The Press Dossier: Reception and Production of an Artist and her Audience

Summer 2016 | ArteZine

The Press Dossier: Reception and Production of an Artist and her Audience


A clear plastic bag bursting with papers of various yellows and grays – this is what Saloua Raouda Choucair reached for in the cupboard next to her bed. She pulled out of it press reviews of her work and interviews conducted with her over the past forty years. Her favorites were at the top of the stack; below were the more objectionable ones, which she had scribbled over, sometimes in several different pens, crossing out “wrong” phrases and correcting “misinterpretations.” Interspersed were numerous photocopies which I, like other writers who had come before, could have to help me in my writing about her, along with copies of her own published writings. Sharing her personally gathered press dossier was the first thing that Choucair did when I informed the eighty year-old sculptor that I would like to focus my study on her career.[1]

One of the most important things that could be done to the art I studied in Beirut was the press report. A definitive distinction between Beirut-based art-making prior to the 1930s and after is the way it came to be taken up in the local press (which was developing contemporaneously) and publicized for a wider audience then would ever enter an art gallery. With press reports of exhibitions were disseminated the ideas that (even if they did not) people should enter special areas for seeing art, develop special ways of relating to art, and apply those experiences for reinterpreting their roles in society. In those early years of journalistic art-writing, an exhibition report could be front-page news, and though it gradually moved deeper inside the papers in the following decades, special staff were eventually hired by Beiruti papers just for writing about “arts and culture.” [2] What the art-writers produced could have great impact on an artist’s access to audiences, commissions, and awards. As Howard Becker found in his study Art Worlds, writing about art can reform standards for valuing art by “revealing” previously unconsidered aspects of the artwork or by recasting earlier standards as too narrow. Artists and gallerists in Beirut’s art world knew this for a fact. They regularly preserved and propagated reviews of their work that sought to impose the standards of value they deemed correct. Likewise, they sought to counter reviews they found incorrect. Either way, the reviews worked their way into the artists’ corpuses and careers.

These texts become very important keys for understanding the social life of art and the possibilities of its making especially in situations where not a single but multiple, even conflicting, conceptions are in play, and indeed counterposed. During the past fifty years of interpreting art in Lebanon, “traditional,” “European,” “Arab,” “universal,” “Ottoman,” “modern,” “Islamic,” “nationalist,” and “individual” notions of art were called upon by different actors to promote various projects designed to transform society. It is in part the reason why so much of the art produced seems to exist simultaneously on the verge of categories as diverse as trash and fine art. The same objects have been viewed at different points in history as “traditional,” “European,” “Islamic,” and “modern.”

My interest in the stack of articles stored in Choucair’s studio whose counterparts lie in the homes of so many other locally active artists, is inspired by feminist theory that foregrounds the paradoxes of socio-cultural systems. Such a focus leads to an interest in “cultural possibilities” where culture is not assumed to be shared but contested. By looking at Choucair’s fifty year-long troubled career, that which she has experienced as a “lack” of art in Lebanon, one can study what art as a category has meant for a Lebanon that has transformed in that time from a French Mandatory possession to a territorial state, from a largely feudal-agricultural economy to a cosmopolitan import-export one.

By seeking to engage the conception of art that artists and their viewers acted upon when interacting with art objects, we can revisit Choucair’s objects with contextualized eyes. This tactic can be extremely important when viewing objects that are seemingly familiar or assimilable to other standards, as indeed most socially portable objects are. Their very portability leads to the facility with which they seem to lend themselves for insertion in other constructions of meaning To resist the temptation to take similarity of appearance, even when deliberately effected, to indicate similarity of meaning it is necessary to adopt, as much as possible, the viewing positions taken by the original intended audience.

Inside Beirut – Importing audiences

Salwa Rawdah Exhibits in Paris

It was reported from Paris that the exhibition of paintings by Salwa Rawdah, a Lebanese artist, has met with success.

Miss Rawdah graduated from Beirut College for Women in the early 40s. Then for three years she worked in the AUB library, after which she went to Paris to indulge in the field of art.

Her work represents a new orientation. While impressed by the Western art she did not fail to give her own paintings an eastern touch.

(Outlook, May 26, 1951, 4[10]:4)

Those first three words, “It was reported,” deferred the judgment of Choucair’s exhibition to an undefined Parisian viewer, le tout Paris perhaps, or “the Western art” (that has impressed but not dominated Choucair). Other voices may have already reached their ears from across the ocean, but the Outlook report shouted them down by conjuring a strong French declaration of success. That the writer of the report was in all likelihood a close friend asked by Choucair to write a positive article underscores the practicality of invoking an approving French audience.

Long before the days of computer simulation, a virtual French audience followed Choucair back to Beirut and continued to appear at her shows at the flick of the journalist pen until the late 1970s. In the first two decades of writing about Choucair’s art, her compatriots almost uniformly described her oeuvre foremost in terms of its relationship to Parisian art-making. “As with Mondrian for whom the strictest mathematical calculus orders the composition” (Beaulieu 1962), her work is “part of the school founded by Matisse to rebel against classical art” (S. H. 1952). She “listens to the master Fernand Léger” (Andraus 1962) and “was the personal friend of…Mr. Poliakoff, Sonia Delauney, and Léger” (`Akrawi 1962). Before you see her show you must know that she “has already held two shows in Paris” (T. Ghurayib 1962), has “preoccupied the famous papers in Paris” (Malhas 1952), “was greatly admired in French papers” (Muysati 1952), and has “earned the admiration and appreciation of critics in France” (Adib 1952). No doubt the virtual French could be useful company.

Perhaps most adroit in exploiting the virtues of virtual French viewers was Thuraya Malhas, a scholar of Arabic language and literature whom Choucair met during her work as a librarian at the American University of Beirut (Hala Schoukair, personal communication, November 1, 2012). In March 1952 Malhas wrote for the widely-read Arabic-daily Bayrut about the first public show Choucair held upon her return to Beirut. This was at the Ecole Supérieure des Lettres, just outside the old city walls, on the road leading from downtown to Damascus. In her enthusiastic report, Malhas, a novice poet, initially developed a very personal voice for describing Choucair’s “worldly” paintings as the result of a “spiritual decision.” After a bold introduction, however, Malhas muted her own voice and devoted three-quarters of her essay to the assessments of three Frenchmen. Their opinions, presented as the objective voice of universal art criticism, literally overwhelmed the assertions made by the writer herself. Malhas deliberately constructed this imbalance because she considered it a sign of the “talent enjoyed by our international Arab artists, and of [Choucair’s] high stature in the world of modern art” that Julian Alvard, and writers for the Parisian art reviews Art d’Aujourd’hui, Combat, Art would take it upon themselves to discuss Choucair’s 1951 solo exhibition at Galerie Colette Allendy and her participation in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles that June. The concurring praise was also a sign, and one no less significant, that Malhas’ own, very personal and unconventional take on Choucair’s unusual art was itself valuable and valid.

Recognizing the invocation of French approval as a strategy for promoting local art-making does not mean discrediting the validity of judgments such as Malhas’ about Choucair’s art. Rather, it means studying the exact composition of that validity. [v] Critics who places Choucair’s art in relationship to Parisian-based art-making tended to recognize two stylistic impulses and associate them with respective forms. For example, Fu’ad Muysati reporting on Choucair’s new paintings for Al-Hayat, explained to readers that there were in her oeuvre both “abstract art […] based on geometric forms upon which are distributed appropriate colors” and “expressive art […] based on color but picturing people and things according to varying sizes and standards, varying according to the artist’s idea” (Muysati 1952, emphasis in the original).

However, asserting value for Choucair’s art by finding a fit between it and modernist Parisian standards of progress was not an entirely stable strategy. For one, the argument that art must inevitably change called quickly to mind the counter understanding, i.e. that art should be a thing of permanent beauty. This more common understanding of art as beauty lurked in some reviews, literally threatening to jostle Choucair’s work from the category of art. Thus, in Muysati’s review, a mere two lines after detailing the types of art in Choucair’s atelier, the writer introduces the “true lawha (tableau)”—or most appealing artistiry—Anisa, the artist’s older sister, famed for her beauty, who entered the room and returned the reviewer to his original understanding of art and beauty. For the next two decades writers in Beirut’s audience would struggle to evaluate Choucair’s oeuvre in terms of the standardized metropolitan-based ideal of beautiful expression. The assumption underlying this was that aesthetic splendor, whether naturalistic or abstract, should be understood as the rightful descendant of the nineteenth century beaux-arts ideal with its Greco-Roman pedigree.

A second problem of this tactic of affiliating Choucair’s art to this alternative French art-making was that it necessitated disregarding two potentially relevant features of the objects on display: (1) the distinctions Choucair made separating her work from the practices of her colleagues in Paris; and (2) the ways other actors in the Parisian art scene sought to distinguish their work from their peers in an agonistic jockeying for domination of the definition of contemporary art. While art-writers of the 1950s chose to align Choucair’s work with dominant Parisian schools, labeling her paintings either “abstract” or “expressive,” re-viewing the paintings can also spark consideration of the borders they drew inside the Parisian schools Choucair attended, separating different outlooks from each other and separating her work from that of her colleagues.

Inside Paris – Producing art and internal boundaries

A souvenir photo of Choucair taking an espresso at an empty Parisian café in autumn 1948 gives the ironic sense of the tourist who shows up in low season.

Fig 1

Fig 1

The appearance of this young woman among so many empty seats can be seen to underscore French worries about the new role for France following the Second World War. In late July 1948, Choucair accompanied her brother-in-law on a business trip to a Paris that was still reeling from the war’s destruction, with restrictions on consumption of food, gas, electricity, coffee, etc. in constraining the population. France stood clearly in second place to America, economically and politically. Serge Guilbaut, in his study of “Postwar Painting Games,” has shown that French administrators hoped that France’s cultural wealth would compensate for such lacks, and that the great resources of artistic glories would bring the world back to drink at its “universal fountain of art.” Yet, as the photograph shows, most of the seats at that universal fountain were empty.

The years immediately following the end of World War 2 were tumultuous times for Paris-based art-making. With strong competition from New York, locally active artists fought for the very future of art-making and stridently contested the proper directions and styles. [3] As a result, Choucair found herself presented with literally scores of options for studying art, and she seems to have set out to avail herself of numerous possibilities. While attending classes at the conservative Ecole des Beaux-Arts where she took lessons in drawing, mural painting, engraving, and sculpture, she also frequented the loosely structured La Grande Chaumière atelier, which catered to amateurs, foreigners, and others who were not able to enroll at the Ecole. Thus, Choucair put one foot in the canonical establishment and the other in its long-established alternative. Straddling this internal borderline, Choucair “gained experience” (this was her preferred way of phrasing her relationship to the schools when people asked her about her student-life) drawing from a nude model (cf., Shaybub 1951).

Fig 2

Fig. 2

In 1949, she invited her friend Najla Tannus `Akrawi to accompany her to a lecture by Fernand Léger at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts:

One day she took me with her to Beaux-Arts to attend a lecture by Léger, Fernand Léger. He had his value in art; he was esteemed. [He talked about] how the artist builds his lawhat (tableaux), and he said, “Don’t assume that it is far from nature, abstract art; it isn’t removed from nature.” He got a piece of a branch and put it. He got a piece of newspaper and put it. He got a piece of wood and put it. All these elements he would use them in abstract art, except that he would have an idea to express without doing a portrait, without doing the art that the camera does today – it’s not necessary that he work that way, he explained. (Najla Tannus `Akrawi, interview, November 11, 2004)

`Akrawi recalls that Choucair was favorably impressed with these ideas, and it was probably following the lecture that Choucair joined Léger’s atelier, crossing another border internal to the Parisian scene. John-Franklin Koenig, an American painter who reached France the same year as Choucair, has said in his memoirs that Léger, himself just back from a sojourn in New York, “was one of the most ‘modernist’ and well-known artists that operated an academy of painting, but all his students were forced to paint à la Léger.”

Léger’s name is the one mentioned the most frequently in explanations of Choucair’s art in the first two decades of art-writing about her work, offered as a sort of parent to her uncommon style. Some of her works do show versatility in the visual tropes he popularized.

Fig 3

Fig. 3

To examine the nature of Choucair’s alleged affiliation to the famous painter, however, it would useful to revisit the atelier atmosphere. A series of gouaches that were shown at the Ecole Supérieure des Lettres provides an unexpected vehicle for doing so.

Fig 4

Fig. 4

Fig 6

Fig. 6

Among the paintings art writers in 1952 identified as an “expressive art” (as opposed to “geometric”) is a series of three gouaches. In all three images, four naked women are gathered awkwardly around a table (or couch?) covered in red-checkered cloth, sharing tea and reading from a large tome titled Les Peintres Célèbres. Their rigid poses (one an odalisque!), signal that they are models. Whereas models are generally summoned together at the instigation of painters, in Choucair’s scene it is the models who invoke the painters, making them the subject of their inquiry and their spectatorship. What do they read about these celebrated painters?

Looking at these inquisitive models we are reminded that at this point in his career, Léger was retreating from his purely geometric compositions, which had alienated him from most of the French public, and he had begun to reintroduce figuration. His doing so firmly re-established him in Paris as the hero of the French Communist Party. The Léger with whom Choucair studied was thus a nearly canonized one whose current status spoke to the shifting boundaries in French avant-garde art-making. It is highly relevant, then, to note that a significant set of the pictures made in Léger’s deal explicitly with issues of canonicity and pedigree in art.

Indeed, the curious scenes are probably based on one of Léger’s most famous paintings, Le Grand Déjeuner, from 1921, itself a take on Manet’s scandalous but state-owned picnic scene which was, in turn, a take on Titian.[4] In Léger’s composition, three women crowd around a small red table. [5] The woman on the right holds an open book on her voluptuous lap, but she seems unable to read it, more concerned with balancing her tea and sugar. Likewise, the other two women, whose bodies are mysteriously conflated, are unable to look at what they are doing, ostensibly pouring tea; instead their gazes are riveted by the presence of the viewer who has apparently caught them at an inopportune moment. The décor speaks of residual orientalism, even at this late stage in the French empire, and it has been recognized as a harem scene by some art critics, such as Richard Shone (1997). [6] While the picture can be taken to exemplify the absence in Léger’s “avant-garde” art of traditional representational ideas such as perspective, to see it that way exclusively would be to overlook the perfectly perspectival table and indeed the floor covering, whose pattern refers to one of the most common ways for Renaissance paintings to mark out their space. Rather, noting the conflation of these two systems for handling space, we might recognize that Léger was announcing his ability both to represent traditionally and to reduce willfully. What got reduced is, not inconsequentially, his female models, whom he distorted into a series of breasts and butts on arms and thighs, with the connecting parts removed. Even the black feline on the couch has more spatial consistency than any of the women whose arms are totally dislocated, whose legs float off to the side, whose breasts seem to merge with the pillows.

Choucair’s versions of the scene make several important changes: the implicit harem rationale is gone: no couch but simply a red and white geometrical pattern situates the women in space.[7] Though perspectival space is not re-established, the integrity of the women’s bodies is. Each body claims its own realm of the pictorial space, in one case sitting on the pillow instead of being subsumed by it. [8] Choucair’s addition of a fourth woman moves interpretation of the event decidedly out of the iconography of the Three Graces and their association with perfect feminine beauty. The women no longer stare out at the viewer with that vacuous look that feminist art historian Nanette Salomon has defined as the sign of the nude’s existential emptiness, but give an aggressive glare, or avert their glances slightly to avoid contact. The book they read is propped up so that its cover is legible, inviting the viewer to be aware of what they are reading and to locate their act in the realm of consciousness. There is a narrative explanation for their behavior, not simple reliance on the idea that women naturally gather about naked for aesthetic delectation. [9] They are workers who are reading up on the people who make their livings out of distorting them. Implicitly, their very act of curiosity calls into question the painter’s profession based on their cooperation: What exactly are painters of the Nude representing?

Overall, the handling of paint is playful and child-like, although we must not forget from the figure studies that Choucair was perfectly capable of handling human figures à la Léger. Rather than see this as an imperfect rendering of a Légeresque scene, we might more productively see it as the (repeated) de-Légerization of the scene. Choucair showed here her decision not to impose geometricizing schemes upon human form and its environment, but rather to discover the geometric principles they contain within themselves. For example, the legs of the lowest woman stretched in an odalisque’s pose are defined by the angle that one makes crossing over the other. Seeing the women in these minimalistic but integrating terms, Choucair subverted Léger’s way of viewing that had become rigorously stylized by the late 1940s. If the famed painter had become a rather imposing atelier-master, this series of gouaches can be read as an ironic comment on Léger’s concurrent turn from conceptual abstraction to mechanistic representations of the human, and most often female nude.

In October 1950 a new atelier opened down the street from La Grande Chaumière. It was called L’Atelier de l’Art Abstrait, and it was associated with two well-publicized artists, Jean Dewasne and Edgard Pillet, its secretary-general. [10] The Atelier’s goal was to encourage discussion about abstract art, its evolution, purification and enrichment. The founders very much believed that an abstract art totally opposed to figuration would have to be integrated in all aspects of life (Art d’Aujourd’hui 2[1]:last page). Their announcement in Art d’Aujourd’hui, “the best contemporary art magazine of its time” according to contemporaries, explained that while art is always a collective activity in which the youngest build on that findings of their elders, “those who come here will not content themselves to receive, they must know that they too will have to search, to discover, to throw themselves into the unexplored, the constant source of fecundity” (Art d’Aujourd’hui 2[1]:last page). As in an artisanal workshop, there would be no “master” here, but rather the gathering together of useful experiences for the benefit of all. It was a direct challenge to both the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and, more provocatively, Léger. Crossing yet another border of Parisian art-making, Choucair immediately volunteered to help administer the place and organize the twice-monthly debates. [11]

Given the proposed workshop atmosphere of the Atelier de l’Art Abstrait, it is relevant to note the similarities that indicate Choucair’s active participation in the group quest. It is easy enough to see that Choucair willfully probed the experiments of each of the other members of the atelier. She used the playfully jumbled patterns associated with Alberto Magnelli, the hectic but structured interaction proposed by Jean Deyrolle, the tilting organic thrust of Jean Dewasne, the deliberately cold, the outlined modules and resulting rational clarity of Edgar Pillet [12], the shifting, restless energy of R. Mortensen, the balanced play of tonal and linear distinctions by Viktor Vasarely. [13] Though these artists differ in their handling of the paint, in the geometric basis of their forms, in their use of signs for three-dimensional space, and so on, they were all heirs of Kandinsky according to Michel Seuphor (1950), i.e. in the tradition of expressive, individualistic creation rather than constructivism as exemplified by Mondrian. What is striking is that, for all the visual echoing, give-and-taking of the atelier atmosphere, none of its other members appear to have shared Choucair’s mathematically generated method. [14] The latter, therefore, deserves some detailing for it can get lost in the emphasis on a “French appreciation” of Choucair’s work.

Fig 7

Fig. 7

Fig 8

Fig. 8

Some of the pictures Choucair made during this group quest to explore the unknown of total anti-figuration exhibit a precise method of creation that merits discussion for explaining how Choucair distinguished her work from that of the others in the Atelier. The first step to create a piece like Figure 8 would be to divide the canvas into regions, say four equal squares. The next is to draw an irregular dividing line through one square, creating a curve to contrast the rigidity of the square’s corners. The resulting shape, which Choucair called a “module,” is then traced, like a pattern, into a region opposite the first (in the upper right corner of Figure 8). The pattern with its curved edge is then mirror-flipped and another piece cut from its interior, this time employing right angles. The new pattern is traced into a third region vertically adjacent to the second (in the lower right corner of Figure 8). Diagonal from that the curved edge is again traced, but now tipped in the opposite direction, and minus yet another internal segment. This internal segment is dropped down to the first region (lower left) to interrupt the pristine starting square with a remnant of its interior. The divided square with which this method started has now moved across the sheet in an “X,” each time settling it a degree further from the central axis and losing a bit of its interior.

Through such a multi-step formula (and this piece probably represents the simplest version) Choucair used geometric form and contrasting curves to set up a centrifugal rhythm that she enhanced by applying tonal opposites to adjacent areas. The result is a visual ratio. Though the viewer may not apprehend the ratio-structure, the overall effect of the composition is one of perfect equilibrium achieved by continual movement: undeniably reminiscent forms appear to draw together while their contrastive rhythm and color seem to compel them apart. Logically the process of composition is closely related to the notion of the perfect number whose proper divisors, when added, amount to the number. Just as 6 is the sum of 3 + 2+ 1 and the multiple of these same digits, so Choucair’s compositions speak to unified wholes and their inner, elementary parts which can be variously combined to arrive at the base whole. In such works decomposition and unity at once are premised and enacted.

Some of the canvases Choucair displayed in Paris could certainly be seen to prove that a square could be painted without representing a square in the exterior world but rather existing for itself, in the context of the painting only, as Degand argued in his rebuttal to the charges against the Atelier de l’Art Abstrait (Degand 1951:32). In regards to the engagement of Islamic mathematics as an intellectual basis and method for Choucair’s art-making, a distinction could be drawn between her “geometric” work and that of her atelier mates. The distinction, I say, could be drawn because in fact, in writing about the atelier or Choucair’s experience there, whether in Paris or Beirut, it was not.

Precisely to the degree that they appeared to come from a different tradition altogether, Choucair’s works could be taken by certain French critics to prove the international viability of “l’Ecole de Paris” (School of Paris). Thus Julian Alvard (Malhas 1952), writing on behalf of “hard abstraction” at the Salon de Réalités Nouvelles in 1951, detected in Choucair’s paintings “a magnanimous Eastern spirit” that had “intermingled with the deepest Western direction and its art concepts to reject Eastern traditions and carve out her own genius path.” Léon Degand wrote, “We would not be fair if we said only that Saloua Raouda is an innovative student in this modern school; rather, she is far from accepting lock, stock and barrel, the known rules, because she rediscovered them, after bending them according to her whims and mindset, so she colored them as she willed, bending them possibly according to her Arab mentality” (Malhas 1952). “The Arab mentality” that Choucair’s work could be seen to exude was an important factor in this appropriation of it. Indeed, one can hear how her work was an asset in the formation of a notion of “l’Ecole de Paris” (the School of Paris) at a time when not only was the future direction of Parisian art insecure but the world seemed altogether less interested in it and more interested in New York. [15] Simultaneously emphasizing Choucair’s connections and her apparently ethnic difference, supporters of L’Atelier de l’Art Abstrait could hold to their assertion of two years earlier: “More than ever Paris is the capital of the arts” (Art d’Aujourd’hui 1[1]:3). [16]

Inside Beirut Anew – Universal taste and local claims

In importing the French critics’ voices to Beirut for her own art writing, Thuraya Malhas effaced any sense of controversy among them. Likewise, she softened the sense of Choucair’s ethnic difference to highlight the achievement of having joined a unified `alamiyya (worldlism, universalism). I would not suppose that Malhas devoted the majority of her article to translations because she herself had run out of things to say, or because she was inclined through background or education to admire uncritically French assertions. [17] Both Malhas and Rose al-Ghurayyib, who also wrote about Choucair’s 1952 show, were committed Arab nationalists who believed in supporting the movement through cultural activities; al-Ghurayyib led the Arab Association at the American Junior College which performed plays promoting an Arab heritage. Rather than assuming the reliance on French approval resulted from a lack of respect for “Arab cultural values,” I will analyze her importation of the French critics’ voices as a strategy and ask what this strategy meant in newly independent Lebanon.

Indeed, engagement with the functionaries of the state immediately comes to mind. Following a pattern established in the 1930s, Choucair’s 1952 exhibition was sponsored and opened by Laure al-Khuri, the wife of President Bishara al-Khuri, a fact not overlooked by the art writers. In Paris, we recall, the Lebanese ambassador to France, Ahmad Da`uq, had attended the exhibition at Galerie Colette Allendy. According to legend elaborated years later, he made a perfunctory tour and then addressed Choucair saying, “Your type of work is curious, Miss Raouda. Have you not done for us any Lebanese works?” [18] (Zughaib 1979) Given the proximity of the two shows, it is most certain that many of the works hanging in the Ecole Supérieure des Lettres were the same pictures that had provoked such dismay from the “ambassador, to the ambassador’s wives, and on down” (Najla Tannus `Akrawi, interview, November 11, 2004). The point is that, while the stories of official rebuke were available for telling from 1951 on (and their being passed by word of mouth is what was said to have prompted the Outlook notice of success), they did not appear in Beirut art writing until decades later. Though they were later to become a predominant motif in art writing generally and about Choucair in particular, the scandalized voices of elite Lebanese reception did not appear in that early art writing.

The voices that appeared instead, repeatedly translated and presented en groupe were those of French art critics, invoked to articulate how in Paris the art had been understood and to incite Arabic readers to lend their own understanding. Local audiences, official and plebeian, were to look not for the familiar but for the most contemporary, as an indication of their joining the modern world. In this sense, nationalism, as referenced in the “Lebanese-ness” of Choucair as a citizen and her patron as a state representative, was not separate from “worldlism,” or cosmopolitanism, but a step towards it. Against the idea of an art somehow appropriate to a certain nation or culture, the notion of art enacted by art writing of Malhas, Muysati, and so on, is of a universal, border-less entity defined by its relation to a widely acknowledged pedigree that has most recently produced Picasso and Matisse. The other idea of art was certainly familiar enough to audiences of the time, but it was deliberately displaced by this strategy.

This tactic of deference to French views and viewers was well established by Beirut’s intellectuals long before Choucair’s 1951 exhibition… And as with the previous art writing, there tended in this period to be very little description of the kind of artwork and relatively much attention to the kind of admiring audience. This is not to say that the look of the art made did not matter. Rather, I think it mattered a great deal that people wanted to make vastly different objects and yet sought to fit them to a validated conception of art, so that the art writing was a significant stage in the production of an art that had a contested look. What is important to emphasize here is how the tactic worked equally well (or, equally ambiguously) for different styles of art-making in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the French occupation forces had finally been expelled from their former Mandate region and when French administrative and social authority had passed into the hands of locals. In order to show the versatility of this tactic, I am going to examine its use at a local institution dedicated to cosmopolitanism’s apparent opposite: Arab nationalism.

It may seem ironic that at the Arab Cultural Club (ACC), the Arab nationalist organization Choucair helped establish in the mid-1940s, part of the program for the propagation of a modern Arab identity for the new nation of Lebanon was the appeal to local intellectuals and activists to appreciate and assimilate developments in contemporary “French” art-making (and symphonic music, but that is another story). As Munah al-Sulh has put it, these were years when the state of Lebanon having been declared but the French army still very much present, the populace was at struggle to determine the character of the new entity (Sulh 1994). Politically, they sought to define how this state would be independent from the regional colonial powers and how it would be affiliated with neighboring states. Culturally, they sought to define its language, a program and institutions for “social revival,” and development of common intellectual assets. Thrusting themselves upon this situation, the members of the ACC had twin goals of (1) promoting intellectual interaction of its members and of them with their society, thereby strengthening local ties, and (2) providing members of local society with resources deemed necessary for local development (Nadim Dimashqiyya, interview, November 11, 2004). In opposition to a subjugated colonial identity, a discredited Ottoman-Turkish affiliation, or most importantly, a self-limiting sectarian identity, Arab nationalists exploited as an asset the veneration of Paris-based `alami (worldly, or universal) art.

The sum of this story is that Choucair and her cohorts at the ACC did not chose between “Arab” and “Western” identity; they used a sense of Arabness to create a culturally relative sphere that could be different from “Western,” as in their art lectures that tied the art-making of each society to its environment and mentality; and they used “Western,” as the embodiment of modernity, to demand that their consociates embrace specific social reform programs. In other words, these apparently mutually exclusive identities were simultaneously evoked through certain media, such as fine art, to posit for the citizens of the newly independent republic ambiguous identities that were not limited to the previous moulds of “Arab colonial subjects” or “Western anti-Arab colonizers.”

In the 1950s, Choucair’s art benefited, to a certain extent, from looking like something that had been accepted among certain of Paris’s avant-garde circles. Its strangeness could be grasped through the ambiguous identities some among Lebanon’s intelligentsia were constructing to deal with the necessities of nation-building during the Cold War. This art writing points to the conception of “art” as a necessarily universal (non-local) social value that can help people adapt to contemporary life. However, with this conception of art, engagement of Choucair’s work was deliberately limited to that which fit current aesthetic standards propagated by a France that was unified in Beiruti art writing. The other elements of Choucair’s artwork seemed secondary and received much less attention. They were to be drawn out and praised by subsequent art writing.


1. The following is a revised and abbreviated selection from Chapter 4 of the doctoral dissertation entitled Painters, Picture-makers, and Lebanon: Ambiguous Identities in an Unsettled State (Princeton University, 2005).

2. Unfortunately, I have not tracked the timing of this professionalization. The people cited in Chapters One and Two, Karam Milhim Karam, Yusuf Ghusub, Fu`ad Sulaiman, and Khalil Taqi al-Din critiqued their society in many ways, art exhibitions being one facet of their intellectualization of their engagement in society. Some of the people who started writing in the 1940s, such as Thuraya Malhas, studied aesthetics or literature formally and wrote articles without appearing to have any contracted employment. My impression is that professional art writers began to be hired by the local newspapers in the 1960s, long after the papers had already allocated sections to reporting on “thaqafiyya” (cultural) events and ideas. Today many of Beirut’s newspapers and magazines either give the job of art writing to an interested and cash-strapped artist, such as Gaby Ma`mari who wrote for Al-Diyar in the 1990s, or assign it to a reporter who worked on another beat, such as Ahmad Bazzun who has written for Al-Safir since the mid-1990s. Some prominent papers have long-term contracts with people who have undergone training accrediting their opinions, such as Nazih Khatir, who undertook museum studies at the Louvre in the 1950s and has for decades now written for Al-Nahar (Nazih Khatir, interview, June 21, 2000), or Maha Sultan, who has been writing for Al-Hayat since the 1980s and, after studying art history in France, wrote a masters thesis on Habib Srur at the Université de la Sainte Esprit (Maha Sultan, interview, November 17, 1996).

3. Starting in the early 1940s, more and more artists and artists-to-be headed for New York where American administrators were eager to promote artistic production in order to prove American cultural superiority and to justify and sweeten American economic and political superiority. Even Paris was infected by this New York pull. Though on the home-front Abstract Expressionism, exemplified by Jackson Pollock, was scorned and feared as subversive, indeed potentially pro-communist, painters associated with the style came to be promoted abroad by the US government, specifically the CIA, as an expression of American individualism and liberty. While the CIA connection was not publicly known, many Parisian-based artists were antagonized by Abstract Expressionism’s apparently anti-ideological stance. Abstract and representational styles were conflicted violently in the eyes of contemporary commentators, and were conflicted within themselves. In their quest to be the most forward-looking heirs to Picasso and Matisse, French artists faced several choices: perpetuating figurative art (Dunoyer de Sergonzac was very popular; Post-Impressionism and Surrealism were generally the most modern the broad public would accept); embracing social realism (the official style of the French Communist Party after 1947); or, formulating an engaged abstraction that rivaled Pollock aesthetically but embraced specific visions for modern society. These choices were debated throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s in publications such as, Combat, Arts de France, Art d’Aujourd’hui, XXème Siècle, the latter two of which frequently featured American abstract artists. Across the Atlantic the Magazine of Art commissioned critiques of the various French trends for its April 1950 issue.

4. This painting is currently in the MOMA’s collection in NYC. During autumn 1949 Léger showed it in a highly celebrated solo exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris (Art d’Aujourd’hui 1[4]:back cover).

5. In the preparatory sketch at the Minnesota Institute of Art it is a damascene-worked table with two-toned decoration and arabesque curves, but on the final canvas it has been simplified into squares and trimmed with three small white circles only—pearl inlay?

6. For example, the furniture is a divan with sumptuous pillows of damascene red and gold design tossed across it; the floor covering consists of harlequin patterning and bold stripes in a contrasting color, and the wall behind is a jumble of rectangular patterning.

7. The red-checked cloth, associated with French cafés and picnics, may be Choucair’s reference to the painting that Léger was undoing in his domesticated scene: Eduard Manet’s 1863 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, which scandalized its public for frankly discussing an economic transaction over the women’s bodies. If so, Choucair’s cloth cleverly returns to the scene the economic basis for assembling the women’s naked bodies.

8. The only feature jarring that space is a long thin tubular shape that may simply refer to Leger’s characteristic “tube-ism.”

9. Interestingly, when in November 2004 I showed copies of the pictures to Choucair, who was by then suffering from Alzheimer’s, her immediate response was to see them as a version of the Three Graces, except for the numerical difference.

10. The artists who worked there were primarily pooled from a group that had been showing together since 1946 at Denise René’s gallery.

11. On topics such as “What is Painting?” “What is Figurative Painting?” “What is Abstract Painting?” “Science and Beauty,” “Mondrian and Neo-plasticism,” “Constructivism,” “Paradoxes of Decorative Art,” “Color,” “Kandinsky’s Theoretical Writings,” “The Technology of Painting.” (Art d’Aujourd’hui 2[3]:30, 2[5]:31, 2[7]:30, 2[8]:30).

12. Jack al-Aswad (see his essay translated on this site) notes that Pillet called the patterns he turned and traced “patrons,” but he asserts that the technique of composing the picture was basically the same.

13. For Magnelli see the retrospective essay by Léon Degand in XXème Siècle 1(1):39-42. For Deyrolle and Dewasne see Art d’Aujourd’hui 1 (3):29 and XXème Siècle 1(1):58. Also, a long essay on Deyrolle by Charles Estienne appears in Art d’Aujourd’hui 2(5):18-21. For Pillet see Léon Degand’s review of Pillet and accompanying illustration in Art d’Aujourd’hui 2(2):31. For Mortensen see Degand’s review of his show at Galerie Denise René, in Art d’Aujourd’hui 2(1):30. For Vasarely, see the painting reproduced for the critique of the Salon de Mai in Art d’Aujourd’hui 2(6):28 and XXème Siècle 1(1):58.

14. The closest in approach is perhaps Edgar Pillet, yet his work confined itself to the basic geometric trio of circle, square, triangle, and he did not allow his forms to wander, so to speak. Choucair’s other great collaborator in experiment was probably Alberto Magnelli, who generated compositions from the accumulation of a few repeated shapes with complex layers of overlapping indicated by tonal shifts. Yet a distinction could be drawn from Magnelli’s work, too, for Choucair’s stenciled shapes strictly echo each other whereas Magnelli’s shapes get pressed, stretched, or otherwise distorted by apparently external forces. In other words, Magnelli’s compositions speak to forces other than repetition whereas Choucair’s explore the variety that can result from endless but strict repetition. A review of the impact of mathematical studies on art making can be found in Mankiewicz 2000.

15. In his “Postwar Painting Games,” Serge Guilbaut writes of this period, “What is complicated and fascinating in this duel is that, at this exact same time, some French artists and critics in Paris were also trying to define a new type of art in opposition to the traditional school of Paris and were using some of the same arguments as the American critics.”

16. The statement appears in the inaugural issue of Art d’Aujourd’hui. Other “Eastern” artists whose sojourn in Paris was celebrated by the magazine were Najed, Fahr-el-Nissa Zeid, Olive Tamari, Schalhoub, and Jamil Hamoudi.

17. Al-Ghurayyib attended a French Catholic elementary school and then the Sidon American Highschool, the American Junior College in Beirut where she studied Sufism, and the American University of Beirut where she specialized in Arabic literature (Rose al-Ghurayyib, interview, October 2, 2000). Sadly, I do not have information on Fu`ad Muysati or “S.H.”

18. The legend varies: sometimes it is “`amal” (works) and other times “`alam” (flags) or “al-`alam al-lubnani” (the Lebanese flag) (cf., F. Sultan 1980, Zughaib 1979).


Adib, Al-1952 Barqiat (Telegraphs). Al-Adib11(4):70.

Akrawi, Najla Tannus, 1962 Salwa Rawda Holds Exhibition. Alumnae Bulletin 9(2) Archived material, Saloua Raouda Choucair Archives, Beirut, Lebanon.

Andraus, Farid, 1962 Salwa Rawda: une imagination sans limites. Magazine, March 8, 1962, p.1. aRchives material, Saloua Raouda Choucair Archives, Beirut, Lebanon.

Descargues, Pierre, 1950 Painting in Paris. Magazine of Art 43(4):169-181.

Ghurayyib, Thérèse, 1962 Sajjad, lawhat, siramik, wa nahat (Rugs, Pictures, Ceramic, and Sculpture). Al-Nahar, March 4, 1962. Archived material, Saloua Raouda Choucair Archives, Beirut, Lebanon.

Guilbaut, Serge, 1995 Postwar Painting Games: The Rough and the Slick. In Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal 1945-1964. Serge Guilbaut, ed. Pp. 30-79. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Koenig, John-Franklin, 1995 [1992] Abstraction chaude in Paris in the 1950s. In Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal 1945-1964. Serge Guilbaut, ed. Pp. 1-16. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Malhas, Thuraya, 1962 Salwa Rawda tidf’a rishataha fi rukab al-`alamiyya (Saloua Raouda Pushes Her Brush in the Stirrups of Worldlism). Baryut 16(4315):3.

Muysati, Fu`ad, 1952 Fann al-tajrid wa fann al-ta`bir fi al-rasim (Abstract and Expressive Art in Drawing). Al-Hayat 7(1789):4.

S.H., 1952 Ma`rad li al-rasim al-tajridi fi Bayrut (An Exhibition for Abstract Painting in Beirut. Al-Nahar 19(5022):4.

Seuphor, Michel, 1950 Painting in Paris. Magazine of Art 4(43):180.

Shaybub, Edvick, 1951 Ma`a al-fannana Salwa Rawda (With the Artist Saloua Raouda). Sawt al-mar’a 7(12):36.

Sulh, Munah, 1994 Shihada li ustath Munah al-Sulh (The Testimony of Mr. Munah al- Sulh). In Masira al-khamsin `am: al-Nadi al-Thaqafi al-`Arabi, 1944-1994 (A Fifty Year Journey: The Arab Cultural Club, 1944- 1994). Pp. 25-28. Beirut: The Arab Cultural Club.

Zughaib, Henri, 1979 Salwa Rawda Shuqair tahtaraf fann al-nahat bi f`il `ibara sadamatha min Charles Malik (Salwa Rawda Choucair Professionalizes the Art of Sculpture by Acting on Her Shock from Statement Made by Charles Malik). Al-Hawadith, March 16, 1979, pp. 70-71. Archived material, Saloua Raouda Choucair Archives, Beirut, Lebanon.

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