Tropical idylls dreamed up in Jezzine

BEIRUT: Every few years, Belgian painter Pascal Courcelles travels to Lebanon and makes a journey up into the mountains of Jezzine. In an atelier owned by gallerist Alice Mogabgab, he spends eight to 10 weeks creating riotously colorful canvasses, on which thick swirls of acrylic paint capture the beauty of flowers, birds and insects, many inspired by the southern Lebanese countryside.

Courcelles doesn’t just take his subject matter from his surroundings; he also works with materials scavenged from the mountainside. His richly textured paintings bear traces of fine sand and rich red earth, dug from the fields nearby and mixed in with his paints to create unique shades and textures.

The artist’s work is currently on show for the third time at Mogabgab’s Ashrafieh gallery, but this time it’s not alone. Mogabgab has chosen to exhibit the work as part of her “Correspondances” series, in which she pairs the work of a fine artist with that of a writer.

Accompanying Courcelles paintings are fragments of “A Terres d’Ailes” (In the Land of Wings), a lengthy poem by Paris-based Lebanese poet Clara Calvet.

Calvet’s poem is darker and more introspective than Courcelles’ bright, tropical canvasses. A meditative series of short verses, it is at once descriptive and opaque. Mogabgab has paired verses from Calvet’s poem with each painting, matching a mood, a color or an emotion to tie the two together.

“Fold it/ As you hear it/ That which is mysterious to us,” run the opening lines of Calvet’s poem. Mogabgab has paired these words with a triptych of warm red, orange and yellow butterflies and blossoms against a peach-hued backdrop, one of Courcelles’ more minimalist works.

Elsewhere, a peaceful scene capturing water lilies floating on the surface of a blue expanse of water is accompanied by the lines: “Each story began on the lake/ With the rain.”

Courcelles’ three water lily paintings cannot help but recall Claude Monet, the French master of impressionism with whom the flowers will perpetually be associated.

Yet, as Mogabgab says, Courcelles’ work is earthier. Its matte textures and thick swirls of paint draw the finger as much as the eye, rendering the work almost sculptural.

By contrast, Monet’s peaceful scenes with their dancing reflections and ethereal light seem to belong to another world, to be admired from afar.

From a distance, Courcelles’ work appears unsubtle and garish, the bright colors and simple compositions overpowering the detail. It’s when his work is viewed from close-to that the skill and subtlety of his technique can be appreciated.

Over his base coat of thick, sandy paint, Courcelles applies liberal daubs of neat acrylic. Rising an inch from the canvas in places, these swirls of paint retain a shiny quality, as though still wet. Vibrant, jewel-like colors are skillfully marbled together. A single thick stroke of the palette knife might deposit up to six individual colors onto the canvas, creating wavering stripes that from close up resemble a rainbow and from a distance resolves themselves into the wings of a butterfly.

Individual blooms might recall those scattering the Lebanese countryside, but paired with the artist’s fanciful menagerie of birds, moths and dragonflies, they take on a much more exotic hue. Calvet’s poetry, full of images of the gradual onset of darkness, the weight of a late-summer afternoon or the complex emotions raised by the fleeting beauty of a flower that will soon wither and die, takes the work in a more complex direction.

“Correspondances: A Terres d’Ailes” is an interesting chapter in Mogabgab’s initiative to pair words and imagery. Placed side-by-side, the poetry influences readings of the painting and vice versa. Lending Courcelles’ cheery palette a melancholy edge, Calvet’s words take on new resonance when placed next to the painter’s lighthearted celebrations of nature.

As an added bonus, those who find the prospect of reading swathes of esoteric verse off-putting might find that it’s altogether more digestible when broken down into bite-size chunks.

“Correspondances: A Terres d’Ailes” is on show at Galerie Alice Mogabgab in Ashrafieh until Nov. 28. For more information, please call 01-204-984.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 29, 2014, on page 16.




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