'If I had to select among the works which one seems to me the most representative of a confirmed talent at its acme, I would choose without the least hesitation the unrivalled Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, of 1960.'
(André Parinaud quoted in A. Parinaud (ed.), Fahr El Nissa Zeid, Amman 1984, pp. 42-43.)
Unprecedented in its awe-inducing magnitude, Christie's is honoured to be offering the seminal work Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, by the celebrated and renowned Turkish/Jordanian artist Princess Fahr El-Nissa Zeid from the Prince Raad bin Zeid Collection. Embedded in the Paris art world, Zeid was the only female artist from the Orient who managed to record her name in the history of the Abstract art movement and its consequent cultural discourse categorised in the period from 1944 until 1966. Her oeuvre reveals the inspiration of the melting pot of styles that came to be known as the École de Paris in the first half of the twentieth century, which in turn influenced several generations of artists.
Born into a prominent family of Ottoman diplomats, Princess Fahr El-Nissa Zeid came from a culturally rich family that would continue to be an underlying influence in her works. From a young age she was encouraged to learn several different languages, partake in the understanding of Sufism and the Rufaiyah Dervish order and studied at the Imperial School of Fine Arts in Istanbul. When she married her first husband, Izzet Melih, she travelled to Europe in the 1920s, allowing her to be exposed to new levels of cultural influences that was to shape her future artistic practice. In 1928, Zeid went to Paris to study at the Académie Ranson under Roger Bissière. This would
prove to be a pivotal stage in her artistic career as Bissière encouraged the young artist to veer towards abstract painting on the onset of Cubism; creating a new approach of her own that incorporated elements of Fauvism and Expressionism coupled with a rich appreciation and use of colour. When she returned to Istanbul in 1941, Zeid became a member of the artistic group known as the D-Group who used and experimented with new techniques adapting a local visual language that aimed to communicate with the public. Known for its interest in art that was for the local avant-garde, the group exhibited works that were against the taste of the Istanbul bourgeoisie who looked to Paris and London for their artistic creations.
Having remarried, the diplomatic status of Fahr El-Nissa's husband, Prince Zeid, allowed the artist to travel constantly and to stage several international prominent exhibitions, especially as they relocated to Paris in 1946 and continued to stay there for a considerable amount of her lifetime. One of the few prominent exhibitions was in Paris in 1952 staged by the revered art critic Charles Etienne at the Babylone Theatre. Etienne, who saw so much potential in Fahr El-Nissa, remained one of her biggest supporters until his death. The exhibition, titled Nouvelle École de Paris had Zeid exhibited amongst artistic pioneers Serge Poliakoff, Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages, marking the new movement whereby artists from Eastern Europe, Germany and Spain, amongst many other countries, congregated in Paris, bringing with them an influx of rich tastes and techniques that constituted a movement, known as the École de Paris, with no specific identity, following non-figurative and abstract trends. With the staging of a prolific number of shows in so many important galleries and spaces, it is clear how highly Fahr El-Nissa was considered by the art circle of dealers and collectors of her time. Fahr El-Nissa brought a sense of Oriental exoticism to the mix, capturing the attention of many critics and gallerists. She continued to tackle the various themes and notions within the abstract realm, eventually turning to portraits, which dominated her oeuvre before her death.
In Fahr El-Nissa's expansive and prolific oeuvre, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life can be considered to be one of the most important works that the artist has ever created. In fact André Parinaud, the art critic mentions:
'If I had to select among the works which one seems to me the most representative of a confirmed talent at its acme, I would choose without the least hesitation the unrivalled Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, of 1960. So fine and so powerful is the expression, so intense and full this reconstitution with such an amazing overlapping and positive choice of colour, that this painting's precision communicates at once a feeling of the deep beauty at the core of things, and also the marvelous sheen given off by the legendary oriental rug; it is a work both built and exploded; it contains both architecture and chaos, the whole dominated by the ardour of its monumental dimension and the streaming colours. This work commands attention beyond its very theme and appears not as a composition but as a luminous shock.' (André Parinaud quoted in ibid., pp. 42-43.)
Painted in 1962, the large expansive and hypnotising canvas reflects Zeid's own distinctive style of geometric abstraction, grounded in a rhythmic gesture. Upon reflection of the painting, the viewer is transported into an alternate magical universe conjured up by the artist, the colour palette and shapes moving together in a distinct harmony, as if meant to push one into a trancelike state. There is no doubt that these quasi-kaleidoscopic swarming of forms hark back to calligraphic styles that serve as an extension of Oriental mysticism that was so ingrained in Zeid's history. Although she was very well travelled, it is a reflection of the artist's roots that she chose to express and push abstract art as a testament to the Islamic calligraphic aesthetic traditions of the Ottoman empire, whereby figurative representation was considered sacrilegious. In similar ways that calligraphers would apply an element of rhythm to their writings, Zeid applied repetitions of her thinking with a deep use of colours and lines to spread her actions onto the vast expanse of the canvas, as if writing; a reflection of continuity that harks back to Sufism. In many ways, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life emphasises Zeid's desire to put material in the forefront; by means of paint and colour she has created a surface and texture very much in the style of the action paintings that dominated Abstract Expressionism in the US. Zeid often said that she would lose control in front of her canvases, using the extensions of her unconscious expression, notably exclaiming 'I myself, when I am painting, am always aware of a kind of communion with all living things, I mean with the universe as the sum total of the infinitely varied manifestations of being. I then cease to be myself in order to become part of an impersonal creative process that throws out these paintings much as an erupting volcano throws out rocks and lava. Often, I am aware of what I have painted only when the canvas is at last finished.' (The artist quoted in ibid., p. 157). As such, Zeid's large abstract works can be comparable to Jackson Pollock's Action Paintings, reflecting similar uses of composition and colour.
Equally, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life can be comparable to Maria Helena Vieira da Silva's seminal work, The Great Blue Room painted in 1951. It exhibits similar qualities of influence from colour palette of the Impressionists coupled with the fragmented forms and spatial ambiguities of the Cubists that is very present in Fahr El-Nissa Zeid's work. As a fellow female artist practicing in Paris in the mid-twentieth century and one of the leading female artists of the École de Paris, Vieira da Silva's work reflects on a sense of discourse and dialogue that was present in Paris, pushing experimentation with dense and complex compositions.
It is unwarranted to classify Zeid as only an artist inspired only by the Islamic art rhetoric; inBreak of the Atom and Vegetal Life, Zeid shows her true stance as an artist of synthesis, a reflection of her upbringing and the extensive travelling she did throughout her life. Here, she combines Western aesthetics of the style she was exposed to during her days in Paris, with marks of Byzantine and Christian culture of stained glass windows and mosaics and lastly with a sense of monumentalism that can only allude to ornate Persian/Islamic carpets. An element of light emanates from the composition where purples morph into violets; reds and blues ring with violent blacks with the heaviness of the lead in a stained glass window. Zeid was exposed to this iconography in her youth at the French school she attended, but also harks back to the grilles of an Arabic window of which she used to stand before to see out to the world, dazzled by the blurry shapes of colours of passersby.
Fahr El-Nissa identified the relationship between the object and its surface. In the present work, she weaves a monumental carpet/mosaic like composition, whereby she exerts an element of control in her use of lines, yet we discover that in these elements of perpetual movement and force, she has adapted an acute sense of the microcosm into a macrocosm in an organised chaos, focusing on details in a meticulous fashion relevant to miniatures onto a large and overpowering space. Amongst this large splash of red and bold expression, comes a corner of extreme control, as if a current is formed suddenly, sprouting up and swirling before it becomes subdued in a play of softened light. There is a very present gradient of the colour palette from strong and violent reds into a more subdued palette of greens and blues, in which surprisingly the intricacies of the abstract shapes become more complex, and a reference perhaps to the 'break of the atom' to which she refers in her title.
Zeid was a nature lover and this is clearly reflected in Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, where one senses her understanding, analysis and feel of nature. As the brilliant canvas reveals the congruency between parts and wholes, it thereby embodies harmony rather than contrast or fragmentation. It poignantly explodes beyond the observation that a piece constitutes the whole or that the whole encompasses everything; rather it focuses on the metaphysical relationship between humans and elements of nature.
A comparable work of this intricacy and richness in composition can be seen in the permanent collection of Istanbul Modern titled My Hell from 1951. It is an important work for its sense of geometry, study of surface in space within its fragmentation and expresses a notion of freedom while simultaneously conjuring up an incarceration and hell. Much like Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, a wave of colour washes horizontally across the canvas in My Hell, the harsh colour palette limited to reds, blacks, greys and yellows; Zeid was known to be depressed despite her lavish surroundings - it was precisely due to her privileged background that she felt trapped and pushed her to establish herself as a true artist as opposed to a society lady with a hobby. In My Hell, one sees a reflection of her inner struggle manifested in its entirety onto the canvas, an equal sense of passion that emanates from Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life.
Like the international artist Fahr El-Nissa Zeid,Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life proves itself an exceptional synthesis beyond simple classification. As a highlight in the seminal retrospective of the artist's works in 1990 at the Neue- Galerie-Sammlung Ludwig in Aachen and the Institut du Monde Arabe, the relevance of this work resonates in an increased language of globalisation of today, cementing Zeid as an important figure in international art history and cultural discourse.