The Painting That Was Too Big for London’s ICA

By Sotheby's

Measuring an astounding two by six metres, Fahrelnissa Zeid’s Towards a Sky is the largest of the artist’s works to appear at auction.

In fact, the work is so tall that when it was exhibited at London’s ICA in 1954 the ceiling height was not sufficient and one third of the painting had to be rolled up.

The seminal masterpiece, which features in the 20th Century Art/Middle East sale in London on 25 April, is packed with a tremendous energy and ethereal mysticism, not unlike the artist’s own unique and extraordinary character.

Born into a family of intellectuals in 1901, 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 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 was a well-known printmaker - both decided to become artists with Zeid’s direct encouragement. Her son was Nejad Melih Devrim, another revered Nouvelle Ecole de Paris artist, and her daughter Shirin became an actress.

Towards a Sky was painted in 1953 while Zeid was living in London with her husband H.R. H. Prince Emir Zeid Al-Hussein – who was assigned to the UK as the first Iraqi ambassador. After it was painted, the work was first exhibited at 8th Salon des Réalités Nouvelles exhibition at Musee d'art Moderne de la Ville in Paris in 1953 and later on at a ground-breaking solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1954 - making Zeid one of the first and few female artists to exhibit there.


The kaleidoscopic canvas received huge publicity within London’s art scene during the exhibition and was last seen at Lord’s Gallery in 1957. Following this, it was first acquired by a collector from the show and then sold to a major furniture company in the United States, Steelcase, where it remained in their corporate collection until now. Zeid is known to have kept a photograph of this painting in a frame at her bedside until she passed away in 1991.

A retrospective on the evolution of Zeid’s figurative and abstract work opens at Tate Modern in London in June 2017 – once again bringing one of Turkey’s most pioneering modernists to an international audience. This will then travel to the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin.

The 20th Century Art/Middle East sale is in London on 25 April

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