Spring 2008 | Gallery

SENSORY EQUATIONS: Pure Visual Art According to Saloua Raouda Choucair



Excerpted from Saloua Raouda Choucair: Her Life and Art, pp. 17-35, Catalogue raisonné (Beirut, Lebanon, 2002). Translated by Kirsten Scheid.[1]


From the beginning, that is (as far as Saloua Raouda Choucair can recall of the young school-girl she was in the 1920s), from her very first contact with the age-old reigning concepts about two- and three-dimensional representation, it seemed that the uphill road to an art which increases one’s isolation the more one persists in it, was a road already carved out for her…as if all that was required of this young girl, who had never in her life glimpsed anything like “that” towards which she was striving with her tranquil obstinacy, was simply to hold on to that which pulled her towards it, seeking only to elucidate its obscurity.

Learning in Choucair’s time was a privilege, especially when it came to girls. The girls of her generation who were so privileged were subjected to an educational program whose orientation — apparently natural given the prevailing male chauvinism of the period — was towards skills complimenting girls’ future roles as respectable mothers and wives, and occasionally as socialites whose hobbies would decorate their parlors and soirées.

The art of painting, one such hobby, was a veritable nightmare for Saloua the schoolgirl, who refused her teacher’s technique based, primarily, on copying a given picture with tracing paper and then coloring in the lines. So it was, year after year, that the young girl Saloua spent her drawing lessons at the doorway, banished for her disobedience.Saloua was not already refusing reality or Nature, but rather, the dependency upon them imposed by her first teacher’s method of using tracing paper. Turning later in her youth to consider the masterful skill at copying reality attained by her predecessors and the mentors of her generation (Omar Onsi and Moustapha Farroukh among others), or that which she would herself acquire by drawing portraits in Lebanon and live models later in a Parisian atelier[2], she finds in this skill nothing but an illusory independence. It is as if her intuition was telling her what the experience of ages had told modern art: the artist is not he who knows how to draw or sculpt or so on, but he who knows how to see.Even the verb “to know” in this context is problematic: he who “knows” how to see is he who sees apart from all preformed knowledge, in other words, who is not guided by a given picture, real or ideal. For vision is a road one journeys (odos), not a method of journeying (methodos).

But let us not jump ahead of ourselves!


The Law of Transparency

The practice of tracing, even as a preparatory method in the teaching of drawing from reality, raises an issue that, contrary to how contingent it may at first appear, is important. Precisely to the degree that this practice was a style or a pedagogical approach in use of which the above-mentioned teacher was not (and would not be) alone, it goes far towards explaining the socio-cultural value judgments that once made it difficult to recognize the originality of Choucair’s art in its singular beginnings and that still mar with a certain misunderstanding the current unanimous tendency among the local elite to appraise her art.

The notion of transparency is deeply rooted in artists’ aesthetics, and in the oral or written literatures that accompany their artwork (not in just our Arab East but in the world as a whole) by extremely tenacious roots regardless of the level of consciousness that conceals or reveals it. Thus, the artwork’s matter must be transparent so that it vanishes before the immaculate appearance of the form, and the form, in its turn, must vanish before the reality that it “pictures” or “represents,” so that it places the viewer in an immediate relationship to this reality. Why does reality itself not vanish before the Ideal? Or the Ideal to disclose the Word that created ex nihilo?

Such a line of questioning simply points to the all-encompassing character of the notion of transparency. It is a measuring-stick suited to both the most extreme realist artistic trends and the most extreme abstract ones as long as the spatio-plastic arts – especially painting and sculpture-remain restricted to the Platonic principle of mimesis, regardless of whether “what” is being imitated stems from an objective reality or a subjective one. Indeed, did not calling abstract pictures “inner landscapes” spread universally in the early days of abstraction, even if only as a justificatory or didactic compromise?

As for the issue of “creation” versus “copying” that transpires here, we must return to it later, for it will prove to be for Choucair the foremost criterion determining the authenticity of abstraction in an art deserving of that name or dissembling it.

If tracing also had the meaning of relating to the closest, for a real artist, the closest lays in the structure, rather than what is structured, in the seeing rather than what is seen.

Tracing paper, be it material or metaphorical, will keep the adult artist, like the young schoolgirl, outside the classroom for nearly half a century. For what I call the law of transparency is still one of the presumptions, conscious or not, that guides most acts, theoretical or practical, relating to Art, on both the part of the artist and the viewer. Every attempt to read an artwork still (largely) assumes implicitly that it is transparent. The perspicacious critic (and all of them are) sees immediately what is behind the artwork. Likewise, I was told by one of the “transparent artists” (and they, too, are all “transparent”) that the critic faces two options: either he can dwell on the form, bringing to it technical generalities that apply to any artist; or, he can deal with the content, applying to it his own semiotics independent of the artwork. How can this corruption in the relationship between the viewer, be he a critic or merely an amateur, and the art but have the foulest of consequences for an artist who in practice refuses the law of transparency?


The Missing Link

This is what explains, in my opinion, the misfiring in the relationship between Choucair and the representatives of the cultural mainstream of her society, throughout the various eras in which the matrices for art evaluation were formed. For on the hand we see her during the period of abstraction’s dissemination (was it fabricated? – a fertile question for every specialist in art history or the social study of art),[3} from the 1960s to the early 1970s, garnering most of the Sursock Museum’s prizes for sculpture[4] – a fortune which did not befall anyone else before or after her – while on the other hand we see the mainstream cultural media treating her with something akin to willful ignorance.

It was ignorance, I rather think, in the sense of lack of knowledge – that Choucair’s art was unknown, not in the sense of not yet known but in the sense of not knowable. As for the recent unanimous recognition of the value of her gifts, it does not result, most of the time, from a new awareness of them, but rather only from an indirect testament to it provided unintentionally by contemporary art history. Little by little, the acquaintance of the audience – the connoisseurs, amateurs, and opinion-holders – with other forms of painting and sculpture resembling hers has increased. Thus her art was no longer innovative to them; it was no longer absolutely alien and incapable of fitting into the available matrices of consciousness and evaluation. And yet, Choucair’s innovation remains intact, just as there remains the state of no-dialogue between her art and the dominant matrices of art-taste and judgment.

Between the old realist vision that supercedes the work to discover that which precedes it, i.e. to its topic, and the pragmatic post-modern vision that supercedes the work to discover that which succeeds it, i.e. to its social or aesthetic impact, it seems the missing link is a temporal one. This is how I would like to understand André Masson’s sad admission: “Few are those who look at a picture in its present tense.” So instead of the vision of artwork always being pre-formed because it springs from what of art history has stuck in memory, as Masson suggests; instead of the vision bypassing the artwork itself for its references whether in art history or in real life; or instead of it abandoning the artwork for its effect on the audience as if that were sufficient, as in Cicero’s appraisal of discourse [5] – “look to how the audience is moved, see the degree of success”: instead of turning one’s back on the artwork after a glance that is always short no matter how long it lasts because it is only a launching point for an infinite leap to what precedes or succeeds the work, there is no escaping plunging into the work itself, into its presence, as a tangible mark, and especially as an act that has its temporality. For such a vision, rare as it is difficult, to occur, there must be something in the artwork that catches it, postpones it before it transforms from visual thinking to conceptual thinking, i.e. discursive thinking. In order for that to exist in the artwork, there must be something that had caught the artist’s eye, something that had banished all transparency and thus permitted the journey to begin in the artwork, not from it.


On transparent Plexiglas, Michel Seuphor [6] etched:


Il faut voir les homes de loin,

Dit le sage, sur l’horizon ils se

Confondent avec le ciel ; mais moi qui

Suis encore naïf je les aime de près

Le ciel de leur regard me fascine

(People must be seen from afar

Said the sage, on the horizon they

Blend with the sky; but I who

Am still naïve, I love them up-close:

They sky of their gaze bedazzles me)

Choucair will use Plexiglas in her sculpture; indeed, she will design see-through fountains and water-jets — that which could be called sculpture of water and sculpture of motion. But in all that she did and does, she will strive to be more naïve, or closer and closer, so that the sky of “their gaze” does not bedazzle her before she sees it and puts it in her art.


Fumbling for Roots

Hence the tableau or sculpture for Choucair, most likely stimulated by the art of architecture[7], was a system of points of view. The genesis of the artwork defines in this way a topos, or utopia[8], for the visual absolute addressed by her art. In such a configuration, there is for the eye neither point of departure nor point of destination beyond the artwork. If seeing what something represents is not to be an obstacle to seeing the thing itself, how can the difficult transition between realistic painting and the reality of painting, or again, between realistic sculpture and the reality of sculpting actually be effected? We ought to grasp a retrospective view of the given conditions of Beirut in the 1940s, a time of fundamental choices for the artist, if we are to learn where it was that she was able to find her answer.

Or more to the point, wherever was it that she able to ask her question!? For all around her then the golden summer of Classicism, softened by pale clouds of Impressionism, unfurled across the Lebanese scene its timid dominance. From the beginning it was already half-dead in the face of photography (first black and white and later hand-tinted) but also, and perhaps particularly, in the face of the indigenous inhabitants’ lack of visual culture. So it was that the role of the “manual image-maker” (as Moustapha Farroukh printed on his business cards to distinguish his art from photography, seeking some special dignity in this new “trade” with its small audience) became one of producing what looked like postcards for the affluent members of the foreign communities or their imitators among the locals. Was it still too early to seek an artist who united Arab genius with the higher lessons of the West?

Choucair remained unsatiated when she sensed the misery of realism in art through her acquaintance with the teaching of two of realism’s local pioneers, Omar Onsi (1901-1969) and Moustapha Farroukh (1901-1957). This realism, without diminishing the value of those two pioneers whose importance was widely acknowledged by their contemporaries [9], made Choucair see a constitutional lack in every realism: forever impoverished because reality cannot but be richer than it; often pitiable because it calls its poverty spirituality, but especially because it does not know all that could be required from Art. All that could be required from Art?! Some kind of intuition [10], closer to an instinctive belonging to a modernism about which she yet knows nothing, led her to find her long-sought object where no one expected it.

Only a few specialized books of limited distribution applied the term “art” to what Choucair saw during her stay of several months in 1943 in Egypt. The museums were closed during that time, due to the war. What she saw in the way of Islamic antiquities was then called, even among cultivated circles, (mere) “ornament.” It was in front of Islamic architecture (and, to a lesser extent, ornament), where the aesthetic effect arises not from the relation between the sign and what it represents but from the infinite interaction of signs, that Saloua Raouda experienced what some would call the “shock of modernity.” Prior to her delving deeper into the motives for her instinctive attraction to Islamic art, prior to her coming into contact with the Sufic thought which she would proclaim the “true Arab-Islamic philosophy,” her reading of the modernism of Islamic art was a proto-Sufic reading, if the expression may be used.

One of the vestiges of the belief in the transparency of signs that results from the remnants of figurative thinking present in the abstract art movement is the wide-spread and commonly asserted notion that free, spontaneous movement reveals the innermost workings of the human being. However, in Choucair’s “Rapture of Revelation,” if I may borrow a title from a masterpiece to come, the internal remains inside, even though the appearance may present the slowness of internal maturity given that purposing is always more than a purpose, vaster than the coagulated expression or picturing of a purpose. What she saw in Islamic art and sought to show us in hers was the conscious act of genesis where consciousness does not deny any depth or internal development.

The current that electrifies a work and gives it its vitality and expressive power results from compositional relationships that join the work’s elements, not from any sense of spontaneous, kinetic “self-relief” that reveals a psychological interior as opposed to an artistic interior. There is neither seclusion nor concealment. Everything is given from the start to a gaze without destination points, a gaze that is suspended temporally between two poles which are not the past and the future, and spatially between two poles which are not front and back. The road in Sufic teaching is more important than the destination. “An end-less road capable perhaps of corresponding to this road-less end which is the only one worth awaiting.” [11] The wandering person, according to a phrase from Maurice Blanchot, “follows a road longer than his life no matter how long lasts his life.”[12]

The labyrinth as a form is the complete opposite of transparency if the latter is understood as the ability to traverse. If there is any common denominator to all Choucair’s work from every one of her “phases” (her term, despite the fact that the historical dates, as proven by this book, show us their intertwining, interconnectedness, and overlapping), then it is the labyrinthine quality that can be found in Islamic architecture and ornament.

The labyrinthine link is the link with the self. This means not blocking the road so that traffic is cut off from it and passage becomes impossible, but rather, closing the road so that traffic is held on it and becomes nearly unending. The opposite of transparency for Choucair is impenetrability, a concept built on the infinity of penetration. You will never traverse to the other side of the picture or the sculpture but you will always be on the road to…to where? Indeed whither?

Choucair told me once how she knew her direction in art – not where she was going but how her path differed – from the books she borrowed in 1952 from Saloua Nassar, a nuclear physics teacher at the American University in Beirut: “Yes, among them was a book about physics that was all equations. When the difficult equation finished, I would find the words ‘and so on.’ It was hard for me to understand the beginning, so what of this suspended ending? I realized then that that was my own situation. This is what I have; this is what I am: equations.” [13] This impressive commingling of her art and life, of what she possesses and what she is, will certainly not ease the way ahead of us between what looks, by her own admission, like an incomprehensible beginning and the suspended ending; yet it should give us an idea about that passion that reaches us like a plague, whether or not we have understood it, for difficult or unending equations. This is because these equations, or the compositional relationships that join the elements of any work in Choucair’s corpus, are for us (as for the artist) both sensual and perceptible without discovery of the guiding formula adding to or distracting from our perception of them. The equation might be very simple – as in a work that is composed of repetitions of mirroring parts of a basic geometrical form – or it might be so complex that it makes disclosure of its elements difficult. In either case, the work is not resolved like an arithmetic problem. A path, not a means, these equations are the basis and the origin of the work: if you can perceive the relations and proportion in any of Choucair’s works without being stopped by the “what” that joins them, then you are on the right path.

For that reason it is not entirely precise to employ the concept of abstraction here. Non-figuration, as a denial of figuration generally but also as a generalization of denial, is closer to a proper description of the peculiarity of this art that dismisses all subject matter, no matter how “abstracted,” as a most tenacious vestige of figurative vision behind the mask of abstraction.


In the Parisian Crucible

Kandinsky’s studies of the point and the line,

which we recently viewed, are studies that the

Muslim artist undertook in the first century after the Hijra.

–Saloua Raouda Choucair

Thus, when in her thirty-second year the artist traveled to Paris (as yet in its vanguard position as a world capital for Art) not only had she passed the age of impressionability but, moreover, she came armed with a sufficient visual and intellectual culture for her to find her natural place and her real comrades [14] as quickly as possible, and to avoid subjection to the attractions of the new artistic schools and currents rising up like mushrooms in that period of general creative angst and the never-ending pursuit for the new. From the École des Beaux Arts Choucair sought to learn only assorted techniques: fresco, lithography, and sculpture (a Greek head was her first experiment in what was to become her most important artistic activity). Drawing from nudes in La Grande Chaumière academy meant little more to her than gaining “an artistic background”! [15] Likewise, her entry into the atelier of the artist Fernand Leger for sake of learning and practice was for her only a passing experience, a sort of confirmation of her conviction that these skills or temptations condemned by her as remnants of a dead past will remain just so and they will not come to mean anything to her.

Choucair’s trip to Italy, too, did not compel her to reconsider the artistic path she had taken. Rather, you feel from her talk about this trip that the art of the Renaissance did not leave any impression on her, not even a transient sensation. [16] Whether we interpret this as mere polemic or true fanaticism, the result at the philosophical level is the same: all figural ventures amount, for her, to a temporary and unnecessary phase in the history of the spatio-plastic arts. It is an absolutist position to which she will later give verbal expression when one of the most prominent gallery owners asks her to stand next to Picasso for a commemorative picture, “Before death overtakes him.” She responds, justifying her lack of interest, “As far as I’m concerned, he already is dead!” More than verbal whim, this absolutist stance reflects a deep conviction that will not soften with age; rather, it will receive further justifications thoroughly integrated with the artist’s position. With regard to Picasso and others who based their work particularly on the human figure, including even the masters of the Renaissance, Choucair will say that admiration for their work stems most often from extra-plastic grounds, [17] whereas the preservation of this art over generations requires a purely plastic justrification. Choucair cannot see this justification outside geomtricism: On the one hand, in a theme oft-repeated in her talk, she found that the seeker of a “hidden order” concealed by the visible beauty of Nature or Art will inevitably arrive, in the end, at geometric elements; but, on the other hand, she found that every sign other than geometric elements permits a rehabilitation of the figurative, i.e. the resort to a realistic or expressive referent.

There is no pre-abstraction period in Choucair’s corpus as there is in both the careers of abstract art pioneers such as Mondrian, Malevitch, and Kandinsky, or in the careers of the artist-colleagues of her generation who found it necessary to “arrive” at abstraction by following a personal line of development, as if they had to re-invent their reality first, and then handling it uniquely, manage to lift off from that reality like an airplane lifting off the ground, with all that implies for a gradual generating process. After Abstraction had triumphed and become fashionable, most careers in art were likewise guided by the quest for the concoction of a personal myth for the artist’s arrival-at-Abstraction. Often this mentality resulted in a sort of artificial development towards an end more like a registered trade-mark than an art style….

However, the simplifying stylization with which Choucair depicted people in some of her Parisian experiments from the days of Leger’s atelier is not a transitional phase between her figurative pictures (those made in Lebanon and the works based on live models in La Grande Chaumière studio) and her purely non-figurative art. By this I mean, when she embarked on these experiences, Western art – the heir of Greco-Roman art revolving around the human figure and its attributes – was not the ideal she was emulating. Nor was it the example whose development or transcendence she sought, by turning the human form into merely a flourish of styles. Was not geometry the dream of Uccello? Between the perspectivist thinking that ruled the Renaissance and Paul Cezanne’s famous advice to Emile Bernard to “deal with Nature in terms of spheres, cylinders and cones,” geometry played alternatively, either on the syntagmatic or paradigmatic level, the role of regulator for a vision based on the representation of reality no matter how purely this reality is apprehended.

Very quickly the young Choucair realized that presenting Abstraction as the excessive purification of the visible and the prioritization of geometric frameworks designed to grasp it strengthens the false dialectic of content-form, the dualism which is present in all art that takes as its starting- or ending-point the representation of reality. All her life she had to confront a wide-spread theoretical skepticism about the possibility of establishing an experience of definite artistic and/or humanistic value on the basis of interaction between forms irrespective of their relationship to reality as it is seen, lived, or imagined by the human being.

In a lecture on the humanity of abstract painting, Meyer Schapiro said, “Architecture, which represents nothing, is a permanent challenge to that theoretical belief. If a building communicates the values of the home or temple, it is through the splendor of its freely invented forms. However bound to materials and functions, these forms are an expression, not a representation of the familial or sacred.” [18]



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