the new Republic of Turkey formed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, Izzet Melih and Fahrelnissa were cherished and celebrated by the leading diplomatic, artistic, political and literary circles in Istanbul as the new representatives of the modern Turkish couple. Unsurprisingly, they were also particularly close to Ataturk, and the word ‘Fahrunnisa’ would be the first time the umlaut would be used in the new Turkish language written by Ataturk on a piece of paper and given to the artist during the historical meeting on the creation of the modern Turkish alphabet in 1928. Later on in the same year, Fahrelnissa decided to continue her arts education by taking lessons from Roger Bissière at Académie Ranson in Paris which was itself a free art academy that was part of the Nabis movement. Bissière was a master of a style of Cubism verging closer to abstraction as well as an influential art critic and his teachings would have a profound effect on Zeid’s art.
Zeid’s earlier works are difficult to be classified within a single movement or style. During the first few decades of her career, she would not conform to the rigid rules of any particular trend and instead draw from the styles of various European movements from Expressionism to Fauvism, Realism to Cubism as they suit her needs. Her paintings between 1920 and mid-1940s were mostly stunningly vibrant and arresting scenes from her daily life, travels, dreams and memories, some showing great resemblance to the busy compositional arrangements of Brueghel, her favourite artist and the colourful canvases of the Nabis like Pierre Bonnard. But whatever may be the content of her paintings, as Necmi Sonmez put it, “she was concentrating all her attentive powers on an investigation of the problem of colour…” as, “the element of colour was for Zeid the single most indispensable constituent of a composition.”(Sonmez, N., “The World of Fahr El Nissa’s Art as a Model of Liberation” in: Exhibition Catalogue, Istanbul, Cemal Resit Rey Sergi Salonu, Fahrelnissa Zeid, November 1994, p. 31). And colour was what she would master in the next fifty years of her artistic career.
Returning back to Turkey, Zeid continued practicing her art alongside Namik Ismail in 1929-1930 and soon after quit the school of fine arts. It was her second marriage to H.R.H. Prince Emir Zeid Al-Hussein, the only son of Hussein bin Ali who was the Sharif and Emir of Mecca and King of Hijaz from the Hashemite Dynasty and Adila Khanum, a Turkish lady, which would open another exciting and at times turbulent chapter in Fahrelnissa’s colourful life. Prince Emir Zeid was also the brother to King Abdullah of Jordan and great-uncle of King Faisal II of the Royal House of Iraq and he was assigned as a diplomat serving as a minister plenipotentiary on behalf of the Kingdom of Iraq to the Republic of Turkey in 1930s. This is how Fahrelnissa would meet Emir Zeid and following their romantic courting, the two would get married in Athens in 1934. Following Zeid’s diplomatic assignment to Berlin in the years of 1935-1938, the couple would come back to Istanbul. Shortly after, Prince Emir Zeid moved to Baghdad for a short period while Fahrelnissa commuted between there and Istanbul.
In 1941, Fahrelnissa’s stepson-in-law, Fikret Adil who was a prominent art critic and newspaper columnist introduced Zeid to the contemporary art scene in Istanbul previously unknown to her. Meeting the artists and critics within the Turkish art milieu, her new encounters led her to exhibit alongside the D-Group shows. “In the catalogue of an exhibition of modern Turkish art held in Edinburgh in 1957, Derek Patmore writes: The painters forming D Group which held a number of exhibitions in Turkey, aimed at keeping contemporary Turkish painting in the great classical tradition whilst not sacrificing the lessons learnt from abstract painting and Cubism…Fahrelnissa Zeid has evolved a technique which gives abstract painting almost the jewelled effect of medieval stained glass.”(Sirin Devrim, A Turkish Tapestry, London 1994, p. 150). Although exhibiting with the D-Group, Zeid’s art was not comparable in style, content or form to the artists of this local movement. Zeid’s exposure to the contemporary art trends through her stays in Paris and Berlin and her free reigning will and talent in following her own path and style set her apart from any movement of the period. Later on, not being able to find an appropriate space to show her works in Istanbul, Zeid decided to hold an exhibition in 1945 at her apartment in Istanbul. The idea was revolutionary and unorthodox for the art scene in Turkey and also crucial for Zeid as its success or failure would either convince her to continue or quit painting altogether. Exhibiting a hundred and seventy-two paintings, it was an enormous success and the determining factor for Zeid to pursue a professional arts career.
In 1946, after becoming the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Emir and Fahrelnissa moved to London. Her new life in London and subsequently her time shared between there and Paris would mark a pivotal new era in Zeid’s career and artistic output. Upon moving to London, Fahrelnissa quickly immersed herself in the art scene there mainly through introductions during their diplomatic tenure. She would become close friends with leading gallerists, curators, artists and critics including Roland Penrose and Lynn Chadwick. Fahrelnissa always loved entertaining guests and would throw the most lavish parties and where else could be more suited than their ambassadorial home for such events. It was decorated as a lovely synthesis of the Orient and the Occident. There were colourful kilims alongside a sculpture by Henry Moore and Cesar, a wooden mobile by Lynn Chadwick and Zeid’s own paintings.
Fahrelnissa’s first solo show in London opened at St George Gallery in 1948 which was also attended by the H.R.H. Queen Mother of England. Fahrelnissa Zeid would immediately be lauded with the title ‘Painter Princess’ following the show. Splitting her time between her diplomatic role and her artistic calling, Zeid was simultaneously exhibiting with the Nouvelle École de Paris artists in Paris and continue opening her shows in London. Subsequently, Zeid bought a small apartment on Rue de Grenelle and started to use it as her second studio alongside the one at their ambassadorial home in London. Artists from across the world congregated in Paris, bringing with them a wealth of fashions, tastes and techniques that constituted a new movement without a specific identity. In this milieu Fahrelnissa found her spiritual home.
After one of her shows in Paris, Zeid caught the eye of Charles Estienne, an influential art critic who championed Nouvelle École de Paris and the lyrical abstract movement and soon after became an important supporter of Zeid. Shortly after Fahrelnissa started showing her works in Paris more often alongside peers who went on to become the masters of this movement and who would influence a whole generation of artists. A particularly important one was a show curated by Charles Estienne titled La Nouvelle École de Paris held at the Babylon Theater in Paris in 1952. Showing with artists such as Arnal, Atlan, Dmitrienko and her own son Nejad among others, this groundbreaking exhibition brought together a noteworthy pool of contemporary talent from around the world who chose Paris as their home where they explored personal interpretations of abstraction.
Zeid also exhibited at Salon des Réalités Nouvelles every year between 1951 and 1954 which took place in Musee d’art Moderne de la Ville in Paris in those years, now called Palais de Tokyo. Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, set up by the artist Sonia Delaunay in 1939 along with other artists working in an abstract style was an exhibiting society devoted to pure abstract art. The present work, Towards a Sky is believed to have been first exhibited at the 8th Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1953 with the title Vers un Ciel. Comprising of works by other leading artists such as Jean Arp, Victor Vasarely, Fernand Léger and Serge Poliakoff among others, Towards a Sky was the only work Zeid had exhibited at the 1953 Salon.
A black and white photo taken at the museum towering over Zeid with her standing next to it has been known widely; however, no colour image of the piece was publicly seen since it was painted. This grandiose canvas was most probably painted in her Paris studio which was larger in size than her space in London. The next year it was shown at a solo exhibition on Zeid at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in the summer of 1954. The work was so tall and the ceiling height at ICA not sufficiently high that the one third of the painting had to be rolled and the rest left on full view during the show. Zeid’s show at the ICA was particularly important for her career, making her one of the first and few female artists to exhibit at this important institution in the heart of Europe. Zeid kept the painting in her possession until 1957, reworking and repainting sections of it as she usually did to her works until the owner Philip Granville has asked Zeid for a solo show for the inaugural opening of Lord’s Gallery in London, an alternative exhibition space opened by Mr Granville across from Lord’s cricket ground. The Art News and Review article written on June 8th, 1957 had further details on this new space and Zeid’s influential show:
“…Opposite to Lord’s cricket ground, Mr Philip Granville is opening his house and his garden as a gallery where works of art may be seen as things to be lived with… As an inaugural exhibition there is a comprehensive display of the work of Fahr-El-Nissa Zeid, ranging from painted stones through coloured ink and oils of various scales which culminate in an enormous canvas some twenty-five feet high hanging in the garden, a portion of which was previously seen at the ICA in 1954.”
The same newspaper published another article on August 3rd, 1957 about the group show held later in the summer at Lord’s Gallery which comprised works by leading names of the period including Jean Tinguely, Naum Gabo, Man Ray, Ben Nicholson, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Morandi alongside Zeid’s Towards a Sky. The article quotes “Fahr-El-Nissa has a number of opulent works here which include a vast kaleidoscopic canvas soaring skywards like a comet and suitably exhibited in the garden… This is easily one of the best exhibitions to be seen in London at the present time.” Towards A Sky which received huge publicity within the art circles of London was further reviewed by George Butcher in his article in 1957:
“In a different way, Towards a Sky is the most important painting of all; its sheer size, twenty-one feet high, achieves a kind of painterly tour de force…It was punctured around the edges and strung into place like a sail on a yawl…The result was particularly spectacular just before sunset, when the light became even, and without reflections from the sun. Its geometrical forms receded from consciousness as the entire glowing entity took over and dominated the space and life and mood of the garden; it seems truly to grow in some organic way up out of the ground and towards the sky.”
Zeid’s works became increasingly more abstract after her move to London. She was slowly getting immersed in an even more vibrant and progressively more complex compositions comprising of varying sizes of colour planes harmoniously woven together like a beautifully laid out carpet. Zeid’s paintings from 1946 to early 1960s are mainly composed of organically brought together geometric forms recalling a surface of fractured light, luminous with colour. In Towards a Sky, this luminosity and sheer brilliance are heightened by the way the composition is built up vertically as if reaching towards the sky. The bright blues, greens, yellows and reds are harmoniously rendered throughout in a mystical balance. A mesmerising composition by all means, the energy emanating from every inch of the canvas draws the viewer in and surrounds us as it builds up an extraordinary momentum. One of only a handful of such monumental canvases the artist has ever painted, it is absolutely breathtaking and its truly tour de force and the extraordinary ability and creative talent of the artist to create a well-balanced, almost musical painting is awe inspiring.
The spiritual magnificence that radiated in this canvas was what she aimed to recreate in her paintings which she believed was only possible through the use of vibrant colours. The work flows from warm hues reminiscent of the hot, burning red magma into the cool hues of the green lands and the blue skies as the painting rises vertically from the ground up . As if there is light emanating from within, the bold, abstract shapes continuously engage the viewer in a dynamic visual journey. A testament to the joys and torments of an inner world and the outer forces, Zeid’s art as in the present work has always been a reflection of her unique personality. As the English art critic Roger Penrose wrote about Zeid’s works, “Lines, shapes and colours can become an accurate vocabulary, a sign writing, a passionate arabesque and painting a language…” (A. Parinaud, Fahr El Nissa Zeid, Amman 1984, p. 155). Breathtaking and colossal in nature, creating such a daring composition would have required unusual skill, stamina, creativity, skill and ingenuity.
Towards a Sky is truly a masterpiece by this leading Nouvelle Ecole de Paris artist embodying the characteristics which came to define her oeuvre. Zeid was a master of colour and brought together her Eastern origins with her Western upbringing to create extraordinary compositions, establishing herself as one of the most innovative and daring artists of the period. Her being invited to exhibit in such important institutions and group shows of the period and the amount of coverage she received by journalists act as a proof of how highly she was considered by the galleries, dealers and critics of her time. Many authors refer to Zeid's Oriental associations, and whilst this is of course one aspect of her work, it diminishes her genius not to emphasise her training and environment. There was of course a love of colour that could well hark back to her love of the Mediterranean, and there was of course a love of design that could well hark back to the Byzantine mosaics she knew; but that is not the sum of her parts. More than that, she must be viewed in her artistic milieu. Zeid was educated in Paris, and her talents blossomed in the Parisian scene. There is a discipline, an education, training and dialogue that must be taken into account, all of which took place within the context of a European art movement, and which probably eclipse these extraneous passions of Mediterranean sunshine, and Byzantine mosaics.
Towards a Sky was acquired by a collector from Zeid’s shows at Lord’s Gallery in the summer of 1957. Only a year later, in 1958, due to the shocking and disheartening massacre of Prince Emir bin Zeid’s family and the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq following the 14 July Revolution, Fahrelnissa and the Prince had to move out of the Ambassadorial home in London and move to a new house in Holland Park. From then onwards until the passing of Prince Emir Zeid in 1970, they would split their time between this house and the one in Paris. Despite continuing to exhibit in Paris, Zeid later moved to Amman to join the rest of her family where her son Prince Raad was living and continued to paint there while also teaching art to a group of students and founding an art institute. Zeid would keep a photograph of this painting in a frame on her bedside in Amman until her passing in 1991.
Thirty long years after staying in the same collection, in 1987 Zeid was informed that Towards a Sky was acquired by a large corporation in the States for their collection. That large corporation was no other that the furniture giant Steelcase, Inc. Founded in 1912 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Steelcase established itself as a designer of furniture, architecture, technology and experiences to unlock human promise. Throughout its 105-year history, Steelcase has valued the display of art in its corporate offices, showrooms and manufacturing facilities and in the 1980s, they initiated an expansion of the company’s existing art collection. Working with an art advisor and curator, the company grew its collection to over 4,000 decorative and fine art pieces including paintings, graphics and sculptures which was also the period when the company acquired Towards a Sky. Thirty-three years after it was painted, this magnificent painting was shipped out to the States and hung magnificently in one of their newly built buildings from 1989 until the company has sold this part of real estate in 2012 and have taken the decision to de-acquisition the work from their corporate art collection.
Two retrospectives on Zeid were organised by her daughter, Shirin Devrim at the Fine Arts Academy in Istanbul in May 1964 and the Hittite Museum in Ankara in June 1964 and later on in 1990, her works were brought together in new retrospectives at the Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris and the Neue Gallerie (Sammlung Ludwig) in Aachen in 1990. Besides having exhibitions all around Europe and New York, her works are in the collections of leading museums such as Tate Modern, London, Istanbul Modern, Istanbul and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha. Zeid was awarded the Star of Jordan for her contribution to the arts in the country she later called home and she was also made Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. A large selection of Zeid's works were most recently exhibited at the 12th Sharjah Biennial in 2015 and at the 14th Istanbul Biennial the same year. Tate Modern will host a major retrospective on the artist's oeuvre opening on June 2017 which will then travel to the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin in October 2017.
Zeid's paintings of this size and magnitude have only appeared at auction a handful of times. They are extremely rare, not more than ten exist and most are already in institutions or in significant private collections. After remaining in the same collection for thirty years and having been unseen on the market for six decades, this is the first time this extremely rare and widely published masterpiece by Fahrelnissa Zeid is coming up for sale. Belonging to her revered 1950s period, it is a true testament to Zeid’s mastery in creating the most arresting compositions with abstraction and is arguably one of the most important paintings by this remarkable artist to ever appear on the market. With its intriguing history, distinguished provenance, monumental size and awe inspiring composition, it is undeniably a work of museum quality and a collector's item at its best.
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