Circumstances and Issues of Syrian Art in Lebanon

I still believe that art was – and always will be – a document and a visual testimony that recounts the history of peoples. I also know that what I’m saying is not new and that perhaps it has been repeated by many before me. Nevertheless, and while we are about to publish this issue of our journal, which is dedicated to the artistic activities of Syrian artists In Lebanon, we must bring back to mind the historical and cultural circumstances (as well the social and political conditions) that have led to the fate of art and artists under those very circumstances in both Lebanon and Syria.

In primary school, we did not learn in our textbooks that there was only Syria and Lebanon; no, in addition to Beirut and Damascus there was Jerusalem, and countless other big and small towns and villages varying in importance and vitality. It was as if those cities ignored borders and political maps. We lived in our towns, villages, mountains and shores. We were naive or intelligent, illiterate or educated, rich or poor. With its diversity and cultural wealth, historical and ethno-geographic conditions played a major role in defining the destiny and potential of the peoples from that part of the world. Thus, we can argue that because of the intensity of convergence and cultural exchange between those cities, there are no ‘Syrian’ or ‘Lebanese’ artists. We regard them all simply as artists, irrespective of the identities they hold. To that purpose, and for the sake of examining the Syrian art scene in Lebanon as it exists today, we shall think of art as a conscious testimony and a humane stance, rather than a decorative activity or technical skills.

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Tawfic Tarek 'Untitled' Oil on Canvas, 62 x 47 cm, 1924

The authority of the Ottoman state extended over all the lands that later became known as Syria and Lebanon. Painters were scarce at the time. During Ottoman rule, the Muslim artist wrote verses while the Christian artist drew icons and the decorator adorned houses. This lasted up until the advent of the pioneers of the 20th century. Most of them had gone to the West to study European art in accordance with the classical schools. Upon their return, after finishing their studies, those first generation artists moved between Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem and Aleppo whether because of their official professions or to meet the demands of wealthy clients; drawing their portraits or photographing towns and villages. Tawfic Tarek and Daoud Korm (whose identity is still disputed until today) were two such artists. Mustafa Farroukh and Naseer Shoura, as I have been once told by Elias Zayat, always traveled together moving between Syria and Lebanon to draw, side by side, the same natural scenery. That was the case with other artists like Saeed Tahsin, Michel Kerche, and Saliba Dweihy; moving between Beirut, Damascus, the mountains of Lebanon, Ma’aloula, Palmyra and Baalbek to draw natural landscapes, historical sites, social figures and religious personalities. Thus, the natural geographical expanse between Syria and Lebanon helped many artists from different generations to enrich the visual and intellectual culture. This state of moving and exchanging continued with the modern generation artists and coincided with poetic, cultural and artistic activity of both Syrian and Lebanese poets and artists. 

The very first art galleries in Beirut were established in the late 1950s. The first, Gallery One, was founded by the poet Youssef Al Khal. Many are aware of the role that gallery played in displaying the works of Syrian and Arab artists within a society mostly inclined to Western culture, in its language and in the conduct of its individuals. In that era, national sentiment started growing alongside an insistence on adhering to ‘Arab’ identity, as well as an interest in national issues and concerns and the fate of the Arab person – particularly in relation to the Palestinian cause. The Syrian artistic modernity arrived teeming with great artists committed to the mentality of that era. Since then, that committed mentality has characterised the art of many Syrian artists. However, in Lebanon, the onset of the civil war became the major motivator for Lebanese artists’ adherence to parsing their feelings on violence, war and destruction and their involvement with patriotic concerns. Many of them, especially the youth, moved to Europe and the United States and started experimenting with multimedia. Their knowledge of English and French was a great help to them in communicating with their new communities.

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Extending towards the East, the Syrian Baath party was monopolising the cultural and artistic activity. The communication between Syria and Lebanon and even between East and West Beirut was interrupted. Fateh Al Mudarres agonised over the Lebanese Civil war and  executed his most beautiful paintings such as Beirut at Night and The Children of the War in Lebanon. Al Mudarres linked Lebanon and Syria like no artist had ever done before, and both countries acknowledged his artistic stature. A shy communication followed after the end of the war and the road between Beirut and Damascus became passable again. There has always been a special glamor of Syrian art for the Lebanese.

At the start of the Syrian tragedy in 2011, the road to Beirut was the shortest path for Syrian artists escaping from terror and death. They took refuge in their neighboring country, carrying nothing but their pencil and brush. Their paintings moaned with pain, body parts were strewn throughout them, and human monsters multiplied. Some of them had no choice but to remain in Beirut while those who were able to escape did just that. Unwanted artists were driven out and others used their skills to build up and stimulate public relations. Art galleries rushed to monopolise, some proudly claiming that they are supporting these youths, envisaging no risks – someone’s business prospers and the sale wheel spins. Despite– and through – all this, what we get is the hissing of haughtiness, the media fanfare, lack of study and research, lack of friendships, cooperation and sharing experiences. Everyone in his own world is going after his own purpose; very little unites them and too much keeps them apart.