Fahrelnissa Zeid – an unknown name? You are not the only one, I hadn’t heard of her either. Now, however, the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin is showing a comprehensive retrospective of her work until April 9, 2018 and it is well worth visiting.

Her life story is fascinating: Born in 1901 on the island Büyükada, off Istanbul, into an aristocratic family, she grew up fluent in French and English, she also learned German later in life, but no Arabic. Her father was ambassador to Greece. Tragedy struck when her brother shot their father in 1914 under mysterious circumstances and was convicted to 14 years for manslaughter (he served 7).

At age 19, high-spirited Zeid joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul as a student – an unheard of thing to do for a young woman of her standing at that time. Being pretty and vivacious, she had no shortage of suitors. She chose Izzet Melih Devrim, an accomplished author but also president of the Imperial Tobacco Company. The young couple travelled widely in Europe, where they visited all the major museums. She studied at the Académie Ranson in Paris for a while (he was a member of the Nabis group, to which Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard also belonged). They had three children, of which one son died of scarlet fever at age two. Troubled by her husband’s many infidelities, she divorced him in 1934 – also an unusual step for a lady in her society.

Shortly thereafter, she married Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, brother of King Faisal I, and moved with him to Berlin, where he was stationed as Ambassador to Iraq. It was here that their son, Prinz Raad, was born in 1936. Charming and charismatic, she soon rose to prominence in German society. She recalls having tea with Hitler and they spoke about painting (he was an amateur painter). During these years, she did not paint much. They were recalled to Baghdad in 1938, when tensions started to escalate in Germany. Life was much more regimented and restrictive at court in Baghdad. She became depressive and ill. At the instigation of her physician, she returned to Europe, where her husband was also sent to be Ambassador in London. She started to paint again in a small studio in the embassy, where she was famous for her salons, with many artists and intellectual guests such as Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, etc. She also established a studio in Paris, where her work was starting to get the attention of prominent galleries and art critics.

Usually, her husband returned to Iraq every summer to act as Regent while the King went on holiday. However, in the summer of 1958, Zeid had persuaded her husband to accompany her on holiday to the island of Ischia, Italy. It was during this time that a coup d’état in Iraq overthrew the monarchy and the royal family was assassinated. Thus the couple’s lives were spared, but the Prince was immediately relieved of his titles and post. It was during the time of their more modest lifestyle thereafter that Zeid started to learn how to cook. Her husband died in 1969, prompting Zeid to settle permanently in Paris. She relocated to Amman in 1975 to be close to her son Prince Raad Zeid Al-Hussein, Lord Chamberlain of Jordan, who lived there with his family. Here, she started a school for young women to learn painting. This led to the establishment of the Royal National Jordanian Institute Fahrelnissa Zeid of Fine Arts. She died there in 1991, aged 91 and active right up to the end.

So much for her life…

There is an excellent 9-minute video on the Tate Modern site, where she is interviewed as well as her son, Prince Raad Zeid Al-Hussein and his wife.

I am no art critic, but as you can see for yourself, Fahrelnissa Zeid developed her very own abstract language, evocative of Byzantine, Arab and Persian mosaics combined with abstraction in the European tradition of the 20th century. Many of her oil paintings are of considerable dimensions. Her portraits, of which there are not many exhibited, show her keen eye of observation.

Fahrelnissa Zeid was a strikingly beautiful woman. In her self-portrait from 1980, which she called “Someone from the Past” she also commented: “I am the descendant of four civilisations. In my self-portrait, the hand is Persian, the dress is Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental, yet I was not aware of this as I was painting it.”

The show has been done in cooperation with the Tate Modern in London, where it showed in the Fall of 2017.