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Les Filles - 2000
Huile sur toile 125x125
by Claude Lemand, gallerist, art publisher and curator of the Shafic Abboud Retrospective
It was about time that Paris finally dedicates a retrospective exhibition to Shafic Abboud, the foremost Lebanese and Arab painter of the second half of the 20th century. Shafic Abboud’s 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 Lebanon and the Middle East. Both Lebanese and Parisian, Shafic Abboud was very attached to Lebanon, to its landscapes, its light and his own childhood memories. With respect to his own wish, it was important that his first retrospective be held in Paris, the city which he had loved, which had welcomed him and recognised his talent.
The exhibition will shed light on Shafic Abboud’s paintings, comprising of more than 160 works of various sizes, dating from all his periods (1948-2003) and coming from many different provenances. Hopefully further exhibitions will present other aspects of the artist’s multifaceted creativity, such as his painter’s books, his prints and lithographs, his ceramics and terracottas, his carpets and tapestries, his sculpture designs, …

Shafic Abboud 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 immersed in the very colourful popular culture of the villages of Mount Lebanon and 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. These rites celebrate more the Resurrection and Transfiguration of Christ, rather than the Passion and the Saviour’s sufferings which the Roman Catholic tradition and liturgy glorify. The writings, debates, ideals, hopes and battles characterising the Arab Nahda, a modernist and anti-clerical Renaissance which was initially driven by 19th century Lebanese writers and thinkers, were to later have a significant impact on Abboud’s intellectual education.

Born in 1926 in Lebanon, 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. Shafic Abboud had a particular preference for works by Pierre Bonnard, Roger Bissière and Nicolas de Staël. His first personal exhibition as figurative painter took place in Beirut in 1950, whilst his first solo exhibition as abstract painter was held in Paris in 1955. 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.

Like all creators, Shafic Abboud was complex and multiple. He knew how to appreciate the simple joys in life, such as eating well, drinking, loving, being affected by the light in a landscape, a fabric, a face or a woman’s body. He both claimed and wrote, as opposed to other artists who mention the torments of creation, that his happiness was fulfilled in painting and that it put him into a trance, giving him a sensual pleasure similar to that of love. I once told him that his paintings which hung in my gallery brought me a feeling of triumphant euphoria and hence, I had started to hum Lebanese and Arab songs from my childhood. Abboud had replied saying that he also used to sing in Arabic in his studio. It seems that it was almost natural for him that a sense of joy emanated from his paintings for both him and his admirers.

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.

Shafic Abboud is not the painter of one image, which is then reproduced in stereotypes with multiple variations. He is on a permanent quest. He first experiments, he then gets excited by his discoveries and finally, he doubts and reassesses. However, he is also faithful to different aspects of a series of continuous themes such as seasons, windows, studios, rooms, nights, destroyed cafés, the temperas of the childhood world, the temperas of ancient Arab poets, Simone’s dresses, …

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. In 1953, he was the first Arab painter to produce painters’ books in Paris, using etchings for Le Bouna and silkscreen prints for La Souris. 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.

I have a great admiration for Shafic Abboud’s oeuvre as well as a loyal affection for him as a person. I am happy and proud to have been able to keep the two promises I made to him a few weeks before his death: publishing his first monograph and organising his first retrospective exhibition.

I would like to sincerely thank Shafic Abboud’s collectors whose perceptiveness and faithfulness have contributed to gathering outstanding collections. Adding to the selection of works coming from the artist’s studio, their loans have brought an international touch to the exhibition: France, Lebanon, Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, Qatar, Belgium, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and America.

I hope to continue publishing other unknown works from public French collections (FNAC, CNAC, Museums of Montpellier, Dijon…), as well as the diversity and treasures from the artist’s studio; the extraordinary group of paintings from the MATHAF Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha; the painting which he offered in 1964 to the Museum of Fine Arts of Algiers; the works from Saudi collections as well as from other private collections in France and elsewhere, which are yet to be revealed and which will emerge progressively one year after another.

* Since long back, Paris was the most important international centre of the publishing and diffusion of sumptuous books, realised by some of the best painters and inspired by traditional or contemporary poets. Amongst the innovative books, some revolutionised this genre and were very influential, such as those by Sonia Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, André Derain, Raoul Dufy, Joan Mirò, André Masson, Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, ...

When Shafic Abboud learned the techniques of engraving at the School of Fine Arts, he brought the threads together with the great scholar tradition of illustrated Arab manuscripts. At that time, one of the treasures of the Baghdad School had been re-discovered at the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, known as the book of the Maqâmât of Al-Hariri, which was hand-written and painted by Al-Wâsiti in 1237. Abboud laid the two foundations for the Arab Renaissance of the artist’s book in 1953 in Paris, with his two books entitled Le Bouna and La Souris. He was the first to do so and to pave the way for his followers, such as Abdallah Benanteur in 1962, Etel Adnan and Dia Al-Azzawi in 1968, who each produced a large and wonderful selection of artist’s books.

For the manuscript text and the ten illustrations in his book Le Bouna, Abboud used the traditional engraving technique of the black and white etching. In his other book La Souris, he tested the new technique of silkscreen colour-printing for both the hand-written text and the illustrations. The story of Le Bouna is characterised by its earthy tone, recalling the style and language from the tales narrated by Abboud’s grandmother and travelling story-tellers. These narrators had so much success with the children that the latter would gather around their boxes of images. The scenes in Le Bouna are as lively as those present in the book of the Maqâmât, from which Abboud would later produce an artist’s book in 1970, yet it lacks of the renowned writer Al-Hariri’s precious scholarly art.

Translated from French by Valérie Hess
Shafic ABBOUD Retrospective - Institut du Monde Arabe - 22 march to 28 august 2011 - 1, rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard - 75005 Paris
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