BEIRUT: Humanism “seeks to liberate the universal qualities of human nature from the narrow limitations of blood and soil and class,” British cultural historian Christopher Dawson once said, “and to create a common language and a common culture in which men can realize their common humanity.” The theme of the latest exhibition at Ras Beirut’s American University of Beirut Art Gallery, humanism drove the work of painter Georges Daoud Corm. A contemporary of such Lebanese modernists as Saliba Douaihy, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Paul Guiragossian – the latter the subject of a major retrospective currently on show at the Beirut Exhibition Center – Corm was a European-trained classicist and outspoken dissident to modernism.
“The new Schools of painting ... ,” Corm wrote in his 1966 tract “Essay on the Art and Civilization of this Era,” “have had a ball plagiarizing the uncouth and grimacing statues of the primitive tribes of the five continents and the same with the drawings and colorings of children and schizophrenics.”
The essay is at once a defense of the artist’s own adherence to the humanist ideals of European classicism – the pinnacle of which he believed to be the work of the Renaissance masters – and a scathing critique of various facets of modernism, including abstraction, surrealism and expressionism, which he dismisses as symbolic of the corruptive influences of the materialism exhibited in the dominant ideologies of American consumerism and Leninist communism.
Translated into English and Arabic for the first time, the essay forms the curatorial basis of the AUBAG show’s exploration of Corm’s aesthetic position.
“In this essay he takes a very humanist position,” says the gallery’s permanent curator Octavian Esanu, “arguing that art is only that in which there is human presence. He is very critical ... of all those arts which appeared at around this time, where artists start to erase the human figure from their canvasses.”
The son of Daoud Corm, arguably Lebanon’s first independent professional painter, Georges Daoud Corm (b. 1896) trained in Paris from 1919 to 1921. Returning to Beirut, he eventually married Marie Bakhyt, the daughter of a wealthy cotton broker on the Alexandria Exchange, and moved to Egypt in 1928. He didn’t reside in Beirut again until 1956, but in the interim worked tirelessly to establish a national Lebanese art school and museum.
The works on show at AUBAG are on loan from Corm’s son – economist, intellectual and former finance minister Georges G. Corm – whose collection comprises the work left in his father’s studio after his death, including numerous sketches and studies and experimental and unfinished works.
In the gallery’s ground floor space, Esanu has arranged an accessible selection of the sort of works for which Corm was known, among them some of his nudes – daring for 1920s Lebanon – a selection of beautifully executed charcoal sketches and a number of portraits, one of which is accompanied by two preparatory color studies.
An unfinished painting depicting a trio of faceless nudes betrays Corm’s very European approach to Middle Eastern subjects. Had this image been painted by a visiting French or Italian artist it would doubtless be classified as Orientalist.
Downstairs, a few landscapes, a single still life capturing a glorious bunch of golden carnations and further portraits line two walls of the space, while the rear wall, painted black, is hung with a jumble of unfinished and experimental pieces.
“Since AUB is an academic institution we didn’t want to present this very polished image of an artist,” says Esanu. “We decided to show works which he may not have agreed to show – works, for example, like those on that wall, where you can feel that this is not humanism. This is not classicist. This is not what he’s arguing for.
“So we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why, then, did he paint them?’ Did he want to prove that everyone can make abstraction? That every painter can do surrealism? Or maybe sometimes he wasn’t even sure that his classicist and humanist position makes sense.”
In the center of this cluttered wall, which resembles a pin board on which works have been skewered haphazardly, are two paintings that appear to be surrealist experiments.
One nightmarish scene, rendered in garish shades quite unlike Corm’s usual palette, captures an enormous, predatory woman’s face and two clawed hands hovering above a bizarre landscape in which naked figures enact what looks like a ritual human sacrifice.
“They’re not necessarily the best paintings,” says AUB Galleries director Rico Franses. “Some of them are much less carefully worked and much less carefully finished. It’s kind of an experiment ... related to thinking about this question of humans and dehumanization ... If we were a commercial gallery you could imagine that we’d be hiding them because you don’t want this stuff to be seen, it might affect the valuable of the paintings ... but that’s one of the things we can do as an academic institution.”
Many of the works exhibit signs of aging and damage, the paint beginning to flake off in patches. Franses explains that, again as a result of their academic approach, they chose not to restore them.
“This is the way they’ve come down to us,” he says, “and we’re not scared to put them up on show ... I’m a medievalist. All I look at, all day long, are buildings in ruins and wall paintings that are falling down, so I’m not scared of images that are in a state of decay ... There’s some discussion to be had, still, about to what extent images should be, to my mind, tarted up.”
Displayed alone on the small back wall by the stairs is Corm’s last painting, a portrait left unfinished when he died. Allowing viewers an insight into his working process, it reveals the careful pencil sketch outlining the figure of a man, around which Corm has started to fill in the canvas with rough strokes of brown and black paint.
“Lebanese Painterly Humanism” does not feature Corm’s best – or even his best-known works – but it is a fascinating show for those seeking insight into rarely displayed aspects of an artist’s working process.
Regardless of whether Corm would have approved, this academic exhibition creates a more complete portrait of the artist behind the works than a strictly commercial show would do.
“Georges Daoud Corm 1896-1971: Lebanese Painterly Humanism” is on show until April 19 2014 at American University of Beirut Art Gallery on Sidani Street. For more information please call 01-350-000, ext. 4345.