Art in the press

Mariam: Doyen of Nudes by Helen Khal

She is not an artist, but she is a woman. As a woman, she has made a singular and valuable contribution to the contemporary art in Lebanon: her body. She is Mariam, Lebanon's first and, for many years, its only nude model.

Mariam, Oil on canvas, Helen Khal 100 x 90 cm

In a society where some women are, if not veiled, still kept preciously hidden, it is difficult for an artist to find a female nude model. Beirut may have its bikinis and miniskirts, its tight pants and transparent blouses, but most of the women who wear them would hardly accept to disrobe completely except under the most intimate of circumstances, and certainly never for the probing eyes of an impersonal stranger, respectable artist though he may be.

Thirty-five years ago, finding a nude model in Lebanon was practically an impossibility. An occasional prostitute may have accepted, but with strong suspicion at this strange, undemanding request. Yet in 1938, one artist did find his model, and one young girl did accept to be one. The artist was Caesar Jemayel, then Lebanon's dean of painters; the girl was Mariam.

Mariam was only 13 and a fresh young beauty, when she was first taken to Sheikh Caesar's atelier. She remembers well her initial entry into that new and fascinating world. With innocent curiosity, she went; and as an innocent child she was received... and slowly enticed into her life as model.

At first she knew nothing about art and artists or about models, nude or otherwise. It was simply an amusing, wondrous, happy experience to sit there quietly in this make-believe, playhouse clutter of pictures and paint, to sit and watch "El Sheikh", his hands moving quickly over the canvas, his eyes looking at and beyond her. He would smile at her from time to time, tell her a funny story, offer her a chocolate - and then most magical of all, finally show her herself, the unique lines and colors of her very own image. If at first this young girl needed to be persuaded, in a very short while she came of her own volition the atelier, without invitation and every day.

Caesar Jemayel, a sensitive man, began with Mariam simply and cautiously, not wanting to frighten the child and without any planned intention. For a whole year she modeled, fully clothed in various poses and sundry costumes, for paintings large and small, for portraits and full figures. All for no more than piastres and chocolates and because, in her own words, "I was happy in this atmosphere. It was so different, so much more gay and exciting than the poverty, gloom and harshness of my home life."

The disrobement of Mariam was gradual affair. "Cross your legs and pull up your dress a bit", El Sheikh requested. The following week, he suggested, "If you removed your dress, I would see better the line of your shoulders." Another week or so later and in no more than her under slip, Mariam was finally only a short and undisturbing step away from complete nudity. She says today that she felt no shame or embarrassment when El Sheikh asked her to remove the slip, and then not so many days later, her bloomers. It was all so natural; he was such a nice, kind man, and after all she was so happy there.

Despite her innocent acceptance, Mariam well knew the terrible condemnation that would fall upon her should anyone and, above all, her family knows. So she kept her occupation a closely-guarded secret - with the help of Sheikh Caesar's mother who claimed to all that Mariam was her maid... and with the protection (though jealously motivated) of Sheikh Ceaser himself, who hid her away from all eyes, and most of all from the eyes of his curious and model-less fellow artists.

For two years, Mariam remained Sheikh Caesar's private and exclusive model. But two years older and wiser, recognizing her value and needing money for a family suddenly left fatherless, Mariam asked for more than piastres and chocolates... and was refused. She in turn refused to model anymore and regretfully left.

For five years, Mariam the model disappeared. Then in 1945, Sheikh Caesar went looking for her again. The newly established Academy of Fine Arts had appointed him dean of its painting school, and he needed a model for his students. There was only Mariam, and for the sum of 150 liras a month, she was hired.

Every evening, from 5 to 8, Mariam posed at the Academy - for that first group of ALBA students, which included Chafic Abboud, Farid Aouad, Michel Basbous, Yvette Achkar, George Guv, Helen Khal, Mounir Eido, and for all the others since then. She returned also to Sheikh Caeser's atelier on frequent free mornings, unpaid but with the respect and filial obligation of a child to its father, and continued to model for him until his death in 1958. Meanwhile, she had ceased to be the exclusive property of Sheikh Caeser, and began to sit for other Lebanese artists, among them Saliba Douiehy, Georges Cyr, and Yusuf Hoyek. In the fifties, AUB's Fine Arts Department also turned to Mariam when they needed a model. But there, a still prevailing American missionary Puritanism for a while forced a bikini restriction around her finely formed bottom.

Although there are others now and to be an artist's model is no longer as chocking a matter, Mariam is still considered Lebanon's foremost professional model. The lines and proportions of her body, always aesthetically structured, have changed little despite the years. She continues to sit, as patiently unmoving as Cezanne's apple, for yet another generation of Lebanese artists at the National Institute of Fine Arts... and still without her family's knowledge. (In 1986)