LONDON: In the spring of 1951, the Lebanese ambassador to France ducked into a Paris gallery to see the debut exhibition of a young artist from Beirut. At the time, Ahmad Daouk was between two stints as prime minister: the first under the French Mandate, the second for just three months under Fouad Chehab.
He took a quick tour of Galerie Colette Allendy, which was known for supporting the postwar avant-garde, and loved for showing the likes of Jean Arp, Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Picabia and Pablo Picasso. (The owner, Allendy, was herself a painter who had studied under Juan Gris.)
The space was filled with colorful gouaches and bold geometric paintings. The artist responsible for producing them was a former apprentice to the Lebanese painters Mustapha Farroukh and Omar Onsi. She was also a student of Fernand Léger, a fan of Le Courbusier and a like and equal mind to the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi and the Syrian poet Adonis.
In the context of such a strong and striated cosmopolitanism, the early work of one of Lebanon’s most pioneering abstract artists couldn’t have seemed particularly odd or out of place. Allendy’s list was decidedly international, cascading through different classes, nationalities and ethnicities. Her exhibition program likewise splashed around in a vast pool of styles, subjects, topical politics and formalist concerns.
Still, the ambassador was apparently disappointed and confused. “Your type of work is curious,” he said to the artist. “Have you not done any Lebanese works for us?”
Skip ahead five decades to the present, and the gaping chasm between the country’s artists and politicians hasn’t been bridged any better. Money and the enticements of emerging markets have muddied the space between them, but who could really explain to an ambassador today why Daouk’s question was so hopeless, or to a painter how he could be forgiven for being stuck in issues of “authenticity” and understanding nothing of the “new art.”
Over the next six months, similar questions are likely to be raised and debated and ricochet around the region as London’s Tate Modern mounts the first retrospective exhibition outside of Lebanon for that very same artist, now an inimitable nonagenarian named Saloua Raouda Choucair.
Curated by Jessica Morgan and Ann Coxon, the show covers four solid decades, from the 1940s through the 1980s. The paintings range from a quasi-cubist self-portrait that Choucair made in 1943 – the exhibition’s opening gambit – to her entangled figures, abstracted nudes and dazzling exercises in geometric repetition and variation.
The sculptures include all of Choucair’s major typologies, with her early “interforms” and “trajectories” mixed in with her “poems” and “duals.” Off to one side, there is a dedicated room for the strange, centrifugal works in Plexiglas, metal and nylon thread, which the artist began working on in the 1970s for the Salon de Mai in Paris.
Although Choucair worked in a range of media, the retrospective doesn’t overdo it with the jewels, ceramics and carpets. In a series of display cases that riff on the organizational architecture of her studio, there is a representative ring, a set of salt and pepper shakers, sketches for tapestries and examples of book cover designs.
Morgan and Coxon avoid the over-the-top excess that marred a bigger retrospective at the Beirut Exhibition Center in 2011. The chief difference between the two shows is the presence and absence of curatorial thought, along with a sharp eye for editing out anything extraneous to a given theme or a specific line of inquiry.
The exhibition at Tate Modern features 131 works, and still it feels intimate, filling just four neutral rooms. The arrangement is highly sensitive to the materials and to the spatial relations among the works. Where they belong chronologically on the timeline of the artist’s life is clear enough from the wall tags.
The works’ placement seems to have been determined more by touch and by form, and guided by background narratives that are tied to the artist’s broader contexts – architecture, Sufism, the history of Islamic art, Mediterranean modernism, Beirut’s cultural resilience and Lebanon’s political collapse. Most impressive is the genuine ambition to muscle Choucair into the canon of international modernism and abstract art.
On a quiet day, the retrospective leads into another exhibition, called “Structure and Clarity,” which is part of a dynamic rehang of Tate Modern’s permanent collection.
From Choucair’s mysterious curves and emotionally interlocking parts, one wanders into a gooey abstraction by Piet Mondrian and delicate, sculptural grids by Gertrud Goldschmidt, a German artist known as Gego who lived most of her life in Venezuela.
Further along one finds Dan Flavin, Julio Gonzalez and Zarina Hashmi, a fine mix of very well known and totally obscure artists, including a century’s worth of international abstractionists: Europeans, Americans, Arabs in South America and more. It feels worldly, and inclusive.
This is not to everyone’s taste, of course. Already, the reviews of Choucair’s show in the British press have been telling. For The Guardian, Adrian Searle is generous, curious and capacious, calling Choucair’s exhibition “small, dense and often beautiful” while offering a hawkeyed assessment: “She is – from a European perspective – a minor modern artist.”
The Independent, meanwhile, calls out the Tate for “walking on postcolonial eggshells,” and The Financial Times deems Choucair “neither innovative nor especially arresting,” dismissing the museum’s recent work on overlooked late modernists, particularly women, and asking for shows of Hans Josephsohn and Leo Kossoff instead.
All of which brings to mind not only an anecdote about a clueless ambassador but also a heated debate, which the late critic Thomas McEvilley kicked up more than a decade ago.
“The range of art that could enter into art history,” he wrote of the 1950s and 60s, “was limited to, basically, abstract paintings out of Paris or New York by white male artists.”
The situation loosened up with the pluralism of the 1970s and the regionalism of the 1980s, and was broken open by the globalism of the 1990s. Shifts in historical narratives, along with the value judgments that once held them in place, are violent and destabilizing, McEvilley suggested, but they also illuminate a better future.
Saloua Raouda Choucair deserves credit for instigating those shifts over and over again. How lucky we are to encounter her work and accept her demands on our time, our thinking and our understanding of art.
“Saloua Raouda Choucair” is on view at Tate Modern in London through October 20. For more information, please call 44-207-887-8888 or visit www.tate.co.uk.