Hans Ulrich Obrist visits Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan

‘Each visit with Etel, each encounter with Etel’s work, each reading session of her poetry gives me courage…’ – Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Etel Adnan’s career spans several decades and encompasses a wide range of media — including painting, drawing, tapestry, film, ceramics, and leporello artist books. Adnan is also an esteemed author of poetry and prose.

Inspired and moved by one of Etel Adnan’s leporellos, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist felt compelled to seek-out the nonagenarian artist, and over the years a warm friendship has flourished. In this HENI Talk, Obrist recounts his fascination with Adnan, and we get privileged access to one of their spirited conversations in her Paris home and studio.

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Etel Adnan was born in 1925, in Beirut, Lebanon, and in her extraordinary trajectory of more than 95 years so far, she has created so many dimensions to her work.

When I saw the leporellos by Etel, I was struck, I was attracted, I was magnetised, and I needed to know more.

They are on the one hand very tiny, yet they can become monumental. And I was very curious, you know, who was the artist who was behind this work and started to make some research. I realised that it was the same artist who had written the amazing book about the civil war in Lebanon, Sitt Marie Rose. I realised it was the same artist and author who had written The Arab Apocalypse. I realised that not only is Etel one of the key poets of our time, playwrights of our time, but that also she was a political journalist and I found out that she was a filmmaker. So, I became so curious that I went to visit her in Paris and visited her apartment which is also her studio. And we met with her and her partner Simone Fattal and a wonderful friendship and dialogue started and really led to hundreds of visits.

I spoke a lot with Etel about Paul Klee, the great Swiss artist who like her worked in small formats, and she said that for her Paul Klee was also very important at the beginning. She once told me, and I’ve got a quote here, that ‘Klee belongs to the lineage of geniuses for whom a single designation—whether “painter”, “musician” or “architect”—is too narrow. Every painting by Klee is like an act of discovery, achieved through a process of exploration. Like a boat on the ocean,’ says Etel Adnan.

And that’s of course completely her, because you cannot put her in a box. I mean, nobody said it better than Etel’s partner, Simone Fattal – who’s also an extraordinary artist – she said that these paintings ‘exude energy’ and they function like ‘talismans’. They are in that sense very much about giving us courage. And I think in this world we do need immense courage and that is also why I keep returning to Etel, each visit with Etel, each encounter with Etel’s work, each reading session of her poetry gives me courage.

Hans Ulrich Obrist and Etel Adnan in conversation, Paris, 2019

Hans Ulrich Obrist: And what about his book? Can you tell us about this book? Illustrated by Simone Fattal.

Etel Adnan: Look at that. They are full of humour.

HUO: So, this is your table where you write, no?

EA: Yeah, it’s me writing. You know, even when I paint, I paint on the table, it comes from writing. I am used to… I was a writer basically, so the first painting I made, I cut the canvas with scissors and I put it flat like a page. I consider the canvas as a page.

HUO: How beautiful, you never told me that, that’s an amazing story. So, in a way, painting is like writing.

EA: It’s horizontal. It’s vertical in my head, but it translated from the horizontal to the vertical.

HUO: And so how do you do the paintings? Do you have an empty canvas on the table?

EA: I have all the tubes around, and I work on a flat surface. And I consider paintings as poems. They are the same. Poetry is a spirit. And it can come into anything you do.

HUO: What is poetry?

EA: It was my first opening to thinking – I had a very great professor who was a Frenchman, who was a poetry critic for La NRF [La Nouvelle Revue Français], a famous French magazine, pre-war. And he made us feel like poetry was the basis of everything – that we were born to read poetry. And that was our upbringing then. We were lucky, a great professor – it’s a miracle. It’s a great thing.

HUO: And it’s a miracle for us to listen to you. Now, Gerhard Richter says, ‘Painting is the highest form of hope’…

EA: It’s happy! It’s physical to start with. It’s like climbing a mountain, it’s a sport. Art is a sport really, very close to sport. You mentally are involved… all the inner senses that we have, all the muscles participate in art. Participate in thinking, in decision making. All the body helps, works with you.

HUO: And how do you make the decisions when you paint – is it very improvised? Or do you plan in advance the painting?

EA: No, I usually improvise – and when I don’t know what to do, I just trust myself, I just put a splash of colour or a line, and I know that will give impetus for the next move. That’s the way it goes.

HUO: Beautiful. And when is a painting finished? Because I’m always very fascinated as to when an artist decides a painting is finished.

EA: A painting is finished like a conversation is finished. You have this feeling that you said it, and that if you add, you will clutter. You will spoil what you have done. It’s instinctive, it’s instinctive. So, how is anything finished? It’s your instinct that tells you.  How is a building finished? Suddenly, you know that if you add, you will encombre. So, you stop.

HUO: And talking about the building, because you are not only such an amazing artist, and poet, and painter, but you told me once that you initially wanted to be an architect…

EA: Yeah, my mother used to say this is for boys. It’s not a profession for women. There were no women architects when I was 20.

HUO: And you have an unrealised project, you told me about, of designing a house. You had an idea – you once wrote me this letter – about designing a house. Can you tell us about your architectural vision for your house?

EA: I’d love, if I had to design my house, I would like it to be surrounded with trees and to have a lot of glass windows. I like the outside to come in. I mean, a house should not be an enclosure, it should be a convenience. You have to be somewhere.

HUO: And trees are very important in your work; particularly lately, you made an amazing cycle of olive trees. Can you tell us about the idea of the olive trees?

EA: I think an olive tree is a very mysterious thing; it’s a very hard wood, and it produces oil. It’s almost a contradiction, it’s very touching – that that hard tree, which is almost a bush, and still the little olive creates that extraordinary thing. You know olive oil used to be a sacred material – they used olive oil religious ceremonies. It was very precious. The olive oil that we use so easily in salad, it is a centuries achievement that it’s so available.

EA: I would like to create the goddess of trees. We speak a lot of nature, and we lost this idea, that we had a reverence for nature. And we lost it after the Romantic period. We were awed by nature and by the phenomenon of nature, and trees are mysterious. They are friends you know. They stand, sometimes they look at you, they are that close. I really feel we need to rediscover the power of nature.

HUO: So, you once said that the Mount Tamalpais is your best friend…

EA: There is a historic background, like Cézanne’s mountain. He almost lost his mind – he came back and back and back to the mountain. Mountains are beings. Everything is a being really, if you pay attention.

HUO: You said before that you’re doing a new leporello with mountains. And do you remember when you discovered this idea of the leporello for the first time? What was the epiphany? How did you discover this amazing format of the leporello, where you bring together painting and writing?

EA: It lends itself to writing because it goes on and on. So, the first leporello, I used poems on it. And in fact, in Japan and in China they were books. People opened up and read them, and then closed them and put them back in the drawer – they’d have nothing on their walls. Today they turn their back on the leporello. For them, it’s an old-fashioned art form.

HUO: And how did you discover it?

EA: I remember I entered a Japanese store, in San Francisco there is Japan Town, a whole section in middle of the city of Japanese stores. And, Simone and I, we entered to look at ceramic plates and I discovered unpainted leporellos and I immediately thought: ‘writing’. It awakened an immediate desire to write. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I can write poetry on these things.’ And later, in the museums – San Francisco has fine Adriatic Art museums – I saw big leporellos, huge ones. And the Japanese and the Chinese for a while drew landscapes on them.

What’s nice about leperellos is that it goes on and on. It enlargens, it opens up.

HUO: We looked before at your wonderful drawings for ceramics. Can you tell us about these ceramic walls? How these ideas came about?

EA: I studied Greek Art. What we call ‘Greek drawings’ are on vases, on ceramics. Ceramic has been a support for drawing – in Persian art, as well as in Ancient Greek art.

HUO: And this idea of going into architecture, doing big walls, it’s something you always wanted to do, no? To do public art?

EA: I like public art because I feel it is a gift to the public. That’s the importance of architecture. You can be poor and miserable but if you walk in a nice neighbourhood you get an uplift. It’s really social art. It’s a big contribution to the life of a community, a great architectural piece. It is a cadeux to the public.

HUO: That’s a beautiful conclusion – I have one very last question. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this little book which is an Advice to a Young Poet – I wanted to ask you, again, what would be your advice to a young artist or a young poet?

EA: My advice would be not to be afraid to be audacious, to take risks, that is important. To go ahead and have confidence and not be afraid, it’s very important.

With thanks to

Galerie Lelong & Co.

Serpentine Galleries

Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut

Simone Fattal

 

Archive

Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tate

 

Credits

Sans titre (detail)

Etel Adnan, 2014

Oil on canvas

9 7/16 x 11 13/16 in

31074/W18465

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Untitled (detail)

Etel Adnan, 2014

Oil on canvas

9 7/16 x 11 13/16 in

30649/W18063

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Sans titre (detail)

Etel Adnan, 2014

Oil on canvas

10 5/8 x 13 13/16 in

32059/W18224

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Untitled (detail)

Etel Adnan, 2014

Oil on canvas

9 5/8 x 11 7/16 in

32600/W18125

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Le poids du monde 36

Etel Adnan, 2019

Oil on canvas

13 x 9 7/16 in

33354/W21888

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Le poids du monde 30

Etel Adnan, 2017

Oil on canvas

13 x 9 7/16 in

32570/W19974

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Le poids du monde 19

Etel Adnan, 2016

Oil on canvas

12 3/16 x 9 7/8 in

31653/W19444

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Etel Adnan At Home and In Her Studio Workshop, 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan At Home and In Her Studio Workshop (WS), 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World
Installation view (Details of Mahmoud Darwish leporello)

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2 June – 11 September 2016)

Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

Etel Adnan At Home and In Her Studio Workshop (with Leporello), 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Night

Etel Adnan, 2017

Gouache and inkwash painting on paper

Book: 5 15/16 x 3 9/16 / Length: 93 3/4 in

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Hans Ulrich Obrist and Etel Adnan, Paris, 2017

Courtesy of HENI

 

Etel Adnan’s Home and Studio Workshop (Dining Table), 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan’s Studio Workshop, 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan At Home and In Her Studio Workshop (Background desk), 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan’s painting desk, 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Paul Klee, portrait of the German / Swiss artist & painter at his Bauhaus Studio in Weimar, Germany, 1924

Culture Club / Getty Images

 

Rocky coastline

Paul Klee, 1931
Leemage / UIG / Getty Images

 

Castle and Sun

Paul Klee, 1928

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

Paul Klee

MTI / Getty Images

 

Ad Parnassum

Paul Klee, 1932

Alinari Archives / CORBIS / Getty Images

 

Polyphony

Paul Klee, 1932

DeAgostini / Getty Images

 

Fool in Trance (Narr in Trance)

Paul Klee, 1929

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

The Pyramid Clown

Paul Klee, 1929

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan at her painting desk, 2015

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Le poids de la lune 14

Etel Adnan, 2018

Oil on canvas

13 x 9 7/16 in

33116/W20977

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Le poids du monde 33

Etel Adnan, 2017

Oil on canvas

13 x 9 7/16 in

32901/W19977

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Planète 2

Etel Adnan, 2019

Oil on canvas

13 x 9 7/16 in

W21963

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Beyrouth

Etel Adnan, 1964-65

Oil on canvas

19 7/8 x 22 1/16 in

W19754

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World, Installation view at the Serpentine Gallery

Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan at her painting desk, 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan at her painting desk II, 2016

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan reading, Paris, 2017

Courtesy of HENI

 

Etel Adnan sketching, Paris, 2017

Courtesy of HENI

 

Etel Adnan at the table, 2015

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Etel Adnan surveying her paintings, Paris, 2017

Courtesy of HENI

 

Etel Adnan contemplating her paintings, Paris, 2017

Courtesy of HENI

 

Forêt II

Etel Adnan, 2015

Ink and watercolour on Japan paper

cahier: 9 7/8 x 4 5/16 / longueur: 107 9/16 in

W19690

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

L’Olivier

Etel Adnan, 2019

Wool tapestry

Edition of 3 + 1 AP

Edition 1/3

78 13/16 x 55 3/16 in

W21385

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Les oliviers I

Etel Adnan, 2019

Pencil and ink on booklet

Book : 7 1/16 x 4 3/4 / Length : 109 1/8 in

W21366

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Jardins 17

Etel Adnan, 2018

Oil on canvas

Diamètre 11 13/16 in

W21278

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Fleurs

Etel Adnan, 2017

Ink on paperboard

12 7/16 x 9 7/16 in

W20709

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Mont Sainte-Victoire

Paul Cézanne, ca. 1902–06

Oil on canvas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte Victoire, 1905–06

Tate (N05303)

digital image © Tate

released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

 

Montagne Sainte-Victoire 2

Etel Adnan, 1990

Pencil and watercolor on paper

9 1/4 x 12 5/8 in

W19847

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Mont Tamalpaïs I

Etel Adnan, 1989

Pencil and watercolor on paper

9 7/16 x 12 7/16 in

32541/W20699

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Mont Tamalpaïs

Etel Adnan, 1970 / 2018

Wool tapestry

Edition of 3 + 1 AP, edition 1/1 AP

63 1/16 x 78 13/16 in

33345/W20722

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Mont Tamalpaïs II

Etel Adnan, 2019

Ceramic

87 4/4 x 82 1/8 in

W21654

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World, Installation view at the Serpentine Gallery

Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

 

Paysage

Etel Adnan, 1989

Chinese ink on paper

Book: 6 5/16 x 3 9/16 / Length: 76 13/16 in

W21936

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Etel Adnan at her painting desk, 2015

Catherine Panchout / Sygma / Getty Images

 

Signs

Etel Adnan, 2018

Ink on paper

11 7/16 x 3 3/4 ; longueur du livret : 208 13/16 in

W21164

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World, Installation view at the Serpentine Gallery (Leporello)

Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

 

Signs

Etel Adnan, 2018

Inkwash painting and purple ink on paper

Book : 7 1/16 x 4 3/4 / Length : 102 7/16 in

W2194

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World
Installation view, Untitled (Study for le soleil amoureux de la lune), 2014

Ceramic

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2 June – 11 September 2016)

Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones
Morning

Etel Adnan, 2019

Ceramic

63 1/16 x 78 13/16 in

W21887

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Mont Tamalpaïs II

Etel Adnan, 2019

Ceramic

87 4/4 x 82 1/8 in

W21654

Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.

 

Untitled

Etel Adnan, 2019

Installation view, Special Olympics, Abu Dhabi Corniche

Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

 

The New Sun of the Aztecs

Etel Adnan, 2017

Installation view, Sonora 128, Mexico City

Courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto Mexico City, and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

Photo by PJ Rountree

 

Etel Adnan contemplating her paintings, Paris, 2017

Courtesy of HENI

 

Music

Readers! Do You Read?

Chris Zabriskie, 2012

FMA, (CC BY 4.0)

Etel Adnan’, Official website

Etel Adnan’, Galerie Lelong

Gareth Harris, ‘Etel Adnan: This is the summit of my career’, The Art Newspaper, 13th June 2018

Etel Adnan’, Poetry Foundation

D.T. Max, ‘Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Curator Who Never Sleeps’, New Yorker, 1st December 2014

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