Art in the press

The Art movement in Lebanon, from 1930 to 1975 by Frieda Howling

Lebanon, the ancient land of Phoenicia is a small country situated along the Mediterranean Sea . Its population of approximately one and a half million is a people with varied religious backgrounds, mainly Moslems, Druze, and Christians. Due to this mixture a multitude of traditions exist which, in the past, have prohibited the development of some cultural facets. The country boasts of a rich background in its history and major contributions to civilization, such as the alphabet and the Justinian Laws. Recognition and acceptance of the art of painting, however, developed late in Lebanon 's history.

Movement of art could not infiltrate into the country from European countries or America because no teaching of art, either representational or as a means of self- expression, existed before the last quarter of the 19 th century. Craftsmen flourished during the various historical periods of Lebanon . They left the mark of their art, particularly in architecture in the form of decorative motives both on the exterior and the interior of buildings, as well as furniture, woven cloth, and the metal crafts.

Art was accepted only in the context of a religious nature, created mostly for the Christian churches Joseph Abou Rizk, who was one of the first writers to compile a history of Lebanese artists makes the following statement in his book, Regards Sur La Peinture Au Liban: “In its general history El Douaihy mentions the name in Elias El Chadiak El Hasrouny, the first known Lebanese painter to whom the Father Antoun El Gemayel had entrusted the task to decorate the church "Mar Abda" in Bikfaya in 1587.” He also said: "It goes without saying that the first pioneers of this movement have been self-taught persons. But the daring of their initiative and the naïve spontaneity of which they gave proof are self-sufficient to call our attention to them".

The Lebanon of today is a relatively young country. It was part of Syria until the 19 th century. It was under the French mandate from 1918 until 1942, when it became an independent Republic. Thus I am covering a relatively short period of time when considering the development of contemporary art and Lebanese artists. After several years of research, mainly through contacts, I have reasonable assurance that the first painter to have achieved public recognition as a contemporary Lebanese painter was Daoud Corm. If others have existed, they remained in oblivion.

The young Daoud Corm's creative talent was discovered by an interested priest who was able to persuade the patriarch to help the young man to secretly slip out of the country in order to go to Italy . There he studied art at the Royal Academy of Saint Luke in Rome for three years. In the meantime the patriarch reconciled the father of the young man to the idea that the profession of painting is not a disrespectful or dishonorable one. After his return to Lebanon in 1874 this artists specialized in portrait painting, and achieved recognition for his religious painting. In fact, it is said that in Lebanon every Christian church of that era contains paintings executed by Daoud Corm. Landscapes had very little or no appeal at that time.

Since Daoud Corm received his academic training under Pompiani in Rome it seems only natural that Corm's works reflect influences of the Italian masters. Through him the purely classical and representational art movement can therefore be considered the forerunner of the first art movement in contemporary painting in Lebanon . Corm’s most ardent student and follower, Habib Srour, also went to Italy for further academic training in art and became the second known contemporary Lebanese painter.

Painting continued in the traditional style until about 1945. Among the best known painters of that period are Khalil Saleeby, Khalil Gibran, Mustafa Farrouk, Saliba Douaihy, Omar Onsi, and Rachid Wehbé. All of these painters went abroad for academic training in art. Khalil Saleeby studied in America , France and Germany in the early 1920s. Khalil Gibran studied in Paris at Rodin's studio. He was later influenced by the work of symbolist English artist William Blake. Mustafa Farrouk went to Italy and Paris to further his artistic training. Saliba Douaihy left Lebanon at the age of twenty-one to study in Paris . Upon his return to Lebanon in 1936, he joined the traditional school of painting of his contemporaries. Omar Onsi received his first art training at the American University of Beirut between 1918 to 1920. He later studied for three years in Paris (1927 to 1930). Rachid Wehbé was indoctrinated to the traditional, realistic style of painting by his teacher Habib Srour.

The year 1943 marks the beginning of significant public art interest with the establishment of the Academie des Beaux Arts, under the leadership of Alexis Boutros. The school of painting was founded in November of that year. Cesar Gemayel, a protégé of Khalil Saleeby, was appointed director and teacher of the School of Painting . Gemayel, who had studied in Paris , was greatly influenced by Renoir and the impressionists in general. Gemayel was a dynamic leader. A man of great personal public appeal, he exerted considerable influence. Because of this, he was able to introduce the first nude model in the drawing classes at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts. On the surface he seemed to have removed public prejudice of the idea of drawing the human figure in the nude. However, it was only a small segment of society that began to show interest and to understand art. The struggle against public opinion about artists continued to restrain the growing of an art movement. A painter was believed to be a man condemned to die of hunger. The profession of painting, therefore, was not taken seriously by most of the Lebanese. The small segment of the people who might have appreciated paintings, and who could afford to buy works of art, did not invest much in Lebanese paintings because it was fashionable to possess European reproductions with all the glory of elaborately gilded frames. Under the sponsorship of the Lebanese Ministry of Education, the Lebanese artists received some encouragement and were given the opportunity to exhibit at the UNESCO Hall semiannually, in the spring and in the fall.

In 1957 about twenty painters founded the Lebanese Artists Association. Among them were the already established traditional painters Omar Onsi, George Corm, and Rachid Wehbé, as well as a new enthusiastic group of young artists with a leaning towards the abstract movement. Some of these were Chafic Abboud, Jean Khalifé, Aref Rayess, Adel Saghir, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Elie Kanaan, Said Akl, Michel El Mir, Nicolas Nammar, Rafic Charaf, Amin Sfeir, and the sculptors Michel and Alfred Basbous. Some of these young painters also received encouragement from the French painter Georges Cyr who lived, painted, and exhibited in Beirut . In his teaching he was then influential particularly among those painters who followed the French school of expression. Besides Cyr there was no indigenous model for them to follow at home. So, they naturally turned to the European abstract expressionists like Leger, Chagall, and Ernst.

About this time, 1959, a primitive painter was discovered in Beirut , Khalil Zgaib, a self-styled painter whose gay country scenes in the flat, colorful motif made him the lone primitive painter of Lebanon until Sophie Yeremian appeared. Although classed as a primitive painter, she depicts life in Lebanon in a child-like manner rather than in the pure primitive style.

From 1968 to 1975 membership of the Lebanese Artists Association grew to about sixty members according to reports from its officers. Among the newer members were Yvette Sargologo, Nadia Saikali, Mounir Najm, Assem Stetie, Stelio Scamanga, Helen Khal, and Mohamad Sakr. In November 1961 another stimulus was added to the growing interest in art in Lebanon . The Nicolas Sursock Museum was opened with the function of offering a place for the Lebanese artists to exhibit their works, as well as broadening the knowledge of art through various exhibits of local and international scope. For its inauguration the fall of 1961, an Exhibit of the Lebanese Artists Association was arranged with an array of visitors from the international set attending the opening night. In 1962, Gallery One opened its doors to the public. It was the first art gallery in Beirut with a permanent collection of work of contemporary Lebanese artists on display. This gallery was established by Yusuf Al Khal and his wife, Helen, both creatively active, Helen as an artist, Yusuf as a well-known poet. In the spring of 1964, a new group of importance formed the l'Association Culturelle Armenienne Hamaskayine. This group included Paul Guiragossian, George Guv, Zaven Haditzian, John Papasian, Hriar, and Assadour Bezdikian. Although all of them have exhibited with the Lebanese painters, the purpose of forming their own association was mainly to encourage young Armenian-Lebanese talent

One can say that no true Lebanese art style yet existed, but one cannot deny that the various small groups, with all their struggles and lack of public encouragement, had finally broken the barriers of public opinion. On opening nights the galleries were filled with at least a curious public, if not a sympathetic one. The international abstract movement had found impetus among the younger generation of Lebanese painters. Some successfully identified themselves with their arabesque heritage the colors, light, and traditions, while others still searched for a style of their own. Many of the Lebanese artists of that period identified with the «oriental style» influenced by the roots of the countries east of the Mediterranean (at that time these were the Arab countries, not the Asian countries. Some artists turned to their spiritual inner self for inspiration. Mysticism is a natural phenomena found in many of the works of Lebanese artists. Of particular interest in that category is Khalil Gibran (1883 -1931). Charles H. Caffin wrote in the American about one of Gibran's first major exhibitions in New York . He said the exhibit was: « very unusual and highly interesting. » Gibran treated his dreamscapes with special consideration. «It is a world of original creation that unfolds itself; a world mostly composed of mountains, vegetation, and sky… It is remarkable, as showing how an artist, influenced by the modern tendency to revert to the primitive and elemental, can direct it if he has high capacity of imagination, into channels of deep significance. »

The semi-figurative movement seemed to have enjoyed a more appreciative public following, but the international abstract movement definitely created much controversial public interest in Lebanon . The younger generation of artists sensed the need for a change. In 1964 John Ferren, the American artist, arrived on the scene. He was the first artists to be sent by the United States government to work as an artist with artists in a foreign country for one year. It was a program that was introduced by President John F. Kennedy as a cultural service to another country. Lebanon was the first country to be chosen for that distinction. Ferren (1905 – 1970) was a product of the Sorbonne. He had lived in Paris from 1931-1938. Upon his return to America he was one of the first artists to exhibit with American abstract artists and became primarily associated with the Abstract Expressionists. While he worked in Beirut , his canvases exuded with thick coiling lines of bright pigment organized against fields of flat color. Chafic Abboud, Jean Khalifé, Aref Rayess, Mounir Najm, and Adel Saghir were among the best known Lebanese abstract expressionist painters at this time. They participated in a group exhibition with Ferren at Gallery One in Beirut in 1964.

In a consideration of the development of the contemporary Lebanese painters the sculptors cannot be completely ignored. Unlike the painters, the sculptors numbered so few that no trends could be traced. Of the six known sculptors (up to 1975), the late Joseph Hoyek and Halim Hajje are considered the classicists. Zaven Haditzian, Michel Basbous, Alfred Basbous and Rachid Semaan and Saloua Raouda Choucair are the modern sculptors of Lebanon .

In this book an attempt is made to show that the art of painting existed from 1930 to 1975 in Lebanon . Since it is not a country endowed with a tradition of painting, it cannot claim a natural development of the various phases of art as can be traced in the history of painting in other countries. Aspiring artists had to cope with the strong cultural and religious tradition which, instead of inspiring the growth of self-expression, disapproved of self-expression or representation of living objects.

In spite of these obstacles, struggles for existence, and recognition, the Lebanese painters finally succeeded in coming out of oblivion and slowly move from the classical, realistic period, inspired by the Italian masters, to the romantic impressionistic period, inspired by the French impressionists, to the international abstract movement. With the growth of the so-called modern movement, international public attention was finally being focused on the art of Lebanon , especially in the cosmopolitan city of Beirut . It was for this reason that I wanted to fulfill the need of a compilation of a documentary record tracing contemporary painting and painters of Lebanon . The information has been gathered through personal contact and interviews with the artists and with relatives of those deceased. Many of the known artists up to 1975 are included and omissions are due to the lack of availability of the artist or his/her work in Lebanon .

I left Lebanon in 1965 and returned in 1975 for a brief visit. During that time I had the opportunity to update my research and contact some of the artists again. The country was on the brink of war and a prolonged stay was not possible. What has taken place in the Lebanese art world from 1965 to 1975 was certainly a credit to that relatively young and small country. Individual artists experienced self-development and gained esteem at home as well as abroad. Progress had also been made in public appreciation and in the business of art itself. The Nicolas Sursock museum continuously encouraged the contemporary Lebanese artist. The office of tourism sponsored exhibits both in Lebanon and abroad. In addition, the many new art galleries introduced the artists to the universal system of bringing art and the public together.

The mobility of the Lebanese artists had always been part of their development because formal training in art was limited and additional study always been sought in another country. Today this mobility has apparently increased. Because some of the artists prefer to divide their time between Lebanon and other countries, more of them are making their mark in the international art world. Due to this mobility, however, some artists who should have been included in this book have not been mentioned because it was not possible to contact them.

Between 1965 and 1975 Lebanese artists began to embrace some social issues. Georges Guv was influenced by political events in his Hiroshima series. An exhibit entitled Genocide and Renaissance, a collective exhibit of paintings, sculpture, and drawings of more than fifty works by Lebanese artists of Armenian and Lebanese origin, displayed concerns of political events. The general theme was Armenian massacres of 1915, but it also pointed to the problems of all nations which lead to destruction, suffering and a kind of rebirth. It is refreshing to know that artists in Lebanon took on the responsibility of being concerned with social dilemmas.

Halim Jurdak earned the distinction of being one of the best and serious artists in Lebanon . He became known as the master of etching and engraving. Even though he produces fine etchings, he is not enslaved to the pure technical aspect of the printmaker. As an artist he allowed for experimentation. Jurdak developed his own concept of line. He derived his theory from the growth of plants, a phenomenon which gives his works poetic vibrations. Perhaps this can be traced to the natural immersion in an environment where plant life is in abundance. His home base is the scenically beautiful area of Dhour Choueir. He says that he meditates with line. He is in complete control of it when incising it on the copper plate. As a painter, he handles color with equal professionalism. His abstract paintings and pastels burst with bright colors which he moves freely in and out of space.

Sloua Raouda Choucair's works has grown immensely between 1965 and 1975. She is perhaps one of the first true abstract Lebanese artists. Although her career as artist goes back many years, she has always been ahead in time with ideas. As the victim of a conservative society she was denied proper recognition until the mid 1970s. Her abstract forms are the product of her mathematical mind as well as her analysis of the oriental philosophy. This dates back to her earlier days as a painter but is even more apparent in her role as one of Lebanon 's outstanding sculptors. A series of interlocking constructions are proof of her mathematical analysis. These sculptures, whether in wood, stone or metal, are like an epic in Arabic poetry. Each unit is a complete form in itself and by addition and subtraction a harmonious «whole » form is created. Here the «intervention » of the spectator is a welcome factor. The viewer can play a role in placing the parts together and getting involved in creating the size of the sculpture. Movement is an important element with which Choucair experimented for years and succeeded in interpreting mathematically in a variety of media. For example, The Drunkard's Intention is a construction in stainless steel. Its delicately balanced movement is based on the theory of the dynamic equilibrium. The spatial relationship of the positive and negative space element is also well illustrated in a wood sculpture called the Traveling Line. That the artist has control of line and form is apparent in her constructions of such contemporary materials as Plexiglas and Nylon. The transparency of the Plexiglas has given her the freedom to explore with a linear design within a form. Play of Arches, a grouping of linear forms in gouache, indicates that the artist is a firm believer in basing her two-dimensional compositions on the same mathematical theory as her three-dimensional constructions. She also made designs for costume jewelry based on the same principles. The addition or subtraction of an interlocking part visually changes the design.

Among the younger group of important artists who came on the scene between 1965 and 1975 were Stelio Scamanga, Assadour Bezdikian, Farid Haddad, Hrair, Krikor Norikian, Azem Stetie, Hassan Jounie , Haidar Hamaoui , and sculptor Boulas Merhi.

Stelio Scamanga set out to define the term abstract painting and succeeded developing his idea of abstract painting which stars with giving space. This given space is transformed into a meaningful visual experience of movement in color, form and space.

Farid Haddad’s canvases clearly stated the emotions of the contemporary movement. His desire to communicate also took him out of the realm of the easel painter. He enjoyed expressing himself on large canvases.

Hrair has passed through several stages of abstract, figurative and linear painting. His roots, however, are deeply immersed in tradition and he retuned to a source of inspiration which is very close to him. The return to the influence of the Byzantine icon inspired his creativity. It brought out a most beautiful, rich quality in his works not apparent during his searching years of self-identification.

A promising young artist who had his first exhibit at Alecco Saab's in 1965, Assadour Bezdikian has attained international attention through his work during the past ten years. Like Halim Jurdak, Bezdikian excels in etching. Even his earlier works indicated that he was a master of line, but his most recent works leave no doubt of his mastery. His works also display a deep commitment to humanity. Although he comes back to Beirut occasionally, he prefers to work in Paris .

A more controversial figure who appeared on the art scene in Beirut is Haidar Hamaoui. He is controversial in the sense that he revolutionized the speed of painting. He is a showman who captivates an audience by demonstrating his fast painting technique using only a small piece of plastic board instead of brushes. His perceptive talent gives him the confidence to represent any subject matter, generally of local color which appeals to the great majority of his public.

Lebanon is endowed with some of the world's best sculptured pieces, those created by nature. On the hillsides of the southern part of Lebanon is an area which appears to be fields of fascinating stone formations. Over the centuries time and the vagaries of earthquakes and erosion have molded rock formations into mystic, gnarled intertwining forms and shapes. Interpreting these natural forms as products of modern sculpture demands only a little imagination. In northern Lebanon is another area with breathtaking dynamic statuary-like pieces carved by nature out of somber grey stones of warm tones of yellow and reddish beige stone. These too, have been hewn out of the giant mountain sides by the whims of nature.

Contemporary sculpture was new to Lebanon in the early 1950s. The Phoenicians, the original people of what in now Lebanon , were familiar with the culture brought by the Greeks and Romans who left behind their classical statuary. Interest in modern sculpture however, lagged behind that of painting. The art of stone cutting had developed into a fine craft and stayed in demand in architecture until building in stone gave way to the use of concrete in modern construction. It was not until the mid 1950's that two members of a third generation of stone cutters broke away from the traditional ways. Endowed with a sense of creativity, the two brothers, Michel and Alfred Basbous, experimented in cutting stone. The early products of their experimentation directed the first interest of the general public toward contemporary Lebanese sculpture.

As in contemporary painting, a few classicists became Lebanon ’s first contemporary sculptors, but they did not achieve any fame outside the country, nor did they create much attention among their own people. Although Yousef Hoyeck is today claimed as Lebanon 's father of sculpture was not appreciated as much during his lifetime as he is now. This is due to the change in attitudes towards the plastic arts by the public today. Youssef Hoyeck, a friend and contemporary of Khalil Gibran, both from North Lebanon , went to Rome and Paris to study painting. Soon he discovered that he preferred sculpture to painting. When he returned to Lebanon in 1939, he devoted his time and creativity to sculpture. He formed a small clique with two of his contemporaries, Youssef Gossoub and Halim Hajje. All three remained traditionalists in their field, influenced by the classical masters of Europe . Hoyeck employed the relief technique as his favorite means of expression, posing figures in the classical manner of movement of everyday chores or of sorrow. Both Gossoub and Hajje became known for their realistic representation of people. Whether in bronze or in stone statuary, every detail of their sculpture is carefully carried out. Both sculptors were able to capture and execute the mood of their subjects in whatever media they chose.

Michel Basbous emerged as the leader of a small avante-garde group of sculptors who followed the modern movement. The group included Alfred Basbous, Rachid Semaan, and Zavan Haditzian. These sculptors found that tactile qualities of stone, marble, cement, metals, and wood allowed them a freedom of expression satisfying their artistic temperaments.

Several of the abstract Lebanese painters in search for new and more rewarding means of expressing their artistic feelings joined this young group of sculptors by occasionally interpreting their abstract ideas in a sculptured form. Among the most outstanding are Aref Rayess and Saloua Raouda Choucair. In the works of these two artists their own particular styles are interpreted as ably in a tactile medium as they are on a canvas Rayess's sculptures express as much mysticism as some of his paintings do; whereas Choucair retains the same bold architectural quality in her pieces of sculpture as in her abstract compositions on canvas.

Sculpture in Lebanon has advanced steadily and has become more original, just as has painting. Many pieces of sculptures have earned a place in international competitions.

Copyright Art in Lebanon, The development of Contemporary Art in Lebanon 1930 - 1975