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Omar Onsi, The Gardener of Epiphanies
(Photo showing Onsi admiring his sculpture by Youssef Hoyeck, around 1965) - Article copyrighted 1985, The council of the Foreign Economic relations.

Omar Onsi is a figure apart among the “founding fathers” of Lebanese painting, if only for two reasons: first, because his life was so utterly submerged in his art that there is scarcely anything for a biographer to extricate; secondly, because that art itself was wholly blended with the light and landscape of his country, with the humanity of a traditional Lebanon, fixed in portraits, little genre scenes, images of a wonderfully happy land on which alone, as one of its most talented artists, he fastened his gaze and bestowed his heartfelt devotion. Some may argue that all the Lebanese painters of his generation shared practically the same attitude and were similarly moved to find in the humble, endearing, yet colorful and tangy reality of everyday Lebanese life the raw material of their inspiration and even, both ethically and aesthetically, their underlying raison d’ être – and that is true of Moustapha Farroukh, Cesar Gemayel, Saliba Douaihy and a handful of their lesser-known contemporaries, including some, like the Lebano-Argentine Bibi Zoghbé, who were to develop their art abroad, never to return. Nevertheless, the case of Omar Onsi, the state of almost total isolation with which he confronted the grain of his canvasses, the paper of his watercolors – magic casements onto the visible though they were to become – this case of isolation within the ecstasy of the act of painting is sufficiently exemplary to merit being stressed. The striking serenity of his face bore witness to this solitude: the limpidity of his gaze remained unaltered through the years, like that of a boy never returned from a childhood journey of discovery and never disenchanted with its marvels. A critic wrote of him in 1945: “You would think he was staring into the eye of a bracing wind”. And indeed – as all those who knew him will confirm – there was in the leanness of the man, those delicate yet bony features on which, in time, age was to inscribe a tracery of sensitive wrinkles, in his attitude, which was self-assured in its very modesty, in the slight flutter of the voice as it seemed to hesitate on the threshold of the right word – a voice which he never raised above a “sotto voce”, as if fearing to disturb some watching deity or some omnipresent music audible to himself alone – there was in the entire physique of Omar Onsi that shyness, self-effacement of one who is the custodian of a secret far greater than himself, a secret he may let out only in snatches, in statements of oil or watercolor slowly peeled from the contemplative underlay of the artist: hypnotic utterances of which he is but half the author, which it is for the viewer confronting him to complete from his own inmost store of rêverie. And Omar Onsi’s secret was precisely this: that the world, however beautiful, remained impenetrable behind the most breathtaking signs of its beauty, so that it was the task of the artist to make himself as transparent, as evasive, as attenuated” as possible if he truly wished to transcend appearances and capture, if only for an instant, the eternally withdrawn essence of the visible. Hence – one may suppose – Onsi’s preferences and, quite early on, his passion for that lightened form of plastic expression, watercolor, the handling of which medium is surely an art of pouncing upon the instant, of rapture in a sense. We can see for example how Onsi, with increasing mastery, makes use of this technique to recreate with a few deft strokes, fixing both line and color at a glance, the transient miracles of light on a pyramid of red roofs or a hillside of silvery olive-trees, extracting the lurking sparkle from the even daylight as a fisherman of ‘Ain-Mreisseh jerks a fish from the water. It will of course be necessary to consider in greater detail all these technical problems arising from the painter’s conception of his dialogue with the universe as a wild, uncircumscribable force which only an artist’s dogged patience may, on rare occasions, succeed in taming for the duration of a glance. And we shall also be noting how greatly the habit of watercolor influenced Onsi’s handling of oil paint, how, as he, with ever more felicity, explored the virtues of under-statement, his caressing brush turned the oil-painting into simply a more heavily-charged watercolor, one which, without being really weighed down, shed less of the inevitable materiality of the world and its light – for it must be realized that light too, and here we have one of the main lessons to be learned from his canvasses, is material: a matter it was up to Onsi, having for once discarded his diaphanous net, to snare as best he could.

Orange Grove in Sidon, Oil, 39.5 x 31.5 cm
Collection Mrs Haya Onsi Tabbara

Before venturing further into the exploration of Onsi’s themes and techniques, let us look at the few availabledetails of his life and consider the historical circumstances which gave rise to his vocation and ran parallel to its fulfillment.

Self Portrait with Turban, Oil, 64 x 48 cm
Collection Mrs. Bouchra Onsi

Omar Onsi was born in Beirut in 1901, into an old Sunni Muslim family. This fact is not without its importance, in that, for reasons of cultural vocation lined to the secret springs of the aesthetic imagination and the way they function, the plastic arts of a figurative kind had up to then belonged rather to the Christian tradition in the country. Christianity being of its nature a consumer and hence and inventor of images. At a time when Islam generally found an outlet for its creativity in other fields and styles than those of figurative painting, Christian Lebanese artists (who, more often than not, were simply inspired artisans) went on repeating in church and monastery the gestures of a “creative” depiction entirely devoted to worship and ritual. Their productions were, it must be said, of somewhat limited interest from the artistic point of view, yet it is only right to pay their due meed of tribute to those humbler and for the most part anonymous picture-makers who preserved the tradition for century after century. However, things began to move, the pace to quicken, in the mid-nineteenth century with what Salah Stétié, in his essay “Par l’amour et par l’image” (Introduction to ‘Cent ans d’art plastique au Liban, 1880-1980, Editions R. Chahine, Beirut, 1982), has described as the “désenclavement” of Lebanon:

“Then the Lebanese began to open their eyes to the outside world,” Stétié writes, “as their country ceased to be an enclave and as many of them felt […] the stirrings of a national awareness. Thus the opening of their minds to that outside world, whether from the political or the cultural point of view, is bound up with their rejection of the irksome Ottoman presence in the region as a whole and, more particularly, in their own native mountains and plains. As one may observe day by day in the interminable struggle of dominated peoples against their dominators, the recovery of an identity is in large measure affected through the expression of the former’s determination not to be what the latter would have it be. Against the deliberate perversion of their image in the distorting mirror satanically thrust before them, they struggle to reassemble the atoms of their own true being and make sure that their proper reflection resurfaces in the world. Yearning for the time when they could ‘to their own selves be true’, the Lebanese were destined to become, throughout a Near East subjected to a capricious alien rule, the reawakeners of the Arabic language and Arab civilization, shrouded as they had been for so long by Osmanli imperialism. Thus was born the “nahda”, the renascence, which – through all circumstantial guises and disguises – was first and foremost the resurrection of the basic cultural identity. And it was by a tenacious determination to rediscover itself in a cultural identity which was original at any rate, if not primeval, that Lebanon was, in parallel with the “nahda”, to venture into the field of art. As tools to assist in the realization of that identity, therefore, Lebanon was to have at hand the painter’s brush, the sculptor’s chisel, and these, quite apart from the achievements of each finished work, were to work away at shaping the features of a people, a nation, or at lending them the colors of life, so that little by little they were to emerge from indecision and stand forth.

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Path to the Artist's Home, Oil, 59 x 71 cm, Collection Mrs. Bouchra Onsi


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