Artist Spotlight: Fahrelnissa Zeid: Artist, Teacher, Princess
December 13, 2019
By Lara Arafeh
One of the most fascinating artists in the Grey’s exhibition Modernisms Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection (on view September 10-December 7, 2019) is Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901–1991). Her life reads much like a melodramatic, tragic fairytale. She was born Fahrünissa Şakir, into an elite Ottoman family near Istanbul. Both her uncle and father were high-ranking Ottoman diplomats active in the military and local government, as well as amateur historians and photographers. Her father was appointed Ottoman ambassador to Greece and encouraged his children to pursue arts and literature. The family’s dealings with the fine arts connected them with European culture in Turkey. Fahrelnissa and her sister Aliye (later Aliye Berger) both grew up to be modernist painters; their brother, a popular writer; and the following generation were also involved with art and theater. Works by Fahrelnissa’s son Nejad and her niece Füreya Koral are also included in the Grey’s Modernisms exhibition.
Over the course of five decades, Fahrelnissa used art as a tool for spiritual and physical exploration. Her work was affected by her personal tragedies and mental health crises, which she suffered for much of her life—for example, she fainted at times of extreme stress. Over the years, her artistic style was constantly evolving. Not easy to date or attribute to specific trends, her work incorporates elements of abstraction, the Baroque, Expressionism, and Fauvism. Perhaps due to her mania, she worked rapidly, sometimes creating monumental pieces.
Farelnissa tended to focus on the spiritual over physical and technical aspects of art making. She preferred painters who emphasized color over line, form, and space—or any political or nationalist concerns.
In her recent biography of Fahrelnissa, Adila Laïdi-Hanieh defines her first name as meaning “the glory of women,” “the pride of womanhood,” and the “honour of womankind.” Throughout the book, Laïdi-Hanieh refers to Fahrelnissa by her first name “to highlight her singular personality and talent” (Fahrelnissa Zeid: Painter of Inner Worlds, p. 12). In my essay, I follow this precedent.
Farelnissa’s eldest brother, Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı, whom she credited with encouraging her to draw from an early age, studied classics at Oxford University and later pursued fine arts in Rome. In 1914, he shot and killed their father. Cevat’s intention is unclear, but he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison, leaving their mother and four sisters to struggle under difficult conditions.
Fahrelnissa’s early education incorporated Western culture. She and her sister Aliye attended French schools while also taking great pride in their Turkish identities. After the start of the First World War, their French school closed abruptly, leading the sisters to enroll in a costly private school. Money was tight, and the two girls attended school in “patched-up clothing and old shoes.” Showing initiative, Fahrelnissa painted postcards and sold them at the local shop to buy art and school supplies.
Always strong-willed, at the age of 18 Fahrelnissa decided to stop wearing the charshaf, a robe-like dress similar to the abaya or niqab worn by Muslim women to cover their heads and lower face. Six years later, it was abolished in Turkey. In 1919 she enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts for Women in Istanbul. She rejected many suitors, claiming that she preferred to marry men who appreciated art, were intelligent, and did not blush at the sight of her nude drawings. When Izzet Melih Devrim (1887-1966) asked to meet her, she was thrilled. She had admired several of his novels, and he promised to take her to museums in Europe. Not long after their marriage in 1920, they had their first son, who died of scarlet fever at the age of two. In 1923 their son Nejad was born. Devrim had a daughter from his first marriage, Remide, who would play a pivotal role in Fahrelnissa’s career two decades later, when Remide’s husband, Fikret Adil, introduced Fahrelnissa to the D Group.
Fahrelnissa’s unstable marriage to Devrim was a source of great depression and anxiety. Due to Devrim’s infidelities, the couple fell into many increasingly violent fights. The trips to Western Europe allowed her to turn a blind eye to his infidelities for some time. She documented her trips to museums in her journals. At the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, she wrote of discovering the colors of paintings—she had only seen black-and-white reproductions before.
In 1928, Fahrelnissa enrolled at Académie Ranson, one of the free academies in Paris. These schools provided an alternative to the state-run Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Students could enroll for shorter periods, and women and foreigners were welcome. After the academy’s founder Paul Ranson died in 1909, his wife, Marie-France Ranson, ran the school. Abandoning traditional perspective, Paul Ranson had rejected the academicism of the Salons and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and his art was steeped in symbolism and non-realistic decorative modes of painting. Here Fahrelnissa discovered a world of art radically different from the 19th-century European styles she had previously studied. In 1929 she returned to Istanbul and enrolled at the now-co-ed Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1934, unwilling to accept Devrim’s infidelities any longer, she divorced him. This was unusual at the time and reflects her strength and independence. By then, she had already met Prince Zeid bin Hussein (1898–1970), her soon-to-be husband. A member of the Hashemite dynasty, he belonged to the Royal House of Iraq, which for centuries had ruled Mecca and the surrounding Hejaz region, today part of Saudi Arabia. Soon after her divorce was finalized, Fahrelnissa and Prince Zeid met in Athens, where they married and she became a royal princess and diplomat’s wife.
In 1935 Prince Zeid was appointed Iraq’s ambassador to Germany, and they moved to Berlin, where Fahrelnissa charmed society as a diplomatic hostess and immersed herself in German culture. Her passion for the arts continued as she enrolled in art classes and made gallery and museum visits. When Germany annexed Austria under Hitler’s rule, Prince Zeid’s mission was cut short, and he was recalled to Baghdad.
Beginning in 1938, Fahrelnissa battled with the worst of her depression over the course of a decade. Convinced that she was sick, she traveled to Paris and checked herself into the American Hospital. Soon after she “recovered” and returned to Istanbul, she fell into another depressive state and checked herself into a sanatorium in Budapest. There she rented an apartment where she painted and grew happy with her work. Her Budapest paintings reflect her fascination with the work of Jan and Pieter Brueghel. She checked herself into another hospital and attempted suicide. Then she was sent back to Istanbul.
On Fahrelnissa’s way back to Istanbul in 1940, fifteen of her Budapest paintings were stolen on the train. She remade some (it is not known how many), but only one survives, Budapest: View from the Express between Budapest and Istanbul (1943). In this series, she places herself at the edge of the composition, which depicts a colorful and animated crowd of people ice skating. Near the bottom left is a person dressed in black who faces away from the crowd. This figure wears a high hat, like the toque the artist herself wore.
In the 1940s Fahrelnissa decided to stay in Istanbul, where she remained in contact with Devrim’s daughter (her former stepdaughter) who was now married to Fikret Adil, an influential Turkish writer and journalist. During one of their visits, Adil saw her paintings and introduced her to leading Turkish artists and thinkers, a part of Istanbul society that was foreign to Fahrelnissa. This led her to join the D Group, a new wave of modern painters. Originally just six members, most of whom had studied fine arts in Turkey and Paris, they considered themselves the fourth generation of Turkish artists to work in a Western style. One of the group’s founders was Nurullah Berk (1906–1982), whose work is included in the Grey’s Modernisms exhibition. The D Group exhibited frequently: Fahrelnissa was invited to show with them at their 19th collective exhibition. The group’s other members—including Eren and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu—were different from Fahrelnissa socially, intellectually, politically, and in terms of aesthetics. The D Group welcomed very few female members. As in many non-Western countries during the 20th century, women’s entrée into the arts was limited to the elite and was seen as a Westernizing practice. Making art was considered a social-class marker rather than a career choice, and women were expected to prioritize family obligations. This is evident in Fahrelnissa’s case—she did not have her first solo exhibition until the age of 44. While in many ways she defied gendered expectations, she shunned the label of feminist.
During the 1940s, she rented a 12-room apartment in Istanbul where she hosted weekly salons for artists, poets, and intellectuals, and another 3-room apartment which she used as a studio where she painted non-stop. In an attempt to remedy her depression and mental health crises, her doctors prescribed painting. In her diaries, she links her mental health with art making. When Adil saw the large number of painting she was producing, he encouraged her to organize her first solo exhibition. He suggested mounting it at the Academy of Fine Arts—but she hosted it in her own apartment instead.
In 1946 Prince Zeid was appointed Iraqi ambassador to the UK, and the couple began a new chapter in London. Fahrelnissa established a studio in the embassy, where she hosted salons that attracted artists and intellectuals such as Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Lee Miller, and Roland Penrose. Fahrelnissa exhibited her work in London; in one instance she showed with Mahmoud Sabry, an Egyptian artist who is featured in the Grey’s upcoming exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World 1950s-1980s (on view January 14–April 4, 2020). She also established a studio in Paris and immersed herself in the French art scene, making friends with Gertrude Stein, Serge Poliakoff, and Sonia Delaunay. While she was living between Paris and London, influential French critics saw her work, and she was invited to exhibit in prominent French galleries. The 1958 coup d’état in Iraq brought an abrupt end to Prince Zeid’s ambassadorial post. The couple moved to a modest apartment, and Fahrelnissa stopped painting for some time. In 1969 they relocated to Paris, and the following year, Prince Zeid died. Seeking comfort in her art, Fahrelnissa created large-scale portraits of her friends and family.
Finally leaving Paris in 1975, at the age of 74, Fahrelnissa moved to Amman, Jordan, where her son Prince Raad lived with his family. She established a home studio and gathered a group of young women whom she began to teach. While the classes were informal, Fahrelnissa made a significant contribution to the development of the art scene in Jordan. She continued to work and teach until her death in 1991. Two of Fahrelnissa’s students in Amman, Hind Nasser and Ufimia Rizk, are included in the Grey’s upcoming exhibition Taking Shape. Another student was Suha Shoman, wife of Khalid Shoman. Together they founded the Shoman Collection, known today as Darat al-Funun. Located in Amman, Darat al-Funun houses a permanent collection of Fahrelnissa’s work.
 This is in line with Abby Weed Grey’s practice of traveling with a portfolio of color prints by Minnesota artists and showing them to artists in the Middle East and Asia.
Lara Arafeh holds an M.A. in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute, London. In 2019, she was a visiting student in Art & Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, and a graduate intern at the Grey.