ETEL ADNAN at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The current exhibition, Kleur als Taal or Colour as Language held at the Van Gogh Museum, does not only showcase Etel Adnan’s art. It provides flashes of her brilliance as a writer of fiction, poetry and nonfiction (a kind of autobiographical travel writing) and, like a poem, displays how she weaves colours, words and styles “line by line” together like her tapestries. Or her “gardens”, as she calls them. As an artist, Etel Adnan cannot be pigeon holed.

Adnan has lived a transient life. Born to a Greek mother and Lebanese father, she spent her childhood in Beirut, Lebanon. Her adult life was spent periodically in California, where she studied a PhD Philosophy and later lived. It is unsurprising then that her artworks fall somewhere between meditation, on the world and conflict, and worship, of the beauty she saw and adored in Earth, in the Cosmos and in our very existence.

Similar to Van Gogh, Adnan draws on her sense of self and personal experience for her inspiration. Art is, for them both, a freedom of expression. The curator Sara Tas has aspired to create a dialogue between the two. In Van Gogh, the artist Adnan found a great connection; she believed that if you looked closely enough, (and, I would add, with a genuine fascination of the human spirit), “you can feel his inner struggles… his fights… you feel you know him.” As a philosopher, we see Adnan’s search for humanity in all her work and we begin to look for it in Van Gogh’s paired pieces, trying to see what she saw and have that same level of appreciation.

They are said to have both drawn from reality when starting a piece: for Adnan this was from memories of meaningful places. The precious natural world, as revealed through her art, is explained in a video which is showcased at the exhibition. It features conversations with the artist before her death in November 2021. Adnan clearly loved nature: it fascinated her. It appears as both overwhelming and comforting to her and it is a topic which seems to have been all encompassing. 

What strikes you about her art is the deep, dense, bold colors thickly applied (often with a palette knife), which has been said before, but for me also the experimentation and child-like playfulness in some pieces. Oil, watercolors, Indian ink on paper, cardboard and the woven designs and pieces on display. For Adnan, “colours exist for me as entities in themselves” and we see this throughtout the items on display.

Further to this, her creations explore the idea of borders and lines, the edges of things and directions. It reminds me of how lived her life as a person who grew up transient and displaced by education and opportunity, war or love. These experiences enriched her understanding of the world around her: she enjoyed her own ‘private museums’ with the Lebanese rug traders as a child and later used her poetry as a movement against the war in Vietnam, as well as for some time refusing to write in French due to its colonial roots in her home country. In 1957 she produced some Mexican-inspired art: wall tiles or ‘wallpapers’ which are unrestrained and exciting to see in the larger format.

It is no surprise that she describes her art as a “reaction to her experiences and thoughts” and a reflection of her “connection to nature”.

In her later works, from 2010, the Weight of the World pieces on display are like reflections. Vibrant spheres hang suspended in blocks of colour, a signature style of Adnan’s art. These abstract shapes show us her fascination with humanity: “I write what I see, I paint what I am.” When you compare this to her earlier work for 1983-86 on Mountain Tamalpaïs, described as her “best friend” and symbolic of a colonial land she knew well, we see how she was a patient, reflective artist who identified with the meaning offered to her in all things. She acknowledges herself that “we are [all] in constant change and turmoil, along with the world” and that “no two minutes are the same.”

Adnan is revealed to me to have a deep respect for the natural world. In one statement, she claims to realize that “nature is alive and conscious and wants to affirm its power.” She is a sensitive artist who sought to discover the beauty which “we don’t talk about anymore”.  A refreshing exhibition from an intuitive creative.  Rosie Fawbert Mills    20th May 2022

Colour as Language, a retrospective of work by the artist Etel Adnan runs at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until 4th September.