Contemporary art in Lebanon, Edouard Lahoud, Near East Books Company, New York
The awakening of art in Lebanon can be traced back to the beginning of the 17th century under the government of Fakhr Ed-Din. This prince was determined to bring Lebanon into the mainstream of modern civilization by governing according to western-inspired methods. He also showed a sharp interest and sensitivity for everything concerning art.
In 1613, he had to leave for Tuscany. There he found plenty of leisure time and ample opportunity to contemplate the magnificent masterpieces which everywhere met his eye. Back in Lebanon, he hired Tuscan architects and artists who erected for him in Beirut(1) a palace in Venitian style. According to the descriptions still available today about this palace, once could see before the entrance a series of courtyards surrounded by fountains of white marble, in every way as beautiful as those found in the most famous palaces of Europe. There were to be admired lush gardens decorated with marble statues and winding canals, artistically dug out of stone and flowing in the shade of lemon trees.
The impetus which Fakhr Ed-Din gave to art marks the beginning of an artistic rebirth on the coast on Lebanon.
In the mountains, however, this awakening was made possible with the establishment of schools and printing. Under the ottoman occupation, convents had become the centers of economics, socio-political and intellectual life. On their side, the Lebanese students in Rome had assumed for themselves, in Lebanon, a responsibility both religious and educational. A number of schools were started, especially in Ehden, Ashqut, Beskinta and Beit Shabab.
Along with schools, printing made its appearance in Lebanon(2). Likewise, western gothic style which was characterized by fine drawing and vivid colors gave birth to a school of painting, the works of which filled convents and churches in the mountains. This was happening in the 18th century, at a time when the first institutions of higher learning were opening up.
At the beginning of the 19th century, contacts between Lebanon and the west were multiplying; important compositions in oil were rushed from Rome and Austria. This created centers of artistic rebirth. A large number of statues were also imported from the West at that time and people quickly set out to copy and imitate them.
One of the first artists worthy of mention was Canaan Dib from Dlepta. He was a disciple of the Italian painter Giusti, better known as the official painter of the Shehab emirs.
With the Shehabs, in fact, we witness the renaissance of another branch of art. Whereas Fakhr Ed-Din had borrowed the Western style of statues to decorate Beirut palace, Emir Beshir, on the contrary, introduced the arabesque in his Beit Ed-Din palace. The emir had commissioned the most skillful workers in polishing marble and the best mosaic artists so that they could give a unique decorative charm to the palace that was being built for him. Inscriptions were engraved on the marble-covered walls and the palace writer, Butros Karame, had incorporated into them ancient Arabic maxims and sayings. This sumptuous oriental palace became an artistic model for other palaces which the emirs were starting to erect in numerous locations of the mountains and the coast.
At the same time, in 1831, the college of Mar Abda Harhariya (Jedaidet-Ghazir) was opened. In this college Canaan Dib was in contact with monks who had visited Italy and had been influenced by the works of Raphael, Michael-Angelo and other great Renaissance masters. In the beginning, Canaan was transcribing on his canvases whatever came through the inspiration if his profound faith; later he devoted himself exclusively to the painting of portraits.
Here, we must mention Daoud Corm who was one of the significant pioneers of the artistic renaissance in Lebanon, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. His name will forever remain linked to that of Emir Beshir and the college of Jedaidet-Ghazir. His father was named Semaan Hokayyem and was from Ghosta. Moreover, he was at this time one of the few people able to have mastered foreign languages like Latin and Italian. The emir, on the other hand, was looking for someone knowledgeable in foreign languages to appoint as tutor for his children. They, in turn, would then be able to give audience for foreign ambassadors without the need of interpreter. Semaan was thus called in to fulfill this need. Since he was quite stubborn, Emir Beshir gave him the nickname of Corm, which stayed with him and finally became his family name. For 18 years, Semaan remained as tutor of the emir’s Sons and was also responsible for his wives’ private accounting. He married Maryam, the daughter of Hani, from Ghazir, and confidante of Sitt Hasan Jihan, the emir’s second wife. She bore him three sons, the most famous of whom was Daoud Corm.
On the cost which had become a bridgehead, a network of international communications, a cultural, touristic and commercial center especially in Beirut, art began to open up to strong outside and foreign influences. All at once, this period witnessed the birth of the theater, commercial printing, public library, the newspaper and the university.
This period of looking outward was characterized by the large number of “orientalist” artists who converged on the coast and set out to depict with loving care its smallest nooks and crannies. They were fascinated by the clean and pure air, the natural beauty, the remnants of the past, the oriental aspect of the constructions and the dress of the natives. The first of these foreign painters was the Englishman Bartlett, who came to Lebanon in 1834. he installed his easel on the shores of Beirut and in its suburbs and painted the sea, minarets, towers, white houses, sycamores, fig trees, men in Arab costume and women wearing the tantur on their head.
Vignal came somewhat later and specialized in watercolor. He left behind a Kfarshima landscape, a scene from a local café in Dbayye, a view from Minet el-Hoson where both Beirut coast and the mountains can be seen.
These foreign «orientalist» artists were originators of school of «marine» painting. It was born in Beirut in the middle of the 19th century and was above all dedicated to painting boats and the sea. The European influence was not alone in making itself felt at this school. On the contrary, the Turkish tradition whose style was prevalent in all the provinces of the Empire also played a definite role in the art of this «marine» school, in Beirut and Tripoli. Among its direct influences, we could point out its preoccupation with depicting historical events, especially battles, and interest in introducing to the canvas the largest possible number of characters, so as to emphasize the historical significance of the events.
One of the pioneers of this «marine» school was a puny but well-groomed boy who used to spend endless hours contemplating the sea and the waves. He was Ibrahim Sarabiyye from Beirut. He painted portraits and landscapes but his outstanding achievements were in painting the sea and boats. One of his masterpieces is a large picture representing the welcome of the German Emperor Wilhelm II at the port of Beirut. The harbor is seen decorated with flags, thronged with people and filled with units of squadron fleet. On the piers, several horse-drawn carriages mindle with the crowd and ferry people dressed in their local traditional costume. Sarabiyye handled his brushes with extreme lightness and refinement. He had an acute sense of observation and an amazing ability to underline colors, lights and air transparency. He excelled in painting the motion and reflection of water; on this point, he recalls the pictures of the celebrated Venitian artist Canaletto.
At the same time, another boy by the name of Ali Jammal was beginning to show his tastes and talent in one of the dark and narrow streets of Beirut. The greatest portion of his time was spent gazing at the blue immensity of the sea. As a young man he decided to go to Istanbul and to enter War School from which he graduated as a naval officer. While on the Bosphorus, he painted a large number of pictures filled with life and power. He settled down in Istanbul and worked as an art teacher in several government schools. His works display his complete mastery of all genres of painting: portraits, animal life, and landscapes. What is noteworthy is his sharp and precise drawing, exactness of color, his solid technique and the serene atmosphere.
Another pioneer to be mentioned here is a young man from the Dimashqiyye family. He is the author of a painting showing the warship Victoria sinking in the waters of Tripoli, at the time the English fleet was sailing in the area.
In addition to Dimashqiyye, let us mention a few other names: Hassan Tannir, Salim Haddad from Abayh, Muhammad Said Mer’i from Basta district and Nalib Bekhazi from Ashrafiyye district. Mer’i immigrated to America, Haddad to Egypt and Bekhazi to Russia. The most outstanding of these artists was Salim Haddad who in his time was widely renowned in Egypt(3). To sum up, the great merit of this «marine» school was to have been able to paint and underline the warm and luminous atmosphere of the Lebanese coast.
There appeared at this juncture the nonpareil figure of Sheikh Ibrahim Yaziji. The son of Nassif Yaziji, he was born on March 2, 1847 in Beirut, in the district of Zokak el-Blatt. The Yaziji family had sought refuge in Beirut in order to flee from the dissensions which were ravaging the mountains. In fact, the move to Beirut on the part of the Yaziji and other families turned out to be a stroke of luck for the American missionaries, school directors or institute and university presidents. All these establishments, especially those founded after 1834, were in dire need of teachers with a perfect knowledge of the Arabic language and literature.
The vast Yaziji residence(4) contained an important mass of precious manuscripts. It also housed a literary circle with a gathering of intellectuals, poets, artists, around a man whose authority was universally recognized.
Ibrahim grew up in such an environment. He began his literary career with poetry but, quickly, his preferences leaned towards the sciences of language, literary composition and art. In all these fields of knowledge, he displayed uncommon talent. He was even one of the best calligraphers of his time.
This art of calligraphy was closely related to printing which had first been lithographic and was now based on characters. Ibrahim Yaziji played a capital part in the design and manufacture of printing types. He improved and simplified the symbols which then become closer to Latin characters, thereby becoming better adapted to modern life.
But, of his artistic production, what is of greatest interest to us are his drawings in color and charcoal done for his friends and relatives. What remains of his abundant production testifies to his sharp touch, his forceful expression, his refined taste in matching colors and light, in rendering the most subtle nuances of feeling and emotion.
Among the works that Viscount Philippe de Tarazi, the founder of the National Library, was able to retrieve and which he transferred to the Library is a self-portrait done with the help of a mirror: he is seen with his head dressed in a Maghrebine tarbush, his waist held in a cashmere belt, and his hair curled with an iron and falling over his ears as was the Beiruti custom of the time(5); and the portrait of his sister, the poetess Warde Yaziji, a vivid picture of her strong personality and of poetic beauty.
It must be pointed out here that the greatest parts of the works of the period of awakening are lost. What few examples remain, though show that this art was nevertheless the work of amateurs, in spite of its having some characteristics of true art. The majority of these artists had neither sufficient foundation in art nor adequate training. If their work received any acclaim, it was due to the artists’ tireless labor, their sense of observation and their love for art.
Raif Shadudi, however, is the only painter of the period to have applied the normative principles of art. During his short career, this realistic artist was mostly interested in portraits. His works show strength in drawing, rich colors and exactness of facial expression. He is a real precursor of the renaissance of art in Lebanon.
The dawn of Renaissance
The forerunners of the artistic renaissance in Lebanon appeared towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Their success was due to their passionate love of art which pushed them along the deliberate path of systematic study and specialization. They went to Rome, Paris, London, and Brussels in order to be trained by great teachers, to get first hand knowledge of their style, of the masterpieces of the various schools from the Renaissance up to their time. Nothing could have stopped them in their march forward. In this way, Daoud Corm who already at the age of 10 was sketching birds on the rocks of Ghazir was determined, at any cost, to leave for Rome in order to begin his training.
He left for Rome in 1870; he was 12 years old. His dogged determination manifested itself for the first time when he managed to force his way through to Roberto Bompiani, the foremost artist in Rome and the official painter of the King of Italy.
The story of the incident is worth telling. Daoud had brought along his works from Lebanon, with the intention of showing them to Bompiani. Many times he had attempted to get an interview but to no avail because the servants tirelessly denied him access to the house. Once, after they had again turned him away, they threw his canvases to the ground. Corm shouted, furious. The master of the house came out and saw the mess, the pictures lying on the ground. He was straight away impressed by the careful work he saw in them and hastily picked them up himself. Daoud was them given the warmest welcome and was finally admitted to the house. Bompiani decided to adopt Corm as his only disciple, to the exclusion of all others.
Corm’s dedication in the pursuit of art training explains his determination to frequent most of the institutes of painting in Rome. With a perfectionist spirit and a passion for art, Corm practiced his craft till the end of his life. He painted up to his last moments and died in 1930(6).
Corm is but one example among several other artisans of artistic renaissance in its early stages. Of these other forerunners the names of Habib Serour, Khalil Saleeby, Nimetallah Maadi must also be mentioned. These artists’ greatest merit is to have introduced into Lebanon the basic principles of art technique, to have emphasized the importance of light and shadow in the process of elaboration and to have grasped the essence of aesthetic work. Form which up to then had remained inert and fixed became, thanks to them, expressive and evocative.
It should be noted that the first generation of artists was spared the danger of uprooted ness and its concomitant painful alienation because they had adopted a classical style which had enabled them to find their place in their environment.
When a painter like Khalil Saleeby rejected classicism(7) and its traditional themes, well-know to the public, only to succumb to the seduction of Impressionism, he could not help but feel abruptly and painfully cut off from his conservative environment; his life then turned sour and ended in tragedy.
Saleeby showed little concern for religious themes whereas Corm, Serour and Maadi, on the contrary, used their talent primarily to paint religious picture for churches and convents. They also did portraits and occasional still life of fruits, birds and fish. Their frame of reference was strictly traditional. Even though they were not “futuristic” revolutionaries like Saleeby, they nevertheless knew how to use their talent in serving the national feeling. Everything in their work, themes, color, rendering, bears the indelible stamp of their environment. They concentrated on representing native types dressed in their national costumes, as well as the most characteristic landscapes. It has been said that Daoud Corm’s portrait of a member of the Saad family is by itself a condensed testimony of a whole era. Likewise, Habib Serour’s painting “Mountain Priest” exhibits all the features of mountain society at that time. From the first generation, among the names that stand out, let us mention Philippe Mourani. He had stayed in Paris and his work, although outwardly classical, nevertheless radiates oriental imagination and feelings. Shukri Musawwar who had immigrated to America also produced an art strictly oriental in its outlook. His pictures evoke sweetness and show an acute sensitivity in drawing and color. He had a predilection for oriental themes such as Bedouin encampments and city soups. His painting «Sheikh reading» has been widely known and celebrated in America.
Then suddenly, without transition, the second generation of artists came into the foreground. Its leaders were the sculptor Youssef Hoyeck, the great precursor of modern sculpture in Lebanon, Kahlil Gibran, Youssef Ghossoub and Georges Corm. Gibran and Hoyeck, both from mountain stock, gave the impression of «uprooted» people. This was the consequence of the contradictory influences to which they were exposed during their contact with various western schools; but this apparent uprootedness never reached the extreme of loss of self-identity. Their idea was first to «take» from others, finally to end up with original creation, but all the while rejecting every encroachment by the traditional religious art in the mountain.
Hoyeck had indeed gone to Rome and Paris at a time when religious themes could not have been more foreign to the world of sculpture. He took upon himself to achieve the extraordinary symbiosis of two completely heterogeneous styles, that is the facile and graceful style of the Italian Renaissance and Rodin’s tormented and protuberant style. He always wanted to bring about an agreement between the public’s taste, the imperatives of aesthetic representation and the expression of feelings and passions. In addition, he was undermined by a painful conflict which in the end killed him. His disciples from the fourth generation as well as his own works can testify to the importance of his role in the rebirth of sculpture.
Similarly, Kahlil Gibran’s art, like that of Shukri Musawwar, developed away from Lebanon, in the USA. It is the result of the extremely dense training which he received in Paris. But Gibran was born in Becharre and had emigrated as an adolescent. Throughout his life, he was haunted by the problems of a feudal Lebanese society and of the Arab world in general.
His art was in close symbiotic relationship with his literary talent and the writer’s hand and genius can easily be seen in his artistic works. In the same way, his written production bears the obvious mark of the painter. Gibran’s literary production which received considerable recognition from the Arab world and many other countries was fed by three main sources: first, the channel of symbolist poetry, but not the poetry of phantasmagoria and illusion, rather poetry which takes its root in human reality; second, the philosophical channel based on evangelical love, the song of Zarathustra and meditations of the founders of the great far-eastern religions; third, the channel of pictorial art, at its highest level of perfection. These same sources transpire in Gibran’s painting. His art is also closely related to that of Leonardo da Vinci and not unlike that of the Englishman William Blake, the mystic painter of the 19th century. Gibran’s powerful originality, nevertheless, enabled him to remain independent of both.
The sculptor Youssef Ghossoub (1898-1967) from Phanar also belongs to this second generation of artists. He received his basic art training from Mukhtar, the great Egyptian sculptor, and his technique was sharpened in Paris and Rome (1927-1935). His style followed a traditional academic line. He left behind in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine more than a hundred sculptures and statues. Finally, Georges Corm also should be included in this group. He not only produced classical drawings but also wrote studies on art and artists.
After World War II, a new generation of Lebanese artists made their appearance on the stage of art. Right away they manifested a greater spirit of freedom than their elders. The leaders of this generation were Moustapha Farroukh, Cesar Gemayel, Omar Onsi, Saliba Douaihy and Rachid Wehbi. Following the example of their predecessors from the second generation, these artists initiated their career with a stay abroad, the aim of which was to learn the principles of drawing and to assimilate a technique. This period witnessed the tumultuous and agitated development of new western art schools, engendered by the deep trauma that World War I inflicted on Western society. However, it must be pointed out that the substantial influence of forerunners such as Corm, Serour, Saleeby who guided the first steps of the third generation artists, spared them the hazards of alienation from themselves and from their environment.
As a matter of fact, they were students but not quite artists following the taste and fashion of the day; nor were they just looking for some occupation to mask their idleness. In their time, art was not yet a commodity within the reach of everyone; it had remained confined to places of worship and palaces, and the third generation artists were for the part alien to this milieu.
Thus, Farroukh, from Basta Tahta, was born and grew up in a family whose illiterate father worked at the maintenance of copper utensils. The demands of his occupation forced him to spend most of his time making the round of the neighboring villages.
As to Cesar Gemayel, he was breaking rocks on mountain road and was doing his best to study to become a pharmacist. But his inner calling to be painter was much stronger and he gave up everything and surrendered to it.
Rachid Wehbi, the son of a school teacher, was consumed by his passion for art. He sold his modest share of the family house in order to dedicate himself to the sole service of his passion. Much could be said about these artists’ hard life of privation and their determination to perfect their craft. We well only say that, in spite of a slight watery artificiality which at times affects the colors of their paintings, these third generation artists, whenever blessed with inspiration, could create works of art worthy of the great masters. These works like those of the great pioneers take their roots in their native environment. By representing typically Lebanese landscapes, scenes from Lebanese life, rural house, national costumes and scenes from Lebanese and Arab history these artists made a substantial contribution towards the awakening of a national feeling in the recent history of Lebanon.
At this juncture, a point of order is necessary concerning Saliba Douaihy and Cesar Gemayel. Douaihy who had launched his career in decoration the Diman patriarchal church and in painting village women and mountains lost no time in turning away from all that (1950). He wanted to try out a complex experimentation with informal art.
As to Cesar Gemayel, another man of the mountains and author of the historical work «The Battle of Anjar», he adopted, whenever painting nature, a poetico-subjective style which obliterated in him the real characteristics of his environment. Like Saleeby, he finally specialized in the portrait and also painted a large number of nudes.
In fact, it is the Beiruti artists, Farroukh, Wehbi, Onsi, who dedicated themselves to painting Lebanese coast and mountain landscapes. They left to future generations pictures in which are lovingly depicted every hill, every house, every stone and tree that make up the Lebanese scene. These pictures of rural Lebanon faithfully render the geographic setting and are evocative of the Lebanon of the past: portraits of natives wearing their tradition and history-laden local costumes.
With these artists whose contribution was to pursue the artistic renaissance along new bases, the teaching of art found its way into the schools (Sagesse, Makassed) and art culture began to cut a path through to the public. Even though the studios of the first and second generation painters and sculptors constituted an anteroom for the birth of a vigorous and original art, the effective starting point of the process really should be situated during the period of the third generation.
Thus, on January 10, 1923, the «Committee of Friends of National Museums and Archaeological Sites» was founded during a meeting at the Beirut Stock Exchange. The members of the founding committee were elected on that occasion(8). This meeting had been prepared by a group of old university graduated who used to hold their reunions in the Parliament Great Hall. The decision had been taken to work or the country by preparing it to assume its own responsibilities in every field, as soon as the Mandate would come to an end. This committee took all the necessary steps to collect funds and induce the competent authorities to create a museum where the archaeological treasures of the country were to be gathered. The committee gave the collected funds and a piece of land to government which then erected the museum on it. The step taken by the committee to encourage sculpture and painting was limited to the purchase of pictures and statues intended to decorate the members’ villas and luxurious residences.
The thirties brought about new element which widely contributed to the popularization of art in the Lebanon of today. There was the founding in 1937 of the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. It immediately attracted both classical and modern teachers, Lebanese, French and Italian.
The founding of this Academy had been preceded by a series of exhibitions, now and then encouraged by the French Mandate authorities who wanted to emphasize the cultural and civilizing aspect of French policy. At any rate, whatever the motivations may have been behind these exhibitions, Beirut was then at the center of a cultural and artistic movement by artists and amateurs from Lebanon, France or other countries.
The major exhibitions organized in this manner were:
1- The exhibition at the Arts and Crafts School in 1931. Both Rachid Wehbi and Cesar Gemayel who had just returned from Paris with a charcoal drawing of a nude took part in this exhibition. In the conservative environment of the time, this nude aroused much curiosity and raised many an indiscrete question.
2- The exhibition at the Arts and Crafts School in 1932.
3- The exhibition of the French painter Georges Cyr who come to Lebanon in 1933 to settle down in Ain Mreysse. He strongly influenced many Lebanese painters from the younger generation.
4- The exhibition at the Saint-Georges Hotel organized in 1934 by the newspaper «La Syrie». Artists of the first generation such as Habib Serour and Philippe Mourani participated in it; from the third generation, Moustapha Farroukh and Rachid Wehbi took part.
5- The great exhibition of 1936 in the Parliament Salons.
In the forties, with a newly acquired Independence, Lebanon witnessed three big exhibitions which created considerable stir.
1- The Dhour Shoueir exhibition, organized in 1947 on the eve of the first Arab cultural congress held in Beit Mery.
2- In 1949, the exhibition organized by the UNESCO in the organization headquarters, on the occasion of a UNESCO congress held in Beirut. This manifestation was the starting point of official exhibitions periodically held there since then.
3- In 1953, the exhibition of Lebanese art «Bird Around the World». Third generation artists were behind this entire movement(9). The careers of these painters and sculptors progressed naturally and smoothly, without anxiety or self-destructive craze. This in itself was no mean achievement.
With the guns silenced at the end of the cataclysmic events of World War II, which had eroded the very foundations of any artistic life, there appeared in Lebanon a new generation of artists who almost imitated their young European counterpart in their radical break with the past. After the war, «young art» in the West had attempted to be the expression of the existential drama of 20th century man, torn apart in his refusal to make contribution to the war. From this impassioned refusal and the rejection of everything that was old, movements like Dadaism, Surrealism, Neo-cubism and what was soon to be called abstract art came to life after both world wars.
The fourth generation Lebanese artist did not experience the European artists’ drama. He was in contact with them, felt their influence in Lebanon and even ventured into the labyrinth of these schools; but, did not join or follow them since they were not in the least connected with his personal problems. These problems were of an entirely different nature. Up to now the successive generations of Lebanese had remained faithful to their origins and were searching their cultural heritage for something to strengthen their self-confidence. What they were expecting from the West was some help to lead them along the path of progress. However, nearly the entire post-war generation was afflicted with some sort of uprootedness and had the impression of being in its own country.
There was nothing surprising about that. The majority of these young Lebanese had come down from their mountains to flock to the cities. Barely out of the village school, they were entering the university. They had previously studied Arabic in «Majani-l-adab» and «Kalila wa Dimna», had had a smattering of Syriac, and then they found themselves engrossed in the study of French and English literature, in the history of philosophy and psychology. Besides, they become fully acquainted with Racine, Shakespeare and Verlaine and knew how to analyze Baudelaire’s symbolic poetry. Faced as they were with the impossibility of finding suitable work because of lack of openings and unemployment in juridical careers and other non-scientific branches, they sought a refuge in art. In reality, a «gap» had developed between their foreign culture and the true situation of their society. This phenomenon was concretized by the rejection of their country and cultural heritage. Unconsciously, they were drifting within cultural and artistic currents which in fact were nothing but crazes, infatuations and a desire to imitate for imitation’s sake. Art was putting on the face of a simple cultural amusement, merely designed to kill time. For this reason, the mannerisms of Western art which at the beginning had mad their way into the style of many artists of the fourth generation, appeared lifeless and superficial. What they called cubism, for example, had nothing in common with real cubism. It was only a pretext to splash colors onto geometric figures. Surrealism was in no way the expression of the artists’ intellectual world; nor was it the objectification of his vision. It looked more like a meaningless parade of specters.
Several of these artists who had played this «culture-artistic» game were colorists rather than painters. This unbalanced situation quickly turned to tragedy for some. Thus Michel Mir (1930-1970) who throughout his career struggled with line and drawing knew a pitiful end(10).
It must be pointed out that a few of these Lebanese artists who had been engulfed in the maelstrom of Western art and had consequently become acquainted with the bitter taste of aimlessness and unprootedness, in the end managed to overcome this trial. A small number of others remained aloof and detached from this turmoil thanks to their solid basic classical training acquired in the studios of their elders from the second and third generation and at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts.
The main feature of the art of this generation is one of study and research. This aspect, to a great extent, enabled a whole group of these artists to rediscover their lost identity, to affirm their art, and to produce works which were acclaimed both here and abroad. In fact, with the return of calm and quiet within the centers of western art, the Lebanese artist who had finally recovered his identity began to produce works fully rooted in his past. They are characterized by three elements: a solid technique, inspiration drawn from the cultural background and heritage, and personal expression(11).
The decisive turn which led to this redeeming transformation was negotiated by the West, but with the East as a starting point. The new Western art which on account of both world wars had reached a dead-end and was therefore looking for self-renewal, was cornered into making a choice: either a return to the sources, but this was neither new nor original, or the discovery of new horizons beyond the frontiers of the West. It so happened that the West made the discovery of the Orient, the light of the East, the earth and the sky of the East, and the oriental arts especially the arabesque and Arabic calligraphy. The Germans who had in the past played a predominant role in disclosing the cultural heritage and the history of the Arabs now played this very same role in the field of art.
The outstanding name in this area of artistic orientalism is that of Paul Klee. He attempted to deliver his message by exploiting to the fullest the possibilities of the Arabic script. Another German, Paul Franck, also detected in the isolated Arabic letter its marvelous decorative shape. He introduced into it an aesthetic value independent of the meaningful word. It was in this fashion that he managed to elaborate his abstract art.
This discovery of a new form of inspiration by German orientalism initiated the trend of a return to the sources. In the beginning, this trend was merely following the abstract line of Western “orientalist” art. Very soon, however, a spark was to ignite this new art movement. Amine Elbacha, for example, took a bold step along a new path. Color was no longer for him, as it was for Klee, that of an oriental dream or of a flight away from space and action; it was a color in search of a density capable of binding the oriental man to his land and time.
Wajih Nahle, likewise, avoided using the isolated letter as an abstract ornamental motif. His starting point was the meaningful Arabic word. But there was a further development. With Said Akl, for example, the Latin character is used as a support for a complete aesthetic construction in the tradition of great pictorial creations.
It would constitute a long list, indeed, if we were to mention all the Lebanese painters and sculptors who like the Basbous brothers, Jean Khalifé, Chafic Abboud, Paul Guiragossian(12), Aref Rayess have contributed and are still contributing today toward the development of art, along the path of original creation and authentic renewal. The specimens of their works that will be found in this book are significant enough to assign to each one his own and special place in the overall movement. Suffice it to mention that among the artists of this generation, some like Nazem Irani sculpture and Wahib Btedini in painting have followed along the footsteps of the pioneers of national art; that others like Halim El Hage, on the contrary, have kept to the framework of academic classicism(13).
And now it is the turn of the fifth generation to make its appearance. Its stay in the west coincided with the quieting down of the storm and the return of western art to some, at least, of traditional bases. Its art advances within the tradition of formal art, with solid knowledge of the principles of drawing as a beginning. It can even be said that every artist of this generation knew from his first steps in which direction he was going. This is the case for Hussein Madi whose paintings are inspired by hieroglyphics and whose sculpture is reminiscent of Mesopotamian art. Ibrahim Marzouq shows a marked attachment to the narrow streets, the houses, and the traditions of old Beirut. Moussa Tiba reveals the scared play of fertility and death.
An important turn of events has taken place then. The artists of the new generation are no longer satisfied “receive”. From now on they “give”, and their “gift” takes shape in avant-garde works which, thanks to their original flavor, succeed in braking into the till now reserved ground of western art.
In a similar development, the Lebanese capital has become the great artistic centre of the Arab East and privileged spot for exhibitions of international caliber. On the national scene, let us mention the exhibition regularly organized since 1953. These exhibitions, above anything else, gave the decisive push towards the artistic rebirth in the country. Nor should we pass over the founding in 1965 of the Fine Arts Institute, attached to the Lebanese university.
Another point deserves consideration. The “complex” of what is foreign, which was afflicting the regular visitors of exhibitions and was inciting them to purchase only foreign works, disappeared the very moment the West took a look at the cultural heritage of the East and when the quality of works created by Lebanese artists spoke for itself. Immediately, a noticeable change has been observed in the public’s way of appraising oriental art and artists. This change of attitude was magnified the day some Lebanese artists received world-wide recognition for their talent and when their name was included in western encyclopedias of art.
And now, it is high time to let these works speak for themselves and tell their story and inner evolution so that the creative efforts of Lebanese artists can be evaluated in the context of the history of contemporary art.
(1)- On Martyrs’ Square, in the location of the old Beirut stock Exchange, where Cinema Opera now stands.
(2)- In 1610, a Lebanese student from Rome founded the print shop of Mar Qozhaya in Qadisha Valley.
(3)- Other names of this period of awakening in art were: Najib Fayyad (Beirut), Abdallah Matar (lehfed), and the Myryalai Ibrahim Najjar (Deir el-Qamar) who worked as a physician in the Ottoman army.
(4)- In the American Mission building (today Beirut College for Women) one can still see the large hall where, as early as 1847, the translators of the Bible used to gather: Dr. Smith, Sheikh Nassif Yaziji, Dr. Van Dyck and Mu’allim Butros Bustani.
(5)- Ibrahim Yaziji died in 1906 in Matarieh, a Cairo suburb.
(6)- Pope Pius IX had heard about his talent and summoned him to paint his portrait. Later on, he became the painter of the Belgian royal family, under the reign of Leopold II. Back in Lebanon he painted the Lebanese and Syrian governors. In 1887 he went to Alexandria and did the portraits of several members of Khedive Toufiq I’s family. In 1894 the Khedive Abbas II invited him to Cairo and, there, Corm produced a remarkable and accomplished portrait.
(7)- In his youth Saleeby followed the lime of academic classicism. Among his early canvases: his self-portrait as a young man. Its style is traditional and the colors are solemn.
8)- The main members of this committee were: Alfred Sursock, Marius Hanem Ughlou, Omar Daouk, Camille Eddé, Albert Bassoul, Ali Joumblatt, Henri Pharaon, Georges Vayssié, Hassan Makhzoufi, Assad Younès, Georges Corm, Jean Debs, Dr. Fouad Ghosn, Dr. Wafik Beydoun, Aref Beyhum and the secretary general Jacques Tabet who made the biggest contribution towards the good functioning of this committee.
(9)- There came after this generation: Maroun Tomb, born in Shiah in 1912. He studied in the Italian Fine Arts Schools in Haifa. Khalil Zgheib, born in 1911 in Dbayye, an instinctive artist especially known during the fifties. In this same period, two artists were involved in painting religious themes: Ibrahim Jabbour and the novelist Youssef Younès.
(10)- On the contrary, Nicolas Nammar born in Shebaniyye in 1925, registered at the Lebanese Academy of fine Arts in 1944, specialized at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris (1949-1953), and received the president of the Republic Prize in 1959. He has now almost completely given up all artistic activity, even though his production was of the highest caliber.
(11)- This does not mean that there are no longer any artists who continue to imitate Western art, to jump back and forth from one genre to the next, and to search for their identity.
(12)- Along with Guiragossian we should also mention the following Lebanese-Armenian artists Georges Guv, Assadour Bezdikian and Krikor Norikian.
(13)- Among them: Samih Attar (Tripoli 1921). He studied sculpture at the Fine Arts Academy of Rome. He sculpted primarily statues of men of letters and political personalities (Khalil Mutran, Sheikh Beshara el-Koury).