Etel Adnan in California, circa 1955-58. Photo courtesy of the present owner of the collection Journey to Mount Tamalpais Important Early Works by Etel Adnan

‘I didn’t need to use words, but colours and lines’: The painterly poetry of Etel Adnan

The California-based poet, philosopher and novelist discovered painting as a means of expression after struggling to come to terms with war in Algeria and her native Lebanon. Illustrated with works from a private collection offered in March at Christie’s in London

Towards the end of her life, Etel Adnan (1925-2021) was asked what advice she could offer the aspiring writer or artist. ‘Not to be afraid,’ she said with characteristic fervour. ‘Be audacious, take risks!’

The advice came from lived experience. The influential feminist artist and writer had witnessed first-hand the tumultuous changes that took place in the Middle East during the 20th century, including the Lebanese Civil War, and it instilled in her a drive to challenge conventions throughout her life.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1925, Etel Adnan was the only child of a mixed marriage. Her father, a Muslim Syrian, was a high-ranking official in the Ottoman Army and a former classmate of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic. Her mother, Lily, was Greek Orthodox.

This anomalous position was heightened by her education at a French convent school. From the age of five, Adnan spoke only French, and this was to have a decisive impact on her creativity in later life.

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled, circa 1960. Oil on metal. Diameter 7 in (17.8 cm)

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled, circa 1960. Oil on metal. Diameter: 7 in (17.8 cm)

At 20 she was writing verse. ‘For years I was convinced that the whole human race was created in order to sit on sidewalks and read poetry,’ she said. She won a scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and subsequently finished her education in the United States, at Berkeley and Harvard.

On the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence in 1954, Adnan suffered an existential crisis, realising she could only speak the language of those she considered the oppressors. ‘I couldn’t write freely in a language that faced me with deep conflict,’ she said.

This marked her creatively as an engaged, anti-imperialist writer. It also led her to try painting, discovering in abstract art a language without language problems. It was, she said, ‘the equivalent of poetic expression. I didn’t need to use words, but colours and lines.’

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled (Little Middle Eastern Village), circa 1960. Ink and watercolour on paper. 4¾ x 6⅛ in (12.1 x 15.6 cm). Sold for £11,340 on 9 March 2022 at Christie’s, Online

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled (Little Middle Eastern Village), circa 1960. Ink and watercolour on paper. 4¾ x 6⅛ in (12.1 x 15.6 cm). Sold for £11,340 on 9 March 2022 at Christie’s, Online

On 2 March, Christie’s is offering two early oils on canvas by Adnan in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale, in addition to several works on paper and a tondo in First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online. Most of the works were created while the artist was living and teaching in California in the early 1960s.

Adnan drew inspiration from the Californian landscape. In later years she recalled how Mount Tamalpais, one of the highest peaks in the San Francisco Bay Area, had come to obsess her, likening it to the way Mont Sainte-Victoire had haunted Cézanne. ‘It became a poem around which I orientated myself,’ she wrote. In 1986, she published a meditation on the mountain, Journey to Mount Tamalpais.

In many respects, Adnan’s paintings are as succinct as her poems; they interpret themes and feelings through rhythm and colour. Charles Baudelaire once wrote that ‘colourists are epic poets’, and Adnan’s vibrant abstracts certainly embody this idea.

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled, circa 1960. Oil on canvas. 24 x 18 in (61 x 45.7 cm). Sold for £201,600 on 2 March 2022 at Christie’s in London
Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled, circa 1960. Oil on canvas. 24 x 18 in (61 x 45.7 cm). Sold for £201,600 on 2 March 2022 at Christie’s in London

Untitled, circa 1960 (above), is a work of contrasts — of yellow light, vermilion red and dense green. The colours seem to jump around with terrific energy. Adnan was a swift painter, laying her canvas flat on a table like a sheet of paper and using a palette knife to make rapid marks as if she were writing a letter. She chose her tool with similar expediency — it was so much quicker to wipe paint off a palette knife than to wash a brush.

The application of paint in Lumière 2, circa 1960 (below), is equally lively. The colours seem to echo the Californian landscape in all its myriad forms — the diffused morning sky, the dense, wet sand, the pale pink of apricots, the green hills.

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Lumière 2, circa 1960. Oil on canvas laid on board. 17½ x 13¾ in (44.5 x 34.9 cm). Sold for £113,400 on 2 March 2022 at Christie’s in London
Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Lumière 2, circa 1960. Oil on canvas laid on board. 17½ x 13¾ in (44.5 x 34.9 cm). Sold for £113,400 on 2 March 2022 at Christie’s in London

In 1972 Adnan returned to Lebanon to work as a cultural editor for the daily newspaper Al Safa. As tensions grew and sectarian violence increased, she became more and more outspoken. It was also in Beirut that Adnan met the artist Simone Fattal, who became her long-term partner and artistic collaborator.

Two years into the Lebanese Civil War, Adnan published Sitt Marie Rose, a novel based on the true story of the kidnapping and murder of a young woman. It is a beautiful and disturbing book, unrelenting in its critical presentation of the masculine, parochial and racist ideologies of Lebanon’s Christian militias.

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled (Sketches and Letters), circa 1960s. Smallest 4⅜ x 3¾ in (11.7 x 9.5 cm). Largest 4½ x 6⅛ in (11.43 x 15.7 cm)

Etel Adnan (1925-2021), Untitled (Sketches and Letters), circa 1960s. Smallest: 4⅜ x 3¾ in (11.7 x 9.5 cm). Largest: 4½ x 6⅛ in (11.43 x 15.7 cm)

On its publication in 1977, the artist received death threats and lost her job at the newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour. ‘Who asked you to write what you think?’ demanded her editor. It went on to win the Amitié Franco-Arab Prize for literature, and is today considered the greatest novel of the Lebanese Civil War, a conflict that would endure until 1990.

Fearful for their safety, Adnan and Fattal left Lebanon for Paris, eventually moving to the United States and settling in Sausalito, a few miles north of San Francisco, in 1979. 

Throughout this time she continued to paint — ‘When I paint I am happy,’ she said — but it was not until 2012, when Adnan was in her late eighties, that she received recognition as an artist. She exhibited at Documenta that year, and later at the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Guggenheim in New York.

Sign up today

Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

On her death, in November 2021, she left behind an exuberant body of work that sought to reflect the beauty of the world around her. ‘When I die,’ she said, ‘the universe will have lost its best friend, someone who loved it with a passion.’