“Painter and poet, born in 1925, Etel Adnan is a Lebanese/American. She studied philosophy in Paris, Berkely and Harvard. She writes poetry, essays, stories and plays. She’s a painter, and makes remarkable artist’s books. Her first exhibition happened in California in 1960, while she was teaching philosophy. She exhibited in the United States, England, France, Germany, and the Arab World. Many private and public collections have acquired her works. After spending the major part of her life in California, she resides now mainly in Paris.” (Claude Lemand)
Etel Adnan. “Among the various works I have produced, I have to mention particularly the artist’s books that I started to make since 1964. They are Japanese "books" that are folded, made in Kyoto. I buy them in San Francisco, New York or Paris, in Japanese stores. I usually write on them poems from the major XXth century Arab Poets, mainly from Badr Shaker al Sayyab. I accompany these hand written poems with watercolours and drawings. I made a point of not using classical calligraphy, although it’s an art-form I value extremely, in order to use my own hand writing for its very imperfection.
The result is a real translation of the original Arabic poems into a visual equivalence. This Japanese format - where the paper unfolds - creates an horizontal plane that seems to be infinite, and that goes beyond the traditional frame of painted works. This way, the texts and the images are liberated. I would like to remind the reader that I have been the first Arab painter besides Shaker Hassan al Saïd to start a trend in Arab Art, the one concerning the use of personal, non traditional and calligraphic writing, in Arab Art.” (Etel Adnan)
Emmanuel Daydé, Etel Adnan the undefeated sun.
« Between sun and moon, between the fever of living and that of dying, the mountain keeps the balance» (Etel Adnan)
Etel Adnan’s painting, just like her poetry, come from the mountain to then dive into the sea. Being a concrete experience of both the past and the present simultaneously, her ‘alchemical laboratory’ comes from far, from very far. From the undefeated sun and from the sea that always starts again. From Lebanon, from Greece, from Paris and from America’s West coast. From the Mediterranean and from the Pacific. From the epicurean atomism, from Mahmoud Darwish’s sad lyricism and from Noam Chomsky’s naturalistic linguistics. From the icon, from the Persian miniature, from the Arabic calligraphy, from the carpet with geometric patterns, from the lyrical Abstraction, from Action-painting, from minimalist art and from the experimental cinema. Having travelled at the core of the core of all these countries, Etel Adnan remains an Arab nomadic globe-trotter who sings the intense love of our tragic world with an infinite number of ghazals. According to her friends, ‘people are satisfied if one miracle occurs in their lives, but Etel needs miracles to happen twice a day’. Celebrating the world’s beauty, her hedonistic paintings follow in their own way Gauguin’s prophetic ‘Talisman’, that Sérusier then passed on to the Nabis painters, the ‘prophets’.
Born in Lebanon from a Turkish-Syrian Muslim father and a Greek Orthodox mother, the ‘poor little Etel’ (as the Catholic nuns, who looked after her at the French school in Beirut, used to call her) always felt that she was ‘the world’s best friend’. In order to seek for the lost unity of the universe, to tear down Aristotle’s categories and to ‘make the borders of what we call reality infinite’ (Artaud), she needed to go from the East to the West, to break through oceans, continents and people. She left Lebanon when she was 24 years old and fled to Paris to learn the philosophy there. She admitted that, ‘my head stayed French, I was unable to detach myself from the house. I was consumed by guilt as my father had passed away and I had left my mother on her own. Although I studied aesthetics at the Sorbonne, I rarely visited the museums. Yet I must have still been a dozen of times to the Louvre. In the 1950s, the sculptures The Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Vénus de Milo were exhibited very close to each other: I was deeply affected by them’. Hence the first aesthetic confrontation will not have been pictorial but sculptural. These Greek female nudes of the Louvre, whose dynamism is Hellenistic rather than Classical, were most likely sculpted in Anatolia on the Ionian coast. This was the same coast that her mother had forever abandoned to take refuge in Beirut, following the dramatic re-conquest of Smyrna by the Turkish army in 1922. It is therefore not surprising that in the 2000s, she painted mountains in the shape of the female bosom that seem to allude to Ephesus’ ‘Artemis polymastos’ (‘Artemis with the multiple breasts’).
When she was in Paris, Etel Adnan still remembers a small work by Nicolas de Staël, almost square-shaped, that she had noticed in the room of a Russian friend who was desperately trying to sell it. Similarly to Shafic Abboud, another Lebanese artist who left Lebanon to try out his luck in Paris in the 1950s, Etel Adnan followed the path of Eastern Damascus, that led from a pure geometric abstraction to a flawed abstract figuration. De Staël’s influence is apparent in one of her very first paintings, devoid of a subject matter, executed with a knife, expressive and physical like football players. She later completely moved away from de Staël when she was in America, influenced by the ‘hard-edge’ whilst asserting the endless integrity and without painting nuances of the flat areas of colour.
On the American path
Without her American adventure, all her early pictorial aspirations would have been nipped in the bud. When she crossed America from the East to the West, from New York to San Francisco, the artist was overwhelmed by the beauty and vastness of the landscape that revealed itself in front of her. She was bedazzled by American novelist/poet Jack Kerouac who had gone ‘On the road’ to learn about the Zen culture of ‘The Dharma Bums’ on the West coast. She hence discovered Abstract Expressionism also through Pollock’s ‘drippings’, that were inspired by the Navajo Indians’ sand paintings, transforming painting into Homeric epic poems. Etel Adnan claimed that, ‘my arrival to America, a country whose culture and language were unknown to me, was a new way of being born for me. I experienced America under all its angles and I immersed myself into it. Furthermore, I was lucky to live there during the 1960s and to encounter their prophetic spirit, a Golden Age that was equally as important as the pre-Socratic era or that of pre-revolutionary Russia. I actually thought that these exceptional years would last forever !’
However, before calling herself a poet, Etel sees herself as a painter. ‘I should have left America in 1958 but I managed to find a position as an aesthetics professor in a college, 15km. North of San Francisco. As I was walking down the road, a woman stopped me. It was Ann O’Hanlon, the director of the Painting Department. She asked me what I was doing: ‘You discuss painting but are you a painter ?’ - I answered to her question without thinking, ‘No, because my mother always told me I was clumsy’ – she added, ‘Oh really, and you believed her ?’ following which she asked me to meet her in her department. She then gave me a few small pieces of paper and some small pastel crayons. In front of the window that looked out onto an alley, a stream and some big trees, I started doing some small squares, just as I would write, by cutting up some irregular pieces of canvas. Later, when Ann invited me over for dinner at her place, my squares were hanging on the wall’. Etel Adnan became a painter whilst painting, as she stated: ‘I write what I see, I paint what I am’.
At the beginning of her artistic career, the artist became known for her ‘leporellos’, those Japanese notebooks made out of rice paper, which is folded as an accordion. In the same way as pre-Islamic poets from Arabia wrote on animal skins, or as the meticulous Persian miniaturists from the Middle Ages painted, she clumsily wrote poems in Arabic on these scrolls of paper which she then illuminated with hesitant shapes and blazing heavenly colors. She often witnessed her poetry being adapted to music and characterized the latter as ‘turning poetry into a song and that it transforms it into something different, enhancing the mad aspect of poetry, a madness that is sometimes enchanted’. Her dazzling sound paintings on ‘leporello’, that unfold into space and time like a music score and that bring back to life the shape from the line – barely allowing herself a few figural snippets (such as the hands, flowers or moons) – make Adnan a pioneer of the Modern Art that is being created. Some revenge it is for her, who suffered from having remained ‘at the door of the Arabic language’, a language that was forbidden to her and only the streets taught it to her during her childhood… What a tribute to Paul Klee, her friend in the sky, the most musician and the most Oriental Westerner…
Satori at Mount Tamalpais
Despite finding itself at the crossroads of the East and the West, exposed to numerous influences (French, Californian, Greek, Syrian or Lebanese), Adnan’s painting has remained profundly Arab in the end: her preference for decorative elements, her ‘vertigo of reduction’ from the vast big to small format, her powerful lyricism, her fixed daydream and her sidereal mysticism. ‘Will I be condemned to spend the rest of my life staring out to the world from my window?’, asked the artist in despair at the end of the last century. As she takes action against the war in Vietnam, as well as campaigning for the Indian and Palestinian causes and fighting against the civil war raging through Lebanon, powerless and using her words as only weapon, she leaned above the bay windows of her friends Jim or Laura, using ink to paint New York seen from the 34th floor of a sky-scraper or the swell of the roofs of Paris. As she settled in Sausalito in 1977, in San Francisco’s bay, she felt a strong attraction to the thuds of the Pacific’s funeral march. Speaking to the spirits of the Phoenician adventurer, as well as to the founding divinities of antique Sidon: time, desire and fog, the ocean led her to the mountain, ‘the most important person she had ever met’.
Sitting by the window as if she was at the movies, the Lebanese sibyl watches the show of light of Mount Tamalpais. Measuring 752 meters high, this mountain was sacred for Native Americans as it dominates the Pacific. Adnan looked at it as her wild sister, feeling as if she had been hit in the stomach, admitting that ‘I cared about the mountain even before beginning to paint it. Nowadays, the memories of the universe and I are united. In front of the mountain’. At that point, she realized that painting landscapes signified creating cosmic events and that drawing the cone of a rocky elevation meant launching an attack on the tangent that escapes towards infinity: ‘we need the mountain to be. Any movement that I do outlines the mountain without me even noticing it’. She transforms this natural and spontaneous perception into abstract art, which is both geometric and lyrical, like an impossible reconciliation between Malevitch and Kandinsky. She produces small magical paintings with series of immaculate green, orange or blue pyramids swaying, that emerge from completely pink or yellow skies, just like flying carpets, solar mosaics or songs of triumph.
These sparkling epiphanies, that were dreamt from seasonal observations of Mount Tamalpais, have troubling resemblances with another mythical mountain, where the little girl, like all Beirut citizens, loved to escape during her childhood. This mountain is ‘Lubnan’, part of the snow-covered high mountain range of Mount Lebanon, that dominates the Mediterranean sea and that blocks the entrance to the Syrian desert. ‘Childhood is meant to support the being’, wrote Etel Adnan on a draft copy. Simone Fattal was the first to reveal that her friend Etel translated that place whilst taking inspiration from this place, ‘Home far away from home’. The poetess herself admitted it by recognizing that ‘the space taken up by a painting is that of memory’. The Lebanese culture of the icon, an image that has not been created by Man, remains at the core of this transcendental Oriental painting. Etel confirms that ‘We create images but they don’t belong to us’. Although the artist claims that she does not allocate any specific symbolism to colors – and paint the mountain green when it is raining, or yellow when the sun burns it – her paintings are always affiliated to revelations, or ‘satoris’ as referred to by Kerouac. This may explain her passion for red, a colour ‘whose father is the knife’ (John Berger). In the same way that Malevitch’s ‘Red Square’ is the ultimate shape for a female Russian peasant, the red square, that Etel Adnan produces with a knife before commencing any painting, could actually stand for her hidden passion for the circle and for the sun. She noticed that, ‘When I draw a circle, I draw Earth, the moon or the sun. However the sun is red. People tend to depict it yellow although we do not see it yellow. We see a gleaming and radiant sun. Would a circle drawn on a piece of paper be a reduction of the sun, or would it translate the human fate ?’ In the world of Etel Adnan’s pure colors, the red matrix square has everything from the black sun. In the antique city of Emesa, today’s city of martyrdom Homs, at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon chain, the Roman-Syrian Emperor Heliogabal, who fascinated so much Antonin Artaud, worshipped the sacred stone of Sol Invictus (‘the undefeated sun’), a black monolith that fell from the sky. Furthermore, when the Lebanese poetess talks about the mysticism of the landscape’s elevation and of its cosmic character, she is perhaps referring to this antique astral El Gabal (literally meaning ‘the one from the mountain’) in an immemorial way.
In 1984, she worked with Robert Wilson on the French part of the texts from the unfinished opera ‘CIVIL WarS’. Following this, she became more aware of ‘the importance of lighting as this is what creates the ambient surroundings, in a way that a fish changes depending on the water he is swimming in’. Using a Super 8 camera (until it got jammed), she recorded the mountain, the ocean, the boats loaded with trash, the birds, the sunset, the sun itself (looking at it with eyes half-closed) and even the fog – or rather, the fog approaching just like the arrival of a new human being. She records the elements in the epicurean philosopher Lucretius’ way, by transforming the film’s grain in as many invisible atoms. As opposed to the fixed plans of Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire’ or ‘Sleep’, that only record the gloomy passing of time, her seventy little atomist films, that are blinding, blurry, jammed, overexposed, are pure perceptions of the nature of things. For Etel Adnan, Paradise can only be visible by opening the eyes, ‘Eternity runs on fluid substance / Neither movement nor essence / But the washed and washed-out face of the sea / Liquid, liquid, liquid element / I am the sea and the Queen of the sea’.
Translated from French by Valérie Didier Hess
National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington.
World Bank Collection, Washington.
Institut du monde arabe, Paris.
Donation Claude & France Lemand 2018, 2019, Museum, Institut du monde arabe, Paris.
British Museum, Londres.
Musée Nicolas Sursock, Beyrouth
Musée d’art contemporain, Tunis
Contemporary Crafts Museum, New York
Contemporary Crafts Museum, Los Angeles
Mathaf. Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar.