BEIRUT: With just over 100 works of art covering just under 100 years of history, the sprawling “Art from Lebanon: Modern and Contemporary Artists, Volume 1, 1880-1975” opened last week at the Beirut Exhibition Center.
Awaited for months and heavily attended on the opening night, there hasn’t been an exhibition in Beirut of such size, scope or grandstanding ambition in decades. Yet for a show with such a serious, clear-sighted and plainly stated intention, it moves from work to work in a manner that is wildly inconsistent when it comes to quality, selection and curatorial sense of purpose.
Organized to mark the publication of a book by the same name, “Art from Lebanon” flips the usual exhibition-with-catalogue relationship. In this case, the book constitutes the main event, narrating the history of art in Lebanon from the turn of last century through the outbreak of the most recent Civil War.
Edited by Nour Salamé Abillama and Marie Tomb, the publication builds on four years of research, and, as part of the process, the authors created an unprecedented image bank of 5,000 artworks from 80 public and private collections. Such a database carries great weight in a country with no modern art museum.
Still, the book is in many ways an absurd object. Clocking in at more than 400 pages, it weighs as much as a concrete block and costs an obscene $95, which prices out the entire student population who would most benefit from this monster.
The venerable Amin Maalouf, author of historical novels and digestible polemics, dashed off a brief but effective introduction. A small army of scholars contributed breathless texts that race through facts, dates and various turning points while foreshadowing everywhere the impending second, more fashionable, volume on the contemporary period.
The trouble is, the art historians and management consultants behind “Art from Lebanon,” who previously published two volumes of the vanity title “Dream Homes of Lebanon,” will never get to the cusp of the contemporary moment by writing the story of art as if paintings and sculptures were the only art forms that ever existed. Those dots do not and will not connect.
To flip through the pages of the book or walk through the approximated hallways of the exhibition is to find oneself in a world without films, without photographs, without the push and pull of other disciplines, without the bleed or rupture of other art forms.
Experimentation here is strictly academic, never avant-garde. When the authors catch a glimpse of the future, they see an unbroken line of Sunday painters, and a vision of Beirut that simply deletes the city’s most compelling artists and artworks since the 1990s from view.
The book and the exhibition are bizarrely unsure of when, exactly, they are supposed to end, stopping at 1950 here, staggering past 1975 there, and then tumbling into a great, dense collage that came fresh from Mohammad El Rawas’ studio two weeks ago.
This raises the obvious question of where to draw the line between modern and contemporary, which might have been an interesting place to start but doesn’t do much as an issue left muddled and unresolved.
“Art from Lebanon” offers up a constellation of art historical lodestars – such as Omar Onsi’s magisterial “Women at an Exhibition,” from 1935; Khalil Saleeby’s mesmerizing “Nude,” from 1922, a portrait of his wife and muse, her back to the viewer, her body arranged in a charged yet awkward pose; Cesar Gemayel’s curious “Christine,” an odalisque with her arm draped over her face out of shyness, flirtation or exasperation, from 1940; and Moustafa Farroukh’s garish but grimly important portrait of an unveiled woman, from 1929.
While they gesture at themes and categories, neither the exhibition nor the book proposes a thesis or pursues an argument. There are great stories to be told but they remain anecdotal, subsumed here by two huge currents, one chronological, the other biographical.
In truth, “Art from Lebanon” is a mean, sluggish spill from the 19th century through today. It courses through much of the same materials and organizing principles as earlier books, such as Edouard Lahoud’s “L’Art Contemporain au Liban.” It makes too much of the artists – their names, lives, social backgrounds and character traits – at the expense of meaningful engagement with their work.
This comes across most embarrassingly in the ladies club that is laid out at the center of the exhibition. In Lebanon, in 2012, is there any justification at all in grouping together Etel Adnan, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Helen Khal, Yvette Achkar, Nadia Saikali, Juliana Seraphim, Huguette Caland and Laure Ghorayeb – for no other formal or contextual reason than that they are women?
Is this not a terrible example of backsliding in a country that has long prided itself on a better gender balance, however false or delusional?
Moreover, none of these artists are represented in the show by particularly good works.
Adnan’s accordion folded artists’ books are beautiful, striking things, and the ink and watercolor drawing from 1973, of the mountain she has painted over and over again for years, is rare. But the authors and organizers of “Art from Lebanon” seem ignorant of the outstanding year Adnan has had (in the book’s formulaic list of exhibitions and prizes, for example, no mention is made of her participation in this year’s Documenta).
Choucair, too, has been shortchanged by a bronze sculpture and an abstract painting on masonite. There is much more to her work than this.
The same can be said of formidable and quixotic talents such as Hussein Madi, Rafic Charaf, Amine El Bacha and Aref El Rayess. These are artists with deeply complicated legacies who grew and changed and tested different styles. Indeed some, such as Madi, still do so today.
The greater art historical effort demands a comprehensive survey and a brutal edit, not a token canvas thrown alongside an average sculpture. Viewers are left with orphaned artworks, like a vocabulary without grammar.
Still, there are moments of brilliance. One emerges from a sequence of paintings by Saliba Douaihy, all landscapes that show the staggered stages of his transition from realism to expressionism to hard-edge abstraction.
Another comes from “Exultation,” a riotous, De Kooning-esque canvas from 1968 by Halim Jurdak. Another still comes from a fascinating selection of paintings by Khalil Zgaib, a so-called outsider artist with an abiding affection for radically collapsed compositional planes, whose work is in dire need of a monograph and a retrospective.
Yet another comes from a glimmering essay in the book by the photographer, teacher and art historian Gregory Buchakjian, who casts aside all the pretense and pomposity of the project to compose, after André Malraux, his own musée imaginaire.
Using a thoughtful selection of works – almost all of which are privately held and known to us only through rumor and books – Buchakjian pieces together a delicate but deliberate story that winds through artists studios and historical episodes with ease. Using art as a narrative trigger, he also asks something of us, which is to imagine a little more for the future from the place where we live today.
“Art from Lebanon: Modern and Contemporary Artists, Volume I, 1880-1975” remains on view at the Beirut Exhibition Center through Dec. 9. For more information, please call 01-962-000 or visit www.beirutexhibitioncenter.com.