Extracts of the book Art from Lebanon - Modern and contemporary artists 1880 - 1975
Volume I - Nour Salamé Abillama and Marie Tomb - Foreword by Amin Maalouf
(To order the book)
Introduction: The wide Gap - Joseph Tarrab, Art critic
When taking a look back on the story of the visual arts in Lebanon since the late nineteenth century, one thing becomes obvious: the first painters, although trained in France, Italy, or Great Britain, display no awareness of the great cultural, scientific, technological, intellectual, communicational, and artistic revolution of the years 1890 - 1920 - among the most fruitful ones in the History of mankind, on par with the European Renaissance. These were also the years of the Nahda of which nothing, or almost nothing, transpires in their works.
If Gibran Kahlil Gibran, in his innovative writings in terms of language and ideas, undertakes a fierce denunciation of the dominant hierarchies of Eastern society in general, and Lebanese in particular, his almost-Realist painting and essentially Symbolist drawings and watercolors are devoid of any such criticism.
A generation later, Moustafa Farroukh, a liberal Arabist, also displays a dichotomy between, on the one hand, his job as a cartoonist, and his satirical writings focused on political and cultural events of the day, and, on the other, his pictorial work, despite some paintings calling for the emancipation of women.
Starting from the 1967 defeat that was indirectly referred to by Rafic Charaf in his Antar series, and from the first frankly political painting exhibition, by Aref El Rayess, which was dedicated to the Algerian liberation struggle, an increasing number of painters will try to put an end to this indifference. The Lebanese war (which lasted more than 15years) dragged the artists out of their lethargy, yet without radically changing their approach. This willingness to stick to the facts and the experiences of History, to revisit the past, to question one's identity, and to interrogate the future will certainly be at the heart of the next volume of this work.
Paradoxically, among the painters active before 1975, the most conscious of sociopolitical and cultural developments turns out to be the only "naïve" among them. In his delightful manner, Khalil Zgaib chronicles Lebanon during the great transition from countryside to city: he depicts both of them in their architectural, social, and human diversity with a kindness concealing a sometimes-fierce humor.
Among the Armenian painters, haunted by the Genocide and exodus, the sense of tragedy and historical misfortune sometimes reaches a metaphysical intensity. The curse strikes mankind and the world at large. Their double disintegration is prefigured in the visionary engravings and large paintings of Assadour in the seventies, while Norikian, for his part, exposed evil without mitigation.
Paul Guiragossian etc... etc...
Aref El Rayess delved into events all over the world: Algeria, the increasing power of oil empires, the emerging Third World, arms trafficking, corruption, the massacres during the Lebanese war… He scrutinized people, things, and events, and depicted them as they were, including their shady sides, overplaying his effects in order to bolster their impact. etc... etc...
The first painter to fully qualify as such is Daoud Corm. He essentially divided his work between commissioned portraits of notables, and religious paintings destined to churches. Habib Serour branched out and painted still lives, male and female academic nudes, portraits, and female Bedouin vendors of culinary and medicinal herbs, who haunted the streets of Beirut at the time - as they still do today in some neighborhoods. These women will fascinate the painters of the first half of the last century. They were the only ones truly free of their actions and behavior, and the only ones who could visit studios without attracting derogatory comments. Often endowed with a magnetic gaze and an uncommon beauty, ready to pose without complex, they became the first painters' models, apart from high-society ladies who asked to be portrayed. However, in the late forties, Cesar Gemayel hired his beautiful servant Mariam as the first and only model of the young painting academy of ALBA. Mariam will become a sort of institution, even a living legend for all the students who will learn how to decipher female anatomy on her body. The National Institute of Fine Arts at the Lebanese University will also have its own models before they were banned from most sections.
Corm and Serour strove to remain objective, abstaining from openly introducing their subjectivity to their art. Although forced, like them, to practice bourgeois portraiture, khalil Saleeby indulged in painting his beautiful American wife from all angles, in sundry attitudes and clothing. He invested himself in his painting: to the impersonality of his contemporaries, succeeded passion and a strong personal investment, intimacy opening the door to the expression of interiority.
Gibran friend Youssef Hoyek introduced the art of sculpture, with Romantic nudes after the manner of Rodin. He became the mentor of Michel Basbous, who would later turn his village of Rashana into an outdoor museum welcoming his production and that of his two brothers Alfred and Joseph. Rashana would attract hundreds of curious and greatly popularized sculpture in the country. The war prevented Basbous from achieving his dream of creating a center of synergy for all the arts, but his brother Alfred launched an international seminar of sculpture in the nineties, paving the way for other symposia throughout Lebanon. Unfortunately, painting never benefited from a phenomenon of this scale, despite the proliferation of art galleries starting from the sixties on.
Marie Hadad will be the first woman to paint the nude. In the general inventory of Lebanese nature and culture initiated by the second generation of painters, she undertook the depiction of popular life and female crafts and trades: spinners, makers of bread, shepherdesses, Bedouins.
Bibi Zogbé proceeded with the introduction of new themes. Her work will focus on flowers, painted in a strong graphic style, far from any academism. etc...etc...
An eclectic painter, Georges Daoud Corm went from the nude, to portraits of high-society women, to still lives and landscapes, and painted the first views of some neighborhoods in Beirut. He will popularize the theme of the pomegranates, which will subsequently be taken up again by Hussein Madi, Amine El Bacha, and by Armenian painters such as Torossian and Agopian.
César Gemayel, a cultured dandy, able to recite most of pre-Islamic poetry, brought hedonism to the agenda, through sensuality, a fondness for female flesh and shapely bodies. He eroticized and sexualized Lebanese painting, creating a trend in which later protagonists would distinguish themselves, the likes of Huguette Caland, Hussein Madi, Amine El Bacha, and Juliana Seraphim. He enjoyed movement, not that of pure spirits, but of the flesh of women and men, exalting vitality, joy, and popular festivities. The opposite of Gibran, who indulged in ethereal bodies, Gemayel was materialistic with relish.
Moustafa Farroukh, who travelled extensively, was fascinated by Andalusia, by the interplay of light and shade, the vast panoramic landscapes exhibiting the geological structure of the land, rural life and its characters, Druze sheikhs, proud turbaned Kurds, craftsmen and peasants at work, to whom he conferred striking features. He shows scanty interest in Beirut, albeit still a picturesque city, with houses submerged in the greenery of gardens planted with trees and flowers surrounding pools. A previously unknown frequency of self-portraiture appears in his works: like Omar Onsi, he will continue, throughout his life, to ruthlessly scrutinize himself. Yet, despite the idyllic landscapes, rural scenes, healthy peasants, nudes, and Bedouins, etc... etc...
Despite his travels, his forays in the Djebel Druze, the Jordanian desert, and the hills of Kesrouan, despite his taste for light and shade effects, Omar Onsi remained an intimate painter who found his themes and motives around him, in his home, his garden, in the neighborhood, the views from his hill of Tallet El Khayat. etc... etc...
Henceforth, every artist had to find his or her own path, starting with Gemayel's students in rebellion against the master's legacy. The painters of the first half of the century will be forgotten, or nearly so, until the war of 1975 rehabilitates them in the public eye and in that of young painters.
Shafic Abboud quickly found his palette and a narrative approach that invisibly governed his paintings, in which extremely sensitive colors are gracefully combined. He almost never repeated the same effects; each painting had its own character.
After painting his social and urban popular background and then his family, Guiragossian eventually sought the pure pleasure of painting, but kept his characters closely standing together.
Jean Khalifé, a sharp draughtsman, reached a climax of chromatic explosions in his abstract paintings, driven by the sheer dynamism of the spiral movements of the brush. In the aftermath of his studio's invasion by militiamen, reality bursting into art, he painted deeply disturbing expressionist canvases of pure horror.
Helen Khal quickly went from an elegant, dreamy, figurative approach, permeated with transparencies, to a meditative chromatic abstraction close to Rothko's. Farid Aouad remained committed to Paris's loneliness, in bars, restaurants, and subway stations. He interspersed his life with trips to Brittany, where he described, in intense pastels, the gestures of fishermen returning to the harbor. A writer and an artist, Etel Adnan, after various experiments, ended up with color variations on Mount Tamalpais, in California, while combining her talents in Japanese-style folding notebooks covered with scripts, color lines, or miscellaneous items.
A fervent Modernist and the author of a book on Modern art, Halim Jurdak went from Cobra-inspired paintings to very fine line drawings, teeming with phantasmagoria and mythical beings, which he considered his war diaries. One of the first to do so, he picked up, from the streets, beer and soft drinks tin cans that were crushed under the tires of cars, and turned them into subtle red copper bas-relief works. He produced a large body of engravings and collages, despite the lack of interest for those techniques among gallery-goers at the time.
Aref El Rayess, the most creative and unpredictable of Lebanese artists, varied his topics and styles from small flowers to the cosmos, from Africa to the Arabian desert, from abstract "flying carpets" to sand paintings, from ink drawings to collages, from sculpture to imaginary architecture. He will be the first to put public events and social issues at the center of his work: the war in Algeria, the Third World, oil empires, the Lebanese war, prostitution… the list goes on. It is impossible to define him as he presents many facets and contradictions, all wrapped up with a supreme contempt for the "beautiful", "aesthetics", and "good taste".
Yvette Achkar is the opposite of El Rayess: she is as reserved as he was voluble. She paints long thought-over abstract patterns that are fashioned and refashioned so as to look like immediate spontaneous projections.
An architect by profession, Stelio Scamanga abruptly went, at the edge of the sixties, from a simply elegant graphic style to an explosion of colorful swirls, following the accidental death of his father. He would be the only painter to publish a manifesto on the importance of light in Oriental painting. Around him gathered artists such as Adel Saghir, Mounir Najem, and Mohammad Sakr.
A native of the Beqaa, Rafic Charaf started out painting the plain in a tragic expressionistic style, imbued with a black pessimism, premonitory of the Lebanese war. Ten years later, just before the war broke out, he started depicting the same landscape in a soothing, almost mystical, style. The plain generated large raptors majestically soaring in deep skies. After the 1967 defeat, he returned to one of the epics that had enchanted his childhood, that of Antar and Abla. In his mind, Antar became the "New Arab Man" etc... etc...
In a kind of manifesto-exhibition on the right of women to manage their own bodies, Huguette Caland addressed some erotic themes, focusing on the magnetic incandescence generated by the tangency between bodies or parts thereof. She ranged from the most open sexuality to childhood nostalgia in large canvases wrought like fine embroideries, in a deliberately naïve style.
Samir Khaddaje started out working on collective paintings dealing with the divided capital city and its inhabitants during the war. When he settled in Paris, he was overwhelmed by the emotional charge of the war. It literally exploded out into raging, furiously energetic, but cunningly structured paintings and assemblages. After an intermediate phase of learning anew how to spell out the objects of the world, he exclusively devoted himself to large installations requiring huge exhibition spaces.
Ibrahim Marzouk was one of the first victims of the war. A Beiruti through and through, he loved to portray cats on the prowl at night, streets, cafes, alleyways, rooftops, secret interiors, especially his studio cluttered with odd, nostalgic, childhood objects that he would arrange and rearrange in memorable paintings and watercolors, without forgetting to include his own reflection in the mirror, a procedure sometimes also used by his friend Amine El Bacha.
El Bacha produced, after abstract, softly colored, paintings, countless watercolors of the city in all its aspects, including its seafront. Some of his paintings and watercolors feature a display of repeating units: naked women, birds, clouds, columns, windows, musical instruments and musicians, scores, the daily and seasonal cycles of the sun, the passage of time… He described the horrors of war, but shied away from exhibiting live testimonies. Like Farroukh, he painted a series of watercolors on the Alhambra palace and Andalusia. Combining refinement and eccentricity, Fadi Barrage came to painting after extended classical literary studies. This elegant and clever draughtsman was a subtle artist, whose ambiguous works provide multiple readings. His last drawings and watercolors symbolically depict the inexorable progress of the disease that was wearing him away.
At the center of his paintings and engravings, Norikian places the orphans of the Armenian exodus wandering among destroyed churches and desolate landscapes. In a way, their plight materializes not only the ravages of the historic Evil, but also those of the metaphysical Evil. Assadour and Norikian were the students of Guvder, a fabulous artist possessed night and day by the demon on drawing. His hundreds of works, primarily intended for himself are a means to quench a boundless passion. He was also one of the first to pick up the waste dumped by waves on beaches and to combine them into hundreds of geometric assemblages that he repainted white.
Hassan Jouni devotes... etc... etc...
Seta Manoukian, after the monochrome paintings of her Lits Defaits, moved, with the advent of the war, to urban scenes and hospital scenes with wounded militiamen, in a clean graphic style and flat colors with a strong impact.
Like his Post-Impressionist predecessors, Chaouki Chamoun addressed the high mountain of Keserwan, however in a decidedly modernist style. He overlays his landscapes with geometric grids or targets, in order to focus the viewers' sight. On his large canvases, Man seems a tiny creature compared to the monumentality of snow-clad peaks, and India ink, Farid Haddad, goes from a quasi-mechanical style to a wide freedom of hand drawing, culminating in his last paintings before his departure for the United States at the beginning of the war, the Color Field Paintings.
Jamil Molaeb, a native to a village in the Druze Mountains, draws up, in many paintings, gouaches, and drawings, the inventory of all aspects of country life in a Druze mountain village. etc... etc...
Paul Wakim started out painting swarming colored spirals that eventually led him to immense canvas sizes. He went on with the detailed description of Nahr lbrahim rocks and pebbles in drawings, pastels, and large compartmentalized canvases. He regularly returns to his colorful swarming under the aegis of Mallarme, Bachelard, or Barthes. Among his first undertakings was a portfolio of lithographs inspired by Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal.
Nabil Nahas emigrated to the United States, where his work moved from complex graphics, based on geometric arabesques, to monochrome surfaces dotted with spots.
Early on, Mohammad El Rawas used printmaking to evoke the Lebanese war while he was abroad. Later, he developed this procedure with great refinement, sometimes requiring more than twenty successive primings. etc... etc...
If, between Daoud Corm and Mohammad El Rawas, there seems to be a wide gap, it is filled with the story of Lebanese art.
The end of this first Modern era is but the beginning of the next, contemporary one.
Art in Lebanon - A historical Overview - Cesar Nammour, Art historian
In order to study the art of Lebanon, one can follow two processes: the first one consists in examining painting in the light of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural circumstances and changes in the country, the second in analyzing contemporary sculpture according to materials, styles and schools, going back only one hundred years. Many historians consider Napoleon Bonaparte's 1798 invasion of Egypt the first introduction of the Arabs to Western enlightenments. This does not, however, apply to Lebanon, because the country's cultural exchanges with Europe had begun a hundred years earlier (many of the frescoes in churches from Byblos and Batroun even date from the eleventh century). In 1450, after the Ecumenical Council of Florence brought some Eastern Churches closer to Rome, Franciscan missionaries came to Lebanon to visit the Maronite Patriarch. As a result, three Lebanese students were sent to study in Rome, and in 1584 the Jesuits opened the Maronite College in this city. The first printing press in the Middle East was sent to Lebanon in 1610, followed by another one in 1732. Therefore, this story begins much earlier than the nineteenth century.
One can reasonably divide the history of painting in Lebanon into seven eras.
1- The Early Beginnings, 1450-1860 (until the end of Qaimaqamiatain)
Painting was born in the monasteries of Mount Lebanon because of the Church's demand for religious works. The Jesuits and students of the Maronite College of Rome facilitated painting by making oil paints and brushes more available, and by adopting painting techniques introduced by the Franciscans. In the monasteries, monks were amateur artists; they were few of them and their production was not large. Many of their names are still familiar to us, but few of their works are (for instance, Elias Hasrouni was mentioned by Patriarch Doueihi for having produced a painting for the restored Mar Abda church in Bikfaya around 1587). Art was at the service of the Church; as a result, monks painted only religious subjects. In later years, they portrayed their superiors, often after their deaths. Originality was not important, since only good copying was prized.
Notable artists of this period: Abdullah el Zakher, Youssef el Mousawer, Afram Geagea, Istfan Nehmeh, Moussa Dib, Youssef Istfan, Kenaan Dib, Youssef Semaan, Nehmeh el Mousawer, Charbel Nehmeh, and Bshara Nehmeh.
2- The Forerunners, 1860-1920 (Al Mutassarrafieh)
3- The Teachers, 1920-1943 (Greater Lebanon - The French Mandate)
The newly established State enjoyed French patronage of the arts, and an educated community of artists appeared. Group exhibitions began in the twenties and individual exhibitions followed the next decade. Artists were now professionals who had studied extensively in Paris and Rome. They often worked for themselves rather than for the ruling class, and their clientele was a flourishing new middle class. They starting painting in nature and looking towards the mountain villages instead of the sea, unlike earlier Beiruti artists, such as Ali Jammal and Ibrahim Sarabieh, who used painted Ottoman warships. Oil painting and watercolor were the main media at this time, although charcoal, pastel and pencil continued to be employed. Religious painting gave way to the needs of civil society: landscapes, still lives and portraiture were the dominant genres. etc... etc...
Notable artists of this period: Cesar Gemayel, Omar Onsi, Moustafa Farroukh, Saliba Douaihy, Gibran Khalil Gibran, Youssef Hoyek, Bibi Zogbe, Marie Hadad, Makarof Fadel, Rachid Wehbi, Philippe Mourani, and Georges Corm.
4- The Avant-Garde, 1943 - 1958 (The First Independence Period)
In the newly independent Lebanon, artists began looking for a Lebanese identity. The art market expanded as a result of a larger middle class and the flourishing of mass media. Artists were mostly graduates of the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts and were influenced by art teachers Cesar Gemayel and Fernando Manetti. They increasingly started working in their own studios, as nature began losing its appeal. Their experimentation with new materials and techniques was motivated by a search for distinctive styles, and their exhibitions took place in hotels and furniture stores.
Notable artists of this period: Shafic Abboud, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Yvette Achkar, Mounir Eido, Farid Aouad, Paul Guiragossian, Rafic Charaf, Aref El Rayess, Halim Jurdak, Saadi Seinavi, Helen Khal, Jean Khalife, Said Akl, Etel Adnan, and Huguette Caland.
5- The Mainspring, 1958-1975 (The Second Independence Period)
During this time, the Lebanese government started granting more scholarships to study abroad, and for longer periods. European and Asian embassies also offered grants for students to study in their capitals (Paris, Rome, London, Madrid, Moscow, Delhi). Many galleries opened their doors and became very active, while several foreign cultural centers opened to teach their languages and hold exhibitions. The Ibrahim Sursock Museum, the Art Institute of the Lebanese University, and the Association of Lebanese painters and Sculptors were also born during this period, during which Beirut became the artistic center of the Arab world. As artists increased in number, influences from abroad were absorbed more readily through communication and travel. etc... etc...
Artists who were exhibiting at this time include: Samir Abi Rached, Amine El Bacha, Olga Limansky, Mohamad Sakr, Elie Kanaan, Hussein Madi, Hrair, Hassan Jouni, Farid Haddad, Stelio Scamanga, Torossian, Adel Saghir, Nadia Saikaly, Juliana Seraphim, Norikian, Moussa Tiba, Wajih Nahle, Seta Manoukian, Jamil Molaeb, Mohammad Kaddoura, Houry Chekeriang, Lotti Adaimi, Mounir Najem, Samia Osseiran Jumblat, Paul Wakim, and Khalil Zgaib.
6- The War, 1975-2000
During the war, Beirut lost its position as the artistic center of the Middle East and most of its galleries closed, which led to fewer exhibitions. Many artists emigrated. Grants to study abroad were no longer offered, causing less contact and less influence from the international art scene. Newer schools of painting rejected academic rules, and more self-taught artists appeared on the scene. etc... etc... Acrylic paint was introduced, as well as installations, along with the continued use of watercolor, mixed media and collages.
Artists who were exhibiting at this time include: Desiree Abi Jaber, Lotti Adaimi, Youssef Aoun, Rached Bohsali, Ali Chams, Agopian, Flavia Codsi, Fulvio Codsi, Rima Amyuni, Houri Chekerdjian, Jinane Bacho, Elias Dib, Lulu Baasiri, Joseph Faloughi, Mona Trad Dabaji, Rim el Joundi, Mansour el Habr, Issa Halloum, Charles Khoury, Fouad Jaouhar, Adnan Khoja, Ghada Jamal, Jamil Molaeb, Vera Mokbel, Odile Mazloum, Theo Mansour, Greta Naufal, Jean-Marc Nahas, Mohammad El Rawas, Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, Hanibal Srouji, Samir Tabet, and Missak Terzian.
7- The Post-War Period, 2000 until today
After the end of the civil war, Beirut opened up to the world but was no longer the art center of the Middle East it used to be in the seventies. New galleries have opened, some featuring experimental artworks. More exhibitions are taking place and dynamism is returning to the art scene. However, it is the cities of the Arab Gulf states that have been setting up flourishing cultural institutions and attracting the world's attention; as a result, the price of art has skyrocketed in the Middle East. In Beirut, the artistic community continues to grow with more diversity. As freedom of expression grows stronger, political and war subjects start to appear in the work of a new generation of artists, who enjoy total freedom to mix painting, design, sculpture, photography, video and ready-made objects in one work. The mode of aesthetic expression that started in the mid-eighties of the last century is becoming prominent again.
Artists exhibiting frequently at this time include: Oussama Baalbaki, Charles Andraos, Charbel Samuel Aoun, Zeina Assi, Zeina Kamarddine Badran, Souad Jarrar, Nadim Karam, Edgard Mazigi, Raya Mazigi, Rafic Majzoub, Rana Raouda, Mazen Rifai, Gisele Rohayem, Rima Saab, Mario Saba, Nada Sehnaoui, Arwa Seifeddine, and Hind El Soufi.
From Classicism to the Splendor of Nature, Dr. Maha Azize Sultan; Professor of Art history and art critic
In the nineteenth century, the port of Beirut wasn't only a station for incoming and outgoing travelers; it was also a springboard to travel through the vast expanse of the art world. Daoud Corm (1852-1930) paved the way, following his dreams on an early trip to Rome, the capital of religious art. Habib Serour (1863-1938) arrived there as an immigrant with his family, and Khalil Saleeby (1870-1928) went from studying at the Syrian Evangelical College in Beirut, to Edinburgh in Scotland, and then to London, the United States, and Paris. These three pioneers laid the foundations for an artistic revival in Lebanon. With them, the features of religious art began to emerge, and portraiture, landscapes and still lives reached their golden era, while nudes remained rare.
Religious art in Lebanon reached its finest heights with the works of Corm and Serour, who based their painting on academic and Renaissance principles. This direction was partly carried on by Youssef Hoyek (1883-1962). Saliba Douaihy (1912-1994), on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of religious art toward Modernity, using varied techniques ranging from fresco to stained glass. The genre didn't evolve much after them. In fact, it began to decline in favor of other subjects during the French Mandate period (1920-1943), which witnessed the advent of Impressionism in Lebanese art.
Corm, Serour and Saleeby established professional painting, and if they mostly left portraits, it is because they represented society's artistic, cultural and human identity. Therefore, it was essential for Corm and Serour to respect the human subject by reproducing a true match of the model. Saleeby, however, reversed the classical equation so that the model seems to be emerging from the artist's mirror, with innovative poses and light trajectory. He also used bright colors in his face shadings and backgrounds. These characteristics were inherited by two of his disciples, Cesar Gemayel (1898-1958) and Omar Onsi (1901-1969).
Serour's studio was the first school to teach art in Lebanon, and gave it its most prominent names: Moustapha Farroukh (1901-1957), Saliba Douaihy, and Rachid Wehbi (1917-1993). etc... etc... Georges Corm, Marie Hadad (1889-1973) and Sadi Sinevi often captured the beauty of tattooed Bedouin women, with their black attire and mysterious features. The taste for painting these women wasn't restricted to Lebanese artists; during the French Mandate it rubbed off on French artists (led by Michelet) who saw in the Bedouin faces the last descendants of the prophets in the Orient.
The Obsession for the Orient
As the pilgrimage to the Holy Land in Western Orientalist art came to an end, signs of Orientalism began to loom in the Lebanese plastic arts with Serour, as a reflection of the Orientalist movement which had emerged in Europe in the eighteenth century, albeit with a local vision in harmony with Eastern traditions. However, the onset of the Mandate contributed to perpetuate this Orientalist movement, especially with the arrival of amateur French artists who were seeking to get away from the Modernism that was sweeping Europe. They observed the features of Lebanese faces and read their expressions, painted many archaeological sites in Syria and Lebanon with a curious emotional eye, along with a love of discovery and exoticism. etc... etc... A late Orientalism turned up in the production of one of the most prominent artists of the Mandate period, Philippe Mourani (1875-1970). His journeys throughout Lebanon, Syria and Egypt resulted in striking paintings that earned him wide fame in Paris as an Orientalist painter from the Orient.
The new awakening of the Orient may have begun with Youssef Hoyek and Gibran Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) when they were studying art at the Julian Academy in Paris in 1908. Noticing that the Orient lacked sculptors, Gebran advised his friend Hoyek to study sculpture in Antoine Bourdelle's studio and closely examine the work of Auguste Rodin, who had captured Gibran's imagination. Gebran's drawings were a first vanguard experience in which he reflected on his philosophical insights, especially as he linked the beauty of the nude to the purity of nature and the movement of rebellious spirits. Art is a "divine breath" according to Gibran, who fueled Hoyek with the quest to perfect sculpting in Rodin's style. Hoyek believed in the spiritual beauty with which he adorned the face of dreamy women coming to life from the depth of the stone. He also infused his subject matters with features of Lebanese society, with its local folkloric, historical and mythological elements (a statue of Astarte, women wearing the tantur, Emir Fakhreddine…). Hoyek was the first sculptor to have his works displayed in public squares (the statue of Youssef Bek Karam in Ehden Square in 1932, the Martyrs' Monument in Martyr's Square in 1930). He captured the Orient's awakening in a sculpture of the same title, exhibited in 1939, in the Lebanese wing of the International Exhibition of New York. The sculpture depicted a woman's face emanating from the womb of the Earth and leaning on the Baalbek temples.
The Mandate period saw the rise of Impressionism in Lebanese art as a manifestation of the concept of the State of Greater Lebanon, an independent entity with its own geographical borders, heritage and civilization, after centuries of being small scattered provinces under the Ottoman Mutasarrifat. etc... etc...
Saleeby's impressionistic colors were a first bridge toward Modernism. Although he did not portray his models surrounded by nature like French Impressionists did, he painted somewhat Impressionist Lebanese landscapes such as his College Hall in the American University of Beirut in 1920. He was the first to introduce pink, blue and brick red in painting, using colors directly from the paint tube in a breathless race to catch light. These colors imbibed his pupil Gemayel's palette, which explains why the latter was attracted to Renoir's art. Gemayel learned from Saleeby the bold use of colors as well as stylization and concision. He declared: etc... etc...
Onsi learned from Saleeby how to study faces and quickly capture shapes, features, and transparency, by smearing paint and using red for shading. When contemplating some of Onsi's self-portraits, one is reminded of the last self-portrait of Saleeby before he passed away, in the frown, the defiant look, the head tilt and the emaciation that give both faces the same spirit and similar features, especially with the color background in Saleeby's painting (which put an end to the darkness of Corm and Serour's portraits). It seems as if the same nerve runs through Saleeby's and Onsi's hands; the nerve of immediate improvisation speaking through the shape. Saleeby, who had a passion for archery, etc... etc...
Saleeby, who was passionate about painting his wife, sometimes nude, was assassinated in 1928. His death shocked the art world, stirring up the issue of the proliferation of the nude on a wider scale. etc... etc... His maid, Mariam, became the first nude model at the Lebanese academy ALBA, founded by Alexis Boutros in 1943 in collaboration with Gemayel. After that, the nude began to catch on in universities and artists' studios.
From the dim studio to nature's bright light, Lebanese art evolved from the generation who lived part of their life as immigrants, such as Gibran, Hoyek, Georges Corm and Mourani, to the following generation of "lmpressionists" such as Farroukh, Gemayel, Onsi, Douaihy and Wehbi. etc... etc...