Deciphering - The modern art scene in Lebanese painting
Deciphering – The modern art scene in Lebanese painting – a question in the forefront
Emmanuel KHOURY – L’Orient-Le Jour – July 2019
What are we really talking about when we refer to modern art? What is modern Lebanese art? Which painters have allowed it right of abode? Here are some elements for an answer provided by Gregory Bushakjian, a specialist of Lebanese and Arab art. He is a teacher of the History of Art at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Art (ALBA) and deals with a period which is a turning point in Lebanese painting with the movement toward modernity throughout the twentieth century.
When one talks of an artistic current or of a literary movement, the question inevitably comes up of how can one put boundaries to the different tendencies scattered within some sort of form of unity. Does any tendency that emerged in some particular place at a time we label T truly reflect some global practice on the scale of a country or of a continent? Up to what point does the history of the various arts or of literature follow the development of the different societies? Despite the presence of manifestations which have multiplied since the second half of the nineteenth century, were artists fully aware that they should register themselves in a wider field outside their particular activity? And finally, can one escape anachronism?
But facing the risk of unbearable aporia, human intelligence adopts a vital reflex: it delimits, defines, and then classifies. While at the same time touching on the approximate movements, a consensus is finally reached and accepted by the community of art historians and specialists. In this way, western art comes to be defined. It is said that it appeared in the eighteen-seventies with the Impressionists under the influence of Edouard Manet just when the second industrial revolution was taking place and the urban landscape was being greatly changed. With the appearance of railway stations, factories, new industries, aviation, new technologies such as daguerreotype forerunner of photography, the whole of western society was being modernized. One sees then a phenomenon of synchronization in the worlds of art and literature which led to a rejection of the traditional forms of figuration in painting, writing, and even music (notably with Claude Debussy) in symbolism. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), an art critic, despite certain forms of attachment to classical tradition in his poetry (but the poet of the Fleurs du Mal was never without paradox), made himself the avant-garde voice of modernity: he proclaimed that what was beautiful was no longer the antiquated, divine, hyperbolic, straight and clear beauty of the Academy. Beauty should come down from the skies to the street, to the very heart of the city and of human society and express the ephemeral, strange and fluid. “Modernity is what is transitory, fugitive, transient, that half of art of which the other half is eternal, unchanging,” he wrote in his essay on Modernity in the issue of The Painter of Modern Life published in 1863.
In Lebanon Modernity was an import of what the West had created. Too summary, too incomplete, this definition of modern art should nevertheless permit one to grasp what is meant when one talks about modern art in the West. It is a necessary and capital passage in order to approach the subject of Modernity in Lebanese art, which is strongly impregnated with the advances taking place in Europe. “In Lebanon Modernity was imported; the Westerners invented it. At the time of the Impressionists, here we were portraying prelates. At the time of Monet Lebanese art had nothing modern about it; only Christ on the Cross was painted and portraits of men of the Church,” tells us Gregory Bushakjian. “Up till the beginning of the twentieth century, there was nothing one could really call art practiced in Lebanon. That is to say that art was above all hieratic. It consisted of sacred art and the portraits o prelates. There was a beginning of modern art with the appearance of portraits of civilians and of landscapes, followed by pictures of nudes or of genre paintings (paintings or drawings of anecdotal or familiar scenes). At this moment there was a wall in the upper story of the Sursock Museum with portraits by Georges Daoud Corm (1896-1971). His generation, with Omar Onsi (1901-1969), Mustafa Farook (1901-1957) and Caesar Gemayel (1898-1958), by introducing social and political subjects, allowed one to speak of Modernity in Lebanon. But it was a Modernity that was more intellectual than aesthetic. On this last point, it was still closer to Impressionist painting done in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, may one say that one has a foot in Modernity when an artist such as Farook deals with a political subject such as the famine during the Great War, the emancipation of women, or the relationship to territory?
It was the following generation of the nineteen-fifties, composed of Saliba Dwaihy, Michel Basbous and others, which was to be resolutely modern on the aesthetic level: they were to introduce the abstract and to be much influenced by what was going on in Paris, New York, and elsewhere.
According to Gregory Bushakjian, three chronological “levers” worked in turn up to the arrival of a kind of complete Modernity in Lebanese painting: the first came with Daoud Corm (1852-1930), who was one of the first to paint non-religious subjects, the second who came were his son Georges Corm and the generation of Onsi and Gemayel; and the third on the formal level was Michel Basbous. “Basbous played an extremely important role in the unveiling of Lebanese Modernity, which was to become highly multi-disciplinary with experiments in all media possible or imaginable. Of the remote village of Rashana he was to make a center of Modernity. There he brought Jack Lang to do theatre, which after all was quite extraordinary! He brought composers, theatrical people and choreographers,” says Gregory Bushakjian.
This historian of Lebanese Art is Director of the School of Visual Arts at ALBA, an institution where many artist well-known in Modernity have studied or taught, from Shafiq Abboud to Paul Guiragassian, from Michel Basbous to Helen Khal, and is master of his subject. For the last seven years he has been a member of the Collection Committee of Saradar, a non-profit organization specializing in the art of Lebanon and the region. Bushakjian lays down that “Saradar is perhaps the sole example of a Lebanese collection which constitutes the will to be scientific, the will to share with the public, and to produce knowledge. What is it that is Lebanese, Arab or Middle Eastern?” This will to define in relation to the rest of the world is essential for an understanding of the sources of Lebanese modern art: “In many countries around the world, except perhaps Japan which has its own pictorial traditions, there has been a Western influence. This influence is perhaps not so much a transfer, for a new form of budding art must necessarily reflect the problems proper to the country which is giving birth to it. If the generation of modern Lebanese painters, Onsi, Gemayel and company, painted landscapes, it was because they were building a national identity, and if they painted nudes it was because nobody had done so before them. It was something very new for both Christians and Muslims, for they lived in a society where the nude was absent.”
A plural and complex modern Lebanese art:
A somewhat late Western influence, the end of purely religious art, the appearance of the nude, new landscapes, social and political themes, a figurative painting which tended toward the abstract: Lebanese modern art seems to well and truly have its norms. However, when one contemplates side by side a work of Khalil Zgheib (1911-1975) and one of Shafiq Abboud (1926-2004), their common attachment to one and the same current is far from apparent. “Modern Lebanese art has many tendencies: there are artists whose interests are social, others who go for expression, and yet others whose concern is the abstract. No single work can condense all of these together. With reference to the nineteen-sixties, one must not imagine that everybody was moving in the same direction. It is said that during this time painters leaning towards the figurative complained that in order to be shown at the Autumn Exposition at the Sursock Museum one had to paint abstracts. This dissent is very typical of the ideological conflicts of the time. There were artists who considered that art should be overwhelmingly political, an art of engagement and struggle, and others who saw art as experiment in form and media. Between the two extremes, one found a Basbous side and a Sharaf side, explains Gregory Bushakjian. “Modern art presents a very complex scene in Lebanon. Even the track followed by artists is in perpetual evolution: Rafiq Sharaf painted extremely violent canvases before the war, and during it he painted Byzantine icons, although he is Shi’ite. He paints Christian subjects because of his attachment to his belief in Islamic-Christian co-existence. It is like the case of Picasso, who after creating cubism began to paint in the manner of Ingres. One thinks of Aref Rayess who does paintings so different from each other that an uninitiated person would never guess that they were all done by the same artist.”
The painters of Modernity:
Then the question arises of who are the most influential Lebanese painters of Modernity. “This question just does not interest me. There are some artists who were not spoken of a few years ago but are now much talked about, for example, Ethel Adnan and Helen Khal. There is Seta Manoukian, who was completely forgotten until her biography came out and she was taken to the Sursock Museum. However, during the nineteen-seventies, she was greatly celebrated. Every time she did an exposition there were fifty articles in the press. Then she went to Los Angeles and became a Buddhist nun and was more or less forgotten until she is now under the spotlight again. Who then is the most influential? Is Shafiq Abboud more influential than Paul Ghiragossian and is Aref Rayess more influential than Rafiq Sharaf, and is Michel Basbous more important? As far as sculpture is concerned, Saloua Raouda Shoucair has come into fashion much later than Basbous, but is it because she is a woman? Is one of them more important than the other? It is the same in Western art: who is the more important, Pablo Picasso or Marel Duchamp? Paul Klee because he has absorbed everything? The Futurists or the Russian Constructivists because they celebrate technology? The German painters who paint the city, such as Otto Dix and company?” the researcher might well ask himself. Apart from the difficulty of picking out the Lebanese artists who are the most influential in the field of Modernity, following the many publications and collective works, Gregory Bushakjian notices a lack of information about the latter. “I also feel this lack of information concerning Lebanese artists as teachers; my students come and say to me that they find little or nothing about the painters who are discussed in class. For if there are many articles about contemporary artists in the forefront because these artists are of the generation accustomed to the development of the internet, there is little about the Lebanese artists who came before this medium,” he notes with regret.
If one looks closely while taking a walk in front of the Sursock Museum or any of the numerous galleries and institutions which abound in Beirut and the rest of the country, it becomes undeniable that modern Lebanese art is rich and flourishing. If it is partly the product of the influence of Western pictorial practice, its development is certainly the reflection of the development of a culture and a history of its own: the works derived from it constitute an important part of the Lebanese heritage, which taken in proportion feels no inferiority to the French, Russian or German heritage. One thing remains to be done, and that is to render modern Lebanese art far more visible, to give it a higher official position and so to give it a firmer place internationally in the world of art.
A visiting card:
Born in Beirut in 1971, Gregory Bushakjian is a visual and interdisciplinary art historian and Director of the School of Visual Arts at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA). He has sat on many academic and artist juries, including the Salon d’automne of the Sursock Museum (2009), the Boghossian Prize (1912) Exposure (Beirut Art Center 2013), and Beirut Art Residency (1217). He has also published several texts devoted to Lebanese and Arab art such as War and Other Impossible Possibilities, Thoughts on Arab History and Contemporary Art (Alarm editions, Beirut, 2012), Passing Time in collaboration with Fouad el-Khoury and Manal Khader (Kaph Books, Beirut, 2018), and Abandoned Dwellings, A History of Beirut, with Valerie Cachard (Kaph Books, Beirut, 2018). This lat work has appeared at the same time as a photograph exposition of the same name put on at the Sursock Museum between November 2018 and February 2019. As the result of seven years of exploring abandoned sites and the mapping of the city of Beirut, this work reflects the importance of the question of the urban areas for Bushakjian. In 2916 he obtained acceptance by the Sorbonne –Paris University (Paris IV) of his thesis “Habitats abandonnés de Beyrouth, guerres et mutations de l’espace urbain, 1860-2015 (Abandoned dwellings of Beirut, wars and changes of the urban space). Between 1997 and 2004, together with Pierre Hage-Boutros and Rana Haddad he founded the ALLBA Research Studio, “a transdisciplinary platform having grasped the urban problems such as the appropriation of sites.”