‘I found a skating rink, where children and adults were greatly enjoying themselves. I leaned on the rink railing with my elbows and watched, for as long as I could remain standing, [witnessing] the evolutions of this charming world. The gas-lit street light was covered with a red piece of fabric to protect it from the ice. How charming it was! Just across from it, a large number of school children were jostling to see who could be the first one out of the school. They [looked] like small gnomes. The school was all a goldish-orange crushed under a snow-laden roof. Snow was everywhere, and the little ruby and turquoise houses, covered with their so soft, so tender ‘capelines’ of snow, gave an image of happiness in the midst of the cold.’
(Fahr El-Nissa Zeid speaks about her artwork, Budapest, The Express between Budapest and Istanbul in Parinaud (ed.) Fahrelnissa Zeid, Amman 1984, p. 41)
Christie’s is delighted to offer two stunning works of the artist Princess Fahr El Nissa-Zeid’s that have never been exhibited before, from Zeid’s earlier figurative works before her major transition towards abstraction. Zeid is one of the only female artists from the Middle Eastern world to be recognized during the postwar years. Her attention to abstract art movements within action painting and the related dialogue of the Ecole de Paris led her to become an integral force of the cross pollination of artistic ideas between Eastern and Oriental traditions. Budapest, The Express between Budapest and Istanbul and Winter Day Turkish N’1 capture the small, joyous memories of the artist’s from a momentous point in her life while she underwent severe bouts of depression. These depicted childlike winter scenes preserve special memories of her observations during her earlier part of her life while traveling between Budapest and Istanbul, and served as a framework for her to build on for her notable color and light experimentations. Part of a generation that favored European male artists, Zeid was equally as dynamic and expressive in her oeuvre, experimenting in subjects and styles from Fauvism to abstraction in her landscapes, portraits and interior scenes.
Budapest, The Express between Budapest and Istanbul captures a delightful winter scene of childlike folly and play; ice skaters gather together, rejoicing and whimsically playing together in the winter chill. Their twisted frames mirror the dancing branches of the trees surrounding the park and the ethereal clouds that hang over the children appear as if the scene is looked at from a snow globe, on account of the viewer standing above the ice skating rink. Its composition presents a perfect snapshot image, executed in such sweeping motions in such that it retains a sketch-like, cursory study of the artist’s visual memory. The eclectic group of people is further outlined by Zeid’s use of bold forms, with black lines and dabs of color, outlining the contours of the scene by studying the space, speed and motion of her subjects.
Zeid painted this work while traveling between Budapest and Istanbul at a time when she was suffering from severe depression and nervousness, even using a walking stick due to her convalescing from a long illness and right after attempting to commit suicide at the Siesta Sanatorium in Budapest. As the artist stated during this time, ‘I painted myself in black, and from that day on, I appeared in all my paintings as a somber, tragic and lonesome being.’ (Parinaud (ed.) Fahrelnissa Zeid, Amman 1984, p. 41) Zeid experienced much financial and psychological hardship living in Turkey leading up to and during First World War, having to cope with the murder of her father and the accusation of her brother for the crime only at the age of 12. Marrying into the Iraqi royal family and upholding her status an ambassador’s wife caused much stress upholding her painterly and professional life, as she constantly moved from Istanbul, Germany and to Baghdad. Although Zeid did not improve in her health, even after staying at Hotel Gellért, a famous spa in Budapest, she found small bursts of recovery while witnessing beautiful moments from the people, scenery and architecture in her travels. Despite her inability to recover, she found the charming quality of Budapest to enlighten her paintings, finding herself in small adventures as she explored the city.
The inter and post war art scenes of Paris and London allowed Zeid to internalize the diverse range of artistic traditions, of which she was particularly attracted to European art history and architecture, namely Dutch Renaissance painters such as Jan Brueghel (1568-1625) and Peter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569). These artists’ focus on the everyday life and human activity influenced much of her subject and compositions of her earlier works.
Her frequent trips and adventures served as a framework for her charming compositions. As she recounts:
‘One day I wanted to go out for a walk around the house with my walking stick. A crowd was walking quickly towards a charming little church, [and so] I followed and went in. A few people were singing hymns, [and] next to me, there was a very old woman, but Lord, what a voice she had! A pure, crystalline soprano. I was ready to walk [outside], when I saw that the blue of the night had changed the face of things, and watching the crowd go down the steps, I said to myself ‘My God! Where have I seen this painting?’ I stopped and finally remembered: Brueghel’s ‘Five Blind Men,’ who were holding each other’s hands to avoid falling. The blues of the night were playing with my own recollection of Brueghel’s hues. Once back home, I decided to paint what I had just seen. This was the first time in my life that I was attempting to compose or create under the impact of a scene’ (Parinaud (ed.) Fahrelnissa Zeid, Amman 1984, p. 40).
With little chance to travel during the World War Two years, Zeid focused on Istanbul’s natural scenery and landscape, and the social activities performed there. These pictorial memories and ensuing paintings such as A Winter Day, Istanbul held a special place for her, serving as a departure point to the genealogy of her abstract painting and fascination with mysticism and philosophy. Using a bold and vibrant color palette, she portrays a charming winter street scene that evokes the charm and detail attributed to the Dutch Renaissance masters. Both lots are situated in a dominant vertical composition, retaining a fixed and stagnant viewpoint, with trees, lampposts and snowcapped buildings maintaining a firm, fixed position. However, there are scenes of motion within this stasis, as shown through the melodic sway of the emaciated trees and the peoples’ fluttering positions. Their legs are shuffling and skipping across the snowy pavement as they enjoy the outdoors in their heavy coats. Her contrast in color and outline draws the building and vibrant dress of the people, with shimmers of color finding themselves within the snowy landscape.
It was in the mid-1940s during her middle-aged years that Zeid fully dedicated herself to her art. One year before painting A Winter Day, Istanbul, she was introduced and invited to join a rebellious group of artists that came to be known as the ‘d-Group,’ by celebrated Turkish art critic Fikret Adil (1901-1973) following his visit to her studio. The artists of d-Group rebelled against the traditional style characterized by the earlier generation of artists in Turkey known as the ‘1914 Impressionists.’ These older artists failed to study abroad post World War One and ultimately became the teachers of the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul. Most founding members of the d-Group studied under artist André Lhote (1885-1962) and were influenced by the Cubist forms such as Nurullah Berk (1906-1982), Zeki Faik Izer (1905-1988) and Elif Naci (1898-1987), among others. In line with the group’s mission for change and reaction away from the past, they soon were a major motivating force for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s mission to modernize Turkey at the time, who utilized their art as promoting the state’s nationalist and populist agenda.
The figurative techniques in both A Winter Day, Turkish N’1 and Budapest, The Express between Budapest and Istanbul mark a point of departure for the artist for her shift towards abstracted canvases that she would begin to create while living in Paris during the following years. Zeid’s attention to the thick black outlines similarly transfer to her later works that explore this sense of motion through kaleidoscopic, abstracted labyrinths, always harkening to her earlier figurative time. As the artist notes ‘I later understood that I had gone back to my youth, because when I was very little, there were machicolations in front of the windows, through which one could see daylight and from which one could see passers-by…But in fact, they were not what one saw, for they were only colors passing by and between!’ (Parinaud (ed.) Fahrelnissa Zeid, Amman 1984, p. 17)