Fahrelnissa Zeid



In Tate Modern

Fahrelnissa Zeid 1901–1991
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 1820 × 2220 mm
Presented by Raad Zeid Al-Hussein 2015


This large-scale painting on canvas dating from c.1950 was made by the Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid while she was living in London. Zeid’s practice of the 1950s combines aspects of informal abstraction with influences drawn from mosaic and stained glass designs inspired by Islamic and Byzantine traditions. Characteristic of her style at this time, Untitled shows a web of colours in a system of kaleidoscopic patterns. The interweaving lines produce numerous shapes and forms on the picture plane, resulting in a variety of multi-coloured, interlocking rectangular and triangular shapes with curved sides. The overall effect of the painting is one of dense geometry in motion and a sense of order bordering on chaos. The colour palette of black, green, blue and pastel pinks creates a sense of calmness and harmony. The painting has no particular focal point, but rather presents many centres that emanate across the composition. The result is a distorted and complex perspectival arrangement characterised by visual event and repetition. The composition resembles an explosive world or landscape suggestive of fractal geometry.

Zeid moved to London from her native Turkey in 1946, and the 1950s became one of the most productive periods of her artistic career. During this time she travelled extensively between London and Paris. In Paris she became part of the so-called New École de Paris, a group of international artists such as Jean-Michel Atlan, Jean Dubuffet and Serge Poliakoff among others, all of whom were exploring methods of informal and gestural abstraction. As in other works of the same period, in this painting Zeid drew upon Eastern pictorial traditions and spiritualism. She described her dynamic and spontaneous process of painting as follows: ‘While painting, I find myself integrated to all living things … Then I lose myself and become a part of a superhuman creative process, which produces pictures like a volcano erupting lava and rocks. Mostly, I become aware of the picture only after it is completed.’ (Quoted in Mansell 1990, p.12.) These comments underline Zeid’s psychological and spiritual approach to her practice, in which she attributed great importance to intuition and mysticism coupled with a complete immersion in her creative ideas.

Zeid’s practice was also informed by the geometry found in Islamic and Byzantine mosaics, the rhythm found in calligraphic motifs and the philosophy of Eastern esoteric traditions. Her compositions employ an abstract language that infuses these elements with explorations of the nature of line and the structural qualities of gestural techniques. Her concerns with gesture, process, shape and pictorial symbolism further reflect Zeid’s exposure to American abstract expressionism and European gestural abstraction. Her work testifies to the tension between Eastern and Western artistic and cultural traditions and her own intense and at times turbulent personal experience. Zeid travelled extensively in Europe, accompanying her husband Prince Zeid el Hussein, a diplomat serving as ambassador in Turkey for his brother King Faisal I of Iraq. Ongoing conflict in the region from the Second World War onwards influenced her in a personal and artistic way. Her explorations of order and chaos, geometry and composition, surface and space convey her complex thinking and experience of being part of the changing world around her. Untitled can be seen to represent a moment of calmness and serenity. Having lived through the turmoil of the war years and a series of family relocations, Zeid’s arrival in London in 1946 might have signalled the return to a peaceful period that followed the tumultuous conditions of conflict in continental Europe.

Further reading
Philip Mansell, My Life Is a Serenade: Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901–1991), Istanbul 1990.
Fahrelnissa & Nejad: Two Generations of the Rainbow, exhibition catalogue, Istanbul Modern, Istanbul 2007.

Vassilis Oikonomopoulos
March 2015

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