Etel Adnan

Claude Lemand. “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.

Red Lebanon
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 Hess


Public Collections

National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington
World Bank Collection, Washington
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

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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