Born in Lebanon, Etel Adnan is an artist, poet, novelist, and essayist whose artwork of semi-abstract landscape paintings and drawings spans decades She also creates large-scale tapestries, screens, ceramics, and leporellos, accordion-style folding books that merge her words and drawings. Her poetry and prose – fiction, essays, and journalism – address the turmoil of war.
Adnan was born in Beirut to a Syrian father and a Greek mother. Lebanon was still under French rule so she grew up attuned to the effects of colonialism and cultural differences between the French and middle-Eastern people. She protested the French occupation of Algeria and was in solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence, which ended in 1962. Later on she would protest the Vietnam War.
Adnan studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and in the United States at Berkeley and Harvard. She taught Philosophy of Art at Dominican College (now Dominican University of California) and only began painting in 1958 when a colleague questioned her ability to teach the Philosophy of Art without ever having made art herself.
For her own art, Adnan turned to the Northern California large-scale landscape of ocean, bay, and mountains for inspiration. It was a mountain near San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais, that inspired her the most. This mountain has appeared in her paintings for decades. She still paints it but now mostly from memory since she has settled into a Paris-Beirut-California lifestyle with her partner, the sculptor Simone Fattal.
In the 1970s, Adnan returned to Lebanon for four years. Civil War broke out in 1975, and she moved back to Paris the following year. In 1977, her novel “Sitt Marie Rose” criticized Lebanon’s treatment of women and the country’s religious intolerance. She returned to California and continued to paint Mount Tamalpais in various media.
Landscape, mixed with memory, informs her artwork. Adnan considers her paintings to be visual poems. Her small-scale abstracted landscape paintings of mountains, skies, and water are rendered in interlocking blocks of color and applied with a palette knife. She wants to paint a feeling of nature and not just an image of nature. She often includes a bright red sun, shaped like a circle or even a square. She loves to put red into her paintings whenever she can and feels that color gives energy to a painting as well as to the people viewing it.
In 2014, New York’s New Museum featured her in an exhibition of art from the Arab world, and the Whitney Museum of American Art included her in its biennial. In 2017, New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s show, “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction” gave one of her compositions a significant position at the entrance. In 2018, MASS MoCA gave her a solo presentation that connected her poetry with her art.
Solo exhibitions of her work have taken place in Luxembourg’s Musee d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean; Aspen Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, England’s Serpentine Gallery; Irish Museum of Modern Art; Qatar’s Arab Museum of Modern Art, and others.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the British Museum; Centre Pompidou; National Museum of Women in the Arts; New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; and others.