Art in the press

By Love and by Likeness (By Salah Stéitié)

A century of Lebanese painting is very little, and yet a great deal. Indeed, in this plot of Eastern land, History has left its prestigious traces: monuments and debris, glassware and tombstones, inscriptions and statuettes, convents and mosques and three famous arches in the facades of our houses that turn towards the setting sun. (…)

A glance at our painting and sculpture from the last one hundred years shows that even in its contradictions this panoply of more or less happily imagined signs expresses the totality of our vocation. And for us it is first of all a question of being. It is through the exploration of the immediate and visible that one has some chance of linking to a destiny that autonomous being which every nation dreams of, whether it be like ours both ancient and yet very young. When one is, when one desires to be the son of a land and a people and a light, it is important that this land should be told by revealing its countryside, its people delineated by seizing and fixing their expressions and their customs, whether the techniques employed be rudimentary or skillful, borrowed from others or issued from some spontaneous depths as is notably the case with the naïf artists; it is important, I say, that this light be expressed in the moving theatre of the unending performance that the light gives to itself and to us. If so many artists of ours have patiently and humbly devoted themselves to catching the day-by-day manifestation of Lebanon in the net of their drawings, watercolours and canvases, depicting the men and the objects, the souls and the faces, nature and nuance, it is usually by an enchanted of the most constant love. It is thus, the painter seems to say, thus that these olive trees are mine in all the sparkling glory of their foliage, mine this sea brightened by red tile roofs, mine these peasants in the pride of their powerful moustaches or the women dressed in the coarse black of their baggy garb. Their faces marked with the blue tattoos of their magic kingdom these “ arabyés ”- the washerwomen or the sellers of sweet-smelling herbs, beautiful as empresses of old antiquity. Indeed, long before the irruption of philosophical anguish brought in from elsewhere, painting and sculpture in Lebanon have always been a peaceful and consenting way of taking possession of the apparent simplicity of the visible.

For Lebanon, however – and it is one of this country’s vocations - the world beyond exists and must be admitted. One could not with impunity be this little country that since its beginnings History has ploughed and travailed in every direction – for better or for worse; this country could not be without reacting instinctively in its every element, I would say, to all that comes from beyond its borders, be it a caress or an assault. The tableau of our tropisms will one day have to be described. Our openness to the world could also be one of the effects of our porosity. I have written somewhere that if the inhabitants of these shores since time immemorial have always and so easily adopted the gods of others, it is probably through a sort of existential doubt as to the solidity of their own foundations, a doubt eminently favourable to the birth and development of all culture. For no culture is alive unless it is open. Mediterranean by nature, Lebanon is both recipient and donor to this sea that is open above all others, a zone of exchange and reciprocal impregnations, a great spiritual and intellectual battleground that has cast up on its shores like admirable wrecks the driftwood traces of mutual clash and meeting.

To this geographical position and to the historical situation already described must be added the taste of all Lebanese for adventure, for departures and journeys which in a way complete and justify their propensity for repatriation. From the very beginning, these factors have caused our painters and sculptors to traverse the shared sea – either physically or mentally – in quest of the expression of modernity or the teaching of great pasts wherever they might be found in Rome or Paris or New York. With the emigration factor, too, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires have provided a welcome and in certain cases a permanent home for some of our artists. Today, indeed, there are those who belong to the Paris School or who contribute to artistic creation in one or other of the Americas, brilliant artists with singular sensitivity. (…)

It is obvious that the battle to recover one’s identity is neither easy nor a foregone conclusion – be it in one of many of the countries of this planet or in our Lebanon that is no exception to this rule. Our painters and our sculptors, I repeat, have had the merit since the very beginning of posing the problem of their artistic testimony at its profoundest level where meet and melt the lightning stroke of identity, the illumination of love for one’s land and it’s traditions they wish to guard perpetually inventive. The already numerous forms of painting or sculpture which have succeeded in laying a strong foundation for the Lebanese museum of the imagination over the last one hundred years tell of the multiplicity of meaning attached to the epiphany of the sign, beyond the plasticity of that sign or its possible single significance. Moreover, any living sign is and remains interrogation – in that all around stirs and shifts, even the signification it claimed to express once and for all. Legends are such that they renew and recreate themselves every day God gives. Since Lebanon has existed, and more particularly during the last hundred years, our painters and sculptors, our water-colourists and engravers have illustrated a legend – a golden legend sometimes, and sometimes afflicted and overcast, the legend of a land we had long thought created only for joy in the miraculous cradle of its colours and guarded by its rocks – and they are obstinate unyielding rocks, O Rachana!

Countries which no longer have legends
Will be condemned to die of cold,

assures Patrice de la Tour du Pin. I do not think that we Lebanese ever risk dying of cold.

Salah Stéitié
Member of the International Association of Art critics (AICA)
President of the Committee Inter Governmental to restitute culture to their countries. (UNESCO)
President of the Lebanese Section of AICA