Who is Etel Adnan?
Read more about this versatile artist.
5 things you need to know about
The bright, powerful colours are the first thing that strikes you when you look at Etel Adnan’s work. Adnan always selected her colours intuitively and applied them to her canvas directly out of the tube.
Adnan uses these colours to convey the power of nature, with which she felt a strong connection. In her own words:
‘It is the power of nature that comes to us through colour’.
But colour meant more to Adnan. She always lived between different languages and cultures. She spoke French, English, Greek and Turkish, and lived in Paris, Beirut and California.
Art was like home to her, something to hold on to; a language that transcends borders and cultures.
‘Colours make visible what the person is trying to say, but silent’.
Language had always played a significant role in Adnan’s life. Before she became known for her visual work, she was already a celebrated author and poet. One of her best-known works is Sitt Marie Rose (1978), in which she writes about the horrors of the Lebanese civil war.
Adnan began writing in French, but gradually discovered the language’s colonial undertones.
Etel Adnan grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, which was under French mandate at the time. Everyone learned French at school. Arabic, which most people spoke, became an inferior language.
Art allowed Adnan to express herself more freely and to transcend the emotional charge sometimes associated with language.
If you see the artworks of Adnan and Van Gogh together, you’ll probably soon spot similarities: bright, powerful colours, trees, a sun, the landscape.
The artists shared a love of nature and colour. Van Gogh wrote this about colour:
‘I don’t know if you’ll understand that one can speak poetry just by arranging colours’.
The works of both artists are certainly poetic. They were both gifted writers. Adnan passionately wrote poems, essays and stories, and Van Gogh left behind hundreds of remarkable letters.
Adnan recognised a talented writer in Van Gogh’s letters, and saw his writer’s hand in his artworks:
‘To a degree, Van Gogh writes on his canvas, he is writing a landscape’.
Adnan said that Mount Tamalpais was her ‘best friend’. The mountain is in California, where Adnan lived for many years. She could see the mountain from her window.
She was amazed by how the mountain constantly changed with the light, seasons and weather. And this is reflected in her work; no two depictions of the mountain are the same.
The sun is another subject that regularly appears in her artworks. It is often a crimson square or circle. Adnan saw the sun as a starting point, a shape around which she could construct the rest of the painting.
Adnan’s fascination with the sun can be traced back to the Beirut of her youth, where the sun – and the sea – were always close by.
Adnan’s love of language and images is united in her leporellos. These are little books with folded concertina-style pages, onto which she often copied texts by Arabic writers and poets whom she admired. This allowed her to master the Arabic script, a language that belonged to the country in which she grew up, but that she did not speak.
Making tapestries also connected Adnan to her native country. The fabrics were Adnan’s earliest introduction to art. There were no museums in the Lebanon of Adnan’s youth, but there were Persian carpets.
Adnan therefore came to see no difference between a painting, a carpet and a painted vase. It was all art, and all equally valuable.
Etel Adnan died in November 2021 at the age of 96. Her paintings, drawings, poems and tapestries have a power of expression that transcends time. As the years pass, many people will be touched by her art, in the same way as the work of Vincent van Gogh is still admired around the world today.