News — 15 Nov 2021
Etel Adnan was born in Beirut. Her Greek Orthodox mother grew up in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), which was largely destroyed by fire in 1922. Her father was a Syrian Muslim from Damascus, a retired officer who had fought with Ottoman forces during World War I. In Beirut, neither French, nor Arab, they belonged to a minority. At home they spoke Greek and Turkish and French in the Catholic schools she attended, while Arabic was spoken in the streets; a language she never mastered because under the French colonial system, learning it was forbidden. ‘I got used to standing between situations, to being a bit marginal and still a native, to getting acquainted with notions of truth which were relative and changed like the hours of the days and the passing of the seasons,’ said Adnan.
She wanted to become an architect, much to her mother’s dismay, who said it was a man’s job. In 1949 she was awarded a grant and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, taking classes with luminaries such as Gaston Bachelard, who wrote and lectured on art. She continued her studies at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University. In 1958 she became a philosophy professor at Dominican College (now a university) in San Rafael, California. When she planned to teach a course about the philosophy of art in 1959, the head of the art department said that she should start making art herself. She was given pencils and paper and, when the colleague saw her results, said she needed no training, that she was a painter.
She usually painted on small format canvases, often with a palette knife. In the 1960s-1970s she made abstract paintings that evoke associations with the Nouvelle École de Paris style of Nicolas de Staël, which was popular in Western Europe and North America at the time. Her works are also somewhat reminiscent of the way Robert Rauschenberg introduced smaller areas of colour in his compositions, an approach followed by many artists at the time. During those years, she was virtually unknown outside her own circle, probably because she was a woman and, as she herself said, was content to sell her paintings to friends and acquaintances for modest prices.
In response to the Vietnam War, Adnan resisted the political implications of writing in French, and began to write poems in English. In 1972, she returned to Lebanon, where she worked as a cultural editor for two daily newspapers and met her partner, the Syrian-born visual artist and publisher Simone Fattal. After the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, they moved together to Paris, making occasional forays to Beirut. Typified as an artist in exile, Adnan insisted that her departure was voluntary, even though there were times when she could not return. In Paris, she wrote the novel Sitt Marie Rose (1977), originally in French, based on the life of Marie Rose Boulos, a Syrian Christian immigrant in Lebanon who taught deaf-mute children and assists Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. For this, Marie Rose Boulos was kidnapped, tortured and executed by right-wing Christian militias. The book was read in the Muslim, but not the Christian, part of Beirut. It has since been translated into multiple languages, but Adnan noted that it was absent from Lebanese bookstores, as unresolved as the ‘legacy’ of Lebanon’s civil war (1975 – 1990).
In the late 1970s, Adnan returned to California and settled in Sausalito, where she had a view of the peak of Mount Tamalpais, northwest of San Francisco, from her window. The mountain appeared frequently in her paintings, always rendered in pared-down shapes, with geometric areas of colour captured in hues that shifted with the time and season. Another motif pivotal to her work was the sea, similarly translated into simple geometric forms, invoking memories of the ocean and light near Beirut. The sun is also an abiding subject in her work. These elements have been interpreted as touchstones for Adnan, whether she was in California, Paris or Beirut, and as archetypal images with the power to evoke memories from different cultures. According to Adnan, the distinctive jubilant colours are the colours of California. The sea near Beirut also evokes very different associations for her, as a sentence from Sitt Mary Rose shows: ‘It is only in the sea, in its timeless blue, that the blood of the warring factions mingles.’ In this way, her paintings are also intertwined with political reality and show how powerful contemporary painting can be in a conceptual sense.
These paintings have a distinctly singular style—the horizon is never quite straight and the sun is never quite round; a cross-fertilisation between illusion and the materiality of the paint layer, between figuration and abstraction, but they remain in essence seascapes and landscapes. The paint is highly concentrated, precisely applied. In her book L’artisanat créateur au Maroc (1983), Adnan explicitly links art with craftsmanship, especially that of the Arab-Islamic world. She points out that within that ancient craft culture, handicraft was seen as an intellectual activity and that under Western bourgeois influences that status has declined.
In the 1960s Adnan also made designs for carpets and tapestries, inspired by her fascination for ancient Eastern and Western arts and crafts. And yet it was not until 2016 that some of her textile designs were produced and exhibited, coinciding with the publication of her book Life is a Weaving. In it she describes how tapestries reflect cohesion in Islamic art and praises a project by the Egyptian architect and pedagogue Ramses Wissa Wassef. He and his wife, Sophie Habib Georgi, trained children in Cairo to weave tapestries, in an experimental project that ran from 1951. A selection of these fibre works is currently on view in the exhibition Let Textiles Talk, alongside work by Etel Adnan and (textile) artists such as Dorothy Akpene Amenuke, Karel Appel, Sheila Hicks, Jean Lurçat and others from the museum’s collection.
After finding a leporello, a long book folded like a concertina, in a Japanese shop in San Francisco, Adnan began to make folding books in which she mixed poems penned in Arabic script in watercolour, with drawings. Other artists’ books with poems and drawings followed, of which L’Apocalypse Arabe, made after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, is best known. It contains a long poem, with small drawings and pen strokes reminiscent of the Arabic alphabet. These works also reveal Adnan’s unremitting painterly concentration.
The big breakthrough came after influential Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist saw a leporello of hers in Paris and two years later another one in Beirut. Obrist tipped off Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the director of the 2012 documenta, upon which Adnan’s work was shown during documenta. This was followed by solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech (together with Simone Fattal and Robert Wilson) and currently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The two paintings shown here were Rein Wolfs’ first acquisition as the new director of the Stedelijk Museum in 2019.
What better way to end than with Etel Adnan’s own words?
The morning after
We will sit in cafés
But I will not
I will not be