Etel Adnan in Lenbachhaus München 

In November we were in Munich for a weekend and went to see the retrospective of the work of Etel Adnan (1925-2021) at the Lenbachhaus. Etel Adnan was a political, opinionated artist, poet, journalist, and philosopher. Born in Beirut, she lived for a long time in exile, including in California (much of her work deals with Mount Tamalpais in Marin County) and in France. Her work is a fascinating combination of abstract expressive art, text, poetry, formats, and cultures. I was so enthralled with the Etel Adnan exhibit, especially the leporellos, that I had to read more by her. So I immediately hit the Lenbachhaus bookstore.

The exhibition will be on view in Munich until the end of February 2023, and from April 2023 this first comprehensive retrospective on Etel Adnan will be at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. I highly recommend it!

Etel Adnan, edited by Sebastien Delot, Matthias Mühling, Susanne Gaensheimer

I was so excited about the exhibition that I even bought the catalog to better access and capture her work. I never actually buy exhibition catalogs, in fact, this may be the first one I’ve purchased. This catalog is quite great. Only the 2nd part is a listing or presentation of the works shown at the Lenbachhaus. The first half is a very good collection of texts with contributions by Etel Adnan, her longtime partner Simone Fatal, and a series of essays that, as hoped, contextualize and expand the multifaceted work for me. In Murad Montazami’s excellent essay on Adnan and working in exile, “Etel Adnan – Writing a River,” there is also a quote from the artist that, for me, sums up the work:

“Writing is another way of drawing, even when we do not notice it.”  

(p. 78, my translation from German)

Sitt Marie Rose (Post-Apollo Press 1982, translated by Georgina Kleege)

“Thus, when the impossible mutation takes place, when, for example, someone like Marie-Rose leaves the Normal order of things, the political body releases its anto-bodies in a blind, automatic process. The cell that contains the desire for liberty is killed, digested, reabsorbed.”


Sitt Marie Rose is a short novel, perhaps her best-known work, now translated into 6 languages, the original text is in French. Its publication was the reason why Adnan could not return to her native Lebanon. It is a book in which no side of the Lebanese civil war comes off well – except perhaps those caught between the fronts. Sitt Marie Rose, a Lebanese Christian woman, helps Palestinian families in the camps, gets captured, is interrogated, tortured, killed. By her “own” people, by Mounis, an old school friend. A compact, impressive narrative against violence and tribalism.

Shifting the Silence (Nightboat Books 2020)

“And we ask: What is poetry? An urgency has here been created, a challenge to the answers we had, an upheaval in the metaphysics. I thought: from now on, anything will do. It is not the poet who’s the poet, it’s only the reader!”

(p. 50)

Shifting the Silence is the last work of Adnan. Runs under poetry, but is basically closer to the autobiographical/autofictional reflections of Annie Ernaux than to classical poetry: the lyrical work of an old woman reflecting on her self and the now. Beautiful and fascinating, but somehow the poetry on the leporellos and their visual art grabbed me more.

The Arab Apocalypse (The Post-Apollo Press, 1989)

“I sleep with a radio in my arms STOP I sleep to Tell Zaatar

At the door of Paradise STOP a solar bath 

I see rockets among trees. Concrete catching fire

cages crumble smashing crushing merchants The cardinal points explode

Sleeps the horse innoculated with innocence under the madness of the Moon”


The Arab Apocalypse is an almost epic poem, the work hung on the wall in the exhibition in Munich. I was so fascinated by it there that I wanted to have it in book form so that I could concentrate better on the text. It is so pictorial, so expressive, perhaps that’s why I liked it better on the wall than bound in a book. In many passages, it is very reminiscent of beat poetry, which of course Adnan was in touch with during her time in California. I could certainly appreciate the text in its entirety even more if I could better place the Arabic-mystical references. As Jalal Toufic explains in the preface, Apocalypse is a “surpassing disaster“. For Toufic the book, though first published in French and then in English, is an “Arab book of poetry in part because it is withdrawn, occulted by the surpassing disasters that have affected the Arab world.”

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