BEIRUT: The first time Octavian Esanu heard the name Khalil Saleeby was a few months ago, when he was hired to become the American University of Beirut’s first curator of modern and contemporary art.
A Moldovan-born, American-educated art historian, Esanu specializes in Russian conceptualism before and after 1989. His interest lies principally in the contemporary period. Prior to taking on the AUB position, his knowledge of art in Lebanon was vast but limited to work made and shown since the mid to late 1990s.
With the first major exhibition ever devoted to Saleeby’s work, Esanu has become something of an expert in a turn-of-the-last-century painter whose story is tragic but whose work is rarely seen and little known.
“A show like this needs six months to prepare,” he says. “We’ve had to stay days and nights.”
Esanu had barely six weeks to organize “Khalil Saleeby (1870-1928): A Founder of Modern Art in Lebanon,” opening Tuesday at the new AUB Art Gallery.
The nuts and bolts of assembling the show – conceiving, exploring and articulating the concept; testing different organizing principles; selecting, framing and hanging the paintings; writing the texts, printing the labels and throwing everything onto the walls – has taken place in a radically reduced timeframe. In many ways, though, this exhibition has been in the works for decades.
In January, AUB announced that a relative of the artist, octogenarian ophthalmologist Samir Saleeby, had decided to give the school his entire family art collection (both he and his artistic forebear were university alumni).
Named for the donor’s parents, the collection – intact and untouched for 80 years – consists of 65 paintings. Most of them are by Saleeby but a handful are by his students, peers and predecessors, including Omar Onsi, Cesar Gemayal, Saliba Douaihy and Mustapha Farroukh.
It is an art historical treasure with only one disfiguring factor: It’s a relentless boys’ club without a single so-called lady painter in the lot. That said, the bulk of the collection has been gorgeously restored by Lucia Scalisi, a veteran conservator of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, who has been in Lebanon off and on for eight months now.
“There are all sorts of secrets and inscriptions in the paintings,” she says, from under-painting and brushwork to Saleeby’s penchant for using turquoise to highlight fleshtones. “That’s why my job is so privileged. No one comes closer to the work.”
The Saleeby deal has been on the table (and through the emotional ups and downs of numerous committees) for years, but it took the reactivation of AUB’s fine art and art history department six years ago – alongside the coming of sympathetic faculty, young blood and a high-level administrator with considerable foresight – to make it happen.
Now the Saleeby collection – of which the current exhibition offers an initial glimpse – is holding AUB’s newfound commitment to the visual arts in place.
That commitment includes, as a first step, the opening of the AUB Art Gallery. This 200-square-meter exhibition space, rehabilitated by the architect Raed Abillama, is located on the ground floor of the Mayfair Residence, an off-campus women’s dormitory on Sidani Street, off Hamra.
Subsequent stages include a slightly larger exhibition space for contemporary art in Ada Dodge Hall, expected to be up and running in a year. A substantially bigger exhibition space in Post Hall – above AUB’s Archeology Museum, which will require major renovations – is scheduled for completion in 2020.
“When I arrived at AUB five years ago, there were four studio art majors. Now there are 30,” says AUB professor Henri “Rico” Franses, currently the associate chair of the art history and studio art department. It sounds like good news, but Franses can still count the number of art history majors on one hand.
“People get what being an artist is,” he continues. “Art history means less. Why study it when you can do it? With new museums and art spaces [at the university], it will start to make more sense. The objects and spaces are the currency through which the art world conducts its business. We need that currency in circulation.”
One thing that makes curating an exhibition of Saleeby’s work so difficult – the lack of serious, extant art historical research – overlaps exactly with AUB’s emerging mission in the field.
“I tried to place the work in a context that would encourage a bit of scholarship,” says Esanu, who scoured university libraries on two continents and found very little material of value.
“In this place,” he adds matter-of-factly, “the institution of art has not developed with all the parts and all the mechanisms in place.”
Esanu composed a timeline and separated the exhibition’s 20-odd paintings into three sections.
“The first section is Saleeby’s special, tender relationship with his American wife, Carrie. We tried to be a bit romantic about it. Another is dedicated to the nudes, which everyone seems very interested in” – so interested, in fact, that four of them are missing, on loan to Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe – “And another is the portraits, from intellectuals and professors to farmers, where the artist turns his gaze on all strata of society.”
The first two sections fill the ground-floor galleries while the portraits – of figures known and unknown – wind around the walls of the lower floor. Two large, slightly garish interiors of a palace in Cairo seem somewhat out of place here.
In his curatorial statement, Esanu emphasizes the drama that underscores Saleeby’s work.
Originally from the village of Btalloun, Saleeby began drawing with matchsticks as a boy and then set out on path that brought him to Beirut, Edinburgh (where he studied with John Singer Sargent), Philadelphia (where he met his future wife and lifelong muse), Paris, London and back to Beirut.
He was successful enough as a painter in Lebanon to buy a house in his ancestral village, which didn’t go down well with the locals. Saleeby and his wife were murdered outside the gates to AUB by village thugs from Btalloun in a dispute over water resources.
“The tragic story is the salt and pepper of the show,” says Esanu. “Okay, the dispute was about water but a lot of ideas came up in the trial. The people who were against him called him a pervert ...” – Saleeby was possibly the first Lebanese artist in history to paint nudes – “They said he perverted young girls, that his wife was a stranger ... The judge said no, he’s a genius; he’s bringing in fresh ideas; he’s bringing modern ideas into a traditional society.”
It seems like fascinating if ancient history, but the collection’s donor warned Esanu not to make too much of it. “Those conflicts that are a hundred years old,” he said, “still go on.”
“Khalil Saleeby (1870-1928): A Founder of Modern Art in Lebanon” opens on June 12, and runs through the end of the year. For more information, please call 01-353-228 or see www.aub.edu.lb.