If Etel Adnan’s poetry and prose were characterised by their mournful evocation of her native Lebanon’s turbulent history, often seen through the eyes of an émigré, then her painting, for which she found further fame later in life, was infused with a joyous sense of colour. For Adnan, who has died aged 96, the two disciplines were complementary.
“My writing is rather pessimistic, because of the angle of history I got involved with,” she said. “Words are social. I think it’s more natural if an event bothers you to express it in words. Art also is a kind of language – but it’s a language of feeling. When I paint, I am happy.”
XLIV from The Arab Apocalypse was typical of her written work: “Where do you want ghosts to reside? / In our wakeful hours there are flowers which produce nightmares / We burned continents of silence / the future of nations”.
First published in French in 1980, but begun five years earlier as the Lebanese civil war brewed, the book-length poem distilled the violence that engulfed the country in short, elegiac lines. Its publication followed the success of Sitt Marie Rose (1977), a novel based on the life of Marie Rose Boulos, a woman executed by a Christian militia during the conflict, also written in French in Paris after Adnan had fled Beirut, and which won the France-Pays Arabes award.
Like The Arab Apocalypse, subsequent works, including the essay collection Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz, 1993) and poetry collection In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (2005), both written in English, dealt with the fraught politics of the Middle East.
Despite her painting receiving international recognition only in the last decade, Adnan actually began making art in the late 50s, in part to escape the French language, a move in solidarity with the Algerians fighting for independence. “I became suddenly, and rather violently, conscious that I had naturally and spontaneously taken sides, that I was emotionally a participant in the war, and I resented having to express myself in French … I didn’t need to use words, but colours and lines.”
She was then living in the US following graduation, teaching at a small college in California. That she started in this environment is telling: her canvases are exercises in capturing the vivid tones of the west coast, in which blocks of colour tumble against each other in compositions that sway between abstraction and landscape.
In Autumn in Yosemite Valley (1964), a geometric mass of seasonal red on the right of the canvas is mirrored by various hues of yellow and orange to the left. Roughly formed squares of green and purple oil paint, applied with firm swipes of a palette knife, disrupt the centre of the work, drawing the eye. Orbs were a constant presence in her painting until the end, acting as glowing suns and punctuation marks.
When she returned to the US for good in 1979, settling with her partner, the Lebanese artist and ceramicist Simone Fattal, in the town of Sausalito, the nearby Mount Tamalpais became her muse. A large 1985 painting titled after the landmark shows a peachy foreground stretching up to a grey peak against a gorgeous blue sky. “That mountain became my best friend,” she said. “It was more than just a beautiful mountain: it entered me, existentially, and filled my life. It became a poem around which I orientated myself.”
Etel was born in Beirut to Assaf Kadri, a Syrian who had served as a senior officer in the Ottoman army, and Rose Lacorte, known as Lily, a Greek woman whose birth town of Smyrna had been destroyed by Kemal Atatürk’s army three years before. Assaf had trained at the same military academy as Turkey’s founding father. He later changed the family surname to Adnan, which was his father’s first name.
Aged five Etel went to a French-language school run by nuns, before attending the École Supérieure des Lettres de Beyrouth. With her father left unemployed by the end of the empire, outside school hours Etel worked at the French Information Bureau. Inspired by Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval and Arthur Rimbaud, she started on her first poems.
Aged 24 she received a scholarship from the Sorbonne, moving to Paris to study philosophy, before heading to the US in 1955 to continue the subject at the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently Harvard University. From 1958 to 1972 she taught philosophy of art at the Dominican University of California, a small college in San Rafael on the San Francisco Bay, and it was partly to put into practice the theory she was teaching, as well as the Algerian struggle, that led her to painting.
It was another war that brought her back to writing, this time in English. The Ballad of the Lonely Knight in Present-Day America, an anti-Vietnam poem, was published in the journal SB Gazette in 1965. The following year she published her first collection, Moonshots. She joined American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and along the way became politicised to the Palestinian cause. In her 1973 poem Jebu she writes of the conflict: “The ignoble heart bleeding for having walked / on barbed wires / looking for food in bushes / an exile which has no end but in the wearing / of the people’s cells”.
She had returned to Beirut in 1972 – “an exile from an exile” – becoming culture editor for the Al Safa newspaper, where she often strayed beyond the arts to politics. Covering a conference, she ran the headline, “It took three politicians to speak nonsense for three hours”. Such jibes were dangerous. In 1974 the paper closed, the editor having disappeared, and she moved on to a similar role at L’Orient le Jour. It was in Beirut that she met Fattal, and in 1977 the pair escaped to Paris, before moving to the US.
Travelling regularly to Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria and back to Lebanon throughout her life, in the 70s she began to copy poetry in Arabic with the intent to integrate calligraphy into her work. The result was a series of concertina books, “leporellos”, produced throughout the 80s and 90s, in which she either handwrote poems composed by friends, complemented with watercolour and ink illustration, or merely replicated discrete lines repeatedly, mantra-like. As a child she spoke Arabic with her father, but she was, she said, both “a stranger and a native” to the language and never composed her own work with it.
Though she had only ever had four small-scale exhibitions previously, in 2012 a collection of her paintings were included in the four-yearly Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Two years later White Cube in London staged a show of her work and in 2016 the Serpentine Galleries gave her her first retrospective, which incorporated tapestry alongside the paintings. Her work is currently on show at the Guggenheim, New York.
Of the newfound attention she said: “I had a nice time, working in my corner, as you would say. Then I showed with Documenta, and became known overnight. It was funny, because all the newspaper reports started with my age.”
She is survived by Fattal.
• Etel Adnan, poet and artist, born 24 February 1925; died 14 November 2021