An art specialist only gets a handful of chances throughout their career to work on a masterpiece by their favorite artist. So far within my approximately 10 year tenure at Sotheby’s auction house, this April will be one of those very rare moments for me with Towards a Sky, a seminal work painted in 1953 by the internationally renowned Turkish/Jordanian artist Fahrelnissa Zeid measuring an astounding 2 by 6 metres.
It is a work of immense power packed with tremendous energy and ethereal mysticism, not unlike Zeid’s unique and extraordinary character. Unseen on the market since 1957, it brings a new opportunity to rediscover this distinguished artist’s life and oeuvre and her unequaled talent in creating some of the most complex yet sophisticated abstract compositions. In order to comprehend the importance of the artist and this present work in the history of modern art, one has to look no further than the exceptional life story of Fahrelnissa Zeid herself.
Born into a family of intellectuals in 1901, Fahrelnissa Zeid was brought up on Buyukada, one of the Princes Islands in Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire. Her uncle Cevat Pasha was the Grand Vizier to Sultan Abdulhamid and with her father Shakir Pasha, the two brothers were both historians, diplomats, skilled soldiers and amateur photographers with a command of six languages. Zeid’s brother Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli was to be widely known as the Fisherman of Halicarnassus in the history of Turkish literature, her niece was Fureya, the first female ceramicist and her sister Aliye Berger, a well known printmaker who have both decided to become artists with Zeid’s direct encouragement, her daughter Sirin Devrim, an actress, and her son Nejad Melih Devrim, a member of Nouvelle École de Paris. Since I have read Sirin Devrim’s book A Turkish Tapestry: The Shakirs of Istanbul when I was only 14 years old, I have been enamored by the life and personality of Fahrelnissa Zeid.
Initially practicing painting at an early age in the confines of her home at Buyukada, Fahrelnissa was among the few female students at the Imperial School of Art in Istanbul when she enrolled there in 1919. After marrying the well-known literary figure Izzet Melih Devrim in 1920, Fahrelnissa had the opportunity to travel around Europe and be exposed to its history, culture, art and architecture, closely studying everything from the Old Masters to the Renaissance. With the new Republic of Turkey formed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, Izzet Melih and Fahrelnissa were cherished and celebrated by the leading diplomatic, artistic, political and literary circles in Istanbul as the new representatives of the modern Turkish couple. Unsurprisingly, they were also particularly close to Ataturk, and the word ‘Fahrunnisa’ would be the first time the umlaut would be used in the new Turkish language written by Ataturk on a piece of paper and given to the artist during the historical meeting on the creation of the modern Turkish alphabet in 1928.
It was her second marriage to H.R.H. Prince Emir Zeid Al-Hussein, which would open another exciting and at times turbulent chapter in Fahrelnissa’s colourful life. Prince Emir Zeid was also the brother to King Abdullah of Jordan and great-uncle of King Faisal II of the Royal House of Iraq. He was assigned as a diplomat serving as a minister plenipotentiary on behalf of the Kingdom of Iraq to the Republic of Turkey in 1930s. This is how Fahrelnissa would meet Emir Zeid and following their romantic courting, the two would get married in Athens in 1934. Following Zeid’s diplomatic assignment to Berlin in the years of 1935-1938, the couple would come back to Istanbul.
In 1946, after becoming the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Emir and Fahrelnissa moved to London. Her new life in London and subsequently her time shared between there and Paris would mark a pivotal new era in Zeid’s career and artistic output. Upon moving to London, Fahrelnissa quickly immersed herself in the art scene there mainly through introductions during their diplomatic tenure. She would become close friends with leading gallerists, curators, artists and critics including Roland Penrose and Lynn Chadwick. Fahrelnissa always loved entertaining guests and would throw the most lavish parties and where else could be more suited than their ambassadorial home for such events. It was decorated as a lovely synthesis of the Orient and the Occident. There were colorful kilims alongside a sculpture by Henry Moore and Cesar, a wooden mobile by Lynn Chadwick and Zeid’s own paintings.
Fahrelnissa’s first solo show in London opened at St George Gallery in 1948 which was also attended by the H.R.H. Queen Mother of England. Fahrelnissa Zeid would immediately be lauded with the title ‘Painter Princess’ following the show. Splitting her time between her diplomatic role and her artistic calling, Zeid was simultaneously exhibiting with the Nouvelle École de Paris artists in Paris and continue opening her shows in London. Subsequently, Zeid bought a small apartment on Rue de Grenelle and started to use it as her second studio alongside the one at their ambassadorial home in London. Artists from across the world congregated in Paris, bringing with them a wealth of fashions, tastes and techniques that constituted a new movement without a specific identity. In this milieu Fahrelnissa found her spiritual home.
The present work, Towards a Sky is believed to have been first exhibited at the 8th Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1953 with the title Vers un Ciel. The next year it was shown at a solo exhibition on Zeid at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London. The work was so tall that the one third of the painting had to be rolled and the rest left on full view during the show. Zeid’s show at the ICA was particularly important for her career, making her one of the first and few female artists to exhibit at this important institution in the heart of Europe. Zeid kept the painting in her possession until 1957, reworking and repainting sections of it as she usually did to her works until the owner Philip Granville has asked Zeid for a solo show for the inaugural opening of Lord’s Gallery in London. One of only a handful of such monumental canvases the artist has ever painted, it is absolutely breathtaking and its truly tour de force. The extraordinary ability and creative talent of the artist creating a well-balanced, almost musical painting is awe inspiring. A testament to the joys and torments of an inner world and the outer forces, Zeid’s art as in the present work has always been a reflection of her unique personality. Zeid was a master of colour and brought together her Eastern origins with her Western upbringing to create extraordinary compositions, establishing herself as one of the most innovative and daring artists of the period.
Towards a Sky was acquired by a collector from Zeid’s shows at Lord’s Gallery in the summer of 1957. Only a year later, in 1958, due to the shocking and disheartening massacre of Prince Emir bin Zeid’s family and the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq following the 14 July Revolution, Fahrelnissa and the Prince had to move out of the Ambassadorial home in London and move to a new house in Holland Park. From then onwards until the passing of Prince Emir Zeid in 1970, they would split their time between this house and the one in Paris. Despite continuing to exhibit in Paris, Zeid later moved to Amman to join the rest of her family where her son Prince Raad was living and continued to paint there while also teaching art to a group of students and founding an art institute. Zeid would keep a photograph of this painting in a frame on her bedside in Amman until her passing in 1991. Thirty long years after staying in the same collection, in 1987 Zeid was informed that Towards a Sky was acquired by a large corporation in the States for their collection which was no other than the furniture giant Steelcase, Inc.
Besides having exhibitions all around Europe and New York, Zeid’s works are in the collections of leading museums such as Tate Modern, London, Istanbul Modern, Istanbul and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha. Zeid was awarded the Star of Jordan for her contribution to the arts in the country she later called home and she was also made Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. A large selection of Zeid’s works were most recently exhibited at the 12th Sharjah Biennial in 2015 and at the 14th Istanbul Biennial the same year. Tate Modern will host a major retrospective on the artist’s oeuvre opening on June 2017 once again validating this artist’s tremendous talent which will then travel to the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin in October 2017. Zeid’s paintings of this size and magnitude have only appeared at auctions a handful of times. They are extremely rare, not more than ten exist and most are already in institutions or in significant private collections. With its intriguing history, distinguished provenance, monumental size and awe inspiring composition, it is undeniably a work of museum quality and a collector’s item at its best.
Text By: Elif Bayoğlu Erdem