Since Cézanne, few painters have enjoyed mountains as much as Etel Adnan (1925-2021). She often reproduced them, sometimes several together, most painted according to memory, but also modeled regularly after the mountain that was considered Adnan’s lifelong muse: California’s Mount Tamalpais. In the beautiful and above all beautifully designed Adnan exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum, Color as language, there are innumerable such mountain ranges, and as I looked, I understood more of the attraction of the mountain as a motive for a painter. In short, it comes down to the piece: the top of the painting also participates. Mountains allow the landscape to extend far beyond the horizon, and allow an artist to play with the division of the surface in ways that do not occur in, for example, a polder landscape. Adnan was very good at playing it.
She died in November last year at the blessed age of 96, a renowned artist, poet and philosopher, not necessarily in that order. She grew up in Beirut, the child of a Greek Orthodox mother and a Muslim father, and lived in Paris, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and San Francisco, among other places. A cosmopolitan life with all its growth and trials. Adnan was relatively old when she started painting, older than Vincent, even when he started: 34. She admired the German-Baltic painter Nicolas de Staël, whose landscapes are closely related to hers. Her international breakthrough came in 2012, when the tireless curator (and director of the Serpentine Gallery) Hans-Ulrich Obrist selected her for Documenta (13).
The exhibition at Van Gogh gives a good impression of her oeuvre. All the media Adnan worked in can be seen: the leporelloes, the rugs. The early paintings reminiscent of walls lined with post-its, the later canvases showing landscapes or at least having something scenic. Especially the newer paintings are extraordinary. From a distance, they look generic, but they are not. They are small and have a paint skin that is as smooth as the top of a lemon meringue. They show valleys, walls, plains and celestial bodies, rudimentary as colored paper cuts and constructed of unmixed, sharply contrasting color surfaces. All this creates a pleasant feeling of confusion about what is foreground and what is background. They are concentrated, playful and vital. They set you up as the best Vincents.
The painter Adnan and the writing painter Van Gogh, you will learn here, had much in common. Both were inspired by the open cultural climate of Paris; both were convinced of the strong emotional effect of the colors, though Adnan worked more intuitively than the priest’s son. Both wrote extensively and insightfully about their work. Van Gogh ‘translated’ work by Millet and Delacroix. Adnan copied the calligraphy from admired Arab poets.
Related spirits, in short, whose work, as the exhibition proves, can be very well linked. This is a duo presentation where both parties are lifted. With a little good will, you can even see their work as different – far apart – phases in one long artist’s life. You can imagine an 80-year-old Van Gogh would have painted landscapes like Adnans. Adnans Without title (2014), for example, almost seems to be a revival of Vincents Kornmark (1888). The same tight surface division, the same fiery summer colors. Although corn has been replaced by monochrome yellow surfaces, and the succulent grass has given way to uniform greens, it has the same spaciousness. And everyone who looks at it will be just as happy.
Reconstruction of Arabic
Etel Adnan painted as a writer. Really: she laid a prepared canvas flat on the table, as if it were a notebook or a sheet of paper, and thus set up the painting with a palette knife. Her frontal landscapes were largely created while the artist looked down on them. It is somehow appropriate: for Adnan, there was no hierarchy between the art forms. She placed as much emphasis on an oil painting as on a tapestry or leporello, the accordion-shaped booklets of Japanese paper in which she used illuminated Arabic calligraphy. In these leporellos, Adnan copied poetry by Arab poets like the Iraqi Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and feminist texts like those of the Lebanese human rights activist and author Joumana Haddad. She also had her own texts translated into Arabic, after which she could write and illustrate them in a leporello. It grew out of Adnan’s desire to master Arabic, the language she had never mastered because of the French mandate in the Lebanon of her youth. In color, Adnan thought he had found a language free of traces of colonial times. In that sense, her painting was a political act.
Etel Adnan, Vincent van Gogh – Color as language
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Exhibited until: 4 September, www.vangoghmuseum.nl