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Go to first page: Contemporary art in Lebanon, Edouard Lahoud, Near East Books Company, New York

Contemporary art

After World War II, a new generation of Lebanese artists made their appearance on the stage of art. Right away they manifested a greater spirit of freedom than their elders. The leaders of this generation were Moustapha Farroukh, Cesar Gemayel, Omar Onsi, Saliba Douaihy and Rachid Wehbi. Following the example of their predecessors from the second generation, these artists initiated their career with a stay abroad, the aim of which was to learn the principles of drawing and to assimilate a technique. This period witnessed the tumultuous and agitated development of new western art schools, engendered by the deep trauma that World War I inflicted on Western society. However, it must be pointed out that the substantial influence of forerunners such as Corm, Serour, Saleeby who guided the first steps of the third generation artists, spared them the hazards of alienation from themselves and from their environment.

As a matter of fact, they were students but not quite artists following the taste and fashion of the day; nor were they just looking for some occupation to mask their idleness. In their time, art was not yet a commodity within the reach of everyone; it had remained confined to places of worship and palaces, and the third generation artists were for the part alien to this milieu.

Thus, Farroukh, from Basta Tahta, was born and grew up in a family whose illiterate father worked at the maintenance of copper utensils. The demands of his occupation forced him to spend most of his time making the round of the neighboring villages.

As to Cesar Gemayel, he was breaking rocks on mountain road and was doing his best to study to become a pharmacist. But his inner calling to be painter was much stronger and he gave up everything and surrendered to it.

Rachid Wehbi, the son of a school teacher, was consumed by his passion for art. He sold his modest share of the family house in order to dedicate himself to the sole service of his passion. Much could be said about these artists’ hard life of privation and their determination to perfect their craft. We well only say that, in spite of a slight watery artificiality which at times affects the colors of their paintings, these third generation artists, whenever blessed with inspiration, could create works of art worthy of the great masters. These works like those of the great pioneers take their roots in their native environment. By representing typically Lebanese landscapes, scenes from Lebanese life, rural house, national costumes and scenes from Lebanese and Arab history these artists made a substantial contribution towards the awakening of a national feeling in the recent history of Lebanon.

At this juncture, a point of order is necessary concerning Saliba Douaihy and Cesar Gemayel. Douaihy who had launched his career in decoration the Diman patriarchal church and in painting village women and mountains lost no time in turning away from all that (1950). He wanted to try out a complex experimentation with informal art.

As to Cesar Gemayel, another man of the mountains and author of the historical work «The Battle of Anjar», he adopted, whenever painting nature, a poetico-subjective style which obliterated in him the real characteristics of his environment. Like Saleeby, he finally specialized in the portrait and also painted a large number of nudes.

In fact, it is the Beiruti artists, Farroukh, Wehbi, Onsi, who dedicated themselves to painting Lebanese coast and mountain landscapes. They left to future generations pictures in which are lovingly depicted every hill, every house, every stone and tree that make up the Lebanese scene. These pictures of rural Lebanon faithfully render the geographic setting and are evocative of the Lebanon of the past: portraits of natives wearing their tradition and history-laden local costumes.
With these artists whose contribution was to pursue the artistic renaissance along new bases, the teaching of art found its way into the schools (Sagesse, Makassed) and art culture began to cut a path through to the public. Even though the studios of the first and second generation painters and sculptors constituted an anteroom for the birth of a vigorous and original art, the effective starting point of the process really should be situated during the period of the third generation.

Thus, on January 10, 1923, the «Committee of Friends of National Museums and Archaeological Sites» was founded during a meeting at the Beirut Stock Exchange. The members of the founding committee were elected on that occasion(8). This meeting had been prepared by a group of old university graduated who used to hold their reunions in the Parliament Great Hall. The decision had been taken to work or the country by preparing it to assume its own responsibilities in every field, as soon as the Mandate would come to an end. This committee took all the necessary steps to collect funds and induce the competent authorities to create a museum where the archaeological treasures of the country were to be gathered. The committee gave the collected funds and a piece of land to government which then erected the museum on it. The step taken by the committee to encourage sculpture and painting was limited to the purchase of pictures and statues intended to decorate the members’ villas and luxurious residences.
The thirties brought about new element which widely contributed to the popularization of art in the Lebanon of today. There was the founding in 1937 of the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. It immediately attracted both classical and modern teachers, Lebanese, French and Italian.
The founding of this Academy had been preceded by a series of exhibitions, now and then encouraged by the French Mandate authorities who wanted to emphasize the cultural and civilizing aspect of French policy. At any rate, whatever the motivations may have been behind these exhibitions, Beirut was then at the center of a cultural and artistic movement by artists and amateurs from Lebanon, France or other countries.

The major exhibitions organized in this manner were:

1- The exhibition at the Arts and Crafts School in 1931. Both Rachid Wehbi and Cesar Gemayel who had just returned from Paris with a charcoal drawing of a nude took part in this exhibition. In the conservative environment of the time, this nude aroused much curiosity and raised many an indiscrete question.
2- The exhibition at the Arts and Crafts School in 1932.
3- The exhibition of the French painter Georges Cyr who come to Lebanon in 1933 to settle down in Ain Mreysse. He strongly influenced many Lebanese painters from the younger generation.
4- The exhibition at the Saint-Georges Hotel organized in 1934 by the newspaper «La Syrie». Artists of the first generation such as Habib Serour and Philippe Mourani participated in it; from the third generation, Moustapha Farroukh and Rachid Wehbi took part.
5- The great exhibition of 1936 in the Parliament Salons.

In the forties, with a newly acquired Independence, Lebanon witnessed three big exhibitions which created considerable stir.

1- The Dhour Shoueir exhibition, organized in 1947 on the eve of the first Arab cultural congress held in Beit Mery.
2- In 1949, the exhibition organized by the UNESCO in the organization headquarters, on the occasion of a UNESCO congress held in Beirut. This manifestation was the starting point of official exhibitions periodically held there since then.
3- In 1953, the exhibition of Lebanese art «Bird Around the World». Third generation artists were behind this entire movement(9). The careers of these painters and sculptors progressed naturally and smoothly, without anxiety or self-destructive craze. This in itself was no mean achievement.

With the guns silenced at the end of the cataclysmic events of World War II, which had eroded the very foundations of any artistic life, there appeared in Lebanon a new generation of artists who almost imitated their young European counterpart in their radical break with the past. After the war, «young art» in the West had attempted to be the expression of the existential drama of 20th century man, torn apart in his refusal to make contribution to the war. From this impassioned refusal and the rejection of everything that was old, movements like Dadaism, Surrealism, Neo-cubism and what was soon to be called abstract art came to life after both world wars.

The fourth generation Lebanese artist did not experience the European artists’ drama. He was in contact with them, felt their influence in Lebanon and even ventured into the labyrinth of these schools; but, did not join or follow them since they were not in the least connected with his personal problems. These problems were of an entirely different nature. Up to now the successive generations of Lebanese had remained faithful to their origins and were searching their cultural heritage for something to strengthen their self-confidence. What they were expecting from the West was some help to lead them along the path of progress. However, nearly the entire post-war generation was afflicted with some sort of uprootedness and had the impression of being in its own country.

There was nothing surprising about that. The majority of these young Lebanese had come down from their mountains to flock to the cities. Barely out of the village school, they were entering the university. They had previously studied Arabic in «Majani-l-adab» and «Kalila wa Dimna», had had a smattering of Syriac, and then they found themselves engrossed in the study of French and English literature, in the history of philosophy and psychology. Besides, they become fully acquainted with Racine, Shakespeare and Verlaine and knew how to analyze Baudelaire’s symbolic poetry. Faced as they were with the impossibility of finding suitable work because of lack of openings and unemployment in juridical careers and other non-scientific branches, they sought a refuge in art. In reality, a «gap» had developed between their foreign culture and the true situation of their society. This phenomenon was concretized by the rejection of their country and cultural heritage. Unconsciously, they were drifting within cultural and artistic currents which in fact were nothing but crazes, infatuations and a desire to imitate for imitation’s sake. Art was putting on the face of a simple cultural amusement, merely designed to kill time. For this reason, the mannerisms of Western art which at the beginning had mad their way into the style of many artists of the fourth generation, appeared lifeless and superficial. What they called cubism, for example, had nothing in common with real cubism. It was only a pretext to splash colors onto geometric figures. Surrealism was in no way the expression of the artists’ intellectual world; nor was it the objectification of his vision. It looked more like a meaningless parade of specters.

Several of these artists who had played this «culture-artistic» game were colorists rather than painters. This unbalanced situation quickly turned to tragedy for some. Thus Michel Mir (1930-1970) who throughout his career struggled with line and drawing knew a pitiful end(10).

It must be pointed out that a few of these Lebanese artists who had been engulfed in the maelstrom of Western art and had consequently become acquainted with the bitter taste of aimlessness and unprootedness, in the end managed to overcome this trial. A small number of others remained aloof and detached from this turmoil thanks to their solid basic classical training acquired in the studios of their elders from the second and third generation and at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts.

The main feature of the art of this generation is one of study and research. This aspect, to a great extent, enabled a whole group of these artists to rediscover their lost identity, to affirm their art, and to produce works which were acclaimed both here and abroad. In fact, with the return of calm and quiet within the centers of western art, the Lebanese artist who had finally recovered his identity began to produce works fully rooted in his past. They are characterized by three elements: a solid technique, inspiration drawn from the cultural background and heritage, and personal expression(11).

The decisive turn which led to this redeeming transformation was negotiated by the West, but with the East as a starting point. The new Western art which on account of both world wars had reached a dead-end and was therefore looking for self-renewal, was cornered into making a choice: either a return to the sources, but this was neither new nor original, or the discovery of new horizons beyond the frontiers of the West. It so happened that the West made the discovery of the Orient, the light of the East, the earth and the sky of the East, and the oriental arts especially the arabesque and Arabic calligraphy. The Germans who had in the past played a predominant role in disclosing the cultural heritage and the history of the Arabs now played this very same role in the field of art.

The outstanding name in this area of artistic orientalism is that of Paul Klee. He attempted to deliver his message by exploiting to the fullest the possibilities of the Arabic script. Another German, Paul Franck, also detected in the isolated Arabic letter its marvelous decorative shape. He introduced into it an aesthetic value independent of the meaningful word. It was in this fashion that he managed to elaborate his abstract art.

This discovery of a new form of inspiration by German orientalism initiated the trend of a return to the sources. In the beginning, this trend was merely following the abstract line of Western “orientalist” art. Very soon, however, a spark was to ignite this new art movement. Amine Elbacha, for example, took a bold step along a new path. Color was no longer for him, as it was for Klee, that of an oriental dream or of a flight away from space and action; it was a color in search of a density capable of binding the oriental man to his land and time.

Wajih Nahle, likewise, avoided using the isolated letter as an abstract ornamental motif. His starting point was the meaningful Arabic word. But there was a further development. With Said Akl, for example, the Latin character is used as a support for a complete aesthetic construction in the tradition of great pictorial creations.

It would constitute a long list, indeed, if we were to mention all the Lebanese painters and sculptors who like the Basbous brothers, Jean Khalifé, Chafic Abboud, Paul Guiragossian(12), Aref Rayess have contributed and are still contributing today toward the development of art, along the path of original creation and authentic renewal. The specimens of their works that will be found in this book are significant enough to assign to each one his own and special place in the overall movement. Suffice it to mention that among the artists of this generation, some like Nazem Irani sculpture and Wahib Btedini in painting have followed along the footsteps of the pioneers of national art; that others like Halim El Hage, on the contrary, have kept to the framework of academic classicism(13).

And now it is the turn of the fifth generation to make its appearance. Its stay in the west coincided with the quieting down of the storm and the return of western art to some, at least, of traditional bases. Its art advances within the tradition of formal art, with solid knowledge of the principles of drawing as a beginning. It can even be said that every artist of this generation knew from his first steps in which direction he was going. This is the case for Hussein Madi whose paintings are inspired by hieroglyphics and whose sculpture is reminiscent of Mesopotamian art. Ibrahim Marzouq shows a marked attachment to the narrow streets, the houses, and the traditions of old Beirut. Moussa Tiba reveals the scared play of fertility and death.

An important turn of events has taken place then. The artists of the new generation are no longer satisfied “receive”. From now on they “give”, and their “gift” takes shape in avant-garde works which, thanks to their original flavor, succeed in braking into the till now reserved ground of western art.

In a similar development, the Lebanese capital has become the great artistic centre of the Arab East and privileged spot for exhibitions of international caliber. On the national scene, let us mention the exhibition regularly organized since 1953. These exhibitions, above anything else, gave the decisive push towards the artistic rebirth in the country. Nor should we pass over the founding in 1965 of the Fine Arts Institute, attached to the Lebanese university.

Another point deserves consideration. The “complex” of what is foreign, which was afflicting the regular visitors of exhibitions and was inciting them to purchase only foreign works, disappeared the very moment the West took a look at the cultural heritage of the East and when the quality of works created by Lebanese artists spoke for itself. Immediately, a noticeable change has been observed in the public’s way of appraising oriental art and artists. This change of attitude was magnified the day some Lebanese artists received world-wide recognition for their talent and when their name was included in western encyclopedias of art.

And now, it is high time to let these works speak for themselves and tell their story and inner evolution so that the creative efforts of Lebanese artists can be evaluated in the context of the history of contemporary art.

Contemporary art in Lebanon, Edouard Lahoud, Near East Books Company, New York

(8)- The main members of this committee were: Alfred Sursock, Marius Hanem Ughlou, Omar Daouk, Camille Eddé, Albert Bassoul, Ali Joumblatt, Henri Pharaon, Georges Vayssié, Hassan Makhzoufi, Assad Younès, Georges Corm, Jean Debs, Dr. Fouad Ghosn, Dr. Wafik Beydoun, Aref Beyhum and the secretary general Jacques Tabet who made the biggest contribution towards the good functioning of this committee.
(9)- There came after this generation: Maroun Tomb, born in Shiah in 1912. He studied in the Italian Fine Arts Schools in Haifa. Khalil Zgheib, born in 1911 in Dbayye, an instinctive artist especially known during the fifties. In this same period, two artists were involved in painting religious themes: Ibrahim Jabbour and the novelist Youssef Younès.
(10)- On the contrary, Nicolas Nammar born in Shebaniyye in 1925, registered at the Lebanese Academy of fine Arts in 1944, specialized at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris (1949-1953), and received the president of the Republic Prize in 1959. He has now almost completely given up all artistic activity, even though his production was of the highest caliber.
(11)- This does not mean that there are no longer any artists who continue to imitate Western art, to jump back and forth from one genre to the next, and to search for their identity.
(12)- Along with Guiragossian we should also mention the following Lebanese-Armenian artists Georges Guv, Assadour Bezdikian and Krikor Norikian.
(13)- Among them: Samih Attar (Tripoli 1921). He studied sculpture at the Fine Arts Academy of Rome. He sculpted primarily statues of men of letters and political personalities (Khalil Mutran, Sheikh Beshara el-Koury).

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