BEIRUT: The day before her 82nd birthday, Huguette Caland had no interest in repeating herself. In Lebanon to attend the opening of the first retrospective exhibition of her work, the artist is an intriguing character.
Welcoming, remarkably modest and refreshingly unpretentious, she is not interested in discussing the merit, meaning or motifs in her work. She prefers to leave that to the viewer. After an artistic career spanning half a century, Caland says, all the questions have been asked, and all the answers given.
“I’m not a good judge of my work,” she says firmly. “I only work and it’s up to all of you to judge and to see. You have eyes and you have a tongue – you have a mind. I have only my hands serving me, and voila!”
“Huguette Caland: Works 1964-2012,” currently on show at the Beirut Exhibition Center, has assembled over 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings and clothes created by the artist since 1964.
The exhibition is curated by Nadine Begdache and Brigitte Caland, the artist’s daughter. The duo has made good use of the center’s ample space, dividing the enormous hall into sections that help cluster the work into three distinct periods, determined by geographic location.
Caland’s subject matter, style, approach and use of materials vary widely as she experiments, documents and reinvents, and the curatorial approach helps to define the motifs that unify her oeuvre.
The section entitled “1964 to 1970” includes work from the artist’s time in Lebanon, when she lived in Kaslik. “1970 to 1987” includes work from her time in Paris. The most comprehensive section recalls her California period, “1988 until 2012.”
As the geographically determined clustering suggests, the artist has lived a fascinating life. Caland was born in Beirut in 1931, the daughter of Lebanon’s first president, Beshara al-Khoury. As a teenager she loved drawing, but after her marriage in 1952 she focused on raising her three children and nursing her father.
It was only after his death from cancer in 1964 that she sat down to paint again, producing an enormous, fiery red canvas that seems to radiate energy, pulsing not with death or anger but with sheer passion for life.
After completing an art degree at the American University of Beirut, Caland began producing playful, irreverent works, many of them nudes – an unusual choice for a Lebanese woman in the 1960s. She further defied convention in 1970, when she announced she was moving to Paris, leaving her husband and children behind.
The result of the move is immediately apparent. The humor and originality in her works remain – as does focus on the human form – but are more pronounced, as though magnified. A number of pen-and-ink drawings feature crowds of roughly sketched human figures with character-filled – almost caricatured – faces. In some works, Caland has captured a surreal collage of faces, and in others a tangle of naked limbs, heavily lashed eyes and a gleeful abundance of genitalia.
Several paintings seem to invert the character – if not the subject matter – of her sketches. Minimalist and organic, it is the vibrant colors that are most striking in these works, foreshadowing the pieces to come.
Also on display are the kaftans Caland designed while in Paris, as well as sketchbooks and what appear to be diaries. These provide a fascinating glimpse into not only her working process but her personal life. One is open to a handwritten description of her friendship with a woman named Marie-Claire, who is immortalized in a small, but characteristic sketch.
The section of the exhibition from California, where Caland lives today, is the most varied. In spite of new ways of working – such as the endearing figurative papier-mache and wire sculptures, whose shadows dance on the wall as they hang from strings – there are clear thematic and stylistic echoes of her earlier work.
Particularly entertaining is a series of 19 small paintings from 1992 called “Homage to Pubic Hair” – humorous but strikingly graphic depictions of immensely thin women with pronounced thatches of bushy hair on their heads and nether regions.
It is Caland’s “tapestries” which are the highpoint of the exhibition. Enormous swathes of unstretched canvas hang from the exhibition space’s walls and ceiling, painted in rich, earthy colors, overlaid with delicate, painstaking doodles in pen.
These pieces appear abstract from afar, resembling patchwork, but up close they reveal a wealth of tiny and detailed drawings of houses and boats, animals and birds, trees and flowers.
The artist is dismissive of her flair for color.
“The colors?” she says. “They come out of tube. They’re nothing.” But in many ways they seem to fulfill the promise shown by the Parisian paintings three decades earlier, with their more restrained shades.
The subject matter here too echoes earlier work. “Faces and Places 1” combines oblongs of colorful, intricate geometric designs with a central panel dominated by a surreal rendering of what appears to be a head swallowing its own torso, red lips suggestively clutching at the flesh.
The white eyes and featureless face harken back to some of Caland’s paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which feature the same alien-like visages with their enormous white eyes and prominent mouths.
The breathtaking detail in these canvasses must take days or weeks to complete, but Caland is unconcerned with the passing of time.
“For me time is completely flat,” she says.
“I chose to work in a very tedious way and the more time I spend on a piece the better it is. It keeps the mind free and the hands busy. At my age you don’t want anything more than that.”
“Huguette Caland: Works 1964-2012” is on show at the Beirut Exhibition
Center until Feb. 24. For more information please call 01-962-000 or see www.beirutexhibitioncenter.com.