The grande dame of Lebanese painting and poetry is enjoying a great deal of attention from the contemporary art scene. Here she takes time out from her international schedule to speak with us about the books that she lives with and the literature that has influenced her
As Etel Adnan nears her 90th birthday, she has become best known for her small, colourful paintings. But her life has in many ways been one of letters. Her novel Sitt Marie Rose, a pacifist, feminist story set during the Lebanese Civil War, is now in its eighth edition and has been translated into six languages since it was first published in 1978. At one point or another, Adnan has stepped into the role of novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, philosophy professor and arts journalist. She is as verbal as she is visual, and expresses her interior world through two distinct practices that she only sometimes brings together.
In conversation with curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist, she once explained that painting, for her, is an expression of joy, while writing, by contrast, is a meditation on the tragic. She has also spoken of becoming addicted to reading the poetry of Baudelaire in Paris when she was 20 years old. “When I was young I read all of Balzac, but I’ve never read Proust and still dream of doing so.”
A prolific writer and artist, it is little wonder she confesses to having not read most of the books she owns. “I have books in three continents, all over my houses – I need another lifetime to read them all,” she admits. “The one time I read books properly was when I was a professor, so that I could face the classroom.”
Adnan puts this down to her character, describing herself as an impatient person. “I don’t read much, but when I do read, I read seriously.” She also attributes it to her taste for poetry, particularly American modernists such as Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, of which she feels “sometimes only half a page is enough”.
During the 1970s Adnan consciously moved away from writing in French, wanting to reject the language’s colonialist implications in North Africa and the Levant. Today, American English is her working language and her Arabic is self-pronounced as terrible, but she nevertheless loves to read Arabic poetry. “It’s funny, but somehow I just get it,” she says. She cites Joumana Haddad, Mahmoud Darwish, Abbas Beydoun, Iskandar Habache, Khaled Najjar and Akl Awit as being among her favourites, also noting that “there are many wonderful Arabic poets in Yemen but nobody knows them”.
Today, Paris plays home to Adnan and her partner, also an artist and writer of Levantine origin, Simone Fattal. The pair met in Beirut in the 1970s and began dreaming up plans to establish an arts community in the Lebanese mountains when the Civil War derailed their utopian vision. They escaped to build their dreams elsewhere, moving to Sausalito in Northern California. There, Mount Tamalpais became Adnan’s subject for 30 years.
One of her favourite American contemporaries is Joanne Kyger, a member of the Beat Generation associated with the Northern California scene, whose free verse is influenced by her travels through Asia and the ideas of Zen Buddhism. Kyger’s poem The Crystal in Tamalpais plays on the Native American heritage of Adnan’s beloved mountain when she writes:
Unsure of why she returns to the poems of Kyger, Rimbaud, Pound and Baudelaire, she says: “But that is their genius – they haunt you. And you don’t know why.” This mysterious siren song has given Adnan’s literary favourites their power to summon her back to them over the years, just as the unknowable essence of Mount Tamalpais has prompted its recurrence on her celebrated canvas.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Rose Tinted issue #28, on page 156.