Etel Adnan’s California-inspired paintings will continue to shine after his death

Lebanese-American writer and artist Etel Adnan died in Paris on Sunday at the age of 96. His death was confirmed at The National by friends and colleagues of Adnan and his partner.

During the last decade of his life, Adnan rose to fame for his brightly colored abstract paintings inspired by the landscapes of California. Yet until the late eighties she was best known as a writer and poet.

A pioneer of literature

His first novel, Sitt Marie Rose (1978), which she wrote while living in Paris, takes place in the years leading up to the Lebanese Civil War. It tells the story of Marie Rose Boulos, who was captured and killed by three Christian militiamen, and is considered a work of controversy against gender-based violence.

Adnan continued to produce politically engaged literary works, including The Arab Apocalypse (1980). She has actively contributed to Lebanese newspapers and has written on the Lebanese Civil War, among other crises, for American and French publications.

Yet another major writing, Trip to Mount Tamalpais (1986), revealed another facet of Adnan’s vision: a celebration of nature that has persisted in his visual work. She wrote it after returning to California in the late 1970s, where she lived in Sausalito, Bay Area.

Scroll through the gallery below to see more of Etel Adnan’s paintings:

The travelogue portrays her fascination with the distant summit of Mount Tamalpais, which she saw from her home window. “The pyramidal shape of the mountain reveals a perfect Intelligence within the universe. Sometimes its power to blend into the mist reveals the endless possibilities for matter to change its appearance, ”she wrote in Journey. “I look at his colors: they always amaze me.

Adnan became obsessed with Mount Tamalpais. “When I saw him, I felt at home,” she said in an interview with London’s The Serpentine Gallery.

It appears as a recurring motif in his written and visual work, a sign of his deep link with the Californian landscapes. Her communion with nature as a source of lyricism anchors her firmly in the American literary tradition, where she is often cited as a poet.

A career change

Adnan started painting in his mid-thirties. Among his first notable works was a series of leporellos, inspired by the Japanese technique of folding books, which included his drawings and his text.

Through these leporellos, Adnan initiated experiments with Arabic calligraphy, drawing on the legacy of modern Arab artists such as Shaker Hassan Al Said. In these, she often included fragments of contemporary Arabic poetry, including those of the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al Sayyab.

“The result is a true translation of the original Arabic poems into visual equivalence. This Japanese format – where the paper unfolds – creates a horizontal plane that seems endless, ”she said,“ The texts and images are released. “

A photo of Etel Adnan;  Untitled (Mt. Tamalpais 1), ca.  1983-86;  Oil on canvas 35 x 45.5 cm;  (Courtesy: Etel Adnan and Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg / Beirut) *** local caption *** al24au-art-adnan.jpg

But Adnan also painted colorful and vivid landscapes on paper and canvas, which often bordered on abstraction. At Art Basel this year, she unveiled The Sun Always, a six-meter-long mural made up of 136 hand-painted tiles, which depicts a sun shining amid an abstract arrangement of colors.

Adnan was catapulted into the global art world in 2012, at the age of 87. His works were presented at documenta in 2012, the main artistic platform in Kassel, Germany. This year’s curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, had met her work on a previous trip to Lebanon. Adnan has become known as “the shooting star of the art world”, and her style has been compared to that of Swiss artist Paul Klee. In interviews, Adnan had complained that his age dominated the stories about his work.

However, this paved the way for major exhibitions in cultural institutions around the world, notably at the Mathaf in Doha (2014), at the Serpentine Gallery in London (2016), at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (2016). and at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2018), among others.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Etel Adnan, untitled ceramic fresco in Manarat Al Saadiyat.  Khushnum Bhandari for Le National

His work is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York until January of next year, and is part of a collaboration with architect Hala Warde for the Lebanese pavilion of the Architecture Biennale. of Venice 2021.

Who was Etel Adnan?

Adnan was born in Lebanon, the daughter of a high ranking Ottoman army officer, born in Damascus, and a Greek refugee from Smyrna in Lebanon. “I grew up with people whose worlds, including lives, had been destroyed. So I understand the devastation, I understand the refugees, I understand the defeat, ”she said in an interview with arts magazine Apollo in 2018.

But it was also a world where nationality and nationality were new concepts. At home she spoke Turkish and Greek, and at school she learned French. This may have contributed to Adnan’s own traveling life. In the same interview, she describes herself as a “Californian artist.” I wouldn’t say American. Likewise, to describe her as an “Arab” artist may be inaccurate.

His poetry often evoked an internationalist worldview. In his poem It was Beirut again… Once again (1990), published in The Middle East Report, Adnan deplores US foreign policy in El Salvador, recalling the atrocities committed in Beirut during the civil war in Lebanon. “It was Beirut on the radio / El Salvador on television / It was Sabra & Chatila / in memory / It was Usulutan in the heart,” she wrote.

Adnan studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, followed by graduate studies at Berkeley, the University of California and Harvard University in Massachusetts. In the 1970s, she returned briefly to Lebanon, where she worked for two dailies, Orient Day and Al Safa. There she met her partner, artist Simone Fattal, and after the outbreak of the Civil War they moved together to Paris before Adnan returned to California.

In the last years of his life, Adnan continued to produce prolifically. Unable to travel, she was ultimately grounded in Paris with Fattal. And although she no longer saw Mount Tamalpais, nature seeped in as she watched the crisis in Lebanon and the global pandemic unfold.

For the Lebanese pavilion in Venice this year, she showed paintings of olive trees, often used to describe pastoral life in Lebanon, from 2019. “There are spaces like breaths. As with the life of trees, sometimes we want to spy on them and listen to them, ”Adnan said of the series.

And, in one of her last interviews with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, she celebrated the impact of global lockdowns on the environment. “The trees have come back to life. Stop crying. As we all will, she told him. Times are hard. But in the 60s we sang, we will overcome and we did. Good things repeat like spring.

Updated: November 15, 2021, 13:59


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