Retrospective of Lebanese-American artist Etel Adnan opens at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam
DUBAI: What do Vincent van Gogh and Etel Adnan have in common? The iconic Dutch artist was born in the Netherlands in 1853, the Lebanese-American artist and writer Adnan was born in Beirut under French mandate 72 years later. He was provisionally a rural priest, she a cultural publisher. Her life ended at 37, while she started painting at 34.
This rare artistic duo is explored in a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam highlighting the legendary career of Adnan, who died aged 96 in Paris in 2021. It is the first time that a retrospective of his is presented in the Netherlands.
“Color as Language” presents an impressive selection of 70 works by Adnan from private and public collections, dating from the 1960s, as well as 10 museum paintings by Van Gogh. It runs until September 4.
A philosopher at heart, Adnan continued to paint until his last days, creating a colorful inner world where shapes and colors intertwine, cultivating visually appealing abstract landscapes on small canvases. The show focuses on what inspired her the most throughout her life: nature.
In the mid-1950s, Adnan moved to California, where she painted several famous Mount Tamalpais compositions.
“One day they asked me, ‘Who is the most important person you’ve ever met?’ and I said, ‘It was a mountain,’” Adnan once said. “I discovered that two minutes were never the same. When a cloud passes in front of the sun, it’s like someone turning off a light, and everything changes. So you realize that we are in perpetual change, in turmoil. There is no total rest, not only for us, but for the world. Nature is constantly changing, as we do.
Van Gogh also expressed a deep love of nature, executed with his characteristic style of bold brushstrokes and thick outlines. Adnan first encountered her work while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1950s, and she was captivated by her intense way of painting, tapping into her hidden emotions.
“I think it touches people – there’s something moving about them, and I feel it when I look at a work by Van Gogh, but also when I look at a painting by Adnan,” the curator said. the exhibition, Sara Tas, to Arab News. “If you really look at it and kind of let it in, it touches something inside of you.”
Tass met Adnan in 2020. “When she writes or when she speaks, every word is right,” she recalled. “She wastes nothing. And I think that’s also what she does with the paintings. It’s very simple but everything goes straight to the point.
Adnan, who also wrote novels, poems and plays, considered Van Gogh a man of words, known for his correspondence with family and friends.
“To a certain extent, Van Gogh writes on his canvas, he writes a landscape,” observes Adnan. Van Gogh might have thought the same of Adnan, basing himself on something he wrote in 1888: “One can speak of poetry simply by arranging the colors well.”
Adnan believed that “colors make visible what the person is trying to say, but in silence”. In his imaginative work, a mountain can be bright red or green, with flecks of blue, pink and yellow. It demonstrates the deep ability of color to sublimate a natural setting, whether serene or turbulent.
On both floors of the exhibition there are a few examples where two landscapes by Van Gogh and Adnan are paired, highlighting a similar use of palette and layout. But that’s by no means meant to encourage comparison, Tass points out. “I didn’t mean to say, ‘Look how Etel Adnan was influenced by Van Gogh,’ because that wouldn’t do her justice,” she explained. “It really is his show, but with links to Van Gogh, in the context of our museum.”
What also ties the artists together is the fact that they both achieved popularity late in the game. As talented as she was, Adnan didn’t become a household name in the art world until she was eighty. Van Gogh, meanwhile, was notoriously underrated during his lifetime.
“For Van Gogh, making visual art was the essence of his life. He felt he needed to. It’s not like he was completely unknown – he was well liked by many of his peers – but fame came after his death,” Tas said.
“It’s (similar) with Etel. She was just working and she had a circle of friends around her. She sold paintings, but not on a large scale. It was only after its presentation at Documenta that the international art world really took notice. As a result, she had exhibitions in Qatar, Istanbul, Paris, New York, San Francisco… And now in Amsterdam.