Fahrelnissa Zeid

Art
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

You might not expect to connect with an artist who hails from Ottoman aristocracy and once sat down with Hitler to trade notes on painting. But that’s the cunning of abstraction: through a mesh of colours and spontaneous shapes, we can share and understand a common language, without ever saying the same thing. And that’s what you get with the work of Turkish painter Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid – pulsating hives of colour on large cuts of canvas that unfold in front of the viewer like living Byzantine mosaics, letting the interpretive chips fall where they may.

Her painting story is a familiar one: starts out classically trained, strays from figurative work, ‘finds’ herself in the abstract. But in this extensive exhibition of Zeid’s work, the sea change is like a kaleidoscopic sucker punch; her paintings from 1948 onwards literally leave you seeing stars. Tate has done good, giving her biggest pieces room to scream, the same privilege afforded to the macho creations of the RA’s ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show.

Zeid led an extraordinary life (as princesses tend to). In 1921, she became one of the first women to study at the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts. She went on to marry into the Iraqi royal family, and narrowly escaped assassination in Iraq’s 1958 military coup. Yet many in the West have never heard her story, let alone seen her work.

Admittedly, her post-abstract period is less impressive. At 57 she cooked her first meal, and was so entranced by turkey bones that she painted their surface and encased them in resin to make demonic-looking sculptures. This is where the relatability fades, and the work feels more upper-class eccentric. She also returned to portraits, fashioning alien imagery of her friends, with bulbous heads and enormous eyes, that look like crude paperback sci-fi art. They are nothing if not memorable.

Zeid is worthy of this pedestal, and even with her wealth and impossibly high status in society, this is how long it’s taken for a talented Muslim woman to get the place in history she deserves. It’s about bloody time.

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