Paris, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, 1954
Untitled is an exceptionally rare work by Fahrelnissa Zeid, one of the most important Turkish artists of the twentieth century, who deserves to be recognised in the pantheon of great international artists.
Embedded in the Paris art world and one of the first women to exhibit at the ICA, Zeid was inspired by the melting pot of styles that constituted the Ecole de Paris in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists from across the world congregated there, bringing with them a wealth of fashions, tastes and techniques that constituted a new movement without a specific identity. In this milieu Fahrelnissa Zeid, a Turkish artist married to the Iraqi ambassador to London, found her spiritual home.
Zeid has a style that is all her own. Influenced by the Fauves (1905-1907) with their painterly style and bold use of pure colour, by Picasso (1881-1973) and the Cubists with their stress on geometry, and the experimental compositions of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) with his bold black lines, Zeid fuses all these influences and injects them with an overwhelming sense of her own personality, and expressionistic flare that gives her paintings life and movement.
Zeid exhibited in Paris alongside peers who went on to become the masters of the Ecole de Paris and to influence a whole generation of artists. Showing with the Russian Serge Poliakoff, who had spent time in Istanbul, and, like her, employed colour as colour without any figurative context, being more concerned with its emotive quality; and the German émigré Hans Hartung with his gestural abstract paintings that went on to inspire Lyrical Abstraction, a movement that dominated the art scene of the 60s and 70s in North America; as well as the Cubist Frances Picabia before his death in 1953. It is clear how highly she was considered by the galleries, dealers and collectors of her time.
Zeid is comparable also to Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, another female artist practising in Paris in the mid-twentieth century and one of the leading lights of the Ecole de Paris, renowned for her experimentation with dense and complex compositions. Much like Zeid, she was influenced by Cézanne, and the fragmented forms and spatial ambiguities of the Cubists.
The Portuguese da Silva had been exhibiting in Paris since 1930, and was granted French citizenship in 1956, two years after Untitled was exhibited in Paris.
There is also a comparison to be made between Zeid with her powerful character and unique style, and the American/Russian émigré who grew to become one of the most influential female artists of the twentieth century, Lee Krasner.
"This is so good you wouldn't know it was painted by a woman." said Hans Hofmann of Lee Krasner's work (Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with Twelve Women Artists, New York 1975, pp. 80-112). And it's not such a leap of faith to apply this same comment to Zeid. Influenced by the same artistic movements, both women in a male dominated arena and both foreigners, Krasner and Zeid may have been different people in different places, but there is a parallel between them in terms of their experience and style.
Krasner is recognised for her unique contribution to Abstract Expressionism, and has been feted post-humously, as being influential as her husband Jackson Pollock. This is largely thanks to her distinctive style of geometric abstraction, grounded in rhythmic gesture. This kind of mannerist geometry is paralleled in the work of Zeid, with large expressive brushstrokes placed within a geometric context, and, as such, a comparison can be drawn between the two artists' approach to painting.
Both women are renowned for the compositional harmony of their canvases. Traditionally Zeid is said to have drawn on Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, for this aspect of her work, and it was indeed part of her inspiration. But it cannot be denied that many American and European artists at this time were actively seeking ways of creating harmony on the canvas, whether through colour, such as Serge Poliakoff, or geometry, like da Silva and Hartung.
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. In effect it divorces her from her artistic milieu, placing more stress on memories of her youth. 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.
Only a handful of Zeid's paintings were inspired by Africa and its totems. The only other example is The Reverse from 1964 (Exhibition Catalogue, Istanbul, Erol Aksoy Vakfi Sanat Galerisi, Fahrelnissa Zeid, 2000, p. 36).
Untitled is an extraordinary work, of singular significance, by a modern Turkish master.
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