20 May 2011
Spring in Paris, next year in Beirut.
Spring in Paris, next year in Beirut.
The first retrospective of modernist master Shafic Abboud offers a glimpse of good things to come.
By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie. Special to The Daily Star, Thursday, April 07, 2011
BEIRUT: The broad strokes of this story sound vaguely familiar. A young man is born in a mountain town northeast of Beirut. He grows up steeped in a storytelling culture. His grandmother is the local hakawati. Travelers pass through the village carrying wooden boxes with painted scrolls, illuminating the travelers’ tales like primordial cinema.
His father sends him to Beirut to study engineering, a sturdy profession. But the young man rebels, drops out and goes to art school. The academy is new, a creative hothouse. He studies alongside men and women who will become the foremost artists of their generation.
Still he feels hemmed in. So he leaves Lebanon altogether and lights out for a distant city jostling with artistic vitality. His work changes there. When he returns to Beirut for a homecoming exhibition, he is widely celebrated but at the same time accused of abandoning his native heritage for an uprooted international language of artistic expression.
The duality dogs him for decades as he experiments with vastly different media. In time, he becomes a kind of father figure, immensely respected if not always thoroughly understood. In the end, he insists that all of his art, no matter how foreign or contemporary, comes back to the storytelling traditions of his childhood.
It’s a narrative that could accommodate any number of Lebanese artists born in the 1960s, 70s or 80s. The distant city could be New York, London, Amsterdam or Berlin, but the story would follow the same lines, and hinge on the same tensions.
Except that the artist here is Shafic Abboud, the distant city is Paris, and the debate back in Beirut is a mid-20th-century chestnut about figurative versus abstract painting.
For anyone quick to criticize contemporary artists in Lebanon for making work too attuned to globalization, the biennial circuit or the international art market, it’s worth looking back on Abboud to see how old that story is.
Sixty years ago, Abboud rehearsed a rift stubbornly relevant to this day. Perhaps for that reason, the first comprehensive retrospective of his work – currently on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and accompanied by a handsome, hardbound catalogue – casts a decidedly contemporary eye on the art of a modernist master.
“Shafic Abboud: Rétrospective” features 190 paintings from public and private collections across the world. Tracing out the impressive arc of Abboud’s career, the works range from early figurative oil paintings on wood and panel to the later, large-scale abstractions for which the artist is best known.
In addition to his lively studies of light and texture – in which gestural brushstrokes, abstract forms and riotous colors are used to capture memories, moments in time, encounters in a landscape or experiences of daily life – the exhibition includes moody and mysterious nocturnes and a playful series that riffs, almost musically, on dresses worn by Abboud’s urbane female friends.
Curated by Claude Lemand, the show makes good on a pledge Lemand made to Abboud two months before the artist’s death, at the age of 77, in 2004.
A Parisian dealer of Lebanese origin, Lemand opened his first gallery in 1988. Abboud had been in Paris for nearly 40 years by that point and at the time he was working with Galerie Faris. But he used to drop by Lemand’s space whenever an exhibition of Arab artists from the diaspora was on display.
Galerie Faris closed in 1990. Abboud joined another gallery, where he was reportedly unhappy. In 1997, Lemand asked Abboud to join him. That same year, the artist suffered the first of several strokes. Lemand was concerned. “He had heart problems, but he was very enthusiastic and dynamic in his studio. He told me: ‘Don’t worry about me. I am bringing spring to your gallery!’ I welcomed him and did my best during his last seven years,” Lemand says.
“The paintings from those years are really magnificent, full of color and light. I was full of emotion each time I hung his new paintings for an exhibition. I used to tell him they made me so euphoric that I began humming Arabic songs from my childhood.”
When Abboud’s health deteriorated, Lemand recalls, “I promised to publish his first monograph and organize his first retrospective in Paris.”
The monograph, a gorgeous tome published in both English and French editions, was completed in 2006, after two painstaking years of research. The retrospective required another 12 months of work, and serious help from Abboud’s estate, which offered 38 paintings on loan, and sold three more to raise funds for the exhibition.
“Compared to the historic and aesthetic importance of his work, only a few museums and institutions have collected Abboud,” says Lemand. “But every month I discover interesting works in collections I had not heard about four years ago, when I published the monograph, or even four months ago, when I published the catalogue for the retrospective.”
It comes as something of a shock, then, when Lemand says he is categorically against the Paris retrospective traveling anywhere else, including Beirut (there hasn’t been a solo exhibition of Abboud’s work in Lebanon since his last show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in 1999).
“I am opposed to the idea of the retrospective traveling,” he says. “The number of available, important or interesting pieces by Abboud is enough to prepare an original retrospective for each new city.” The first of those cities, of course, is Beirut. A year from now, Lemand, in collaboration with Nadine Begdache and Saleh Barakat, will unveil a new retrospective, complete with a new catalogue, at the Beirut Exhibition Center.
If that weren’t enough, Lemand is also planning further exhibitions and publications on different aspects of Abboud’s oeuvre, such as his ceramics and artist’s books. Famously willing to experiment, Abboud also produced carpets, tapestries, lithographs, posters and terracotta totem poles.
Once, he even made a wooden storyteller’s box, a sandouq al-firji, for his daughter, Christine. But Abboud’s most generous critics never really bought his argument about the narrative roots of his work. In a 1994 review for L’Orient-Le Jour, the writer Joseph Tarrab remarked: “We don’t give a damn about Abboud’s stories: It is the timbre of his voice that matters to us, and enchants us.
“Shafic Abboud: Rétrospective” is on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe through August 28.
13 March 2022
ALGERIA MY LOVE. Artists of the Algerian fraternity, 1953-2021 - Exhibition from March 18 to July 31, 2022.
24 June 2020
12 June 2020
8 April 2020
4 March 2020
16 February 2020
30 August 2019
10 August 2019
28 January 2019
22 October 2018
A PASSION TO SHARE. The CLAUDE & FRANCE LEMAND DONATION of 1300 artworks to the Institut du monde arabe MUSEUM, Paris.
29 August 2018
NUIT BLANCHE 2018 - YOUSSEF ABDELKE - A DONATION TO FIGHT DEATH IN SYRIA. - Institut du monde arabe, Museum. - 6 OCTOBER 2018.
25 May 2018
16 May 2018
ABDALLAH BENANTEUR, THE SONG OF THE EARTH. Retrospective-Tribute. Exhibition from June 9, to September 9, 2018.
1 March 2018
AZZAWI, SABRA AND SHATILA. Exhibition from April 11 to September 16. 2018. - Musée. Institut du Monde arabe, Paris.
4 February 2018
22 January 2018
14 January 2018
12 June 2017
7 August 2016
24 February 2016
SEGUÍ, PAINTING IN MIRRORS. Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch, ISSOUDUN. From 27 February to 22 May 2016.
30 September 2015
MAHJOUB BEN BELLA, WORKS ON PAPER. La Piscine Museum, Roubaix, France. 24 OCTOBER 2015 - 31 JANUARY 2016
24 September 2015
18 September 2015
18 September 2015
18 September 2015
27 February 2015
25 February 2015
7 November 2014
ETEL ADNAN, Writing Mountains. Museum der Moderne Salzburg. Retrospective, 15 Nov. 2014 - 08 March 2015.
1 September 2014
3 July 2014
ISSOUDUN - Musée de l’Hospice Saint Roch - Conversation between Claude Lemand and Tom Laurent - Art Absolument - July 2014
21 May 2014
8 May 2014
19 March 2014
9 March 2014
10 January 2014
28 October 2013
16 October 2013
5 March 2013
Grand Palais - Art Paris Art Fair - C21 Galerie Claude Lemand - 27 mars - 1er avril 2013. Dia Al-Azzawi, Bilad al-Sawad & other works, 1978-2011.
15 November 2012
20 May 2011