A History of Art Associations in Damascus During the 20th Century: From Emergence Until the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971

Throughout the development of Syria’s art scene, art associations have played a key role in the support and encouragement of artists, as well as in the creation of major art events and exchanges between Syrian artists and their neighbours in the wider Middle East as well as on a global stage. In this essay, Atassi Foundation Art Writing Prize winner Lubna Hammad outlines the major movements of the 20th century and their key players, charting the most significant art associations of each era, their impact and their lasting legacies. This essay focuses on reviewing major art events during this period of time, culminating in holding the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971 and the establishment of the Arab Plastic Artists Union in 1973.

NB: All dates for mentioned artists and activities are included where possible, except where there is no information available on the public record.

 

1952 exhibitions in Damascus: (from right) wife of Rashad Kseibati, Mirko Pucaca (Yugoslavia), Nassir Shoura, Michel El Mir (1930-1973) (Lebanon), Robert Malaki (1923–2003), Jack Wardeh, Mahmoud Jalal, (back) Mahmoud Hammad.

Towards the end of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th, Damascus witnessed major historical, political and economic events, reflected mainly in the foundation of publishing houses, magazines and newspapers, local and international schools, universities, and national political and scientific societies. This happened in parallel with developments in the fields of thought, culture and the arts, and manifested itself though the emergence of a new generation of artists contributing to laying the foundations of a Modern art renaissance, introducing the city to a new artistic era different in nature to the traditional arts with which the country had been familiar with during its long Ottoman rule. This was accompanied by new social manifestations, such as the introduction of photographic equipment, which became increasingly popular after WWI through subsequent migratory waves of Armenians to Syria and Lebanon.(1) Furthermore, in 1922, headquartered in Damascus’s Al-Azem Palace, the French Institute of Archaeology and Islamic Arts was established. The Institute enrolled several French artists, some of whom worked in education and created many paintings featuring nature, Damascene old neighbourhoods and other local subjects. 

The Modern art movement in Syria was initiated circa the 1920s by a small number of pioneers active in Damascus and Aleppo, and later in the cities of Homs and Hama – although this paper focuses on the art scene in the capital. This new movement is most associated with Tawfik Tarek (1875–1940). After finishing his studies in France in 1901, the engineer, decorator, caricaturist and painter worked in his studio in Damascus, adopting a realistic documentary style. He drew natural landscapes and portraits of the Damascene upper class, as well as historical subjects, all to great success, and his studio became an art education mecca. Furthermore, he introduced the city’s intellectuals and art lovers to the concept of acquiring a painting to be hung on a wall, known as peinture de chevalet.(2) Tarek also co-founded the Fine Arts Club in Sarouja in 1930, which encompassed music, acting and photography, as well as a painting department headed by Tarek himself. Other contemporaries of Tarek who left their mark on the nascent art scene include Abdulwahab Abu Al-Saoud (1897­–1951), who came back from Paris to teach art in Damascus, and was active in painting and theatre. Furthermore, Michael Kurcheh (1900–1973), considered the first pioneer of Impressionism in Syria, also returned to Syria after graduation in Paris, and created many paintings of Damascene landscapes, neighbourhoods and rural areas, with a special attention to light. 

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Tawfik Tarek beside one of his artworks.

The 1940s witnessed the arrival of new artists who were active under the extremely harsh circumstances between the two World Wars. Some were self-taught, while others studied in the academies of Paris, Rome or Egypt, adopting academic and classical concepts; only a few pushed the boundaries towards Impressionism. What they all shared was a thoughtful mission to find unique personal styles and became the catalyst for the growth of Contemporary art in Syria, manifested through their continuous production: involvement in education through interaction with the youth and teaching painting, and co-founding art associations that played a crucial role in the art scene through the holding of exhibitions. These art associations attested to the importance of artists and their national and cultural role.(3)

The visual arts movement in Damascus during this period (between the mid-1930s and the early 1970s) can be divided into three main stages: 

1. Community art associations

2. Early state exhibitions and first scholarships abroad

3. State cultural and educational institutions and private galleries

This essay focuses on reviewing major art events during this period of time, culminating in holding the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971 and the establishment of the Arab Plastic Artists Union in 1973.

1. COMMUNITY ART ASSOCIATIONS

Art Collectives and Early Studios

The first art collective to be established for Syrian visual artists was founded in a tiny room dedicated to painting at the National Conservatoire (1937-1940) Several musicians were enrolled there, in addition to visual artists who also played instruments, such as Nassir Shoura (1920–1992), accordion and banjo; Abdulaziz Nashawati (1912–2000), mandolin and Adnan Jabasini, percussion.(4) Eventually, visual artists decided to drop out of the National Conservatoire and instead co-founded an independent association under the name Andalusia Forum for Painting and Literature (1940–1941). The monthly subscription to this forum was one Syrian Lira and supported the rent of the new space. Many writers and scholars joined, and the forum was also frequented by visiting artists from other governorates, among them Alfred Bakhash (1921–1994) and Ghaleb Salem (1912–1985) from Aleppo.(5) The most prominent exhibition from that era is the one held at the Law School in 1940 in which several Syrian artists participated, along with French artists, mostly military officials from the Mandate army. In an interview in 1981, artist Mahmoud Hammad noted that the opening was attended by the President of the Syrian Republic, Sheikh Taj Al-Din Al-Hasani (1885–1943).

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Mahmoud Hammad and Adnan Jabasini at Atelier Veronese.

Atelier Veronese

Established in 1941 with a name inspired by the renowned Italian painter Paolo Veronese (and the colour green he gave his name to), Atelier Veronese was the first active hub for visual artists in Damascus, attracting those mostly working as painting teachers in the schools of the capital. The atelier was originally a workshop for the painting of furniture and children’s toys and was owned by Adnan Jabasini(6), who practiced oil painting. This creative space became a meeting place for artists and sculptors in which they executed still lifes and live model studies. In their spare time, they would manufacture wooden toys and decorate children’s beds and wardrobes in order to finance the atelier. The place also became something of a forum for journalists, authors and musicians to exchange ideas and engage in art-related debates. The atelier was also frequented by artists visiting from other governorates and neighbouring countries, among them Moustafa Farroukh (1901–1957) of Beirut, Khalid Al-Jader (1922–1988) of Baghdad, and Abdelaziz Darwish (1918–1981) of Cairo.(7) It also attracted several foreign artists such as Polish Józef Jarema (1900–1974), who organised an exhibition of Polish painters at the Orient Palace in 1944 in which Syrian artists were introduced to artistic styles and trends they were not familiar with.(8) 

In 1984, as part of a cultural seminar entitled Youth and Visual Art, artist Mahmoud Hammad (1923–1988) described this time: 

“I was working with the Atelier Veronese group of several enthusiastic youth. We were disoriented amidst the chaos of experimentation, seeking knowledge through rare art books and magazines and only a handful of exhibitions in Damascus, notable among them is the exhibition for Polish artists held at the Orient Palace Hotel in 1944, supervised by artist Józef Jarema with whom I had a short-lived, yet fruitful, friendship that helped introducing me to modern art practices, the basics of painting formation, balancing structures and forms, meanings of contrast, and harmony and combination of colours. Also, I was influenced by the opinion of artists who had just returned from abroad like Mahmoud Jalal, Michael Kurcheh, Salah Al-Nashif and Nassir Shoura. In my artworks, I was inspired by traditional themes such as faces, nature and old neighbourhoods. I shifted between a superficial concept of impressionism and a naïve imitation of reality, without having any explicit concepts towards style and orientation. My starting point was, rather, my spontaneity, and also the limited intellectual resources and technical know-how available to me back then.

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Guests at the studio of Nassir Shoura in 1949: (from right) Saad Sa’eb (writer, translator and poet), Jack Wardeh, Nassir Shoura, (fourth), Abdulaziz Nashawati.

We had a real difficulty in acquiring materials and paint colours. Thus, we resorted to pigments used in wall paint. We had to finely grind them with flax oil and then fill them in old cleaned toothpaste tubes. For small paintings, we used plywood sourced from empty wooden tea containers. We continued this practice until the Department of Provisions provided us with a quota, i.e. a specific amount of this type of wood to be distributed to us, like that of carpenters.”

In his article, ‘Art Associations in Syria from 1925 Till Today’, Ghazi Al-Khaledi explains how The Arab Association for Fine Arts (1943–1945) branched out from Atelier Veronese in 1943. Presiding over this new association were Saeed Tahseen (1904–1985) and his deputy Mahmoud Jalal (1911–1975), soon to be joined by most of the Atelier Veronese artists. The association drafted a detailed two-pronged programme: the first was a department to teach painting and sculpture for free, while the other was dedicated to art production and developing handcrafts. The association organised a large exhibition in 1944 at the Laique (Al-Houriet) School for many Syrian artists of the time, plus several foreign artists. In 1945 and right after the French aggression on Damascus – storming the Syrian parliament and burning it – artists of the Arab Association for Fine Arts drew paintings portraying this infamous incident and the damage sustained around Damascus. Following the travel of Nazem Al-Jaafari (1918–2015) and Nassir Shoura to Cairo to pursue their art education, the association was dissolved in 1945.(9) Atelier Veronese, however, maintained its role as a meeting place for fellow artists who worked in it until 1950.(10)

Through their participation in art associations, seminars and exhibitions, female Syrian artists also contributed in the nascent Syrian Modern art movement. The first prominent such example was a painting exhibition organised by the Ministry of Education at the first secondary school in Damascus, Jawdat Al-Hashemi, from 15–22 August 1947. Among those whose works featured in the exhibition were Katherine Masarra, Mouti’a Shoura, Ne’mat al-Attar and Ramziya Zembarakji (a student of Tawfik Tarek and an art teacher). These were the very first female artists to participate in a major exhibition after Syrian Independence.(11) 

Immediately after Nassir Shoura’s return from Cairo to Damascus in 1948, he established his own studio at Al-Madfa’ Square in Damascus, hosting Syrian and foreign artists. Some guests became visiting artists in the studio, among them Lebanon’s Saliba Douaihy (1909–1994), and Yugoslavia’s Mirko Pucaca, who was introduced to the town of Maaloula by Shoura and subsequently held a special exhibition of its landscapes in Belgrade. The studio served also as both a space for free education frequented by youth to receive training on the principles of art, and as a forum for artists to gather and exchange ideas.(12) 

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The Society for Lovers of Fine Arts, 3 April 1952. (Standing from right) Jack Wardeh, Nassir Shoura, Michael Kurcheh, Michel El Mir, Mahmoud Hammad; (sitting from right) Nazem Al-Jaafari, Robert Malaki, Eleanora Shatti (1913–2006), Munawwar Morelli (1912–2005) and Adnan Jabasini.

The Syrian Society of Arts (1950–1960)

Khaledi also outlines the establishment of the Syrian Society of Arts, established in 1950 by intellectuals and men of literature and art and considered one of the most prominent art associations in Damascus. The first meeting of the members of the new society took place at the house of the artist, photographer and archaeologist Khaled Moaz (1904–1989), and its first president was the Emir Kadhim El Djezairi. Activities of the society focused mainly on visual arts, literature and social sciences, organising solo and group exhibitions, holding seminars (some of which were documented in books), as well as entertainment, and introducing aspiring talents like the actor Duraid Lahham who debuted at one of the society’s parties as an amateur comedian. The society was supported by member subscriptions as well as the donations of individuals and corporations. Additionally, in its early days, the society was supported by the selling of small paintings for five Syrian Liras. Over time, it became less active and its original members split up. The Syrian Society of Arts remained inactive after this for some years but was reactivated in 1977 under the presidency of Dr Mounir Shoura and held a group exhibition at Urnina Modern Art Gallery the same year. 

Around the same time, the Society for Lovers of Fine Arts was established in 1952 and was based at the house of the sculptor Jack Wardeh (1913–2006). Several art lovers as well as members of women's literary salons joined the new society, which, despite holding exhibitions and other events, never managed to be on par with The Syrian Society of Arts, and it dissolved itself in 1955.(13)

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An exhibition opening for Association of Syrian Artists in 1950s. Syrian president Shukri Al-Quwatli with artist Anwar Ali Arnaout (left), artist Jack Wardeh (right corner). Archive of artist Anwar Ali Arnaout.

The final noteworthy community art association of the 1950s was the Association of Syrian Artists for Painting and Sculpture (1956–1959), to which artists from the Syrian Society of Arts and Society for Lovers of Fine Arts also joined. The Association was based at the house of the artist Salah Al-Nashif (1914–1971). Its first president was Jack Wardeh, and its last was Mahmoud Jalal. Among the most prominent achievements of the Association was a proposal dated 3 July 1956, which sought to abolish the three prizes that had been awarded at the State Exhibition since its first edition in 1950. It suggested, rather, a project for state institutions to acquire artworks at affordable prices. It was necessary, the Association advocated, for the state to preserve such artworks in order to establish a valuable collection in the creative and historical sense that could be a cornerstone for a future museum for Modern art.  

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Third Exhibition of Fine Arts. National Museum in Damascus, November 1952. (Front from right) Louay Kayyali, Mahmoud Hammad, Adnan Al-Rifa’I (1932–2005), Mamdouh Kashlan, Sami Burhan (b.1929), Izzat Nweilati, Fateh Moudarres. (Back from right) Michael Kurcheh and his wife Olga Georgiades, Marwan Kassab-Bachi (1934–2006), Zuher Sabban (1913–1987), Nassir Shoura, Noubar Sabaghian (1920–2006), Mahmoud Jalal, and Rachad Kseibati (1911–1990).

2. EARLY STATE EXHIBITIONS AND FIRST SCHOLARSHIPS ABROAD

First State Exhibitions and the Emergence of Art Criticism 

The 1950s also witnessed a burgeoning of government-funded cultural activity and, in 1950, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the General Directorate of Antiquities opened the first state-sponsored art exhibition in Syria at a special section of the National Museum of Damascus. A committee was established to hand out appreciation awards for which 30 artists competed by submitting around 100 paintings.(14) The show, entitled Hand Drawing Exhibition, is considered a milestone in the history of Syrian Contemporary art, and the first of what was to become an annual event held to this day.

In this era, Syrian artists participated in international exhibitions in Arab and foreign countries, including the Alexandria International Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, held from 26 July–15 September 1955. The 1957 Syrian Exhibition for Arts, Folklore and Handcrafts at the National Museum in toured Leningrad and Moscow in the Soviet Union, as well as cities in Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria. This acted as a starting point for travelling exhibitions in the years to come and was discussed in detail in a research paper by Dr. Selim Abdul-Hak published in the same year in the Magazine of Archaeological Annals of Syria. 

Drawing/Painting permission, issued by Security Department, Damascus, 28 March 1953.

This progress led to a flourishing of art criticism through seminars, radio, art newspapers and magazines. Notable examples of the latter included Archaeological Annals, Al-Joundi and Al-Adab. This encouraged writers to publish articles expressing their impressions about artworks in an elaborate and descriptive, refined language, in addition to some critical writings. The art of criticism eventually evolved into a more scientific and thorough study of artworks, beyond personal impressions. Among the first who delved into art criticism are Dr. Selim Abdul-Hak, Mounir Salman, Hassan Kamal, Saad Sa’eb (1914–2000), Shaker Moustafa (1921–1997), Dr. Afif Bahnassi (1928–2017), Muta’ Safadi (1929–2016) and Dr. Salman Kattaya (1930–2004).(15)

In this context, Damascus International Fair must be mentioned. Held for the first time in 1954, it became a large economic event. To celebrate the opening of the fair, that same year, the General Post Corporation issued a commemorative postage stamp in an initiative that recurred annually with every edition. Visual artists contributed by providing illustrations for relevant publications and travelled around Syria documenting different locales for this purpose, with the backing of the government, which had expressly ordered local authorities to support these artists in their activities.

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Group photo of students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Among the students are Mamdouh Kashlan, Mahmoud Hammad, Derrie Fakhoury Hammad, Mahmoud Daadoush, Louay Kayyali, Fateh al-Moudarres and the professor of art history in the middle. Rome, May 1957.

First Scholarships Abroad 

To win a scholarship to study art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, artists participated in a competition organised by the Ministry of Education. In 1953 Mahmoud Hammad and Mamdouh Kashlan (b. 1929) became the first two artists to be dispatched. They joined several Syrian artists already in Rome, among them Taleb Yazigi (1923–1995), Fathi Kabawe (1917–1958), Ismail Hakki (1920–1980), Adham Ismael (1923–1963), Louay Kayyali (1934–1978), Fateh Moudarres (1922–1999) and others. It was also an opportunity to meet Arab artists pursing their studies abroad. 

In 1954, 23 Arab artists were invited to participate in a group exhibition dedicated to them at the Palazzetto Borghese. The event drew the attention of Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian diplomats, representatives of the then Italian-Arab centre in Rome, and Arab art connoisseurs such as the director of the Egyptian Academy of Arts in Rome, Abdel Kader Rizk, as well as being featured in several Italian newspapers.(16)

Shortly after Hammad and Kashlan returned to Syria, both were appointed as painting teachers in schools in the southern city of Daraa, joining Adham Ismail who had started a year earlier. There, their art was inspired by the simplicity of rural life and the sincerity of relations in the community, creating paintings characterised by a specific style that was to become specific to that phase of their artistic career. Of this time, Kashlan recalled:

This trio experience lasted from 1958 to 1959. Adham Ismail preceded us to Daraa a year earlier. He hosted us both at his place until we managed our own accommodation. We would meet on a daily basis in my house, going through our daily encounters. The common theme among the three of us was the rural life in Daraa. Each addressed this topic in his own style and approach, adopting different colours, lines, formations and dimensions. After two years, we had to separate due to our circumstances. I was dispatched to Cairo in July 1959, to be followed by Ismail in December of the same year. (17)

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Adham Ismail and Mahmoud Hammad in the city of Daraa. 1957.

3. STATE CULTURAL AND EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS AND PRIVATE GALLERIES

Ministry of Culture and National Guidance in Damascus

Tasked with administering the art scene, the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance was created upon the establishment of United Arab Republic between Syria and Egypt in 1958. Also established was the Directorate of Visual and Applied Arts in 1959, which in turn founded visual and applied arts centres in Damascus and other cities. Tasked since 1959 with organising the annual Spring Exhibition in Aleppo (its first event) and the Autumn Exhibition in Damascus (15–30 November), the directorate was rebranded in 1966 as the Directorate of Fine Arts.  Representing various contemporary art movements and trends in Syria, 70 artworks from the Spring Exhibition were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo, opening to the public on 4 July 1959 in the presence of the Minister of Culture and Guidance and the Dean of the Art School in Cairo, Tharwat Okasha, and the head of the Directorate of Visual and Applied Arts in Syria, Dr. Afif Bahnassi.(18)

Finally, the Supreme Council for the Arts, Literature and Social Sciences was also established in 1959, tasked with overseeing educational recommendations pertinent to advancing arts and literature, and then submitting them to the relevant authorities for endorsement and execution. 

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Gallery guide of the Spring Exhibition for Painting and Sculpture, 1959. Archive of artist Abdulaziz Nashawati.

The Faculty of Fine Arts 

In collaboration with the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria (founded in 1958), the Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus was established in 1960. The institute included departments for painting, engraving and sculpture, as well as a department for interior design.(19) The first dean of the Higher Institute was the Egyptian Hussein Fawzi, while managing and teaching tasks were undertaken by a group of specialised figures from Syria and Egypt with experience in higher education. Initially reporting to the Ministry of Education, in 1963 the Higher Institute became the Faculty of Fine Arts, under the auspices of the University of Damascus, and Dr. Abdul Rauf Al-Kasm (b. 1932) was appointed its first dean.(20) 

The establishment of the Faculty of Fine Arts coincided with the return of several graduates dispatched through scholarships to study at Italian academies. They joined the academic staff of the newly established faculty, in addition to several artists from across the span of Europe. The resulting interaction between Syrian academics and their fellow colleagues – who brought with them the artistic practices of their respective nations – had a positive impact on students, exposing them to different art trends around the world. Moreover, the faculty played a crucial role in the emergence of a generation of young artists who filled voids in various art activities – such as graphic art – and became the cornerstone of the contemporary art movement.

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Jury of a graduation project at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, 1965. (From right) Fateh al-Moudarres, Nassir Shoura, Mahmoud Jalal, Mahmoud Hammad, Dr. Abdul Rauf al-Kasm, Pierre Gauthier-Dubédat (France), Abdulkader Arnaout, Alain Labouret (France), Ahmad Amin Asem (Egypt), and Elias Zayyat.

Gallery of International Modern Art: First private gallery in Damascus

Celebrating the return of his brother, the artist Mahmoud Daadoush (1934–2008) from Rome where he had received his degree from the Academy of Fine Arts, Muhammad Daadoush launched the Gallery of International Modern Art on 20 October 1960. In Damascus the gallery served as an active hub, organising artistic and cultural activities, encouraging discussion and creating a sophisticated artistic and intellectual community around it. For example, on 20 July 1961 the galley hosted an event at the Orient Club, inviting its Damascene community to join the search for an artists’ muse, who would then be available for artists to draw at the Tawfik Tarek Centre in Damascus and the Fathi Kabawe Centre in Aleppo. The resulting artworks were presented in two large exhibitions in Damascus and Aleppo (3 August 1961–14 January 1962) to great success and were widely celebrated in Syrian, Egyptian and Lebanese media.

In sessions attended by journalists and renowned artistic and literary figures, the Gallery also hosted discussions to call for an Arab artists conference preceded by a series of exhibitions organised in various Arab countries. The discussions resulted in a manifesto that was published in the Al-Sada newspaper on 23 August 1963. This manifesto instigated the establishment of the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971. 

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Jury supervising choosing artists’ muse at the Orient Club in Damascus, 20 July 1961. (from right) Naim Ismail (visual artist), Louay Kayyali (visual artist), Dr. Salman Kattaya (art critic), Derrie Fakhoury Hammad (female visual artist), Dr. Salim Adel Abdulhak (director of the Department of Archaeology and Museums), Dr. Afif Bahnassi (head of the Directorate of Visual Art at Ministry of Culture and National Guidance), Khaled Moaz (visual artist), and (back) Fadil Al-Siba’I (novelist).

In the early 1960s, several other galleries emerged, among them Siwann Gallery (1962–1965) run by Ghayath Al-Akhras and Mouna Ostiwani, and Espace Gallery (1962–1964) run by architect Tarek Al-Mofti.(21) After 1965 the Gallery of International Modern Art relocated several times and was rebranded the Gallery of Modern Art in 1968, before operating as Urnina Modern Art Gallery from 1971–1985, when Mahmoud Daadoush retuned to Italy to establish Urnina Modern Art Gallery in the Italian city of Aprilia near Rome.(22)

Alongside the emergence of galleries and official art societies, community art associations became active again in the 1960s and early 1970s. This re-emergence, however, was short-lived. After the Syrian Artists’ Association put its activities on hold, its space was used by the Social and Artistic Unit (1961–1966) to provide welfare for the visually impaired, as well as teaching them and introducing them to art and culture. It also organised regular exhibitions, lectures, classes and seminars for those with visual impairment. There was also the Society of the Friends of Art (1963), supervised by its president, engineer Farouk Harastani. Its members were students, art lovers, clerks, engineers and graduates of The Faculty of Arts in Damascus. The society established a library and organised semi-annual exhibitions, inhouse and outhouse. 

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Damascus Group, aka. D Group: Nassir Shoura, Mahmoud Hammad, and Elias Zayyat at Siwann Gallery, 1965.

In 1964, along with other artists and intellectuals, Fateh Moudarres established the Midday Group for Modern Art and issued a manifesto published in Al-Thawra newspaper. In an interview conducted by Yousef Makdisi and published in Tishreen newspaper in 1965, Moudarres explained the ideas and concepts of the new group:

“We refuse to adopt imported colours and forms without tracing back their innate authenticity. We have an arduous mission ahead of us, and we need constructive criticism (..) Our group reiterates the necessity for a genuine study of current art production. We will no longer accept poor and trivial [artistic] production, as weak production is equal to no production at all. We will be on the lookout, without any bias, when dealing with any art that does not emerge from this land and does not merit the honour of belonging to [our] contemporary art production.”(23) 

The Damascus Group, also known as D Group, was established in 1965 and included Nassir Shoura, Mahmoud Hammad and Elias Zayyat (b. 1935) and exhibited at Siwann Gallery in the same year along with Moudarres. Some of their artworks were also displayed at the São Paulo Art Biennial, also in 1965, where artists presented, to great public interest, their approaches to Abstraction.

This was followed by the large exhibition Contemporary Syrian Art in Beirut at the Sursock Museum in 1966. Abstract artworks initiated a heated debate in Syrian and Lebanese newspapers. As parallel activities to the exhibition, seminars were held in which artists discussed the progress they witnessed in terms of styles and approaches. It is a progress that came as a result of long reflection and serious consideration and manifested itself in works expressing their ability to comprehend the essence of form and colour. This showed artists’ potential to express themselves in a more audacious way, and their need to build a modern Arab art language. 

Founded in 1969, the Group of Ten was short-lived and dissolved just a few years later. Its members were artists from across the spectrum, belonging to different ideologies and who engaged in artistic and cultural debates revolving around strengthening the role of artists by establishing a solid base for visual culture through collaboration amongst themselves. Of the most prominent figures of this group  were Abdulkader Arnaout (1936–1992), Asaad Arabi (b. 1941), Ghassan Sibai (1939–2015), Naim Ismail (1930-1979), Ghayath Al-Akhras (b. 1937), Ahmad Darak Sibai (1935–1987), Nazeer Naba’a (1938–2016), Elias Zayyat, Nashat Al-Zo’obi (b. 1939), and Khuzaima Alwani (b. 1934). Joining later were Abdullah Murad (b. 1944) and Mounzer Kamnakache (1935–2019). The Group of Ten held several exhibitions in Damascus, and some of its members exhibited works at Gallery One in Beirut in 1970. 

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Some members from the Group of Ten: (From right) Elias Zayyat, Nazeer Naba’a, Asaad Arabi, Ghassan Sibai, Ghayath Al-Akhras, Abdulkader Arnaout, and Naim Ismail. Archive of artist Abdulkader Arnaout

Fine Arts Syndicate in Damascus 

Established in 1969, the Fine Arts Syndicate (currently the Syrian Plastic Artist’s Union) as a grassroots organisation commissioned to cater to artists, lobby their interests, and contribute to organising artistic activities. In 1970, Al-Sha’ab Gallery was launched as the headquarters for the Syndicate. In its first session, artist Mahmoud Jalal read its manifesto, and Dr. Afif Bahnassi was elected its first president in an assembly attended by artists and held at the Arab Cultural Center in Al-Jala’a Street in Damascus.(24) 

The First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus (6–12 December 1971)

Artists in Syria were not isolated from art movements in neighbouring countries, and in fact interacted with them often. In this context, the most prominent exchange initiated under an official umbrella was suggested by the Fine Arts Syndicate in Syria, which invited Arab artists – through their respective administrative associations – to the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts held in Damascus between 6–12 December 1971. The conference discussed the realities of visual arts in each state and their place in 20th century civilisation in general and contemporary Arab civilisation in particular. It also debated the affairs of Arab artists in terms of their rights and commitments, proposing the establishment of an Arab Plastic Artists Union. All recommendations that came out of the conference were compiled into a booklet. Artists also participated in an art exhibition held to mark the conference.(25)  

Based on this success, other Pan-Arab initiatives were organised. Among them was the First Arab Festival for National Art held in Damascus from 23–25 October 1972 under the motto ‘Visual Art in the Decisive Battle, and which saw artists from 10 Arab counties participate. Participants at the festival exhibited their work, discussed artists’ responsibilities in societal issues, and exchanged ideas at a seminar aimed at defining art practices of genuine values reflecting the true spirit, culture and aspirations of a Pan-Arab nation. This is encapsulated in a quote by the Egyptian artist Hamed Nada (1924–1990): “The artist has two sets of potentials: The first are the tragic events dwelling in him; while the second is his engagement in developing his artistic practice.” 

At the invitation of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society and as a continuation of the 1971 constitutive conference held in Damascus, the First Conference of the General Union of Arab Plastic Artists was organised in Baghdad from 20–24 of April 1973. The Baghdad event culminated in the election of Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout(1930–2006) as the first secretary general of the Union of Arab Plastic Artists. It was also decided that the General Secretariat should consist of members, each representing a single participating Arab country, with a secretary general, secretary, and treasurer to be elected among them. The Iraqi delegation also suggested holding the First Biennale of Arab Art in October 1973 in Baghdad.(26) 

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Medallion of The First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971. Designed by Mahmoud Hammad.

Conclusion 

The art scene in Syria has developed in parallel to political, economic and cultural events of each eras, as well as social changes over the decades covered here. It started with a generation of artists – the pioneers – who fought for their belief in the importance and necessity of cultural activity. Since the 1920s, they have exhibited their work and established art associations to create creative hubs where artists, intellectuals, literary figures and musicians have met, ideas have been exchanged and seminars held. These institutions have formed both the pillar and cornerstone of Syria’s art scene, and a significant part of the history of art in the country. The generations who followed in the 1950s and 1960s marked the emergence of state art institutions and educational authorities that gave prominence to these growing art movements. Artists maintained their efforts to enrich and empower their practices by adopting modern scientific foundations more open to international art movements, leading to the evolution of new art trends. As a result, artists were able to share their work with the world, participate in major art events, win appreciation prizes and became the best ambassadors of their country.

We conclude with a quote by art critic Tariq Al-Sharif (1935–2013) from an article entitled Contemporary Visual Art in Syria: 

“After going through different art practices and visual explorations, art in Syria officially entered the contemporary realm. It settled on its own art formulas, suitable to its settings. And these formulas became the contemporary face of the movement. Each and every artist adopted a unique and independent artistic character within active art trends. This character defined artist affiliation to a specific art trend. Artists carried out more thorough research, adding new art forms to help express themselves and make any necessary amendments. These art forms became more relevant in reflecting reality with which they interacted.”(27)

17

Exhibition of Arab artists in Rome, 10 April 1954. Mahmoud Hammad with guests.

About the author:

Lubna Hammad is an architect who manages the collection of the family of her father, the late Syrian artist Mahmoud Hammad, working on archiving Hammad’s complete oeuvre, as well as documenting historical data and the different stages of the Syrian art movement. She later expanded her research to cover major art events in Syria during the 20th century, with a focus on Damascus in particular.  

All photographs and documents featured in this paper are from the archive of artist Mahmoud Hammad, unless otherwise specified.

I extend special thanks to the children of artists Freddie Kurcheh, Mahmoud Arnaout, Issam Nashawati and Sami Arnaout for sharing their parents’ archives for this paper.

18

Syrian Wing at the exhibition for graduates of Italian academies, January 1954. Two sculptures for Fathi Kabawe: Female Thinker and Female Nude Beauty.

Footnotes:

1. Some of these took up and developed painting as a profession, with photography playing an important role as painters resorted to copying and enlarging photographs by hand using grids of squares and sometimes by colouring them. Readings in Syrian Painting, Taher Al-Bouni, Damascus, 2011.
2. Literally ‘easel painting’ – denoting an artwork of a small enough size to have indoors, as opposed to a mural or large-scale work.
3. Origins of Contemporary Syrian Visual Art in Syria. Mahmoud Hammad, Damascus, February 1987.
4. Prominent Figures in Visual Art (4): Nassir Shoura, Mahmoud Hammad, publications of the Ministry of Culture in the Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus, 1992
5. Art Associations in Syria from 1925 Till Today, Ghazi Al-Khaledi (1935–2006), Al-Ba’ath newspaper, 1968, p. 6. 
6. ibid
7. Mahmoud Hammad, in 1981 notes for a television interview.
8. Mahmoud Hammad, op cit.
9. Ghazi Al-Khaledi, op cit.
10. Mahmoud Hammad, op cit.
11. Exhibition gallery guide, Female Artists from Syria. Tarek Al-Sharif, Damascus, 1975.
12. Mahmoud Hammad, Op. cit.
13. Ghazi Al-Khaledi, Op. cit.
14. ‘State Exhibition of Fine Arts of Last Year (1950)’, Dr. Salim Adel Abdulhak, Magazine of Archaeological Annals of Syria, 1951, Vol. 1, 2nd part. pp. 254-261.
15. ‘Origins of Art Criticism in Syria, 1950–1960’, Tarek al-Sharif, Al-Ma’refa Magazine, 1977, issue 180.
16. Life of Artist Fathi Muhammad, Dr. Salman Kattaya, Damascus, 1962.
17. About Artist Mamdouh Kashlan, Diana Kassem, 23 June 2016.
18. Documentary film, Memory of Contemporary Egypt (opening of the Spring Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo, 1959).
19. The latter was eventually annexed in 1970 to become part of the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the University of Damascus.
20. The 60th Anniversary of the Institute and the Faculty, Saad Al-Kasem, March 2020.  
21. The 1960s Juncture in the History of Contemporary Fine Arts, Dr. Abdulaziz Alloun, 2003.
22. In 1986, Marwan Mubaid opened a new gallery in Syria under the same name – Urnina – but this only operated for two years before also closing.
23. Interview with Fateh Moudarres, Yousef Makdisi, Tishreen newspaper, 1965.  
24. Half a Century of Syrian Visual Creativity, Mamdouh Kashlan, Damascus, 2006. 
25. Al-Ba’ath newspaper, Issue 2638, 22 October 1971.
26. Report of the Syrian delegation to the First Conference of the General Union of Arab Plastic Artists, Mahmoud Hammad, 1973. Archive of artist Mahmoud Hammad.
27. Contemporary Visual Art in Syria, 1989–1998, Atassi Gallery, 1998.

image 13

Third Exhibition of Fine Arts. National Museum in Damascus, November 1952. (From right) Jamil Saliba (president of the Teachers’ Association, Secretary General of the Ministry of Education, and member of the Arab Academy), Fawzi Selu (Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, Minister of Interior), Dr. Salim Adel Abdulhak (director of the Department of Archaeology), Syrian President Adib Shishakli, Judge Mounir Ghannam (Minister of Justice), and Dr. Mourshed Khater (Minister of Health).

Bibliography

Readings in Syrian Painting, Taher Al-Bouni, Damascus, 2011. 

Origins of Contemporary Syrian Visual Art in Syria, Mahmoud Hammad, Damascus, February 1987.

Prominent Figures in Visual Art (4): Nassir Shoura, Mahmoud Hammad, publications of the Ministry of Culture in the Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus, 1992. 

Art Associations in Syria from 1925 Till Today, Ghazi Al-Khaledi (1935–2006), Al-Ba’ath newspaper, 1968, p. 6. 

Exhibition gallery guide, Female Artists from Syria, Tarek Al-Sharif, Damascus, 1975.

‘State Exhibition of Fine Arts of Last Year (1950)’, Dr. Salim Adel Abdulhak, Magazine of Archaeological Annals of Syria, Vol. 1, 2nd part. pp. 254-261.

‘Origins of Art Criticism in Syria, 1950–1960’, Tarek al-Sharif, Al-Ma’refa Magazine, issue 180, 1977. 

Life of Artist Fathi Muhammad, Dr. Salman Kattaya, Damascus, 1962. 

About Artist Mamdouh Kashlan, Diana Kassem, 23 June 2016. 

Documentary film, Memory of Contemporary Egypt (opening of the Spring Exhibition of Syrian artists at the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo, 1959). 

Saad Al-Kasem, The 60th Anniversary of the Institute and the Faculty, Thawra online, 3 March 2020.  

The 1960s Juncture in the History of Contemporary Fine Arts, Dr. Abdulaziz Alloun, 2003. 

Interview with Fateh Moudarres, Yousef Makdisi, Tishreen newspaper, 1965.  

Half a Century of Syrian Visual Creativity, Mamdouh Kashlan, Damascus, 2006. 

Al-Ba’ath newspaper, Issue 2638, 22 October 1971. 

Report of the Syrian delegation to the First Conference of the General Union of Arab Plastic Artists, Mahmoud Hammad, 1973. Archive of artist Mahmoud Hammad.

Contemporary Visual Art in Syria, 1989–1998, Atassi Gallery, 1998. 

 

 

 

 

Gallery guide for the Painting and Sculpture Exhibition of Art by the Syrian Society of Arts, 1957.  Archive of artist Abdulaziz Nashawati.