If Etel Adnan’s poetry and prose were characterized by the sad evocation of the turbulent history of her native Lebanon, often seen through the eyes of an emigrant, then her painting, for which she became more famous later in life, was imbued with a cheerful sense of color. . For Adnan, who died at the age of 96, the two disciplines were complementary.
“My writing is rather pessimistic, due to the angle of the story I got involved with,” she said. “Words are social. I think it’s more natural if an event bothers you to express it in words. Art is also a kind of language – but it is a language of feelings. When I paint, I am happy.
XLIV of The Arab Apocalypse was typical of his writing work: “Where do you want the ghosts to reside?” / In our waking hours there are flowers that cause nightmares / We burned continents with silence / The future of nations ”.
First published in French in 1980, but started five years earlier as the Lebanese civil war loomed, the book-length poem distilled the violence that engulfed the country into short, elegiac lines. Its publication follows the success of Sitt Marie Rose (1977), a novel based on the life of Marie Rose Boulos, a woman executed by a Christian militia during the conflict, also written in French in Paris after Adnan fled from Beirut, and who won the France-Arab Countries prize.
Like L’Apocalypse arabe, subsequent works, including the collection of essays From Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz, 1993) and the collection of poetry In the Heart of Another Country (2005), both written in English, dealt with the tense politics of the Middle East.
Although his painting only received international recognition in the last decade, Adnan began making art in the late 1950s, in part to escape the French language, a gesture of solidarity with Algerians fighting for independence. “I suddenly became, and quite violently, aware that I had naturally and spontaneously taken sides, that I was emotionally a participant in the war, and I wanted to express myself in French… I didn’t need to to use words, but colors and lines.
She was then living in the United States after graduation, teaching at a small college in California. What she started in this environment is revealing: her canvases are exercises in capturing the vivid tones of the west coast, in which blocks of color tumble against each other in compositions that oscillate between abstraction and landscape.
In Fall in Yosemite Valley (1964), a geometric mass of seasonal red on the right of the canvas is reflected in various shades of yellow and orange on the left. Roughly formed squares of green and purple oil paint, applied with firm strokes of a palette knife, disrupt the center of the work, catching the eye. Orbs were a constant presence in his painting until the end, acting as shining suns and punctuation marks.
When she returned to the United States for good in 1979, settling with her partner, Lebanese artist and ceramist Simone Fattal, in the town of Sausalito, nearby Mount Tamalpais became her muse. A large 1985 painting titled after the monument shows a peach foreground extending to a gray peak against a beautiful blue sky. “This mountain has become my best friend,” she said. “It was more than a beautiful mountain: it entered me, existentially, and filled my life. It became a poem around which I orientated myself.
Etel was born in Beirut to Assaf Kadri, a Syrian who had served as a senior officer in the Ottoman army, and Rose Lacorte, known as Lily, a Greek woman whose hometown of Smyrna had been destroyed by the army of Kemal Atatürk three years ago. Assaf had trained in the same military academy as Turkey’s founding father. He then changed the last name to Adnan, which was his father’s first name.
At age five, Etel attended a French-language school run by nuns, before attending the Beirut Higher School of Letters. His father being unemployed at the end of the empire, outside of school hours, Etel worked at the French Information Office. Inspired by Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval and Arthur Rimbaud, she embarked on her first poems.
At 24, she received a scholarship from the Sorbonne and moved to Paris to study philosophy, before moving to the United States in 1955 to continue her studies at the University of California at Berkeley, then at the Harvard University. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy of art at the Dominican University of California, a small college in San Rafael on the San Francisco Bay, and it was partly to put the theory into practice that she taught, as well as the Algerian fight, that brought it to the painting.
It’s another war that brings her back to writing, this time in English. The Ballad of the Lonely Knight in Present-Day America, an anti-Vietnam poem, was published in the SB Gazette in 1965. The following year, she published her first collection, Moonshots. She joined American writers against the Vietnam War and, along the way, became politicized for the Palestinian cause. In her 1973 poem Jebu, she writes about the conflict: “The dastardly bleeding heart for walking / on barbed wire / foraging for food in the bushes / an exile that only ends in wear and tear / people’s cells ”.
She had returned to Beirut in 1972 – “an exile from an exile” – becoming editor-in-chief of culture for the newspaper Al Safa, where she often strayed from the arts to politics. Covering a lecture, she headlined: “It took three politicians to talk nonsense for three hours.” Such gybes were dangerous. In 1974, the newspaper closed, the editor-in-chief having disappeared, and she occupied a similar post at L’Orient le Jour. It was in Beirut that she met Fattal, and in 1977, the couple fled to Paris, before moving to the United States.
Traveling regularly to Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria and back to Lebanon throughout her life, in the 1970s she began copying poetry in Arabic with the intention of incorporating calligraphy into his work. The result was a series of accordion books, “leporellos”, produced in the 80s and 90s, in which she either hand-written poems composed by friends, supplemented by watercolor and watercolor illustrations. ink, or simply reproduce discrete lines over and over, like mantras. As a child, she spoke Arabic with her father, but she was, she says, both “foreign and native” of the language and never composed her own work with it.
Although she had only had four small-scale exhibitions previously, in 2012 a collection of her paintings was included in the quadrennial Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Two years later, White Cube held an exhibition of his work in London and in 2016 the Serpentine Galleries offered him his first retrospective, which incorporated tapestry alongside paintings. His work is currently on display at the Guggenheim, New York.
Of the newfound attention, she said: “I had a great time working in my corner, as you would say. Then I showed with Documenta, and I became known overnight. It was funny, because all the newspaper articles started with my age.
She is survived by Fattal.