BEIRUT: Saqi Books has published a series of monographs on Lebanese artists – one on painter and sculptor Hussein Madi, another on painter and printmaker Mohammad Rawas. The latest figure to be placed in Saqi’s firmament of artists is Chaouki Chamoun, who earlier this year filled the expanse of the Beirut Exhibition Center with a stunning array of paintings.
“The Art and Life of Chaouki Chamoun” is aptly named. Written in the first person, its textual component is conversational and engaging, a blend of autobiography, entertaining anecdote and observations about art and the creative process. It sketches an outline of Chamoun’s life while leaving the more personal details tastefully obscure.
As the title suggests, it is art, not biographical detail, which is the primary focus here, not only by virtue of the volume’s 322 high-quality color illustrations, but in the text, which recounts the events of Chamoun’s life only as they relate to his work and artistic development. This is not an autobiography. It is an exploration of how and where art and life intersect.
Chamoun paints a tender picture of childhood in his beloved Bekaa Valley. He describes how his parents – neither of whom attended school, leaving his mother illiterate and his father to scrape together his knowledge of letters from colleagues in the army – were determined that Chamoun, their eldest son, would have a good education.
His father succumbed to his pleas to be sent to boarding school, despite his inability to pay. Instead he struck a deal with the headmaster whereby, in lieu of cash, the fees were paid via deliveries of beans, corn and other crops. Later, Chamoun took on a position as art teacher at the school in exchange for the education of two of his younger brothers.
Chamoun says he did not see a painting other than religious iconography until the age of 12. Yet, taking night classes in architectural drawing and correspondence courses with an art school in London, the artist worked his way toward an art degree at the Lebanese University. He enrolled there in 1968, at the age of 26.
The artist charts the evolution of his relationship to art, from a fascination with drawing at school to his first experiments with oil paint, to his gradual immersion in a wider world of art history and the modernist movement burgeoning around him at university.
He recalls an encounter with prominent Lebanese modernist Aref Rayyes, a teacher – though not one of Chamoun’s – at the Lebanese University, who came across the young artist working late in the studio and introduced him to the basics of cubism. This was the catalyst for a new way of perceiving art.
“I began to feel the weight of real creation,” Chamoun writes, “not the mere depiction of things: a shift from seeking traditional techniques of perspective, modelling and foreshortening to a free play with shapes, colors and lines stressing the two-dimensionality of the painting.”
Readers are able to trace the visual evidence of the process Chamoun describes via color plates, whose numbers are marked alongside certain lines of text. These images illustrate the artist’s shift from accomplished portraits and accurately rendered still lifes, to a more experimental approach toward composition and form, inspired by his love of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
From here on, Chamoun’s rise is meteoric. A postgraduate class swiftly followed by a PhD at institutions in New York, financed by a scholarship from the Lebanese University, were interspersed with visits to the Bekaa – whose landscapes formed the basis of the Riverbed series he pursued during his studies. Vistas of Lebanon have remained a presence in his work for the past four decades.
Chamoun discusses his private life only when it has profoundly influenced his work. A short-lived first marriage to an unnamed mystery woman, for example, is mentioned in passing once it is over.
By contrast his second marriage to a woman named Leila, with whom Chamoun says he fell in love at first sight, is described in some detail. After Chamoun’s younger brother Kozhaya disappeared during the Civil War, he lost his will to paint. His depression lifted only with his marriage to Leila and a series of drawings of his new wife that helped the artist rediscover his creativity and love of art.
From this point on, it is the book’s beautifully rendered imagery that provides real insight into Chamoun’s artistic journey. Those familiar with the artist’s more recent work will enjoy witnessing the gradual introduction of some of the distinctive elements in his contemporary practice.
Among these are the line of tiny spectators at the bottom of his canvasses, dwarfed by dramatic land- city- and skyscapes, and the introduction of a simple rectangle into the middle of a canvas, providing a focal point, a frame within a frame.
“The Art and Life of Chaouki Chamoun” is an engaging and beautifully produced book, likely to appeal to anyone seeking to know more about an artist whose production spans six decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
“The Art and Life of Chaouki Chamoun,” edited by Brian Prescott-Decie, is published by Saqi Books and is available to purchase from the Beirut Exhibition Center.