Fahr El-Nissa Zeid (Turkish, 1900-1991) Portrait of King Hussein of Jordan (Eternal Youth)

The privileged Fahrelnissa Zeid lived her life with the history-makers of the 20th century. But her legacy is these bold paintings of great vibrancy. Rachel Spence tells her story

For Fahrelnissa Zeid, the turning point of her career came with a rejection. Just 27 years old, studying in Paris, the Turkish painter watched in horror as her teacher, Cubist artist Roger Bissière, threw her life drawing on the floor. "You are not a photographer! You will never be able to imitate nature," he declared, before adding that the model was only a means. "If you have something to say – if you have an interior song – you will say it through these means."

Afterwards, Zeid acknowledged that Bissière's fury spurred her towards the vision that made her one of Turkey's most significant modernist artists. Today, nearly 30 years after her death in 1991, she is receiving more international recognition than ever, with a solo exhibition at London's Tate Modern this year having preceded her current retrospective at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin.

Now two of her portraits are offered by Bonhams in its Middle Eastern sale on 28 November. Made in 1973 and 1982 respectively, the paintings are signifcant not only as late works in a distinguished oeuvre but as a precious visual chronicle of Jordan's royal family. One, made in 1973, captures King Hussein dressed in traditional Arab costume. The second shows his daughter Princess Alia, a close friend and informal student of Zeid, in 1982.

By the time Zeid made these pictures, she was in the autumn of a tumultuous life. Born in 1901 on the island of Büyükada in the Sea of Marmara, she grew up in a well-to-do family during the swansong of the Ottoman era, as Turkey shifted towards its final incarnation as a republic in 1923.

Her youth was gilded by privilege and tainted by suffering. Her father S¸akir Pasha had served as ambassador to Greece; her uncle rose to the post of Grand Vizier. Zeid was herself schooled in the Francophile ways common to high society. Educated partly at a French convent school, her teenage reading included Voltaire, Balzac, Zola and Dumas. Little wonder she found Paris, with its bold, experimental stamp, enormously nourishing when she arrived in the 1920s.

By then, she had known tragedy. In 1914, when she was 13 years old, her brother Cevat shot her father dead in mysterious circumstances. Cevat received 14 years for manslaughter, of which he served seven.
The trauma must have been dreadful for Zeid: she and Cevat were close. Indeed, she credited him for setting her on her path as an artist. As a little girl, she was encouraged to draw by Cevat. The time during his holidays from university were etched in her memory. She would sit at his feet and listen to the sound of his quill pen as he drew portraits of the young women he desired.
"I think I have been a painter since that time," she said.
From the outset, she was single-minded in pursuit of her career. After S¸akir's death, when the family was plunged into hardship, she sold hand-painted postcards to buy art materials. Always her talent shone. A 1915 watercolour of her grandmother, one of few surviving juvenile works, shows an elderly lady whose hooded eyes, high-toned cheeks and deep crevasses either side of her nose are rendered with remarkable sensitivity.

At the end of the First World War, the high-spirited Zeid demanded permission to attend art school, even though conservative mores expected well-born young women to stay at home. In 1919, she enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts for Women. She learnt to draw female nudes from life and copy Classical statues, and practised perspective.

Stunning, vivacious and clever, she attracted dozens of suitors but, in 1920, she accepted the hand of Izzet Melih Devrim, president of the Imperial Tobacco Company and an acclaimed writer. Their marriage was troubled by Devrim's infidelities and, tragically, the loss of their two-year-old son Faruk to scarlet fever in 1924. So grief-stricken was Zeid, that she said she was "immunised" from further agony afterwards. Bouts of depression, which she described as "waves of spleen", were to dog her life.

The advantage of her marriage was the opportunity for travel. Throughout the 1920s, Zeid voyaged through Europe: Venice, Florence, the Netherlands, Paris. Everywhere she found herself inspired by the masters who had preceded her. On seeing the frescoes of Fra Angelico, for example, she nearly "lost my mind".

Also significant was the period she spent in Paris in 1928 at the Académie run by painter Paul-Elie Ranson. One of the Nabis group, which included Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis, Ranson's championing of shallow space and decorative chromatism fed Zeid's imagination.

Back in Istanbul in the early 1930s, Zeid fell in love with Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, the youngest son of the Sharif and Emir of Mecca. In 1934, she divorced Devrim and married the Prince in Athens.

The mid-1930s saw the couple in Berlin, as the Prince carried out ambassadorial duties. (Zeid took tea with Hitler and, she recalled, talked about painting with him.) By 1938, the couple were recalled to Baghdad, a trip that brought epiphany in the form of the view from her plane window. "The world is upside down," she wrote later. "A whole city could be held in your hand: the world seen from above." Many of her later works possessed the distant, intricate patterns of a bird's-eye perspective.

With little to do save keep house in the Iraqi capital, Zeid fell into severe depression. In 1939, she went back to Paris, then to Budapest and finally settled again in Istanbul. Here, though still afflicted by dark moods, she worked prolifically. Indeed, she once said, "Painting has saved my life."

In her work from the 1940s, Zeid grapples with figuration in ways that recall Bonnard and Vuillard, but also possess a vibrant energy. Crowded scenes blend a fluid Expressionist contour with collations of colours that veer from murky browns and blues to Fauvist-bright scarlet and blue. Space is shallow, sometimes vertiginous, and not an inch of the surface is left bare.

If these paintings seem uncomfortable, it is because Zeid was moving towards the abstraction that was her forte. In the 1950s, based between London, where her husband was the Iraqi ambassador, and Paris, she finally found her most profound, organic voice. Working with small, polygonal shapes, she created breathless, ecstatic puzzles of enamel-bright colours and fierce, unyielding contours. As modern as any Abstract Expressionist work from New York, owing much to the Pointillism and Divisionism of post-Impressionist Paris, their potent, seething anti-symmetries bring to mind the fractured radiance of Byzantine mosaics.

The critic, Maurice Collis, wrote about her life and art for her show at London's ICA gallery in 1954. He said her painting was "a more authentic unfolding of personality" than any "style which is chiefly the result of study", since it came from "a wider personal experience of life and thought than could be found in any one country".

But the gods of turmoil had not finished. In 1958, while she and her husband were on holiday in Ischia, a coup d'état saw the royal family assassinated in Iraq. Only Zeid's husband remained. Within 24 hours, the couple were forced to abandon the embassy and move into an apartment in Kensington.

The trauma kept Zeid from her studio for two years. At one point, she admitted that her "brilliant kaleidosope" had been extinguished by a "maze of sorrow".

In 1969, with her practice re-established, Zeid suffered the loss of her husband. Yet she continued to work, increasingly concentrating on the portraits that marked the final chapter of her oeuvre.
On balance, her subjects were those whom she enjoyed a certain intimacy. "The point is to discover the model's interior life," she said. "The one that lies behind his forms and features, and in going that far you also go deep inside yourself."

She finds profundity within the portraits of King Hussein and Princess Alia. "I painted with Fahrelnissa in the early 1980s," recalled the Princess of the time after Zeid made her final move, in 1975, to Amman, where her son Prince Raad lived. "She was married to my great-grandfather's brother. I knew her from childhood. ... She was a delight to be around, always interesting and positive."

King Hussein's portrait came about after he dressed in Hashemite style to escort Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who was on a state visit, to the airport.

"King Faisal had not realised it was my father and walked straight past him! It was actually the only formal time that I recall him wearing that."

Static, radiant and stylised as icons, the portraits refer back to Zeid's early interest in the Fauvist painter Kees van Dongen. Of this late style, she once said: "To give life to a portrait, I intentionally make some slight mistakes... if the faces are shown exactly as they are, the portraits will be void of dreams, of soaring, of their own language."

For Zeid, who lived to the age of 90, the wealth of her own life ensured neither she nor her painting ever suffered such a fate.

Rachel Spence writes for the Financial Times.

Sale: Modern & Contemporary Middle Eastern Art
London
Tuesday 28 November at 3pm
Enquiries: Nima Sagharchi +44 (0) 20 7468 8342
nima.sagharchi@bonhams.com
bonhams.com/mea

Contacts
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    Bonhams
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