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Etel Adnan in her Paris studio in 2016. Photo: Catherine Panchout/Sygma/Getty Images.
Etel Adnan in her Paris studio in 2016. Photo: Catherine Panchout/Sygma/Getty Images.

Etel Adnan (1925–2021)

Lebanese American author, poet, and artist Etel Adnan died November 14 in Paris at the age of ninety-six. News of her death was confirmed by her partner, the artist Simone Fattal, according to the New York Times. First coming to wide acclaim as a novelist with her award-winning Sitt Marie Rose, published in French in 1978 and detailing a kidnapping during the Lebanese Civil War, Adnan went on to become a renowned poet and in her eighties achieved global recognition as a painter with her bright, simple works that evoked complex emotions through the warm hues of California sun and Lebanese desert reflected therein. “There are few lives that have charted the dislocations, tectonic shifts, passions, and innumerable heartbreaks of the modern Arab world as Etel Adnan,” wrote Negar Azimi in this magazine’s January 2014 issue.

Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925 to a young Greek mother who had been raised in extreme poverty and a Syrian army officer father who had grown up wealthy, educated alongside Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who would go on to found the Republic of Turkey. Adnan would later describe her parents as “people who were defeated while they were still young.” Having been raised speaking French, as was common in Lebanon at the time, when speaking Arabic was frowned upon, she moved to Paris in 1949 to study philosophy at the Sorbonne on a scholarship and a few years later departed for the United States, where she studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University. She eventually settled in California, where she began painting in 1959 while working as a professor. Having received no training, she frequently applied pigment directly from the tube to canvases laid flat upon a table to create stark, geometric shapes. It was her writing, however, that first earned her acclaim. As an act of rebellion against the Algerian War, she stopped writing in French and began writing in Arabic; the Vietnam War inspired her to become, as she described herself, an “American poet.”

Following her return in 1972 to Beirut, where she met Fattal, she worked as an editor for two of that city’s daily newspapers. Sitt Marie Rose, which she wrote in Paris in French, won the 1977 France-Pays Arabes award and established her reputation. The novel has since been translated into ten languages and is today considered a classic of war literature. Adnan returned to California, settling in Sauasalito, and produced two volumes of poetry before in 1986 publishing Journey to Mount Tamalpais, which connected art to the natural world and was inspired by her paintings, created daily, of the titular peak, visible from her window.

Though she continued to paint throughout the course of her six-decade career, her practice expanding to include tapestries as well as leporellos (accordion-folded books inspired by the Japanese form and featuring bold illustrations and fragments of Arabic phrases), it was not until 2012, when curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev invited her to participate in Documenta 13 in Kassel, that Adnan received wide notice for her artistic work. Following that exhibition, she enjoyed solo shows at institutions including London’s Serpentine Gallery, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, which in 2018 presented her visual works alongside her writings. Adnan in 2014 was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, France’s highest honor.

Her artistic practice continued to evolve right to the end of her life, Adnan just this past spring having shifted her palette from the toasty shades of her native and adopted homelands to black-and-white. An exhibition of her work, “Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure,” remains on view through January 10, 2022, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Her first retrospective in the Netherlands will open in May 2022 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.