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Omar Onsi, The Gardener of Epiphanies -PAGE 2-
(Photo showing Onsi admiring his sculpture by Youssef Hoyeck, around 1965) - Article copyrighted 1985, The council of the Foreign Economic relations.


Bourj Abu Haydar, Beirut, Oil, 53 x 63 cm, Collection Mr Mansour Onsi

This quotation should serve to situate within its overall context the adventure of Lebanese art at its earliest beginnings, an adventure which even in its latest achievements has never ceased to be a quest for identity: be it the identity of the painter, sculptor, poet who, each with his own means and vocabulary, endeavor to define the particular nature of their relationship to the world, or the identity of the group to which the artist belongs, of that human community from which he detaches himself like a pathfinder and which more or less consciously expects him to raise it to the dignity of self-formulation that essential, existential formulation by which one learns to know and recognize oneself in one’s difference and, this difference being a value, to do one’s utmost to preserve that value, since it is no added attribute, no superfluous and reversible luxury, but one’s base, foundation raison d’être . And here, no doubt, we have the explanation and justification of the fact that all the pioneers of Lebanese painting turned passionately their dazzled and loving gaze on the living realities they discovered about them: men, women and children of the native soil, the light and the landscapes, the customs and homes, the costumes and faces, shapes and sights, striving with the infinite pains of loving fidelity to reconstitute them in their pictures. But who were the «masters» a work of whom young Onsi could have studied here and there? Did his eyes ever light upon some vaguely Italianate canvas of his forebear Kanaan Dib, from Dlepta (Jdaidet Ghazir)? Did he ever in his childhood come across some little picture by Ibrahim Sarabiyyé of Beirut (at a time - 1850 - when that city was all crooked alleys and verdant orchards): some portrait touching in its clumsiness, some hillside scene, or some seascape actually quite subtle with its tangle of tartana boats in what was one day to become known as the Old Port? Did he ever have in his hands some colored or charcoal drawing by Sheikh Ibrahim Yazigi, who was also a most accomplished calligrapher? What indeed, of that small, scattered, dreamy band who, last century, marked the beginnings of Lebanese graphic art - while at the same time the Bonfils dynasty, in particular, began to develop the technique of photography – what manifestations or vestiges preserved here or there could in the early years of this century have nourished the rêverie of a self-questing adolescent and triggered the spark of inner illumination? Well, there was Démechkié, of whom only one painting (of the British battleship «Victoria» sinking off Tripoli) is known, there were Hassan Tannir Mohammed Said mer’i of Basta, who was to emigrate and end his days in America, Najib Fayyad of Ashrafieh, Abdallah Matar from Lehfed, and even a medical officer of the Ottoman navy, Ibrahim Najjar, who came from Deir el-Qamar and pursued the arts of painting and drawing in his leisure hours. There were above all two more important painters who both. After promising beginnings in Lebanon, took the path of exile, one Salim Haddad of Abey, making a name for himself as a portrait-painter in Egypt while the other, Najib Bakhazi of Ashrafiyeh (then an autonomous township), took himself off to Russia, where his trail has grown cold…


House on Rocks at Ain El Tannour, Meyrouba
Watercolor, 39 x 30 cm, collection Mr. Tammam Salam

All in all, then, at the formative period of the young Onsi - who bore the same name, Omar, as his paternal grandfather, a scholarly poet well known in cultured Beiruti circles -, the art of painting was already an accepted feature of Lebanese society. A number of artists, known and appreciated if only by the minority, were exercising their various talents and, in certain cases, had opened a studio where they transmitted as teachers what they had gleaned from frequenting the academies and museums of Rome, Paris, London or – even so early – New York. One day in 1870 a twelve-year-old Daoud Corm went off to Rome, where he perfected his training; he was to become eventually the favored portraitist of the prominent families of Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, and was also to paint full-length portraits of Pope Pius IX, the Belgian royal family, and the princes of the Khedival court, Tawfiq I and Abbas II. Cairo was likewise the setting of Habib Srour’s career after his pilgrimage to Rome , and before his return to Beirut where he taught drawing at the Sultan’s Osmanli College and opened a studio attended not only by Omar Onsi but also by Moustafa Farroukh, Saliba Douaihy and Rachid Wehbé. Gibran Khalil Gibran, before casting anchor in new York, spent two years in Paris, where for two years he followed the teaching of the greatest sculptor of the age, Rodin, where he surely encountered, apart from Paul Claudel’s sister Camille - in whom we are now coming to recognize a sculptor of genius - the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was busy both with the “Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” that were to bring him fame and with a biographical approach to the mighty creator of the «Gate of Hell». Youssef Hoyeck, a native of Helta (Batroun), after the obligatory stay in Rome – the fascinating capital of a tired classical art then on the brink of academicism -, chose to settle in Paris, attending not Rodin’s studio but one nearly as illustrious, that of Bourdelle (just as, half a century later. Michel Basbous was to work as the assistant of Zadkine at his studio in the Rue d’Assas) But the greatest traveler of them all was Khalil Saleeby, zigzagging from Beirut to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to New York, then back to Edinburgh and on to London – whither another Lebanese Saliba Douaihy had found his way from New York – and eventually returning to Beirut where, in 1920, he welcomed as friend and pupil, among others, Omar Onsi, who was to declare how much he learned from Saleeby, especially in the art catching the light, and César Gemyel, a man torn between his exacting studies to be a pharmacist and his eagerness to be splashing colors.


Landscape in Alsace, France, Watercolor (Aquarelle)
33.5 x 52 cm, collection Mrs Haya Onsi Tabbara

Thus technically qualified, and already a master of practically every effect his inspiration required. Omar Onsi was invited to Trans Jordan , where for five years he taught the groundwork of his art to royal pupils, including an aunt of King Hussein’s who was subsequently to make quite a name for herself as a painter in Paris. This stay in a semi-parched country left its most decisive mark on the young Lebanese artist through his encounter with the desert, with its tawny hues, its crisp blue shadows, and the delicate sensuousness of its modulations at once arid and refined the lyric dryness of its light. Onsi’s palette was never to forget that stern and sober lesson; throughout his work as it unfolded he was to preserve, of that fundamental experience, a taste for uncluttered severity, an intuition of the «genius loci» as abstracted from the light: these were to underpin the plastic vocabulary of Onsi even where he gave vent to his love of the subject in lively, colorful abandon.

NEXT - Page3


The witch (Portrait of a Bedouin), Oil, 63 x 47 cm, collection Mrs Bouchra Onsi

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