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