Fahrelnissa Zeid at Tate Modern review: the story of a fascinating woman who consistently overshadows her own art

Steve Dinneen
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Fahrelnissa Zeid
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Part of the Tate Modern’s programme celebrating underrated and forgotten artists, this exhibition of pieces by Turkish-born Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid tells the story of a brilliant woman whose incredible life tends to rather overshadow her paintings.

Zeid is presented as a woman of contradictions, living at the conflux of east and west, abstract and representation, establishment and counter-culture. Born into an elite Ottoman family, her brother was convicted of murdering her father when she was 12. She was among the first women to study art in Turkey and subsequently lived in Berlin, Paris and London. Financial troubles in later life – for most of her days she lived on the sizeable income of her Iraqi ambassador husband Prince Zeid Al-Hussain – meant that she cooked her first meal aged 57.

Much of her best work is a struggle between representation and abstraction, with the latter coming out victorious (barring an ill-advised dalliance with the former in her twilight years). Through the 1940s Zeid developed a distinctive style, with thick, scratchy black lines surrounding blocks of vivid colour, inspired by the lead in stained glass windows as much as the established American and European abstract painters of her time. In these works, reality is flattened and broken down into repeating geometric shapes; in Loch Lomond for instance, a patchwork of multi-coloured fields hang over triangles of blue-green water.

Her 1947 painting Fight Against Abstraction is singled out as a pivotal piece in her career, the moment when outright abstraction became her dominant mode of expression. This leads to her strongest period, in which she painted a series of vast pieces filled with jagged, swirling fragments. My Hell, for instance, a reaction against a period of illness, is suggestive of vast cellular battles.

Her work after these pieces mellows, with a series of intricate, decorative abstractions. Later still, following a turbulent few years in which she painted only sporadically, came the aforementioned meal, which delighted her so much she painted directly onto the chicken bones. This belated domesticity – how strange to be making my own dinner! – is interesting to nobody but Zeid; if only she’d kept up the bold, combative pieces, her legacy may have been secured.

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