Art in the press

The years 1954 to 1964 were exciting and joyful years to be living in Lebanon...

The years 1954 to 1964 were exciting and joyful years to be living in Lebanon. My family and I embraced the culture of the Arab people. The experiences and interactions with our new friends enriched our lives and deepened our understanding of people. Having the opportunity to visit the various Arab countries during our tenure in Lebanon made us keenly aware of the lifestyles of the rich and the poor; the Christians, Moslems and Druze. Their code of ethics and philosophies made a great impact on us. We were fortunate to be a part of a colorful patch quilt of personalities through our contacts with students from various Arab countries as well as various social and economic backgrounds. My husband was a professor at the American University of Beirut. I taught at the Beirut College for Women (now the Lebanese American University.) The intermingling with the people that made up the academic community, the diplomatic community, and the business community added further interest to this patch quilt.

This "new world" of ours presented countless opportunities to learn about the history and culture of many different peoples. Visits to Baalbeck, Tyre, Egypt with its pyramids, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the temple ruins of Luxor, the religious sights of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea and many more sights were awesome and emotionally draining. We stood and looked out over the places that give rise to some of the greatest civilizations that have ever existed. While trying to absorb some of this history, we were also affected by the beauty of the natural surroundings-the blue Mediterranean Sea with its inviting beaches and the arid mountains beckoning the skiers during the winter months. We could always count on sunny skies with exceptions perhaps in January when a brief rainy season occurred. Perhaps some of the most scenic encounters we experiences were seeing the cedars of Lebanon, visiting the Crack de Chevalier, sight of a crusader castle high on a mountain in Syria and driving over a mountainous road from Damascus to the northern part of Lebanon in the moon light, which gave the surroundings a dramatic glow. The fresh spring colors covering the slopes below the Crack de Chevalier became so etched in my mind that I had to canonize the scene in one of my early impressionistic paintings.

The light, the colors, the natural forms of this country were true inspirations for artists. I fell in love with the Robert's prints which depict the country's sights with much sensitivity and detail. The mid-nineteenth century brought the European Orientalist artists to Beirut and the, then, Syrian coastline. These artists had a fascination with the East. They developed a love affair with the East, that is, the lands East of the Mediterranean, and its quaint customs. In their representational works of art the artists included every detail of the landscapes, national costumes and local images. David Roberts was one of the best-known artists of that period. He lived in Syria from 1842 to 1845. He recorded the eastern lands where he loved to travel with on-the-spot drawings of life, events and places. Today the Roberts' prints are a valued addition to the collection of one who romanticizes the Middle East of that period. Among the foreign community of Beirut these prints became treasured acquisitions.

I began to search for contemporary Lebanese artists' works. Certainly a fertility and energy existed for art to thrive. There was an abundance of art in decorative motifs and classical sculptures but what about "modern art"? Since I was teaching studio art and Art Education at the Beirut College for Women, I felt the need to expose the students to what was happening in the art world of Lebanon. Hence, I began an active research program of my own to trace the development of contemporary art in Lebanon. The numerous art exhibits that took place in hotel lobbies and interior decorators' showrooms provided me with a good start. During some weeks there were opening receptions nearly every night. These receptions were mostly social functions, which gave me the opportunity to talk to the artists. Once they were convinced that I had a serious objective in mind, they were most cooperative in providing me with information about themselves, allowing me to photograph some of their works and giving me photographs of themselves. Collecting all this data was very time consuming and at times frustrating. Visiting the artists in their homes (most of them had no real studio) took me all over the city of Beirut and out into the country. Setting up appointments to photograph their works presented additional problems. In most cases paintings had to be carried out onto a balcony or even up to a roof in order to have good lighting. Sometimes an artist brought his or her paintings to our apartment where we would take them to the roof of the building (fortunately we had an elevator) and I would photograph them myself. Other times I arranged for a professional photographer to photograph pieces at an exhibit. Whenever I visited artists, our business was always preceded with the delightful custom of drinking Arabic coffee. It broke the ice and gave the artist an opportunity to query my background and intentions. It helped establish a rapport. Dealing with the relatives of deceased artists could sometimes be rather difficult, as they may have felt I was prying. In these situations Huda, my good friend and interpreter, always managed to convince them of the importance of my project and my sincerity. After that (which might take a few hours) I could take any paintings off their walls to photograph.

A particularly memorable and amusing photo session occurred when I visited the Gibran Museum in Bsharri, a village high up in the mountains. My photographer and I drove there with my favorite taxi driver, Mustafa. I was equipped with an official permit from a government office to photograph any of Gibran's works in the Museum. Upon our arrival we found the museum locked and no one around. Finally we spotted a person who informed us that the caretaker of the museum was across on the other mountain and he promptly called in the direction with a booming voice that signaled back with a vibrating echo. This quaint method of communication produced the caretaker after about an hour. We were ushered into the museum which was dark and dingy. After some debate we decided that we could not do justice to the works by photograph them inside. So, one by one we carried them out into a small balcony to photograph them in the sunlight. I never had another opportunity to return to the Gibran Museum to find out if conditions were ever improved.

A studio belonging to the Basbous brothers, Michael and Alfred, in their mountain village of Rashana was the most professional one I had the good fortune to visit. The two sculptors made good use of their magnificent mountain views. At the approach to their property one is greeted by the huge stone sculpture "The Family" standing there like a sentinel overlooking the valley. The Basbouses succeeded in turning Rashana into a kind of pilgrim shrine for students and admirers alike.

As I continued my research, I came across the name of Saliba Douaihy at an international exhibition in New York during one of my trips back to the United States. I inquired as to his whereabouts because I felt that his success in America would have made him an important figure in Lebanon's art world. I found him in a studio above the Church of Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn. He had been sent to the United States by his government to design the stained glass windows for the church. This led to many other stained glass windows for churches. At that time his paintings underwent a great change from the classical religions paintings to pure abstract compositions.

When I returned to Beirut in 1975 for a brief visit and to update my research on the artists, I found that the uncertainty of the political climate had forced a large number of artists to leave the country. I was unable to visit some of them because movements from one district to another were somewhat restricted. A few artists sent me updated material via a messenger when telephone system was not working. A most pleasant surprise was a visit to the Nicolas Sursock Museum. The museum had undergone major renovation and had improved the exhibit galleries greatly. I was allowed to photograph their latest additions of works by Lebanese artists. I also found some impressive contemporary sculptures in public places. To photograph them, however, my trusty Lebanese photographer cautioned me that we had to get permission from the office of tourism. Through the help of an influential Lebanese friend, I was able to obtain all the necessary documents. As a result, I am able to include pictures of works from this beautiful collection. Now I often wonder if these wonderful pieces of sculpture still exist in West Beirut or if they too have become just more rubble by the divisive forces of destruction.

Due to my necessary abrupt departure, covering the period between 1935 and 1965 is not as comprehensive as it might have been had time allowed for follow-up interviews. Also, the years 1965 and 1975 are not as inclusive as they could be due to the political climate. During this visit in Beirut, I started to make arrangements to have this book printed there. Unfortunately, time ran out and history tells what befell the once prosperous, beautiful country. I feel, however, that the segment of the development of contemporary art between 1930 and 1975 is important enough to be recorded. All the interviews with the artists gave me a wonderful insight to warm, sensitive human beings, not just as artists, but as people.

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