Al Moudarres was a Syrian artist painter and a leader of the modern
art movement in Syria. Initially self-taught, Moudarres later studied
at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, where he was influenced
by Surrealism. After he completed his studies, he returned to Syria
where he grew and honed his skills under the auspices of long-time
friend, mentor, and tutor Wahbi Al-Hariri.
Born in Aleppo, Syria, Fateh Moudarres originally taught himself
realist techniques before becoming interested in Surrealism. He
then studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome from 1954 to
1960 and developed a distinctive style of painting that incorporated
He abandoned the religious iconography and Syrian Art references
of his early work for non-objectivity in the 1960’s. After 1967
however, his work took on political themes. Moudarres studied at
the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris for three years in the early 1970’s,
and honed his technical and compositional skills.
Teaching at the University of Damascus has allowed him to exert
an influence on young Syrian artists. Currently the largest private
collection of the works of Fateh Moudarres is kept by Mokhless Al-Hariri,
son of syrian artist, Wahbi Al-Hariri of the Al-Hariri Family.
Upon his return from Italy late 1950s, Moudaress abandoned the traditional
formulas of painting prevalent in Syria and began to create a language
where his vocabulary was drawn from the primitive and ancient arts
of his country. In his expressionistic idiom reality is mixed with
The heroes are taken both from the present and from ancient civilisations,
and are both nameless peasants and legendary figures. Their square-shaped
heads recall those of Assyrian statuary, and those of the figures
in Palmyrene frescos, and also of early Christian iconography. These
characters are enriched with warm and vibrant colours and executed
in a variety of ways, sometimes with dense application of paint,
sometimes scratched, or stippled, or with the
addition of sand. Often a specific group of colours, such as red
and black, or white and fawn, will dominate the painting.
Growing up Fateh Moudarres spent much time in the countryside, but
the agricultural crisis of the 1960s forced him to relocate to Damascus.
The city at that time was experiencing a period of unprecedented
growth and fast becoming an increasingly cramped and hostile environment
in which to live.
These conditions were compounded by the political and social unrest
sweeping the Arab World. Against this backdrop Moudarres, along
with several his artist contemporaries, often sought to depict the
everyday people and the problems they encountered. He was especially
moved by the life of ordinary people in the Syrian countryside.
For them, what on the surface which can often incorrectly be characterized
as an idyllic existence was in fact a way of life marred by problems
caused by social upheavals. The present composition depicts the
life of the simple peasants, showing the country bride and wedding
In such a scene one might expect to see joyful celebration, but
instead there is a palpable aura of sadness, as Moudarres reveals
something of his feelings about suffering and helplessness of these
women in the rural areas. Passed away in Damascus 1999.
Fateh Al-Moudarres, Syrian Artist Who Fought for Justice
with Brush, Pen. By Abd al-Rahman Munif - This feature
appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, no. 29
When Fateh al-Moudarres died, he left like a child treading the
path of Golgotha, and in his death, as in his life, he appeared
like Jesus the Redeemer, who never grew tired from giving counsel
and setting examples.
Writing about al-Moudarres is either long overdue or too early.
We entertained many ideas for a writing project to which Fateh would
make the main contribution in the form of a long dialogue or interview.
Although we were prepared, we kept postponing the practical steps,
awaiting a more appropriate time. It seemed we had time on our hands
until that June day arrived and took Fateh away.
Thus writing about Fateh appears early, for death is not always
the appropriate time for saying all that needs be said.
I recall the mid-1980s, when Fateh read my novel, “Al Nihayaat”
[The Endings], admiring one of its characters, Assaf, for the silent
heroism he embodied, and for which he was a symbol in his death,
during one of the drought years. I recall also the musical tribute
Fateh gave on the piano in his studio to this popular hero, playing
"Nashid al-Widah” [Anthem of Farewell], a beautiful and masterful
piece; since it was spontaneous and improvised, it was not recorded,
to my disappointment and his.
Writing about Fateh is then early, and thus should not be reactive,
or influenced by the impact of the shocking loss, for when an artist
like him dies he is not forgotten. Moreover, in talking about Fateh,
we need to emphasize the present and future tenses more than the
past, for the importance of the artist cannot be measured by the
years, or by physical proximity, but rather in terms of presence
and influence. This is why his death becomes unique when compared
with the death of others, for Fateh remains always present and capable
of life and renewal, while the others’ death becomes the beginning
of absence and forgetfulness.
We were prepared for a long dialogue but kept postponing it, believing
that time would be generous, allowing such a dialogue or clash of
ideas to materialize and produce the best results. We wanted a dialogue
closer to debate: hot, candid, problematic and even extremist. Our
hope was that this interview would be different, erupt in new ideas
and reveal visions often concealed in the shadows, allowing no one
to come close.
His studio resembled a nest, located on Ahmad al-Marioud Street
in Damascus, with windows not very high off the ground. Glimpsing
the dim lights coming out of them, I was inspiring to visit Fateh.
Inside the studio, like an old ship with its corridor leading to
the large hall, Sufi music by groups from Azerbaijan played everywhere;
the coffee, which was on the fire, was boiling and overflowing the
pot. The hands of Fateh were usually late in tending to it, as he
was often busy with an idea which precluded him from paying attention
to anything else. It seemed that if the idea came late, it might
be lost, but attending to the coffee would wait, and if necessary,
it could be remade or dispensed with.
The interview-debate, for which we were preparing and kept postponing
time after time, is now a part of the past, an impossible wish after
the interviewee has passed away, and the words extinguished. This
happened without feeling time or fear of death, exactly as when
the moon sets without being noticed, or as the sun hides behind
the mountains. After the possibility of debate slipped away from
our hands, nothing was left except the echo of that Sufi rhythm,
which perhaps remains playing in the large hall.
Since the possibility of the debate has vanished, the most one can
do is to reflect briefly on some of the stages in the life of this
distinguished artist, hoping his influence on the Arts movements
in Syria and the Arab world will be written about in the future,
in detail and with objectivity.
The hammer first struck the chisel into the heart of Fateh when
he lost his father when he was only 22 months old. His father, in
his mid-20s, was killed by a gang in a conflict over land ownership
and political differences. This event left a deep impact upon the
child and his mother, and this influence lingered with Fateh to
Even though a long time passed since his father’s death, whenever
his childhood was recalled, Fateh used to consider the killing as
a turning point in life. This had an important impact on his formation
and on his perspective on life, explaining certain aspects like
the “subjects” which remain the material for much of what he painted.
He used to shift back and forth between martyrdom, crucifixion and
departure, which Fateh expressed in most of what he produced.
After his father was killed, his mother and nature, in that northern
border village where the Kouwaik River begins, became his refuge
and only protection.
In that place, he discovered nature and colors, and also hardship
and persecution by the powerful against the weak, including himself,
others, and especially women. When he had to leave the countryside
for Aleppo, still a child, he carried his memory, and along with
it the maximum he could carry of the fruits, the rocks, the flow
of water–a load that would constitute his supply of materials for
Although the childhood of the artist is a spring that doesn’t dry
up, childhood was stolen from Fateh at an early age. He was denied
the place where he was born and which he knew, thus being forced
to leave for the large and difficult city. What Fateh could not
achieve in actuality he realized in dreams, memories, and then art.
This journey of dreams, memories, and art was a long one, rich and
very winding; it is one of the main keys to reading the artist.
Without knowing his childhood and its feelings, wishes, and dreams,
the artist’s works may remain defiant to comprehension and at times
Fateh’s childhood had a strong impact on his life and art, influencing
him more than it did many others, as if it had always been with
him in many forms. Although travel and long experience shaped, refined,
and at times disguised him, childhood was his main theme from beginning
to end, remaining as a musical theme, disappearing at times only
to reappear again stronger.
Following early childhood, the childhood of middle-age arrived.
When Fateh longed for happiness, death came to deprive him of it,
stealing two of his children after they had grown up, full of the
promise of beautiful days to come. This tragic loss remained visible
in most of his art pieces during that period, where childhood becomes
subject to betrayal and breakdown. With the loss of the mother,
this triple bereavement characterized his paintings for years. Even
when much time had passed, the expressions of this loss would resurface
as an echo of an impact that never fades.
Childhood experience, then death and its consequences, are some
of the elements that stamp the artistic life of Fateh. Martyrdom,
crucifixation, and “Jesus Returning to Nazareth”–the name given
to one of Fateh’s paintings–are expressions that acquire new meaning
closely linked to his environment. Jesus, who had been portrayed
with European features for centuries in Western paintings, appears
to know of no other place than Europe, as if he were born there.
Fateh’s painting, according to Antoine Makdissi, restores to Jesus
his real features, language, and also the place in which he lived.
Besides childhood and death, Fateh was influenced by the turbulent
events in the region, the French occupation, the Palestinian question,
and never-ending Arab defeats, including insults, shattered pride,
changing priorities. Fateh became their historical witness.
Even when he traveled to the north, the region known for its beautiful
nature and numerous colors, Fateh continued his documentation on
canvas. It was as if he wanted to share with us the childhood experience
one more time, the longing for past days, and also that implicit
comparison between what we experience now– ugliness, hardship, pollution,
absurdity – and what existed at an earlier time or what must exist
in the future.
What these paintings emphasize, besides the themes chosen by the
artist, are his choice of colors and method of painting and how
he decides what to include and exclude, something that may be a
testimony of a dark condition, or the price of a wish or ambition
to be realized. Thus we can read a whole period through these expressions,
not only as documentation for what the artist suffers, but for what
his surroundings dream of and say. This demonstrates the merit of
studying the artist through several phases in order to understand
what is beyond the forms and the colors, as well as recognizing
the factors and the forces that made him choose this method of painting.
Fateh is one of the main witnesses of the present Arab age. He was
clear in his choices and positions, siding with the oppressed and
the poor, expressing himself, though indirectly, through the painting,
the word, and the commitment.
Fateh’s position was expressed through aesthetic feeling rooted
in the region, although he shows knowledge of and appreciation of
artistic accomplishments in other places, especially during his
travels to Italy and France. There he interacted with modern artistic
trends and schools to develop his own style and discover new dimensions.
He did this without forgetting two things. First, his connection
with the environment in which he was born, its character in terms
of light, colors, and smell of soil, a factor that perhaps distinguishes
him from others. Second, he developed a special style, or a language
of his own, a goal that was made possible by his long experience
and by testing new possibilities.
Developing his own style, including features and taste, establishes
the artist’s identity and differentiates him from others, thus constituting
a decisive stage in the life of any genuine artist. Fateh reached
this stage at a relatively early period.
This was not accomplished in one push, for Fateh conducted research
and experimentation, moving from realism, his first phase, to being
influenced by some of the styles and trends that were dominant in
Europe, especially surrealism. But he did this in his own way, spending
little time with these schools and trends, and soon moving on to
continue research until he reached musical expressionism, or in
other words, his own style. This is a combination of localism imposed
by the place, like colors and subjects, and of a stock of poetic
memory and historical inheritance, whether in terms of symbols and
signs, or from reviving the region’s other cultures.
Fateh accomplished this after he introduced all these elements into
his special laboratory, making out of them a consistent casting
which distinguished him from others to the point of enabling us
to unmistakably recognize his painting, not only in terms of its
structure, expressions or colors, but rather primarily in terms
of its spirit.
Besides his fine art career, which consumed most of his interests,
Fateh was involved in the world of letters and literature, specifically
short stories and poems. Added to this was the deluge of papers
scattered in his studio or among his notes in the form of wisdom
and lessons from life experience. What these statements say, many
marked by black sarcasm, must not remain imprisoned by the nails
that fix them on the wall of the studio, or are instead strewn about
everywhere. These must be gathered and published and made accessible
to the people, for they explain their author and define his positions
on a wide range of issues.
Even the studio entrance has changed in time into a Diwan (salon)
of Fateh’s daily life, for in addition to what he posted on the
door; his friends had their own additions, amendments and revelations,
continuing the dialogue when it is otherwise absent.
When he was present, and during the intermission between one paintbrush
stroke and another, the temperature of the words overshadowed everything,
floating over the universe searching for the essential, for the
strong and the durable in things and situations. Fateh emerged as
the “dynamo” in the dialogues and discussions, creating new ideas
and exploring dimensions, willing to pause for a long time over
To discover Fateh, and to recognize him well, it is necessary to
treat him as a whole, rather than looking at one side of him. His
life is as important as his art, his writings equal his paintings,
and his dialogues reveal much of what the paintings cannot say directly.
Also, the written words become a key through which we can enter
a very rich and diverse world.
Fateh was asked about a collection of unusual photographs he took
on a sea trip. Said Hourania posed the following question: “What
is this, Man? Do you use Man as an animal experiment?”
I photograph the essential. I photograph the most important in the
personality at the moment I liberate myself from falsification.”
“The Mint Tree,” the only collection Fateh published, constitutes
a good example of the short story in terms of structure, language
and meaning. Perhaps other stories exist in his files that deserve
to come out, contributing to seeing this artist in a new light.
Fateh’s short stories provide an important key to his world. It
is true that Hourania finds a similarity between Fateh and Kafka,
where both see the dark side of life, focusing on creatures that
were human and then became deformed. But Fateh does not reach the
state of absurdity or nihilism Kafka represents, due to differences
in geography, concerns, and time. Furthermore, Fateh’s commitment
lies in the concerns, principles and positions, which made him a
rejectionist closer to rebellion, especially as he witnessed the
barbaric wave represented by America, starting from its positions
in Vietnam, then the Palestinian question, and later Iraq. Those
who know him say nothing preoccupied him more than politics, or
rather, the indictment of violence, betrayal, hypocrisy and wickedness
that dominates the political world of gimmicks and maneuvers, for
which people, particularly the poor, pays a high price.
From Fateh’s perspective, the written word, especially his published
short stories, incite the most noble in man to oppose injustice
and oppression, exerting all efforts for a better life, a life that
deserves to be lived.
Fateh’s prose, colorful, fertile, and sparing, is part of his personality.
I had access, by mere chance, to one of his early memoir notebooks,
which he lost and which ended up in another’s hands. I hope that
this notebook was returned to Fateh; I still do not know whether
it was or not. As Fateh now rests in Al-Bab Asaghir Cemetery, at
least this notebook can be added to the other things he left behind,
now the property of all those who appreciate the artist, eager to
know the details of his life. His personal memoirs are the most
fertile and important sources, and enable us to understand his life,
the factors and the influences that shaped it, and to subsequently
reach the essential and the truthful.
Fateh al-Moudarres is a school in himself. Even the name is a part
of his personality. He is a school because of the richness and the
diversity of his experience, not only in fine arts, but also in
the life he lived and the multiple means of expressions he adopted
to present his thoughts and dreams. Since his personality was a
mixture of the artist and the bohemian philosopher, often marked
by some sarcasm, art in its many forms become one of the many aspects
of this personality. Art makes Fateh’s internal word quite concentrated,
characterized by recklessness, rebellion, and rejection. These factors
explain his diversification of means of expression, a decision stemming
from the inadequacy of any one means to express what moved him,
hence the imbalance in his expressions, particularly in painting.
This may be explained by Fateh’s feeling that he had not yet reached
or accomplished what truly satisfied and expressed him.
Further, when Fateh found the language he was using–whether through
lines and colors or in the written word–inadequate in expressing
what he wanted to “say,” he turned to the piano to “say” something
additional, something the color could not do justice to, or the
written word. Because music is one of the most abstract means of
expression, he found it at some points the best means of fulfilling
what he wanted to say about wishes, thoughts and dreams.
I often noticed Fateh simply looking at the white canvas. He was
doing that with a mixture of love and enmity and also with some
sarcasm, like a wolf from the northern mountains, awaiting the proper
moment to attack. Every attack made him feel that what he left upon
the canvas was not sufficient, not what he wanted. The attempts
were repeated without stopping in order to announce the internal
abundance with which he was filled and which were yet to be expressed.
In this there was an admission that everything a man attempts involves
a degree of illusion, for what is sought is more difficult than
what is realized.
Fateh was piling many white canvases in the corner and behind the
doors, as if he feared them, or wished to avoid them. He was preoccupying
himself, made busy by his many visitors–to postpone the moments
of dialogue. During the escape he searched for a new format of expression
regardless of its form, hoping to find it by dealing with this collection
of white canvases. When he reached what he had presupposed in the
beginning of the road, he did not abandon the method of the wolf
in dealing with its prey: one time by deception, another by desertion,
and another by close and sudden merger, as if he wanted to settle
his score at once.
of the artist's artwork
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