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Spring 2008 | Gallery

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

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Excerpted and revised from Painters, Picture-makers, and Lebanon: Ambiguous Identities in an Unsettled State (Princeton University, 2005).

 

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.

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, as I indicated in the first chapter of this book. In those early years of journalistic artwriting 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 Becker has found in his study of art worlds, writing about art can reform standards for valuing art by revealing “that [the previous] standard was too constricted that, there are in fact other things to enjoy” (Becker 1982:112). 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.

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, indeed deliberately being brought into to play to counter others. Such has certainly been the situation 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 seeks to place the “contradictoriness of socio-cultural systems center stage” (Lederman 1989:230). Such a focus leads to an interest in “cultural possibilities” where culture is not assumed to be shared but contested (Lederman 1989:230). 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 (cf., Nochlin 1988) 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 (Fawaz 1983, Gates 1998).

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.

 

March 1952: “Greatly Admired in French Papers” – Reception and production of a universal artist

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)

 

Inside Beirut – Importing audiences:

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 points to 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, another close friend of Choucair’s from their days together at al-Ahliyya National School for Girls…. 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. [….] However, the asserting value for Choucair’s art by finding a fit between it and modernist Parisian standards of progress was not an entirely secure strategy. For one, the argument that art must inevitably change called quickly to mind the counter understanding, that art was for creating a 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. [….] For the next two decades writers in Beirut’s audience would struggle to evaluate Choucair’s art 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. But 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] 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 (Koenig 1995:3). France stood clearly in second place to America, economically and politically (Guilbaut 1995). 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” (Guilbaut 1995:33). 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] In 1949, she invited her friend Najla Tannus `Akrawi to attend with her 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 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 a la Léger” (Koenig 1995:5).

Léger’s name is the one mentioned the most frequently in explanations of Choucair’s art in the first two decades of artwriting 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] 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. [Figs. 4, 5, 6]

Among the paintings artwriters 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 (Koenig 1995:5). 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] [Fig. 7] 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 (Shone 1997). [6] While the picture can be cited as an example of how in Léger’s art, “traditional representational ideas like perspective do not play a role” (Allsen 2004), 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 (Baxandall 1972, Panofsky 1991). 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. 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. [7] 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 (K. Clark 1956:106). [8] The women no longer stare out at the viewer with that vacuous look that Nanette Salomon (1996) 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.

Overall, the handling of paint is playful, 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 [Fig. 6] 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” (Koenig 1995:8), 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 [Fig. 8], the hectic but structured interaction proposed by Jean Deyrolle [Fig. 9], the tilting organic thrust of Jean Dewasne [Fig. 10], the deliberately cold, the outlined modules and resulting rational clarity of Edgar Pillet [12] [Fig. 11], the shifting, restless energy of R. Mortensen [Fig. 12], the balanced play of tonal and linear distinctions by Viktor Vasarely [Fig. 13]. [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] It will help to elaborate on this origin for Choucair’s understanding of modernism.

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 13 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 36). 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 13). 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 (Berggren 1985). 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 (cf., Garb 1999:111). 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]

 

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