long-standing artistic tradition by Camille Aboussouan
Although the first primitive
forms of sculpture in Lebanon – arrowheads, shaped flints and stone
axes – date from prehistoric times, only very few cave paintings
have survived. However, even in the remotest antiquity, engraved
ivory and paintings on terracotta show the beginnings of a mastery
of form and colour.
Even the animal figures
dating from that period – wild boars, hippopotamuses, sheep, goats,
hedgehogs, cats, ducks, doves and other birds – make up a precious
and engaging collection.
Bronze and precious metals
inscribed with representations of gods, people, animals and the
letters of the first alphabet, the harbinger of universal communication,
predate the Lebanese coinage, which was among the earliest in the
world, with its depictions of lions, bulls, deer, horses, panthers,
dragons, snakes, dolphins, seahorses, bees, eagles, owls, seashells,
flowers, triremes and chariots – all of them exquisite works of
The recent Phoenician
Exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice revealed for the first
time to the world at large the extraordinary breadth of the sensibility
of the Near Eastern seaboard, which embraced everything from navigation
to trade, from iridescent glasswork to bracelets and necklaces of
gold and silverwork, and the shaping of stone and iron.
The family tombs of Sidon
and Tyre contained multicoloured frescoes depicting Oriental and
Mediterranean mythology, jewels, mirrors and exquisitely fashioned
artifacts of everyday life. Surely the delightful statuettes of
Kharaieb are the Tanagra figurines of Lebanon!
Later on, artists were
to express themselves through icons, miniatures, magnificent Arabic
calligraphy, illumination, woodwork carved with flowers and a profusion
of geometrical motifs. Emir Fakhreddine, the illustrious Prince
of Lebanon, on his return from Florence and Venice, those jewels
of the Renaissance, was to introduce such artistic architectural
features as foliate balconies, ornate arcades and house walls, and
a tradition of creative craftsmanship using gold thread, brocade
The Age of Enlightenment
– through travelers to the Orient (themselves the descendants of
pilgrims to Jerusalem) and through the gifts bestowed by the kings
of the Western World on certain monasteries and friendly noble families
– was to create a taste for secular painting following the spread
of religious painting.
In the nineteenth century,
the houses of well-to-do patrician and bourgeois families were adorned
with landscapes, still lifes and smiling women.
It is now several decades
since the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum in Beirut first opened
its doors to abstract painting which was to prove a major influence
on our own times. A number of precursors are represented in its
collections. Not all of them, however, are included, just as there
are some good painters who do not feature in the present exhibition
ago the first major Lebanese exhibition was held in Brussels; it
was to mark the beginning of a tradition. In the early years of
the century Gibran Khalil Gibran, an admirer of Rodin, was to make
a name for himself in Boston and New York, transposing to a modern
setting the inspiration of Lebanon: the distant White Mountain peaks
sighted by pilgrims who came by sea and by caravans approaching
from the Orient.
Aboussouan – Former Ambassador of Lebanon to Unesco.
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