The Woman Artist in Lebanon by Helen Khal
(Copyright Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, 1987)
As a designation, "woman artist" contains within it a dual and alternate condition of status and role, both of which demand close and careful consideration. Unlike her male counterpart to whom work and life are one, the woman artist suffers from a conflict between her chosen career and the basic functions of her life as a woman, wife, and mother. Between <> as artist and <> as woman, she experiences a provoking undercurrent of tension engendered by the polarized forces of freedom and restriction that exist in her life.
In her status as woman, she is confronted with certain confining patterns of behavior and function imposed upon her by society and tradition. In her role as artist, on the other hand, she is offered an existence of her own creation, a private identity free predetermined limitation.
In examining this diametric condition of our woman artist in Lebanon, an initial exploration into the separate structures of her status and role is necessary. In essence, contemporary art and society in Lebanon provide and determine her role, while her status as woman continues to be shaped by the wider traditional norms that govern the conduct and basic function of woman in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab word.
Status as Woman
For the past thirty years, at least, conditions have been favorable in Lebanon for the entry of woman into most professions, including art, which were previously the exclusive domain of men. Given Lebanon’s high level of social freedom and modernization, as well as the backdrop of ethnic and religious diversity that has lent unique flexibility to the democratic life of the country, the woman in Lebanon has been able to move far beyond the repressive codes that still painfully bind many of her Arab sisters.
Although remnants of traditional attitudes still persist, particularly in rural areas, a high rate of literacy, the penetrative influence of modern communications media, and the proximity of rural to urban areas have nurtured an energetic cultural and physical mobility in the society, thus greatly minimizing differences in social behavior. Receptivity and adaptability to change have long been strong traits in the Lebanese character and have bred a climate sympathetic to innovative thought and action.
Within the framework of such apparent advantages, the woman in Lebanon has been able to pursue an interest or assume a role well beyond the dictates of her conventional status.
Beneath the surface of this progressive attitude, however, there still remains an active core of traditional response which, emotional in essence and without rational control, continues to manifest itself in certain aspects of female (and male) behavior. Despite vocal protestations to the contrary and conditioned as she has been to accept the inevitability of her acquiescent female position, our woman professional is often uncomfortably closer in practice to the restricting image of traditional woman than her announced liberation pretends. She suffers from much the same symptoms of traditional handicap as women elsewhere in the world. In Arab society, however, these symptoms are compounded by the presence in her life of a male whose culturally inbred ego status dominates the relationship and insists that first and foremost she remain a woman, with any other interest beyond him and family to be considered as no more than a secondary and dispensable diversion.
Herein lies the contradiction in her dual function, a contradiction which remains an unconscious irritant and is often a trying obstacle in the fulfillment of her professional role. As she attempts to move beyond an existing male-female hierarchal condition towards that ideal state of equality to which she aspires, frustrating conflicts arise.
It may be precisely the presence of this conflict, however, that generates the creative energy of the woman artist. She is seeking a private world of her own, independent and secure from the invasion of outside controlling forces. In her art, she attempts to resolve the painful tensions in her life, to express a true image of herself, her needs and aspirations and, in so doing, assert her identity and achieve her ultimate liberation.
Role as Artist
Woman‘s role as professional artist, on the other hand, is played out within the context of Lebanon’s contemporary art, the background and present status of which should be outlined before we can define her place in it.
To begin with brief historical fact, the practice of contemporary art in Lebanon (and in the rest of the Arab world) began no more than a hundred years ago and emerged as one of the fringe influences of the developing foreign interests in the area. It must be remembered that contemporary art has no roots in Arab cultural heritage that is originated in Europe and out of the Renaissance tradition, whose paths of expression were significantly different. For the Arab world (and for most other regions of the world that also remained for centuries in a similar cultural isolation), it is an adopted art form - one which did not effectively penetrate these borders until the late 19th century, along with the advent of facilitated international communications, travel and cultural exchange .Until then for centuries before, the Arab aesthetic experience had remained rooted in Islam, fed and determined by a civilization in which art functioned as an integral and intimate expression of the society and which, in turn, through its abundant genius and at its height, produced some of the world’s most impressive cultural achievements.
In Europe, meanwhile, an art of new concept and purpose had developed, and this was the one finally to reach Arab shores. Throughout the Renaissance centuries, art had been utilized as the disciplined servant of European society. But by the end of the 19th century, there bad emerged an “art for art’s sake” concept, which proclaimed that art was a free agent and that prophecy, critical comment, interpretation or the private emotional continent of the artist would henceforth give art its meaning and purpose. And so “The Artist” was born - an individual dedicated to total freedom, who would create first to serve himself and then the people. In the process, the artist became an outsider to society and at the same time appointed himself its judge and mentor.
It was at this point that Arab artists entered the arena. Faced with more than a new art tradition and the simple learning of foreign techniques of brush and paint, they also had a new peer, “The Artist”, to emulate. And as infants, they moved cautiously. In 1910, while Lebanon’s first artist were still learning how to paint in the classical and romantic style or, with more adventurous spirit, in the then prevalent impressionistic manner, a number of European artists were engaged in a dramatic revolution with the past and had already invented the bold styles of cubism, abstraction and surrealism. It would take Arab artists two more generations to catch up, to assimilate and adopt the substance of these new ideas. Decades of experience would be needed before they could identify with and finally seek entry into that international legion of contemporary artists whose creative loyalties now lie beyond all man-made borders and belong to that wider horizon of one universal art.
As her male counterpart today, the woman artist in Lebanon also aspires to his international identity; she is no content with provincialism in her art and is directing her creative purpose beyond the confines of regional achievement. On this level, she departs from her existing duality as woman–artist in Lebanon and finds herself assuming an asexual role in the pursuit of her professional aspirations. This, in turn, again aggravates her condition and adds pressure to the already burdened compromise she has accepted in her function as a woman-artiste within her own society. In extending her horizon as an artist, she also exposes herself as a woman to further and more drastic change, thus adding new complications to the ambiguities which still assail her life at home. She insists, however, that her basic desire is to transcend tradition limitations of status without forfeiting her essential womanhood, which she still cherishes and wants to retain. She believes that as an artist she can do so.
These, then, are the conditions of status and role that currently confront the woman artist in Lebanon. She enjoys advantages and suffers difficulties much to the same extent, though of different content, as do woman artists in the West. In the United States, for instance, in addition to the similar challenge of reconciling the demands of her life as a woman with those of her profession, the woman artist has to contend with a further obstacle. Although during the past several decades she has gained greater legal and social freedom and equality as a woman, the American female artist still faces the problems of covert discrimination and unequal opportunity in her career.
The conflicts and challenges experienced by the woman artist in America have been a recurring theme in publications of the last decade on the subject. To quote one example, an article by Jill Robinson in Art World (January, 1980), declares : "… there has always been a duality of roles for woman artists. Few male artists have had to consider their lives as men as distinct from their work. Few have had to fight so hard to avoid making that distinction , to defend the priority of the creative identity."
Apart from the personal woman-artist dichotomy in her life that she attempts to resolve, the American woman artist’s primary concern has been to penetrate a male-dominated profession and achieve equal recognition in the field. In museums, galleries, and group exhibitions across the country, the presence of works by woman artists until recently has been minimal and very often little more than a token gesture towards a professed equality. Few women artists in America were able to establish a public prominence equal to that of the country’s leading male artists. The names of only a handful are well known: Mary Cassatt, Isabel Bishop, Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaler. Their works have been accorded equal recognition and appear in museums alongside works by America’s top male artists.
The woman artist in Lebanon, on the other hand, has not and does not suffer from lack of recognition in her profession. Her primary concern lies instead in harmonizing her dual functions as a woman and as an artist, Through her life and work as an artist, she seeks the freedoms still denied her as a woman and as a person.
Moving beyond general observations to details of the woman artist’s development in Lebanon, we begin with the who, when, and how of her entry into the field. Although there were certainly some women privately engaged in painting earlier, it wasn’t until the thirties that women artists first appeared before the public. In 1931, L’Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Beirut organized the first group exhibition of contemporary art in Lebanon. Alongside the works of the country’s leading artists hung those of several women, among them Blanche Ammoun, Marie Haddad, Gladys Shoukair, and Mrs. Bart. Their paintings were commented upon in a critique which appeared in the French monthly publication Tout (Beirut, January 1931), signed simply with the initials “R.C.” It merits, particularly for the relevance of its penultimate paragraph, the following full translation:
The exhibition organized by L’Ecole des Arts et Métiers was a definite success in the number of works shown and in the number of visitors. Everyone was impressed by the prolific Lebanese talents, which proved interesting and show a promising artistic effort.
In evidence were many beginners, many childish works, about which no more can be said except that their charm lay in their defects.
Among the best painters exhibiting, we mention Mrs. Bart‘s solid and well-defined still lifes, Mrs. Haddad’s tormented brush, Miss Shoukair‘s rigorous and somber heads; Kober , for his Lebanese and Syrian landscapes full of taste and personality; Mourani, for his bright colors; Farrouk, solid as always; Gemayel and his very beautiful crayons; Azem , primitive but original; Onsi, about whom much good is said but who needs to work, shows very much originality and some interesting compositions; Serour , the master of Lebanese painters, always discreet in tonality and solid in allure; Lecocq, impressionist painter, an obsolete genre today; Dr. Geoffrey for some good studies; Miss Ammoun for some ideas well expressed.
Among the beginners, even among those who didn’t study in Western schools, one senses a false effort, very false, toward a modernism that they don’t understand. Most of them are not trying to be original; they are trying to be modern, and this is frightful. I like more a sincere artist like Gemayel, perhaps backward, but who knows what he is doing. This is a serious weakness which must be overcome.
Another observation is that the only local painters who succeed in being very good, who have done interesting things and remain original, are the women .The best painters of this exhibition are: Mesdames Bart, Haddad, and Shoukair. We say this without hesitation. These ladies are superior to all the scholarship-grantee (boursiers) specialists and professionals in this art .There is in this a fine encouragement for local feminism. Is there significance in this?
In summary, an excellent initiative, which marks a first artistic activity and which presents authentic Lebanese elements, thus providing for an evaluation of individual efforts and a comparison of temperaments and talents and establishing, in a sharp manner, the actual physiognomy of Lebanese painting.
This laudatory recognition of the woman artist in Lebanon upon her first public appearance may be explained by two relevant factors. The penetration of French cultural influence at the time was at its strongest, and painting was a new and fashionable pastime for the young ladies of an existent Francophile elite. Also, the women exhibiting were pupils of a Polish artist, Jean Kober, who undoubtedly stimulated his students to exhibit and also, one may deduce, assured their recognition by the press as well. Another review of the exhibition by the same “R.C.” (Tout, January 31, 1931) was devoted entirely to the work of Kober’s pupils and included this remark: “His school in effect, commands attention from all by its great qualities, its original and personal technique. In all the works exhibited by his students, one feels a unanimous will, a secret bond which links them, a force which directs them towards artistic perfection. “This declaration is followed by a lengthy commentary on the works of the four women artists mentioned previously.
This significant fact, however, is that with this exhibition women artists definitely and publicly asserted their presence in Lebanon. During that decade, a few other women appeared sporadically on the scene. In the Arabic publication Al-Maarad (July 4, 1934), for example, one finds a painting by a Waddad Nassif reproduced among others. Only two artists of that period, however, continued seriously to paint - Marie Haddad and Blanche Ammoun. Details of the life of the latter are related in one of the profiles in this study, white the story of Marie Haddad remains largely a mystery. She was the first woman artist to have an individual exhibition (both in Paris and in Beirut in 1933) and was a writer as well (a collection of her short stories was published in Beirut in 1937). She disappeared completely from the public scene during the forties, however, and spent the rest of her life until her death in the late sixties in almost complete seclusion and under the total domination of Daahesh, a self-styled psychic guru.
Clearly, the climate at the time was receptive to the presence of women artists. In contrast, women were able to enter other professions only with difficulty. Blanche Ammoun, as we have seen, was recognized as an artist, yet in her pursuit of a law degree she faced an entirely different reaction. She relates her experience in the late twenties, when she and Nina Trad were the first women to apply for admission to the Jesuit faculty of Law in Beirut. Despite strong opposition they were admitted, but only upon the condition that they study privately and not attend classes. The reason for this, they were told, was that ‘‘the young men are not yet prepared to see women in a university.” Accepting this unusual condition, the young women didn’t attend classes, studied at home, and passed the final examinations in 1931 (the same year Blanche exhibited at L’Ecole).
Before the graduation ceremonies, Hamid Frangieh, who was to award the degrees tried to persuade the two young women not to appear on the podium to receive their diplomas in public .When they objected, he gave them a polite but firm ultimatum: “If you walk up before me like all the men, I will not mention your names in my allocution: but If you remain discreetly in the audience, I will announce your names”. Preferring to be seen rather than merely mentioned, they chose the podium.
One can surmise that the reason for this contradictory situation lay in a difference of evaluation between the two professions. Art was not considered a serious male occupation; law was. And women were not supposed to intrude upon any serious domain of men. On the other hand, art was a refined and harmless occupation, like music or embroidery, for a young woman to undertake; and in that period of dominating French cultural influence, it was very much encouraged .This difference of attitude, still persisting today, facilitates woman’s venture into the arts. In contrast, men are discouraged from becoming artists; their function is accepted to be one of practical and economically productive endeavor.
A second generation of women artists began developing in the mid-forties, when the Academie Libanaise des beaux Arts (ALBA) were established as the country’s first art school. The proportion of women students to men at that time was approximately 50 percent, a proportion still maintained today. At the Institute of Fine Arts of the Lebanese University (established in 1963), the proportion has been about 30 percent; while at the Fine Arts Department of the American University of Beirut (AUB), it was in the range of 75 percent the Department was dissolved in 1976 .Beirut University College (BUC), which was previously the Beirut College for Women (BCW) and exclusively a women’s college, is now coeducational. Its student body is still predominantly female, however, with a minority of male students in every department, including art.
However, few of these students (male or female) continue beyond training to become professional artists. The majority go on to become teachers, work in the commercial art world, or drop out of the field entirely. This is typical of art students everywhere; among the many thousands all over the world, only a dedicated minority chooses to endure the hardships and insecurities of an artist’s life.
Number of Artists and Extent of Recognition
To find some common circumstances that could account for the large concentration of women artists in Lebanon, we correlated the information we obtained from the artist concerning their origin, art education and economic background, and established that:
--Almost one-third of the artists were of non-Lebanese origin (either other Arab or foreign).
--Almost half of the artists received their training outside of Lebanon and one-fourth were self-taught or received private instruction.
--Many of the artists, whether of Lebanese origin or not, spent their formative years outside of Lebanon.
--All the artists except one came from family back-grounds whose economic status was either average or above average, whose parents (one or both) were educated, and whose childhood environments provided good cultural exposure and sometimes actual experience in the arts.
Favorable personal circumstances helped many become artists, and other circumstances sometimes disruptive and forced brought or returned a significant number to Lebanon. In Lebanon itself, as mentioned earlier, the social advantages of a progressive society and its heightened in the arts encouraged not only the presence of women artists, but also provided opportunity for further development of their careers.
Numerical presence, however, does not in itself lead to an actively functioning, recognized presence (as indicated by the status of women artists in America). To find reasons for this recognized presence in Lebanon the following question was asked in all the interviews conducted: “Did you know that the proportion of recognized women artists to total number of artists is higher in Lebanon than in most other countries, whether in the Arab world or in the West; and that four out of the twelve leading artists in Lebanon are women? How would you explain this?”
The answers from people in various fields provided a wide range of opinion and resulted in his composite summary:
--They have time, with nothing else to do; it’s an easy, fashionable diversion that adds glamour to their lives.
--They don’t have to worry about earning a living; most of them are supported by husband or family, have servants to do their housework, and can afford the luxury of being an artist without any of the hardships.
--It’s all part of Lebanon’s modern society; woman has more freedom here, is educated, cultured and all professions are open to her.
--The standards of appreciation are lower here; we recognize anything put on public exhibition, no matter who produces it.
--We indulge her in this harmless pastime, as we do a child who proudly shows us its first drawings… and we applaud. It’s all part of attention, protection and support a woman‘s family and the community give her.
--Women here are spontaneous, daring, have a kind of arrogant confidence that they can do anything; they‘re not awed by Art, not intimidated, and don’t hesitate to try it themselves.
--It’s something she can do at home, one of the few safe occupations in whish she can exercise her individuality without endangering her protected position, and one which provides her with the satisfying recognition of being more than “just a woman.”
--It’s one of the best ways to express a repressed personality, which is what the woman in the East is -repressed and oppressed. In art, even more than in writing, she can be intimate, honest, about her most private feelings. It’s the most satisfying, most direct medium of expression she can have, faced as she still is with so many prohibitions imposed by society… and by herself on herself.
--For so long women have been second-class citizens. Now that is changing , and they move with impatient aggressive energy to grasp whatever opportunities they have to establish themselves as equals.
--It’s one of the few permissible windows in her “harem”. Through it, she can discreetly express all that she feels and thinks. She paints now as in the past she embroidered poems to her beloved on a soft, silk handkerchief, with care and fine taste for “Zakhrafeh” (decoration) as well as for depth of emotion. Most of them now still paint poems, but for a few it is their path to liberation.
Despite the specific phraseology of our question concerning recognition, many of respondents confined their answers to the fact of numerical presence instead. When pressed, the replies were vague and assumed recognition as a natural and established fact concurrent with number.
Despite this lack of differentiation, two separate though related attitudes in the above summary were revealed and deserve definition. One attitude, which is clearly a patronizing one, regards women’s participation as little more than amateur and says: We have many women artists because it’s a pleasant and easy hobby and they have the time and economic status to afford it; because our level of aesthetic appreciation is still immature and undiscriminating; and because, regarding it as a harmless freedom, we indulge her in this unthreatening and non-competitive occupation.” This attitude accepts the extent of recognition, but gives little value of that recognition.
Inherent in the other attitude is a more respectful opinion that says the woman artist in Lebanon is worthy of serious consideration. It voices a qualitative response in suggesting possible reasons for motivation, as well as for the extent of recognition .Here we find a reply which, in effect says: “Woman in Lebanon has tasted freedom, and reacts with tremendous energy to hold on to it and extend it. Though the skirt she wears still trails behind her in the sands of tradition, raising clouds of obstacle, and though the comfort and security of the ‘harem’ still entice her, she is determined in her purpose and moves rapidly. She is a transitional who is trying to hold on to the best of two worlds and plays it safe by asserting herself and communicating her private feeling and needs through art , which she views as the most effective medium for her particular revolution . The intensity of her efforts, her serious purpose, generates recognition.”
If the woman artist herself aggressively pushed toward recognition, there were a few other elements which also contributed strongly to the extent of her public recognition and help explain why it was higher in Lebanon that in other countries:
--It was not difficult to exhibit in Lebanon. Beirut had become the art center of the Middle East and provided many easy facilities for exhibition in its numerous galleries, cultural centers, educational institutions, and business establishments. Any artist, even the rank beginner, who wanted to exhibit, could find a receptive wall. Approximately 150 exhibitions, group and individual, occurred in Lebanon each season - which was much more than in any other country of the area and higher by proportionate measure than in many countries of the West.
--Cultural activities in Lebanon received wide coverage in the press, radio, and television media. Cosmopolitan on one level, Beirut society was still a small community where practically all events were reported and any artist (male or female) who exhibited was given media recognition.
--Because women in the professions were still a relatively new phenomenon, even in modern Lebanon, whatever a woman did was publicly noticed.
Since recognition depends on effective means communication and exposure, which for artists depends on the availability of exhibition facilities and media coverage, we studied our interviews with gallery directors and art critics in Lebanon for further clarification on the woman artist’s public stature.
Gallery directors were about equally divided in their opinion of women artists. Some them not as professionally oriented as men and hesitated to arrange exhibitions for them, while others saw no difference and based their decision to exhibit an artist purely on aesthetic quality of the work. About one-third of the exhibitions conducted by Beirut galleries were for women artists. There was no significant difference in the amount of work sold; prominence and popular appeal of the artist determined sales, regardless of the sex of the artist. Hotels, where many exhibitions were held, provided facilities without discrimination to any artist who could pay the rental fee and arrange his or her own show.
Critics on the whole, made no difference at all between men and women artists and declared that their judgment was based solely on merit of work. They gave as much attention and space in their reviews to exhibitions by women artists as they did to those by male artists.
Evaluation of Accomplishments
For an evaluation of accomplishments, to learn what they were what their importance was, whether they differed from those of male artists in Lebanon, we again turned to the opinions of the critics.
As stated in our introduction, it was through consultation with the critics that the twelve artists who highlight this study were chosen. In order to establish the position of these artists within the overall artistic activity of the country, we also asked each critic to list his or her choice of the twelve leading (male or female) in Lebanon. Each, without exception, included at least four of these twelve women artists on his list. Such a proportion of 1:3 is undeniably higher than in most other countries of the world, where few women artists have been able to achieve equal prominence with men at the top of the field.
In the interviews, each of the critics pointed out some differences of motivation, subject matter and approach, which help define the separate quality of women’s contributions to the contemporary art of Lebanon.
To summarize those differences, as expressed by the critics:
--Women are bolder, experiment more with different techniques and materials; do not hesitate to explore new ideas. In this respect, men are more traditional. Examples: The first abstract artist in Lebanon: Saloua Raouda Choucair, in 1947, when all other artists in the country were still traditional impressionists. The first artist to work extensively in kinetics: Nadia Saikali. The first artists to publicly exhibit paintings of explicit erotic substance: Juliana Seraphim and Hughette Caland.
--Men are more politically and socially engaged, are motivated more by intellectualism, ideology, and problems of the human condition. They are concerned with the world around them, its events, and its physical environment, which they interpret, comment upon, or romanticize. Women, on the other hand, express a private vision, are more personal and introspective in their creative intention. There are a few exceptions, like Choucair, whose work is highly intellectual and abstract in its emphasis on pure aesthetics.
--Some women artists are exploring areas of sensibility that have not been the concern of men. They are expressing in a very direct manner the intimate sensual and emotional responses they have as women toward the male-female relationship - and they don’t hesitate to communicate this publicly.
--In technique, women artists generally are more meticulous, more patient, in their attention to detail and finish of work. They are aware of and have a respect for the physical prosperities of their medium and seek to investigate all its possibilities.
The critics commented favorably on the overall accomplishments of women artists, particularly in the past ten years, and believe their presence has contributed much to the stature of contemporary art in Lebanon today. They made reservation, however, that they were referring only to those artists whose work they considered important and who, in their opinion are “dedicated, talented, and serious” artists. One of the critics remarked that one of the reason why these “serious” women artists have been able to achieve so much is that many of them do not have the problems the male faces in society, where his responsibilities and status demand that he be successful and the dependable provider of a family. Without this economic burden, women are able to concentrate more of their energies on art and can afford to be less compromising in its practice.
Although these male-female differences of motivation, subject matter, and technique do exist, one critic insisted that in art such differences are to be expected and go hand in hand with the expression of an individual personality. He pointed out that in work by male artists there are always female overtones, and in work by female artists, male overtones. “In essence, art is asexual” he said, “and there is not criterion of male or female; there is only good or bad art, that is all that must be considered when evaluating any creative effort.”
When our interviewees were questioned about the importance of women’s contributions and what influence, if any, they may have on the evolution of Arab women or on society in general, two main views were expressed:
--Their presence in a profession that receives wide and constant public exposure and recognition projects a strong image of the modern, liberated woman, which is likely to influence a responsive female audience. Any woman, rich or poor, who is oppressed in any way, finds in this image (conveyed to her through the effective media of press, television, and radio) an assertion of her own identity as an equal human being, which she hopes she or her daughters may eventually attain for themselves.
--As a factor of social change, art in a democratic society today does not have much influence. Its purpose is not ideologically directed, as in religious art or in the party-line art of a totalitarian state. Also there so many other more effective methods of public persuasion today in the visual of photography, film, and television; and art does little more than feed the aesthetic needs of a refined elite.
These views, in effect, suggest that the presence of women in the arts may influence change in the lives of other women, but that the art they produce, despite any feminist motivation, has no significant impact.
What the Artists Say
In our interviews with the artists, along with documentation of biographical data and queries on family background, we asked them about:
(a) The social or personal influences which may have determined their choice of career, (b) any determining problems or difficulties encountered in their lives as women and as artists, and (c) their individual motivation and creative intention.
Regarding choice of career, most of the artists reported that a general interest in art began in childhood, either through parental guidance, through art classes in school, or through the presence in their lives of artist friends or relatives. With some, the interest continued without interruption and led to subsequent training and professional entry into the field. With others, the interest subsided, and their lives took another direction for a number of years before they returned to art. Influences which determined choice were essentially personal, although early family advantages of economic status, cultural exposure, and education provided the initial encouragement. Only a small minority faced strong opposition from family in their choice of career, on the grounds that it would not provide economic security or that it would interfere with marriage possibilities, and therefore could not be considered more than an avocation. All others were encouraged.
In talking about their personal lives, difficulties were reported in combining with equal effectiveness the role of artist with that of woman, particularly among those who were married. If economic security and parental approval before marriage had encouraged them to become artists, subsequent marriage and its traditional obligations often forced them into years of minimal or sporadic productivity.
A common problem with most of the artists, whether married or single, was resolving the duality which existed in their lives, which one artist aptly described as “the dilemma of the modern Eve.”
Through their art, they had developed a strong and active awareness of their identity as individuals. They had also acquired the strength to shed many of the preconditioned attitudes which often insidiously inhibit intellectual and emotional growth in women. But they found difficulty now in reconciling this personally acquired and liberated image with the culturally determined stereotype of woman that confronted them within their own society. They said they were faced with restrictions, often indefinable, which prohibited their functioning freely and honestly as mature women and as equal human beings.
This problem was particularly apparent in the male-female relationship , where the rules of the game were so deeply ingrained that any overt attempt at change could prove disastrous .The answer for most, therefore, was an uneasy compromise. They insisted, however that it was not an obliteration of role difference that they wanted, but rather a new assessment of differences based on respect and equality between male and female, without the ambiguous double standard which still contaminated this most vital human relationship.
When questioned about difficulties of functioning within their profession, almost all the artists replied that they found no problems and that they did not feel that being a woman caused discrimination or restricted their function as artists in any way. The occasional opinion was expressed, however, that often their work was not taken seriously because they were women. Several remarked that they encountered in the public a reaction of surprise that work of such quality was produced by a woman - a shaded compliment which they found irritating.
Individual motivation and creative intention, of course, varied from artist to artist (each artist’s statement included in the study is quoted verbatim). Obviously there was no one, common, conscious motivation; or if such common motive existed, it was on an unconscious level. Like all artists, women artists in Lebanon are individualists, sometimes even more so than their male counterparts. They do not, as male artists often do, seek to work collectively or from groups to promote common artistic aims or ideals. In the Lebanese Association of Painters and Sculptors , the organization officially recognized as representing the artists of the country, the activities and influence of women members has been insignificant – either due to their own lack of interest or to the reluctance of a male majority to grant them stronger participation .Given the facts of a more personally oriented motivation toward which women artists appear to be directing their energies, one can assume it is lack of interest… although the few women who have sought elective positions of authority in the Association (and lost) emphatically deny this.
Some Tentative Conclusions
Very much as in painting, I began this paper with a specific intention laid out the colors and proceeded to give that intention expressive shape. But as often happens, the colors and forms which were initially put down began to suggest other ideas, seemingly irrelevant but of provocative substance, and the thread of original purpose began to weave its own conclusive fabric. It was through such avenues of inquiry that this brief study developed; the material presented itself and was recorded. Separately, facts and opinions have been expressed which may be of interest; but together, what do they mean, what do they say? At the expense of inviting debate, I would like to propose some conclusions, tie some loose ends of compositional design together and, in a way, frame the picture.
The woman artist in Lebanon: who is she, where is she now, and what is her future?
She is by birth Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Jordanian, Armenian, Turkish, German, French, Yugoslavian, Russian, and American. She is educated, cultured, and has been economically secure most of her life, She is young or old, married or unmarried, sometimes divorced or a widow. She is a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother; and if she must work to support herself (although a number are supported by family, husband, or private income); she is most often a teacher. Only a few of her number totally earn their living through art. At least four (some claim more) are included in any listing of the twelve leading artists of Lebanon, and all of her number makes up about one-fourth of all artists in the country. To all outward appearances, her life is a conventional one. Though she is rarely the bohemian artist in behavior or dress, she is nevertheless sought out by an awed and curious society, not only as an exotic ornament for its parties, but also for the cultural and intellectual stimulation her presence provides.
Despite her occasional complaints, she enjoys as an artist a position more advantageous than most of her sister artists elsewhere. If traditional attitudes toward women still limit her freedom, they also provide her with a reassuring protection and special consideration which inadvertently lend moral support to her professional ambitions. She is indulged by the men in her life and by society, specifically because she is a woman and because the occupation she has chosen is one which, to their minds, is unthreatening to them, keeps her at home, and somehow befits a woman. Given also the dynamics of a prosperous and progressive society and the opportunities of a microcosmic cultural life with its attendant ease of public recognition, she has had little difficulty in building up her number and establishing herself securely at the top of her profession. Few other professions in Lebanon have provided her with the same opportunities for advancement to equal stature with men.
Aware of these advantages and using them wisely, our woman artist meanwhile walks a tightrope of divisionalism between the ground she has gained as an artist and the psychological veil which still obscures her full emancipation as a woman. Though she benefits from it, she suspects that the indulgence accorded her is often one of condescending charity. And while appreciating the protection and consideration she is given, she chafes at the demanding price of a compromising submissiveness.
Uniquely, she has been able to utilize the path of “traditional woman” to arrive at “modern artist”. Uniquely, she plays a liberated, avant-garde role, while the fetters of tradition, though loosened, still restrain her, still bruise her spirit and retard her freedom.
And what, we ask, is she doing about this ambiguity in her position, which now begins to create its own kind of problems? Is she content to continue adroitly playing a game of compromise in order to safeguard advantages she doesn’t want to lose?
To my mind, no. I believe there is a method in her compromise, and that she is emerging as a new kind of feminine revolutionary, a quiet one, who doesn’t want to use the drastic tactics of force, of reducing all to rubble. “There are some female attributes of value,” she says, “that must be destroyed, that must be retained. They are essential to me, to every Arab woman, and to every woman everywhere. I want to continue to be a woman – not the old, narrow, stereotype of woman, but still a woman as distinguishable from a man. Physically we are opposites, but in the conditions and quality of our lives we must be equal. I want to be his equal complement, and not an inferior whose life he tries to control. As that complement, and biologically made of the same stuff of flesh, bones, and spirit, I too have needs, hopes, fears, and joys parallel to his. Listen to me, she says, and in my art I will tell you what they are.”
In her art, our woman artist expresses those needs, hopes, fears, and joys. They al derive from the attributes of her femininity which she values and which, if comprehended and accepted in her interpersonal relationships, she believes will grant her full freedom and identity as a human person. Her primary creative purpose is to communicate her responses, as a female human being, to the conditions of her life and to the elements in it which she considers important. Despite some outward manifestations in her work to the contrary, she is not really concerned, as the male artist so often is, with social or political comment, with retaining links of cultural heritage or with following new concepts of art. Her work, whether figurative or abstract (and it is both) reveals an intimacy of expression which is peculiarly hers as a woman.
What does it say? It says many different things, but all are the mosaic pieces, similarly textured, with which individually she attempts to construct a whole identity. I perceive that identity, as it is revealed in her work, to include:
The sensual and erotic responses of woman, a hitherto forbidden garden which some artists explore. They want to communicate how a woman experiences the sensual and erotic manifestations of the human body and of all physical life.
The philosophical realm, through which other artists seek to define a human purpose within the larger cosmos of existence. They ask: Who am I, and what does it all mean?
The lyric poets, who view the world and human life with a romantic eye. Persistent idealists, they recreate on canvas secure worlds of remembered or imagined joy.
The intellectual aesthetes, whose female sensibilities speak through the abstract language of structured form and color.
She is capable of being all of that, she says – sensualist philosopher, poet, and intellectual. Admittedly not designations which society has so far readily assigned to women. But there they are in my art, she says… I am all that, and woman too, if only you will recognize it.
Individually, through these various routes of expression, she reflects in essence the deep responses of a private, self-oriented, female vision. As one of our interviewees remarked, her art is “one of the few permissible windows in her harem,” through which she projects her innermost needs and desires. Other revolutionaries would break down the walls; but our woman artists says no , not yet...I still need the protection of the harem , and I don’t want to lose its pleasures.
And what of her future?
I believe she will begin to face difficulty in maintaining the position she has so quickly (and deservedly) achieved for herself as a professional. When she relinquishes her traditional privileges as a woman (which she will have to if she wants an honest equality), she will lose the advantages which have eased her path. Also, as more women enter the professions, as contemporary art itself gains a more important stature in the society, and as public life in Lebanon expands beyond its present provincial familiarity and easy of recognition, success will become more difficult to arrive at. The woman artist will then be in a more balanced competition with male, artists. She will face problems similar to his, and her success will no longer to taint by any “because she is a woman” consideration. She will achieve recognition solely through a strict evaluation of talent and professionalism, through the aesthetic validity of her work and the energy she applies in pursuing the golden ring of public success.
I believe that, based on her already proven talents and creative energies, she will be equal to that challenge and will in the future earn an even more solid and gratifying recognition . But I believe also that gradually her number will lessen, and that only the serious and dedicated artists will persevere. For those of minor talent and interest who now survive on a societal indulgence, the new rules of the game will prove too difficult.
In her work itself, meanwhile I believe that her art will continue to grow out of her sensibilities as a woman, but that it will take on a less personally motivated expression, as gradually the purposes of her revolution are achieved and she gains her full freedom and equality. Some of our artists have already reached this point. Feminine qualities are no longer expressed through specific subject matter or approach, but rather through the peculiarities of abstract line, color, and form structure which are uniquely woman-felt expressed. In art as in life, woman simply cannot deny her own woman-hood.
Finally does her work or presence in any way affect the lives of other women in her society?
In her art, I would agree with the observation made earlier that her influence is negligible. The new linguistics of art today require an uncommon amount of visual comprehension and cultural sophistication; this will only happen gradually, as the society progresses in its artistic and cultural development. Most people today lack understanding and appreciation of modern art, not only in the Arab world but, to a greater or lesser degree, everywhere else in the world as well. The difficulty is compounded by the rapid change and complexity of art forms with which we are assailed, and which are able to communicate their meaning only to a select group of initiates. The majority of people, meanwhile, depend more and more for visual, stimulation (and influence) on the quick and easy “art” of a machine-made, picture-producing media. For them, individually hand-made art today often serves no more than a decorative purpose.
In her art, then, our woman artist speaks only to a limited audience. Through her presence, however, she does generate wider influence.
Notwithstanding the driving impact of usual revolutionary methods my belief is that change on a profound and lasting level in any society remains a slow and evolutionary process. The manifestation of real change, through this process, can seldom be attributed to specific or isolated determinants. Sometimes, however, one can perceive certain contributing factors; and in the evolution of the Arab woman, I see our woman artist today as one of those factors. As the image of traditional woman disappears and a new Arab woman emerges, the woman artist through her presence acts (more so than women in most other professions) as a direct and strong forecast of that future woman. The liberated manners and attitudes of her life reach out and touch, through wide public exposure, those other woman who seeks a directional pattern for the realization of their own ultimate emancipation.
The influence perhaps is imperceptible, but, I believe it exists. Many other social factors will determine the manner of change and set the pace at which it will occur; but meanwhile, the woman artist plays her own significant role in forming the progressive character of the new Arab woman. In her presence, if not in her art, she conveys hope to that larger legion of women who, in whatever way and to whatever degree, still bear the marks of interior status. She is, in a word, their link to the future.