Claude Lemand. "Born in 1926 in Lebanon, Shafic Abboud is one of the foremost Arab artists of the 20th century. His paintings are a manifesto for freedom, colour, light and joy, as well as being a permanent bridge between the art scenes of France and Lebanon and that of Europe and the Middle East. Both Lebanese and Parisian, he was very attached to Lebanon, to its landscapes, its light and his own childhood memories. He was from a Lebanese Arab Modern culture. The stories of his grandmother, who was the village’s story-teller, left an indelible mark on him, at a very early age. He was familiar with the paintings of the travelling story-tellers. The artist’s eye was also strongly influenced by Byzantine icons and traditions from his church. The writings, debates, ideals, hopes and battles characterising the Arab Nahda, a modernist and anti-clerical Renaissance which was initially driven by Arab and Lebanese writers, were to later have a significant impact on Abboud’s intellectual education.
Shafic Abboud arrived in 1947 in Paris. He blended in perfectly with the city’s artistic life, just as many other artists who had come from all over the world after the Second World War (from North and South America, Europe, Asia and North Africa). This was the second major movement of migration to Paris. France’s capital was still at the time the City of lights and the favourite destination of upcoming artists seeking for modernity, embodied by Claude Monet’s last painting period and by all the Parisian masters of the 20th century. He had a particular preference for works by Pierre Bonnard, Roger Bissière and Nicolas de Staël. Abboud’s painting gradually moved from the poetic Lebanese figuration towards the lyrical Parisian abstraction, followed by a move from abstraction towards a very subtle and sublime personal “abboudian transfiguration”, which was simultaneously traditional and modern, pagan and sacred.
His work is often an invitation to the joy of life, a pagan hedonism yet limited by our frail human condition. However, this does not prevent a tragic element from being present in some of his paintings. These occasionally evoke, in an obvious or subtle way, difficult situations from stages of his life or that of his friends’, the tragic events happening in Lebanon, in the Arab world and in various parts of the World. Although Abboud never overtly put forward his engagements, his oeuvre and his interviews with the Arab press reveal his opinion as well as his political and social concerns.
When I described his mature work as being ‘transfigurative’ earlier on, it seems to me that this word reflects best Abboud’s search for a synthesis between his fairy-tale like childhood world and his technical mastering of abstract Parisian painting. He sought to transcend the latter, stimulated by both Bonnard and de Staël, by giving it a soul of its own and a rich and luminous texture. Through his paintings, Abboud aimed to share his own view on both his inside and outside worlds. He transfigured images filtered from his memory into painting, such as his series of Destroyed Cafés of 1990. These large colourful compositions beam the tragic reality of the war in Lebanon devastating the cafés by the sea in Beirut, which Abboud loved going to on his own or with his friends, when he used to visit every winter until 1975. In a similar way, he also transfigured his memory of his friend Simone after her death, whose dresses fascinated Abboud with their various shimmering fabrics. Being neither a devout follower nor believer of any religion, Abboud was nonetheless very much influenced by the glory of the Byzantine Greco-Arab liturgy. Symbolically, Art triumphs over death.
Please allow me to remind you the importance of this artist. Not only the French but also the Lebanese and Arab critics acknowledged the quality of Abboud’s painting at a very early stage in his life. Furthermore, he was the first and only artist from the Arab World to participate to the first Biennale of Paris in 1959. In Lebanon, during two decades 1950-1970, he played a major role for Beirut’s cultural and artistic life. Beirut was the beam of all the Near-Eastern countries, and had experienced many fruitful hours of freedom, creativity, prosperity and a particular way of life, which contributed to its international reputation. Up to 1975, Abboud was used to spending the three winter months in Lebanon. He taught at the Lebanese University and organised personal exhibitions in one of the best galleries of the capital. Abboud’s works were exhibited alongside the biggest names of the Parisian art scene up to 1968, and he participated to the FIAC in Paris, from 1983 onwards. In 1994, after 15 years of war, the show of his oeuvre in Beirut was a huge media and commercial success. When Abboud passed away in April 2004, a moving farewell ceremony was organised at the Parc Montsouris in Paris’ 14th district, very close to where the artist had his small studio. Abboud then received a triumphant welcome, when his body was transferred to Beirut and to Mount Lebanon, where he was buried, as per his wish."
(Claude Lemand, Shafic Abboud, Catalogue of the retrospective at IMA, Paris, 2011).
Translated from French by Valérie Hess
Public and Private Collections:
His works (paintings and works on paper, ceramics and sculpture projects, carpets and tapestries, lithographs and artist’s books) feature in many public collections in
France (MAM de la Ville de Paris, Museum of the Institut du monde arabe, FNAC, FDAC, Mobilier national, Centre Georges Pompidou, ...),
Lebanon (Nicolas Sursock Museum, Ministry of Culture, ...),
Algeria (Musée des Beaux-arts of Algiers),
Qatar (Mathaf Museum of Doha),
Jordan (Royal National Gallery),
United Kingdom (The British Museum, Tate Modern),
UAE (Abu Dhabi),
... and in a large number of major Private collections (France, Lebanon, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, USA, ...).