One artist’s colorful ode to warmth

BEIRUT: The works of Lebanese artist Fatima El Hajj have been cropping up at Saifi’s Alwane Gallery periodically since 1988. The 42 oil-on-canvas works now on display in her untitled solo exhibition at the gallery celebrate the artist’s mastery of brushstroke and color. The works mingle Hajj’s exploration of Western approaches to representing nature and her Middle Eastern origins.

At first blush, “Liseuse” (Reader, 114 x 89 cm) could be a formalist red stucco panel. After a second, however, it’s obvious that the rectangular black smear beset by splashes of bright reds, yellows and greens is solidly representative.

The black blotch resolves into a cat sitting on the floor, head tilted at the oblique as though it were rubbing against the object behind it. That object is, based on her breasts, a long-haired, bare-chested woman reclined with a book or magazine in hand.

Unlike her reading material and her feline – and the floral cluster above and before her – the woman’s form blends naturally into the red hues and textures of her room. It’s as if sunset had taken possession of her sunroom after a day of, well, reading.

Hajj studied art in Paris and Saint Petersburg and nowadays teaches art at the Lebanese University. Her works are marked with a wide use of intense color. Her detailed brushstrokes are sometimes delicate, other times more robust. Her embrace of warm colors and simplified characters suggests some characteristics of Fauvism.

“El Hajj’s works are inhabited,” observed Alwane gallerist Odile Mazloum, “but without aggressing the viewers’ eyes.”

In Hajj’s “Festival” (150x150 cm) the paint is so liberally applied that the figures stand out from the canvas like a bas relief. As you might expect for a depiction of nighttime, blues and greys predominate, but only to set off the blotches of vibrant red, green, yellow and burgundy – each depicting an individual reveler or clutching couple.

Though its style is completely different, “Festival” is oddly reminiscent of Matisse’s 1910 icon “The Dance,” which depicts several nude figures dancing about in a ring. Hajj shares Matisse’s palette – intense, warm colors, though she favors the extreme edge of that – and an interest in primitive figures in primordial movement.

Even more than is the case with “Liseuse,” Hajj’s “Violoncelle” (170x90 cm) exudes color with such enthusiasm that the human figure is suffused in it. While the cello is the one clearly depicted image, it’s evident that the thin-lined silhouettes in white, yellow and blue represent the forms of human figures – performers and spectators reclined, as if on pillows – sometimes graced with a blotch of skin tone or blue, sometimes engulfed in red.

Background or context is even more important in our perception of the figures than the figures themselves.

With the two-canvas work “Mur en Automne” (A Wall in Autumn, 240x60 cm), the artist’s patchwork of warm reds, oranges and yellows transports you, as if into a vista opening up as you crest a hill. Embraced by the tranquility of this late-impressionist scene, this wall of autumn could be seen as a call to quietness and silence.

Fatima El Hajj’s works are up at Saifi’s Alwane Gallery until March 22. For more information, please call 01-975-250.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 13, 2012, on page 16.




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