The idea of organizing an exhibition of Gibran Khalil Gibran’s visual art at the Soursuk Museum in Beirut was first conceived almost three decades ago. The plan became a reality on the eve of the new millennium, delayed by the Lebanese Civil War. “Gibran in the Horizons of Drawing,” although long overdue, is worth the wait.
The exhibition is a collaboration between Nicola Sursouk’s Museum and the Museum of Gibran, which is located in his hometown, Bsheri, in northern Lebanon. The combined efforts of the two museums produced a display of more than 150 works, including paintings and drawings. The exhibition reveals Gibran as a true artist. Painting was not a secondary interest or a hobby supplementing his literary career, as some believe; rather, he established a complementary relationship between his literary vision and artistic representations.
The Sursouk Museum exhibition presents Gibran’s works on two floors. On the first, Gibran’s home studio in New York–his artistic and working environment–is recreated, reproducing the seat and the table he used. Gibran’s drawings and paintings are displayed in a spacious hall on the second floor.
The museum organized the collection, which includes oil, watercolor, pencil and other media, around the stages of Gibran’s artistic life between 1900 and 1930, from Paris to New York. The Gibran Museum made these works available, drawing on its many years of acquisitions and documentation. After touring the exhibition and examining Gibran’s works that are exhibited elsewhere, one realizes that no other Arab artist is as thoroughly and precisely documented. Nonetheless, Arab art books have omitted or neglected Gibran almost entirely.
This lack of recognition in Arab art scholarship may be the result of the artist’s international literary fame overshadowing his art, and secondarily of the fact that much of his art work is in the museum that carries his name, located some distance from Beirut. For whatever reason, unsuspecting and astonished visitors examine Gibran’s exhibited works, appreciating their artistic level. Gibran was also more prolific than they might expect: the exhibited collection includes only a small part of Gibran’s paintings and drawings, with 440 works in the Gibran Museum and 180 of those permanently displayed for the public.
Introducing the Sursouk Museum Exhibition’s book, Sylvia Ajamian, historian and creator of this exhibition, explains that there were many possible methods of organizing this exhibition. For example, it could have been arranged thematically, based on the subjects of Gibran’s works during a 30-year period. When one examines the subjects independently–if this is possible–from the artistic treatments and means, one can see the recurring themes of duality, the condition of the family or of individual humans, and bodies of animal length (the horse and others). A more studious and thoughtful approach to the works reveals a stability and continuity in Gibran’s works, as if Gibran kept drawing the same thing or drawing from the same vision, approaching paintings with the same method, without significant changes over the years.
This repetition becomes especially clear when examining the differences between the drawings, paintings, and watercolors. Gibran used pencil in drawing both ideas and human faces, an approach marked by deliberate planning, craft, and precision. One observes this in a series of drawings, including Gibran’s own face, the face of Amin al-Rihani, and others, all of which appear absorbed and contemplative as in his photographic pictures. These drawings are somewhat timebound, as Gibran has drawn a face at a particular moment, appearing in a traditional position consistent with photographic pictures in the early decades of the last century. Yet his drawings somehow breach time and prevail over it, despite adhering to a visible stereotype.
Gibran’s artistic focus changes significantly when it comes to painting and watercolors. His paintings are a creative record of their subjects and all links to time are totally severed. Gibran derives the subjects of his oil and watercolor paintings from his overall visions rather than his own vision, from his perceptions of the world and man instead of his own life experiences. Thus he paints all bodies completely naked, a symbolic nudity. With few exceptions, Gibran’s works do not include furniture or other trappings of the man-made world, but all unfold in a neutral space lacking materiality or worldliness, appearing to the viewer as a gradual color backdrop dominated by quiet darkness.
Even the naked figures in the paintings possess a transcendent quality, and some of them are of a “perplexing” gender, exhibiting no distinguishing qualities–even the long hair could belong to both man and woman. Man appears without sexual identity; Gibran documents mankind’s state pre-and post-sex, before and after humans are limited by form! The naked, regardless of sex, appear young and vigorous. He rarely portrayed an elderly body, nor wrinkled, bruised, or injured ones. Instead, they are absorbed in agitations beyond the physical realm, showing only invisible worries, with closed eyes devoted to their internal lives.
What Gibran shows us cannot be seen; instead, it is an invisible touch like that of the wind on the waves. A few exceptions have explanatory titles. One is a painting in which the naked form appears with more than one foot and hand, moving in a circular direction that gives the body an active force, thrusting its vitality at the viewer. Gibran calls this painting “The Transcendence,” or “Sublimation.” Another painting, in which one body separates from another body, is called “Let Me Go,” a name that is stronger and more revealing. Perhaps this is Gibran’s message to the painting: “Let me go to something transcending the painting itself.”
Gibran’s vision portrayed in his art transcends the works themselves, and this is what makes him modernist. He did remain separate from the artistic scene, both in Paris where he studied painting and in New York where he practiced his art, painting, and exhibiting and publishing his drawings. Nonetheless, we can establish a connection between his naked figures and his hoisted and erected structures and classical European sculpture, or between his scenery colors and German Expressionism, in which colors depart from their realisic functions. The theme of man’s solitude in nature mirrors many similar romantic ideas common in European tradition. These comparisons remain implicit, buried within the work leaving Gibran’s visions as the primary force in his work.
The titles of Gibran’s completed paintings reveal this focus: he does not ambiguously signal the subject of the painting, leaving it open for wide interpretation. Instead, he openly suggest his own reading of the work, a reading he wants the viewer to embrace. Painting is a means to support his complex visions, hinted by the simple movements and forms of Gibran’s figures. His paintings and drawings speak through the figures, whether they are standing (or dancing, lying down, or sitting), or through their facial expressions (often they have closed eyes), and the movement of bodies among each other, whether cuddling, separated, or dancing together. Gibran has expertly portrayed the inner human by their bodies’ appearances.
One could interpret this primacy of the meaning to indicate that his painting has a literary basis, whose truth is cognitive and doctrinal but cloaked with form and color, and that this was Gibran’s intention, especially when he combines drawings and text in “The Prophet.” However, this assertion overlooks the important fact that Gibran also neglected literature–according to this criteria–in favor of the vision that he demanded literature perform. This attitude weakens the creative act, whether in literature or art, by assuming a statement of truth or other message from the artist. As in Gibran’s case, the artist establishes a world transcending their physical output, a world formed from the sum of possessing and disposing of the world’s materials, subjects, studies and sensitivities, and traditions. From this perspective, the artist ceases to be the proficient and skilled agent in an imposed type of art, and instead the subjects and the means are at his disposal. He is free to act upon them, owning them and dispensing with them according to his taste and necessities. The artist controls what he does and becomes inseparable from what he creates.
In this melding of artist and output we confirm Gibran as a pioneering modernist—the first modernist in Arab culture’s literary and artistic spheres.
Translated and edited from the Arabic by Elie Chalala. The article was adapted from a review the author published in Al Hayat and from phone conversations between the author and the translator. The author granted Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate, edit, and publish this article.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 30 (Winter 2000)
Translation Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid