Between East and West: A Short History of Lebanese Painting

By Carole Corm

Dictionaire de la Peinture au Liban (Dictionary of Painting in Lebanon)
By Michael Fani
Editions de l’Escalier, 1998

In his well-documented dictionary of painting in Lebanon, Michel Fani offers us a sophisticated analysis of the different artists that shaped the Lebanese landscape, from the early painters of the 18th century to the artists of the 1970s. When browsing through this dictionary, the reader might wonder if a unified and coherent history of Lebanese art is possible, and indeed, Fani’s volume would suggest otherwise. His minute research on each significant painter, whether Lebanese or foreign, seems to argue that a clear chronological and teleological approach is impossible. In this mosaic country, with such a great diversity of communities and influences, such an approach would leave out too many artists.

Fani writes, “The history of this painting is the sum of the readings of personal histories. The discrepancy of influences is not so much linked to an evolution or a historical continuity as it is an arbitrary game of influences, of the readings of personal journeys and the vagaries of life.”

Although this statement is true, one can trace the main currents, themes, and institutions that influenced Lebanese painters. In the 19th century, we see the importance of the religious paintings of the Christian communities. From the 17th century onwards priests studied painting and sometimes even went to Italy to perfect their skill. The Maronite Church played a crucial role in the development of a religious iconography which showed a bit of the Italian style. The iconographers did not consider themselves artists but rather as artisans, able craftsmen working for their church. Daoud Corm (1852-1930) is probably the most famous, but the Dib family with Moussa Dib (d. 1826) and Kenaan Dib (d. 1873) is another good example of this current.

The development of art in the Muslim community is no less interesting. The Islamic pronouncement against the representation of images did not stop the development of Arab calligraphy or the “military” paintings of certain officers of the Ottoman Empire who had received an artistic training in Istanbul. Fani sees only one way out of this religious dichotomy: that of portrait painting for the emerging and prospering middle class of Beirut: “It seemed there was no way out between the prohibition of the representation of images in Islam on one side, and Christian iconography on the other, except with the portraits celebrating the burgeoning middle class, executed by the artist through direct commissions.”

The next important group is the artists under the French Mandate (1920-1943). In keeping with the political and intellectual currents of the period, these artists were determined to generate a Lebanese style of painting that would render the folklore and people in idealized views of the country. There was a “Lebanese luminosity,” a “Lebanese bedouin,” and a “typical Lebanese landscape,” all of which formed the thematic base for the painters of the period. Saliba Douaihy (1915-1994), Mustafa Farroukh (1901-1957), César Gemayel (1898-1958) and Omar Onsi (1901-1969) are perfect examples of this movement.

This call to authenticity mirrored the deep desire to form a national Lebanese identity, yet these artists soon saw the limits of such an art and came to an impasse. This impasse became particularly acute when they were confronted with modernist Western art and its precepts, for this was a time when European artists were busy destroying figurative art and its naive images of reality. Lebanese artists who had either trained in Paris or had been taught by French or Italian artists were especially aware of these issues, and though they realized the limits of their approach, it was impossible to fully embrace the Western perspective. They realized that they needed to distance themselves from it and elaborate their own language; most Lebanese artists made a noticeable effort to distinguish themselves from the Western tradition. Although this tension was very important, Fani warns the reader not to limit his or her view of the history of painting in Lebanon to a conflict between Western influences and the pull towards a vernacular Lebanese art.

The next generation of painters, those contemporary to the independence of the Lebanese state, did not solve the East-West problematic either, although one might argue that they made it more complex, realizing that the cultural gap between Paris and Beirut was also a historical one. The period following the Independence saw the “officialization” of the status of artists in Lebanese society; no longer were they mere craftsmen as in the 19th century. This was probably thanks to the opening of two arts schools that would play an essential role in the cultural life of the country. In 1943, César Gemayel and Alexis Boutros founded the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (later known as the ALBA) and in 1954, the American University of Beirut established its Fine Arts Department. Both these institutions added the physical benefit of facilities as well as the less tangible encouragement for a new dynamism to Lebanese artists.

Largely due to the influence of the professors of these institutions, the ideas of modernity and abstraction were making their way in the minds of artists as well as the expectations of the Lebanese buyers. Artists used this new pictorial vocabulary, but, feeling that it was not entirely part of their history, they inserted some elements that would attach it to their personal identity. The resulting style of painting was as concerned with modernity as authenticity. Said Akl (b. 1926) exemplifies this era: he spent seven years in Paris but developed an individual kind of modernism which focused around the aesthetic qualities of Arab calligraphy.  Seta Manoukian’s (b. 1945) comments on Beirut are a good explanation of the interests and motivations of many of the painters of the period: “One must take the elements from Beirut’s reality. One should not be regional, in the strict sense of the term, or folkloric. Many things are linked to the artist’s vision, to the way the eye functions in front of the canvas.” Some went further, and deeming that any kind of regionalism was definitely over, they posed an entirely different question. For example, Saliba Douhaihy, working in New York at the time of its artistic peak, found himself confronted with the issue of what Lebanese artists could bring to international art. 

From this point on, Lebanese art took a more intellectual position, refuting part of its commercial/bourgeois aspect. “It was no longer a matter of bringing the portrait into the library, the landscape into the living room, and the still-life into the dining room. It was a matter of facing painting itself and not its social or commercial destinations.” Yet while the 1950s and 1960s offered the political stability necessary for a Lebanese artistic introspection, the growing politicization of the country and its different communities would increasingly affect the choices of the artists in the decade to come. Interestingly, abstraction and surrealism appeared inadequate to communicate the unstable reality of the country. Artists preferred to turn towards another kind of pictorial language, in which the different forms and hues of reality had a chance to be understood more specifically. This radicalization of the art (which was not always as radical as it hoped to be) was pushing towards a politicized form of art. 

Unfortunately, Fani goes no further and does not deal with the artists and their works dating from the war years. This part needs to be completed and perhaps even more importantly, Lebanese art in the aftermath of the war must be studied. Can we talk of a collective consensus in regards to the artistic treatment of the war, independent of the religious or political leanings of the artist?  Is the art scene as active today? Do the educational structures such as the ALBA and the Fine Arts Department of the AUB still play a significant role? And perhaps on a more pragmatic level, is there still a market for art in today’s Lebanese society?  Although there are many questions that need to be answered in regards to the art scene in the last twenty years, Fani’s dictionary is illuminating up to the mid-1970s. The collection and analysis of Lebanese artists in one volume needed to be done, and Fani has completed a remarkable feat, although one might argue that his treatment and analysis of painting remain quite classical.

This book review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002) 
Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid