Fahrelnissa Zeid

Painter of Inner Worlds

Adila Laïdi-Hanieh

‘Her biography reads like a novel’ — Evening Standard
‘Laidi-Hanieh’s elegant prose brings to life the rich cultural environment in which Fahrelnissa lived and which she created around her.… The book’s excellent text is enriched by truly stunning images of Fahrelnissa’s paintings, as well as sketches and photos, and a comprehensive chronology of her life events and multiple exhibitions.’ — Jordan Times
‘Elegant … carefully researched … this handsome tome, the product of a thorough investigation into the artist’s life and work, challenges orientalist interpretations of her art. In so doing, it redefines Zeid as one of the foremost modernist painters of the last century.’ — Harper’s Bazaar Arabia
‘[Brings] her work out of the shadows and into the collective consciousness’ — New York magazine 
‘Comprehensive and painstakingly researched … this is a book to read and reread.’ — Cornucopia magazine
‘A timely and much-needed contribution to the study of transnational feminist art histories’ — Third Text

The story of Fahrelnissa Zeid’s (1901–91) life is truly like no other. A Turkish noblewoman by birth and Iraqi princess by marriage, she was the first female artist to have a solo exhibition at London’s prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts. Friend and relative of kings, queens, and statesmen, and busy wife of an ambassador, she was also a leading figure of Turkish modernism in the 1940s and a prominent member of the avant-garde in postwar Paris, praised by fellow artists and critics alike. Despite her privileged background, she fought personal tragedy, psychological turmoil, and social and artistic prejudice to chart a unique and innovative path all of her own. She became celebrated in her lifetime for her monumental and dynamic abstract compositions that engulf the viewer in fields of colour, light, and energetic movement, as well as for her later expressionistic portraits of family and close friends. These works reflect her conception of art as a ceaseless forward quest, driven by a spiritual need to produce painterly renditions of cosmic journeys and inner psychic universes.

Coinciding with a retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, this book is written by a former student of the artist and based on unprecedented access to her private papers and personal archive. It provides a revisionist and definitive account of both her extraordinary life and the constant innovation and reinvention that characterized her career right up until her final decades working and teaching in Jordan. It foregrounds the importance of her extensive knowledge of European culture and her shifting mental state on her artistic vision, and challenges orientalist interpretations of her art. In doing so, it redefines Fahrelnissa Zeid for the contemporary reader as one of the most important modernists of the twentieth century.

Dr Adila Laïdi-Hanieh is director of the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, and a writer and academic focusing on Arab and Middle East arts and cultural practices. She has a PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University in Virginia, United States, which she obtained as a Fulbright Scholar. A former painting student of Fahrelnissa Zeid, she writes and lectures on contemporary art of the Middle East.