Etel Adnan (1925–2021) was an important representative of modernism. Her oeuvre is distinguished by a rich and vital exchange between the Arab and the Western worlds. The work of the poet, painter, journalist, and philosopher, who lived between Lebanon, France, and California, melds widely different art forms, media, languages, and cultures.
Born in Beirut to a Greek mother and a Syrian father from Damascus for whom exile is the defining experience, she grows up in polyglot Lebanon, which is under French rule until 1943. She studies philosophy first in Beirut, then in Paris and, after 1955, in California. These places and their cultural climates will have a lingering power. Travels to Mexico and North Africa, too, have a profound impact on her. Wars, life in exile, and constantly shifting geopolitical conditions frame her eventful life and her art’s active engagement with the world around her. Her immersion in new contexts and exposure to transcultural impulses are reflected in her art’s openness to different visual languages and media. Adnan has been fascinated with writing and poetry since her childhood. It is not until the late 1950s that she branches out into painting in the sense of a universal language that, to her, points a way out of a dilemma: after the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), she refuses to continue to work in the language of the French colonial rulers and is eager to express her solidarity with Algeria: "I didn't need to write in French anymore, I was going to paint in Arabic." In her leporellos—a folding- book form originally from Japan that becomes her signature medium—she develops a close conjunction of poetry and painting, of writing and drawing.
Across the great diversity of forms, Adnan’s art is characterized by the recurrence of certain themes and motifs, "lines of force" that course through her entire oeuvre: on the one hand, nature—perhaps one of her key themes—and a specific relationship with the earth that, Adnan believes, underlies Arabic poetry; on the other hand, insurrection and active opposition to war and oppression of any kind.
The Lenbachhaus's exhibition is the first comprehensive retrospective of Etel Adnan's oeuvre in Germany. It gathers artworks from all periods of the internationally renowned artist’s oeuvre and in a wide range of media. Side by side with her small-format abstract paintings, whose intensity of color lends them an almost mystical quality, her monumental tapestries, delicate works on paper, leporellos, and experiments on film shed light on her specific engagement with questions of color and form and with the cosmic dimension of time, space, and the spiritual. The exhibition also pays tribute to Adnan’s writings, which articulate her political stances with particular clarity.
The exhibition was organized in cooperation with Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.
The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen mourn the loss of Etel Adnan, who passed away on November 14, 2021 at the age of 96. Our sympathies go out to her closest confidants, companions and her partner Simone Fattal.
Sébastien Delot, Director, LaM Lille métropole musée d’art moderne d’art contemporain et d’art brut
in collaboration with
Melanie Vietmeier, Head of Collections/ Curator, The Blue Rider and Kubin Archive, Lenbachhaus