En route to Beirut

No, I didn’t take a detour to Lebanon right after my trip to Nepal! Although I did have a wonderful time there in June 2012 with my Lebanese and non-Lebanese friends 🙂 No, this time, I was at the Tate Modern to see the work of Saloua Raouda Choucair, a female artist, born in 1916 and active in the Beirut art scene from the 1940s.

Although she is a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East, this is her first major exhibition outside Lebanon.

When I don’t know the artist, I first try guessing her/his influences. Choucair trained in Fernand Léger’s studio during her time in Paris. The influence of Léger is subtle and is more evident in the geometric shapes in her abstract work than in representations of women. In Les Trois graces, she draws inspiration from Matisse in the bulky women and colours that dominate. In her later works, I could see the influence of László Moholy-Nagy, a Bauhaus professor.

Her early paintings were typically small formats, with gouache on paper. After figurative nudes, she created harmonies of shades and shapes in abstract paintings that resemble collages that juxtapose colours. I much appreciated her Fractional modules and her Composition in blue for the harmony of colours. However, I think her creativity is better expressed in her sculptures. When she turned later to sculpture, she initially focused on wood (I loved the smell of room 2!). I was enchanted by her wooden sculptures, some of which appeared to be inspired by natural forms recalling Gaudi works – one that made me think of ears listening, one with entwined shapes, another with twisted wood. How marvellous to see such shapes sculpted in wood.

Overall, Choucair’s works display little of her Lebanese background or Middle-Eastern roots, despite the Tate’s handout highlighting Arab calligraphy as one source of inspiration. But then remaining within the artistic boundaries of one’s home borders limits creativity in my view and an artist like Choucair should not be characterised by her native country: she is an international artist. The only trace of Lebanon is a damaged painting by a bombing raid in the 1980 civil war. From the 1970s, she embraced new material, creating what looks like plexiglass caught in a nylon spider web, infusing fragility and strength at the same time. The exhibition has been extended to 17 November 2013.

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