Tapestry, carpet, stained glass window, mosaic, kaleidoscope are some of the metaphors that come to mind in viewing the work of the Ottoman-born artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. Her dominant tones were modulations of primary colors – tomato red, denim blue, Girl Scout green. A lover of great cities, especially Paris, she preferred a big, crowded canvas, with some geometric and tonal regularity. She varied the way she wrote her name, on her work and off, through her career: Fahrünissa, Fahr-El-Nissa, Fahrelnissa Z, FZ. Most of her work lives in private collections, including those of her family, and in the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
Works to spend time with include Third Class Passengers, which seems to layer dancers, subway straphangers, prostrate prayergivers, and families lounging on their rugs; Loch Lomond, where revelers and boats form a net of 45 and 60-degree triangles that melt into abstraction at the top; the rippling, Escheresque panorama of My Hell and the beaded city map of The Octopus of Triton. Abstract Parrot is the culmination of her stained-glass type. The three open page spreads from her sketchbooks tantalized with a bright watercolor-and-ink mountain landscape, writing (“pourquoi la mort m’appelait …”), and a stunning self-portrait. Her portraits of others, displayed in the last room, were deliberately naive, if not actually bad.
There were a few callouts to England. London (“The Firework”) is a blurred futuristic cityscape filtered through yellow-red light and then through a network of orthogonal brushstrokes that recall latticed window screens. Someone from the Past is a self portrait with, Zeid wrote, Persian hand attitudes, Byzantine dress, Cretan face and “Oriental” eyes. What it also resembles is formal portraits of Elizabeth I, if she had posed crownless wearing kohl and earrings.
This Tate Modern retrospective, supported by Deutsche Bank, moves to Berlin after 8 October. Zeid lived there in the mid-1930s while her husband was the Iraqi ambassador, and even took tea with Hitler. Fifty years later she asked Donald Trump if she could paint his portrait, and did so from a photograph, according to the exhibition catalog. The result is not to be seen here.