Sunday, 23 July 2017

Fahrelnissa Zeid at Tate Modern

Every now and then a major art institution puts on an exhibition of someone you've never heard of and you wonder why. Then you see a piece of their work, often the poster advertising the exhibition, and think 'that looks interesting' and you pop along to see what it's all about. Then you wonder how on earth you didn't know about the artist and her work and you do now because you bought the catalogue to pour over the wonderful works in detail and at leisure. That's what happened to me with Fahrelnissa Zeid, a colour master who combined western abstraction with eastern Byzantine and Persian styles and created a world of colour of her own.

She seems to have led an interesting life with training in Istanbul and Paris, marrying into the Iraqi royal family and her husband being posted to London as the Iraqi ambassador. She exhibited in London, Paris and New York, has studios in London and Paris and set up an art school in Amman in her later days. She clearly had privileges most artists don't have but what is fascinating is that painting and creating weren't the hobby of a woman with time on her hands and who could afford indulgences. She was an artist and she had to paint, continuing even after the Iraqi royal family were assassinated and she and her husband began to live a more 'ordinary' life.

She seems to have gone from broadly figurative painting through abstraction and out the other side, back to figurative painting in her final years. Of course, even her figurative paintings were products of her time and show her experimentation as she tried to find her own style. Just look at 'Third Class Passengers' from 1943 with the passengers sitting on gorgeous carpets with people in small groups. It seems almost like a piece of stained glass work with black outlines and that's often how her later abstract works are referred to, as stained glass windows. This painting isn't very big so a lot of delicate work has taken place on the detail of the carpets and rugs to show the mosaic of colour. I suspect this painting would dazzle if the black outlines were removed - that's what controls the colours and the clashes and keeps them in a more normal palette.

The late '40s and '50s was when Zeid did her most outlandish and colour spectrum-bending works on large canvases with colours placed beside each other to create an amazing sight that made me smile and revel in the colours. It's difficult to imagine some of the colours she uses and creates in the real world but she brought them to us. One of her first paintings after she'd started on her new path was 'Resolved Problems' in 1948, a vision of kaleidoscopic chaos that pulls you into the painting with its swirling, sparkling colours. Every time I look at this painting I see its centre somewhere else in the painting, but never in the centre. Those colours are pulsating and moving round a core of gravity that keeps moving, pulling and rearranging the strange, colourful shapes. It's almost a meditation piece if it wasn't for the movement.

Another painting that has a similar effect is 'The Arena of the Sun' from 1954 when she was still creating these big paintings full of colour and movement.

She gained some inspiration from flying and looking down on the world from a great height and you can see that in some of the paintings. What I can't work out is what was she seeing - but does that matter?

Zeid continued to experiment through the '60s and '70s, developing new approaches to sharing her vision before returning to figurative painting and, in particular, portraits. I was quite taken with her self-portrait from 1980 called 'Someone from the Past' in which she consciously mixed different styles of painting, using her own image to demonstrate that she's a product of different cultures and different traditions, but she is unmistakably herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and, coming from the quite busy Giacometti exhibition in the old Tate Modern building it was quite refreshing to get away from the crowds and have the time and space to just gaze into some of Zeid's paintings. I will be going back to see them again and I hope that next time the exhibition is busier - more people need to see them and learn about her. I'm really pleased that I've discovered her and her art.

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