Written by Salwa Mikdadi
Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid was born in 1901 in Istanbul, Turkey, into a prominent family of Ottoman diplomats, artists and writers. She started painting at the age of fourteen and in 1920, enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul where she was one of the first female graduates.
In 1927 she travelled to Paris to study under Roger Bissière and Stahlbach at the Académie Ranson. Her marriage to novelist Izzet Melih Devrim, ended in divorce; however their union produced two children: the prominent Turkish modern artist Nejad Devrim (1923-1995) and actress Sirin Devrim (1926-2011). Upon her return to Istanbul, she joined a circle of artists known as the 'D Group' and experimented with new styles using a local visual language that communicated with the public. The members of the 'D Group' shared an interest for art that was not considered attractive to Istanbul's bourgeoisie who were more concerned with the art from Paris and London than creations by the local avant-garde. In an interview with Edouard Roditi in 1960, Zeid describes her experience with the 'D Group': 'We were considered dangerous innovators and revolutionaries because we insisted on showing our work to the masses, not only to the educated elite, as all painters of the past had done…we attached as much importance to the critical remarks of illiterate workers as to opinions expressed by sophisticated intellectuals.'1 This statement, coming from a woman born into privilege and royalty sheds light on Zeid's independent and free-spirited character.
In 1933 she remarried King Hussein of Jordan's great-uncle Prince Zeid bin Hussein, who was at that time an ambassador of Iraq to Ankara. She bore him a son, Prince Ra'ad bin Zeid who continues to support and preserve Fahrelnissa's legacy. Fahrelnissa's first solo show was in 1944 at a private exhibition at her home in Istanbul, it was shortly followed by exhibitions in Paris, London, Florence, Berlin, Brussels, Zurich and New York. She went on to participate in over fifty exhibitions throughout Europe, the USA and the Middle East. She travelled extensively throughout Europe and the United States accompanying her husband, who was the ambassador of Iraq at several European capitals. These tours provided her an opportunity to study great Western artists including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, whose influence are apparent in her early paintings.
As her artistic practice developed, she established an inimitable style of her own. Her expansive mosaic like paintings with their bright colours and patterns show a strong eye for composition; her subjects varied from scenes of daily life to portraits of family members and friends. Fahrelnissa painted portraits of her family, friends and students, the elongated faces with large rounded eyes, exaggerated features and Byzantine style of iconography, reflect an influence of the Egyptian Fayum portraits. Fahrelnissa today is widely regarded as an abstract painter of the École de Paris, however her works feature strong Byzantine, Ottoman and Islamic elements that are evident in her portraits and early landscapes. Artist and historian Roland Penrose commented on the versatility of Zeid's work saying: 'To label such painting «abstract» would be to diminish its essential value and to fail to understand the vigour of its visual appeal.'2
Her abstract work reflected her interest in Sufism, referred to by several critics as the mystical East. In post-WWII Europe, Fahrelinssa was referred to as one of the international artists.
Commenting on the multiple sources of inspiration for her portraits, Fahrelnissa stated: 'I am a descendent of four civilisations. In my self-portrait, the hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it.'3
During the 1950s and 1960s, Fahrelnissa Zeid and her family moved between various European cities. She was very much part of the vibrant post-war European arts scene, exhibiting her paintings at the St. Georges Gallery in London in 1947. The diverse influences on her work and her global vision were an indication of her dynamic life, the places she lived in, the events that influenced her and her passion for painting. She became part of the avant-garde artists groups in Paris, exhibiting alongside German painter Hans Hartung, Russian painter Serge Poliakoff, and French painters and sculptors Jean Messagier and Pierre Dimitrienko, among others. It was during this period that André Breton acquired one of her paintings. At that time, curator and leading art critic Charles Estienne summarised what Fahrelnissa's art came to represent: '[Her work] is an amazing juxtaposition which blows to smithereens the aesthetic categories drawn to separate countries, races and cultures.'4 Estienne had high regard for Zeid's art and continued to follow her career for several years. Zeid's work attracted the admiration of several art critics and Charles Estienne was among her most devoted followers.
In 1975 Fahrelnissa Zeid took up residence in Jordan after spending years in several European capitals. Artists and art lovers welcomed Fahrelnissa with enthusiasm and many were eager to learn from her long experience as an international artist. True to her nature, Zeid surrounded herself with artists, identifying the most promising among them. She became a friend and teacher to several women artists who trained at the 'Fahrelnissa Zeid Institute of Fine Arts' which she established in her home as an art salon for painting and for the sharing of ideas. Though the Fahrelnissa Institute for Art lasted four short years; her intensive teachings managed to greatly influence a number of today's most notable Arab artists, including artist Suha Shoman, founder of the 'Khalid Shoman Foundation's Darat al Funun', a visual and cultural center in Amman. Her lasting contribution to local art garnered her great respect in Jordan.
Zeid was a prolific painter, having spent the better part of sixty years producing hundreds of paintings in a variety of media including large scale oil paintings, watercolours, lithographs, collages, resin sculptures and stained glass. In her birthplace she is considered to be a pioneer of abstract painting in modern Turkish art, and is credited for influencing the 1950s modern art movement in Turkey. Similarly in Jordan she is considered a leading artist of the seventies and eighties, her contributions to the local art scene is evident today in the work of her students and in her legacy.
For Fahrelnissa, art was not only part of her life, it dominated her being in a mystical and metaphysical way, she frequently advised her students to feel their inner self within the picture. Her art resisted classification; central to Zeid's oeuvre was the freedom to pick elements from any of the styles and schools of art she studied. She was a privileged artist who had the means and the opportunity to travel and discover art, but also the creative abilities to experiment with a variety of styles to develop her own. Today she would be considered a truly global artist. Not all art critics agree that her work was influenced by abstract expressionism; however her resin sculpture does show such influences as well as other works on canvas. Her large scenes of festivals, fairs and even the public baths have a hint of the miniature in the repetitive stylised animal and human shapes. Above all, she excelled in the use of colour whether in her abstract paintings or in creating the mosaic of colours that distinguished her art.
Fahrelnissa Zeid passed away in 1991 at the age of eighty-nine, leaving behind a visual legacy of an extraordinary life. Her works can be seen in galleries and museums around the world including Musee de L'Art Moderne, the Dusseldorf Museum, the Jordan Royal Collection, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, the Painting and Sculpture Museum in Istanbul and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. Fahrelnissa Zeid was awarded the 'Kingdom of Jordan', Italian 'Rispoli', and French 'Commandeur des arts et des lettres'.