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  • Christian Hain

Oriental Occidentalism in many Varieties – Fahrelnissa Zeid at Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle

(Berlin.) Deutsche Bank got itself a board member with Turkish roots lately, but that’s rather a coincidence, and not immediately connected to a new art exhibition in Berlin where Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle continues its global expansion with Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-1991). Born in Istanbul, the artist seems a textbook example of the Western, of Atatürk’s, Turkey, even before the general seized power. A photo taken in 1910 features Zeid surrounded by her family, and were it not for one elderly gentleman who donned a Sufi hat, you’d easily mistake them for average European upper class. No woman is veiled, no “oriental” dress in sight - apart from that hat. Neither would you suspect any tensions strong enough to drive the artist's brother to assassinate their father soon. As he did. The tragedy, however, did not affect Fahrelnissa’s life much.

From the very beginnings, her art was influenced by Europe and European styles, which is not surprising given her further biography: After visiting a French convent school(!) in Istanbul, she went on to study a bit, married and divorced a Turkish writer, then got remarried to an Iraqi prince, henceforth living wherever his ambassador duties took them. Berlin first, later sharing their life between London and Paris. She moved in exclusive circles, and once had dinner with Hitler on which occasion, Deutsche Bank is quick to tell us, ”they discussed their mutual interest in painting”. I’ll just leave that here. On a less bizarre note, Queen Mum invited her to a cup of tea (and gin?) in Scotland about a decade later.

At DB Kunsthalle, we see a nice character study in water colours of Zeid’s own grandmother, adding to several sketch books from her youth. We do know about these artistic debuts now, yet she only started to exhibit in public at the age of forty-four, in 1945. At which point she was briefly associated with Turkish “D Group” - not pronounced “da group”, but named for “the (chronologically) fourth style in Turkish contemporary art”.

This, by the way, is the first show happening on two floors of the refurbished Kunsthalle, and the third collaboration of Deutsche Bank with Tate Modern who provided the curator. It’s hard to pin down Fahrelissa Zeid, the list of artists who influenced her to one painting or another long. Figurative posed no problem, occasionally mixed with elements of abstraction - Arab Third Class Passengers of 1943 squatting on geometric carpets, and there’s even nudity in a Turkish Bath! Most often, you can easily identify who or what style provided the blueprint for a work. There’s Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Miro and Chagall, the Delauneys, there’s traces of Poinitilism (or confetti), and more. The dress in Klimt’s Kiss impressed Zeid so much, she decided to put it onto someone else’s body, feeling pretty all alone: Someone from the Past, 1980, while the many windows of Matisse influenced (Gala and Fener fans, be brave now:) Beşiktaş, My Studio of 1943. Three Days of Living (War), 1943, uses yet another style to describe bellicose horrors (only the mood is Guernica), whereas a most classical self portrait of ’47 might also depict a Spanish baroque noble, some Don Alfonso de los y las y whatever. It seems forever impossible to capture the Zeidgeist (sorry, bad pun). Is that proto-postmodernist?

Fahrelnissa Zeid’s wider interests and cultural influences surface in work titles like Ubu Bird and Alice in Wonderland, but not a single one citing oriental literature. Her pleasure in appropriating did not stop short of Jackson Pollock, and in abstraction she surely got the most unique. Colourful paintings like the magnificent Book of the Atom and Vegetal Life (1962) remind of hidden 3D images before the time; 1960s/70s Psychedelic band posters are an obvious association. So are mosaics, stained glass, and graffiti, even digital art. Colours, so many colours, maybe be the artist took too much of old Rashid‘s treats, danced the Sufi’s dance untrained, or ate a kilo of those uber-sugary Turkish sweets. More seriously spoken, she’s said to have known melancholy, or depression, from an early age on, and medications can have curious side effects.

In 1956, after the latest in a long line of putsches, the British lost interest in restoring their former colony to order, and the revolutionaries made away with the royal family (of Zeid’s husband), forcing her to “prepare a meal for the first time in her life”. According to her son, the family soon became exasperated by eating chicken masala without masala on a daily basis, yet she collected the gnawed chicken wings and used them for an art series she named Paléokrystalos (an utterly inappropriate comment would be: “see, once in a while, an excursion to the kitchen might do some good even for the most perfectly emancipated artist"). A nice anecdote, though not necessarily true. The style again reminds of a famous contemporary: the early Simon Hantaï.

Fahrelnissa Zeid took, and copied, whatever she liked, whatever was en vogue, and rarely translated it into something new, into a different language. She was an artist influenced by many, some of whom she even predated (look at these “digital” abstracts, just look at them!). Towards the end of her life, Zeid relocated to Jordan, and before crossing, she taught the locals to paint. She was certainly well educated, up to date to the very last, and extremely skilled on top; maybe she lacked true inspiration, originality, that sparkle of genius. Then again: Look at these abstracts. She should have stayed with them.

It took a while for Zeid’s work to be remembered and appreciated again in Turkey, today it seems anachronistic, not Erdogan compatible. Her Turkey is the type of Turkey, Deutsche Bank, and we, prefer, harmless, occidentalized, mercantilist, Euro-centred, a Turkey easily “integrated” into the global community.

Fahrelnissa Zeid, 20 October 2017-25 March 2018, Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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