Art in the press


Art in Lebanon – the Last Thirty Years by artist Joseph Matar

Copyright 2008 (Published in Byblos Art N'2, 2009)

To make a review of contemporary art takes no little time, for it is a complicated task involving not only art proper but also culture in general and all sorts of creative activities. Contemporary art, as its name indicates, follows on to that of the recent past and is a fore-runner of that of the near future.

We are surrounded by the achievements of creators, and that is what constitutes our civilization. We all know that in face of the world become there is already the world becoming, one where the laws of our existence also apply.

Contemporary reality animates the forces of our imagination, stimulates our faculties and manifests itself in works of every kind, with as support here a white sheet of paper, there a panel of wood, elsewhere some canvas, stone, a wooden block, various materials or even sound, taking on various forms as monuments or as words.

Is it possible to find a certain unity of soul in so many diverse ways of expression, in painting, architecture, theater, music, sculpture, dance or choreography, offered to our consideration in museums, art galleries, studios, scenery, cornices, the internet and so on?

The creative powers of each one of us expressed in these ways become accessible to others, to the common awareness, to the life of our times.

What is more, in every epoch we live against a background of social structures, traditions, usages, customs and habits which evolve, disappear and give place to other expression under the pressure of new creative geniuses.

I am a citizen of this world, the old, the contemporary and the future; I come from the land which was the cradle of the Alphabet, and am a son of the light of the East and of its mythology, and also son of the nuclear era and of the conquest of space, of the year 2008, breathing the air of my time.

I remember well my long and frequent forays in the space of the Grand Palais, the salons, the galleries, the museums of Paris, and in Beirut before our own modest high spots; all the schools were to be found, from the figurative to the cubist, abstract, tachist and unreal. The artistic movement in painting is the same, our newspapers and magazines in English or in French, our joyful festivals at Baalbek, Byblos and Beiteddine. They offer us images, scenes, books and critical analysis of a kind similar to the best products of Paris, London or New York. Our planet has become this small village of neighboring tribes where exchanges take place at the rhythm of our time in every domain.

Only the names change: instead of contemplating a Rouault or a Braque in Paris, here we admire an Onsi or a Gebran or some other artist in Beirut. Instead of listening over there to Valéry, here one listens to Saïd Akl, Charles Corm and the like. Art has conquered all the frontiers of countries and races and even of souls, with communication become so general.

The Louvre with its treasures will soon be opening its doors in the Emirates and after one thousand years the Sorbonne, created as long ago as the tenth century, will be setting up its faculties in the deserts of the Gulf in order to spread the magic of our Alpha Beta and other letters fallen from the sky on the Phoenician coast at Byblos, leading to the existence of books and all the mechanism of “relations”, since Europe, the princess Europa, one of our own, was taken away by Zeus from Tyre and conquered the continent to which she gave her name, making way for the era of Pericles and for the Greek miracle, for the medieval icons and the quattrocento, and the spread of a unique learning throughout the whole world.

The contemporary “self” is ever the promoter of the future. The Parthenon is as contemporary as the offices of the Defense Ministry. To perceive means to see in another way at the same time. The development of thought from Plato to the computer, chips and artificial thought has taken 2,500 years, and all that was yesterday. In every age, Man has gone through his evolution and has explored the treasures hidden in Nature as in his own soul, using techniques and supports, lines, colors, forms designs, volumes, gestures and sounds. Who would dare to say that Cézanne was more contemporary than Dürer, Dali or Vermeer? Each has a style according to his times and his individuality is in harmony with his own soul and that of his time.

“How much longer must we wait,” said Kandiresky in 1916, “before it is understood that every new content demands a form created according to its likeness and that a form without content is a sin against the Spirit?” By good luck, I got hold of “Caractère de l’époque actuelle”, a superb course given in Germany, but dated 1804-1805. So what is now something of the present was even then contemporary.

At the present time we are living through a great noise being made in the press and the media, with the creation of hundreds of galleries retail sites in the rich oil states and the great European houses opening dozens of branches from Beirut to the Arabian Gulf.

Any work of art is subjected to the economics of the market, and the press always seeks to persuade us by adding zeros to the right of the price of any article. The game is cleverly synchronized. At Dubai for example lessons and courses are given free to initiate people into abstract art, something dating from 1910, which is now so fashionable. There are advisers who offer their services free of charge to explain to you what figurative arts you should invest in and where and how. The banks are ready to help on the financial side.

There is an orchestration by the media, using every means in order to sell works that are beautiful or not so beautiful, superb or mediocre, all bringing works of art into the economy of the marketplace. We know the important names of reference, but will keep them under our hat.

“How does the artist manage to create” remains a purely secondary consideration while a man has in himself the ability to represent, to think, to dream, to feel and to individualize his sensations, his particularities, his passions and his emotions.

Art evolves, and so do the human being and the whole universe. The present-day world is desperately seeking novelty in a race maintained by new procedures and materials.

Renewal enriches abundance of works. So-called schools erupt on the scene and reach their climax, living only on what is present without any link to the traditional, preferring experiment, research, change and, when necessary, extravagance. Exhibition galleries, illustrated reviews, TV clips, all make us see as art drawings, paintings, canvases, surfaces and volumes with the most sophisticated forms. They may even be the works of awkward imitators in search of notoriety, all seizing as best they can on the advertising and presenting their stuff as representative of modern art. Any surface, whether canvas or wall, lends itself to the reproduction in image of some fantasy or of a profound vision. The odd art critics know well how to dazzle the reader or the visitor with a pretentious vocabulary which is to be swallowed without a smile.

The real artist will show himself master of the situation. The true creator or poet will make of the masterpiece a living organism imbued with spirituality, and even holiness in some cases, since a true work is the fruit of thought, emotion and imagination in the conscious and in the unconscious.

According to Rudoph Steiner, “If {acting} alone, abstract thought gives surcharge to the memory. Artistic contemplation forms it and the effort of will consolidates it.” To press the point home, an illustration comes to my mind. It is that art is a confrontation between light and darkness, the conscious and the unconscious, the divine and the human, where individualism, the self, the ego, shows itself. Good wine is a bunch of grapes which ripened during the whole summer season, having absorbed with light and warmth, then put away in the cool darkness of the cellars in order to age, to enrich itself and to become nectar of the Gods. All that is clearly seen even if not always clearly expressed. And so I come to the concrete situation presented in the domain of pictorial art in Lebanon over the last thirty years.

A first generation remained faithful to the fashionable figure painting, with portraits, landscapes, Nature and scenes of social and religious life, pioneers who opened the way, such as David Corm, Habib Srour, and Khalil Salibi, well known for their work between 1860 and 1920.

A second generation includes Youssef el Howayek, Gebran Khalil Gebran, Omar Onsi, Saliba Douwaihy, Cor, Wehbeh, going from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1960 or ’70.

A third generation came in the nineteen-forties with Elie Kanaan, Jean Khalifeh, Ameen Sfeir, Basha, Joseph Mattar, Basbous, Sharaf, Jordak, Shart, Awad,Najm, Rayess, Zaven – in fact the number steadily increases.

Then a fourth arose between 1960 and 1970. Here we have a very long list, with Berberi, Doumit, Assadour, Sursock, Nakhleh, Ghali, Naomi, Hrair and Harfoush, to mention only some.

The fifth and sixth generations take us down to the present moment and here I must stop. Many of these artists were my own pupils and I must point out that there was never an actual rupture between one generation and another, but rather a continuity with intimate connections.

At the demand of the review Magazine Byblos, I am going to choose a score of artists from over the last forty years in order to present their profile in a short and rapid summary, drawing on the documentation in

The second generation, mentioned above, continued to assert itself through its fidelity to figurative art, but took on with talent the new forms such as fauvism, cubism, cubism, expressionism, and so on. Some threw themselves into abstract, tachism, unreal, so as to be “in”, and there were critics ready to impress the public with the imagined talent.

I stop here just to give a one-page outline of our universities, academies and faculties, to be numbered by hundreds, scattered throughout Lebanon, as well as of the galleries and studios active in different parts. I do not forget to mention a large number of Lebanese artists living in Europe, America and round the world.

The score of artists chosen without discrimination or prejudice have been picked out of the last few years’ issues of the Cultural Agenda and out of, artists who are active, working, showing. When I say “picked out” I mean chosen, ones who make me feel some conviction. The present range is widely varied. Decorators who have ventured into the plastic arts are many.

Very capable architects have thrown themselves into the figurative arts with professional flare, ones such as Abdallah Dadour, Bonfils and Jean (John) Lahoud, together with poets following the example of Joseph Abou Daher. Of the many intellectuals who have made the change, some have become colorists and others creators of forms or graphists, existentialists and the like. Follow the fashion? Why not? One has to. And “...if,” according to Beuys, “every human is an artist and can become more and more so, the question of the adequation of the art to the spirit, that means to say its adequation to reality, should be the object of greater attention and increased consciousness, both on the part of the artist and of the public.”

There are among us some excellent critics. We know how much in France Diderot in the eighteenth century and Baudelaire in the nineteenth were able to make the public understand and enjoy the masterpieces of their time and sometimes to reveal the artistic geniuses unnoticed by their contemporaries. Even the genius Picasso, with his brilliant follies (see the magazine of Paris Match of 22nd September, 2008) was to be recognized and praised for his great qualities of impish metteur-en-scène.

Truth or deception? Rather should we continue to form our aesthetic judgment and let the sun rise shining in the heaven of these new worlds and in hearts bathed in love.

Translator’s note: “sh” gives the correct pronunciation in English spelling, but the following names are normally written with “ch” in their more widely used French forms. “Amine” has been given in its English form “Ameen”.

Ashkar, Ivette

For her, painting is life, the air she breathes. Sincere and sensitive with great freedom of expression, in her abstract world she speaks of drama mixed with joy, a fairylike play of ever new virtuosities.

Berberi, Antoine

An intellectual and dynamic artist, also a technician deeply versed in his craft, he lets iron in his hands become movement and poetry. Bronze is transformed into busts and monuments pulsating with life. Berberi is a creative artist and patriotic historian, with national and human motifs.

Bezdikian, Assadour

As an artist who is intellectual and creative, tormented, existentialist and mythic, he expresses in his compositions the relationships of man with time, the past, future and day-to-day. His own urban landscape with its variants is the symbol of a civilization that time has dislocated and ravaged.

Shamoun, Shawki

He makes a geometric reconstruction of facts and of things, in a way not without realism, proceeding by elimination, keeping the sites of lively communication, emotive, and pure, rhyming with the splashes of color representing gleaming individuals.

Codsi, Flavia

She is a painter with ethereal and clear transparency, of great sensitivity, easy to understand. From trompe l’œil to hyper-realism, she composes in her work a poem expressing day-to-day reality and conveys there her own sensations. She masters chiaroscuro with its breath-taking contrasts.

Doumit, Naïm

Here we have a calm, thoughtful and silent sculptor, who is able to simplify and take the modulations of his works to the point of paroxysm. He carves both wood and stone, breathing into their life, and modelling clay so seizing the soul and the spirit of things.

El Basha, Ameen

This painter received a solid formation in the academies of Lebanon and Paris, and is a fine colorist, doing work both transparent and rich. She is a creator who knows how to put her own imprint and character into existence. Born into a family of artists and musicians, she has kept harmony in her life. Her palette is also a keyboard, full of virtuosity and poetry.

Faloughi, Joseph

A silent and discreet artist, in his research he exploits complementary tints in juxtaposition; tones and subtle shades create an atmosphere that expresses emotions and states of the soul which invite contemplation. He observes Nature, but simplifies its reality and expresses his own personal interior vision.

Haddad, Victor

Here we have an artist who is master and modulator of line. In his numberless arabesques there arise his figurative forms in a continuity, play of movement and linear spirals which tell us about Lebanon, about its mythology, its gods, its lights and its people. With Haddad reality shines out and so enchants us.

Hrair, Diabékisian

Hrair has a way of his own for portraying people, horses and houses. He shows care in the forms and in the repetition of the decorative elements, with a use of gold that reminds one of icons. His technique is related to his own self. His expression and his vocabulary are rich indeed and his colors gleam like so many suns.

Although as an artist he is simple and delicate, he is also a master decided, firm and energetic when he so desires.

Jouni, Hassan

Jouni is a figurative painter with solid constructions. He distributes his material with a great deal of taste and care over detail. He likes to take as his subjects scenes and groups, in coffee shops and such typically Lebanese traditional settings. The space he creates is enchanting even when extended into efforts across abstract planes. Jouni is a true artist and a poet.

Kalfayan, André

Although self-taught, Kalfayan has been able by his efforts to attain a personal style and technique to express the world around him at Byblos that fascinates him. His attention is caught by any doorstep, passage, opening, door or window, which immediately becomes his one subject multiplied to infinity, the daily life of this world, where his heritage is always present and is picturesque in all its nearby forms.

Kanaan, Elie

The works of this painter and colorist offer a play of colors which fascinate and delight us. Through a rich and structured tachism, we discover the soul of Elie Kanaan. Artist born, he devotes himself to his task without discussion and takes the expression to the point of emotion.

Kawak, Marie-Claude

Interior architect, she has delved into painting. With spaces and perspectives ornamented with a subtle geometry and with oriental arabesques, she transforms the desired structures into elements of dreams, of dialogue and of exchange.

Lahoud, Jean (John)

Trained as an architect, he switched over to the plastic arts, beginning with water-colors and creating a personal universe of geometric and metallic constructions. His space is raised into volumes which travel in a three-dimensional cosmos.

Madi, Hussein

Draughtsman, painter, sculptor, engraver, graphic artist, illustrator, caricaturist and craftsman in the fields of ceramics and mosaic, he has a diversity of talent that explains his rigorous work, his balanced and unified composition, and his continuity fed by orientalism of a world of fantasy.

Joseph Mattar

An astounding alliance engages himself with his very Creator. The divine and the human, heaven and earth, come together in his works and in poetry warm and appealing. What is created becomes creation and celebrates the play of the sacred that he carries within himself. His work aspires to be a poem of love and prayer; his paintings are luminous and in them, he expresses his soul. He loves to express himself in scenes of Nature that abound in beauty. (Jean Delalande)

Nahlé, Wajih

Nahlé transmits his message through calligraphy which is special to him, “arabesque” letters which turn to groups and forms bringing his simple space into harmony with both form and content.

Rawas Mohamad

Painter and technician, and going from Pop Art to dadaïsm and surrealism, from graphics to collage, and, sure of himself, he has mastered a solid technique. Aesthetic, he has a world view constructed into a creative and homogeneous process.

Saïkali, Nadia

She has a call which silences all around her and gives rise in the regions of her world to flashes, outbursts, high-tension sparks and tension, for her world is action, movement and an ever-renewed birth.

Selwan, Ibrahim

For Selwan painting is more than expression but rather a religious vocation. His theatrical stage of rotating movement in perfect balance makes a world entirely his own with its dimensions and ranges where his soul is reflected as in a mirror.