W hen Mariam Idriss and her husband moved from Lebanon to the United States in 1962, the first letter she received was from Etel Adnan, asking if the newly-arrived couple needed anything.
Etel Adnan had been a friend of one of Idriss’s older sisters, from when the two studied together at Berkeley in the 1950s. Adnan had become close to the family, visiting Idriss’s parents in Lebanon and staying at their mountain home. A few years later, when Mariam and her husband moved to San Francisco, near to where Adnan was living in Sausalito, she gave them a welcome gift: a painting that she’d finished the year before.
Adnan referred to it as a landscape, titling it California. The ground is rendered in a deep, rich red, while a blocky cluster of colours suggest the homes and buildings on the Marin County hills. A grey sky looms and, up above, hovers one of Adnan’s signature, enigmatic red squares.
'In Arabic, red is a colour of love,' says Idriss today. 'The painting was made with lots of friendship, because we had such a wonderful relationship. We really liked it each other a lot. She was my big sister and, I don't know how to describe it – this painting expressed her feelings to a friend, to a part of the family.'
The painting hung in the Idriss family’s living room for decades, in addition to a watercolour that Adnan also made for them – a wild, sketchy, almost Surrealist design, highly unusual within the artist’s canon. 'I think it represents the complication of the mind more than anything else,' says Idriss. 'You can sit there and look at it and try to explain it in many ways. But artists, sometimes they have no explanation. It's us who appreciate the art who try to have an explanation for everything.'
'You can sit there and look at it and try to explain it in many ways. But artists, sometimes they have no explanation. It's us who appreciate the art who try to have an explanation for everything.'
When Idriss left California, she downsized her house and gave the painting to her daughter, Nadania, in Berlin. Nadania took the decision to sell it to raise money for Berlin Glas, the glass-blowing studio and community arts centre she founded. Neither really knew how special the work was, as a rare example of Adnan’s work before the Lebanese Civil War.
Two years after she painted California, Adnan moved back to Lebanon – she had gotten bored of teaching at the Dominican College, Idriss says. Lebanon was at the time heading towards Civil War, and Adnan stood out among the country’s increasing factionalism. Her father was Muslim and her mother Christian. Adnan was literally in between and - 'they put her on a pedestal,' says Idriss. The war broke out in 1975 and Adnan returned to Northern California a year later, this time with the artist Simone Fattal, with whom she lived until she passed away in 2021.
Adnan’s interlude in Lebanon is often seen as the watershed moment in her career. After she returns she publishes the novel Sitt Marie Rose and begins to write poetry in earnest. The sadness, worry, and fear provoked by the Civil War galvanised both her paintings and her textual work, and she started the long-running investigation of Mount Tamalpais in a series of more mellifluous landscapes.
Her painting changed in temperament, approaching the same landscapes of the early 1970s with a different set if eyes. Her earlier works tend to be larger, with more slowly applied, richer layers of paint. Rather than the flatter later works, there are textual ridges and furrows that show the course of Adnan’s palette knife on the canvas. Formally, too, rather than the smooth undulating hills and coastline, the pre-Civil War period reveals chunky blocks, with nearly straight lines and right angles abutting each other. The red square – a mainstay of so many of her paintings, before and after Beirut – hovers at the top, but even its presence feels different in California of 1970, with its edges blurred by the thick layers of paint she placed on the canvas with her knife.
The highly contrasting blocks of paint also show Adnan’s ability to use colours to engineer a sense of emotion, whether urgency, calm, or joy. California's deep red contrasts deeply with the forest-greens at the centre of the painting. A grey sky recedes into the background, and the creams and blues – dark almost to the point of black – spill out in the foreground. It sounds almost daft to point it out but Adnan’s works are entirely comprised of colour: there are no sketched figures by which to orient the scene, no obvious representational elements. Adnan was highly read in art history, which she taught at the Dominican College, and writes beautifully of the philosophy of colour in art.
In California, the red brings to mind Delacroix’s use of the shade, as in his fleshy, passionate painting, The Good Samaritan (1849), who is clothed in deep red as he lifts the wounded man down from his donkey, or in the crimson stripe of the French tricolour in Liberty Leading the People (1830). In both the French painter pairs the red with recesses of dark black, letting loose the heavy, soupy atmosphere of Romanticism. California avoids this claustrophobia, mainly through Adnan’s more modern pairing of the green and grey, but maintains the intensity of the rich colouration.
'I don't think she imagined that her work would reach the point it is in now,' says Idriss. 'But Etel never gave up. Her legacy is her persistence. Many people would have been discouraged because she wasn't acknowledged at all at the beginning. But he didn't care. She kept on and on and on.'