How a Dynasty Defines Taste: The Deep Roots of Middle Eastern Abstraction

Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon. Photo by Bertil Videt.

The Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum opened its grand stairway entrance to the public on November 18, 1961, nine years after the death of its namesake patriarch, and in full accordance with his final wish – to define the criteria of public taste in Lebanon. The magnate and art collector had set up a waqf, a charitable endowment under Islamic law, declaring that after his death the entirety of his estate was to be transformed into a museum for the benefit of the Lebanese people. A waqf is immovable and eternal, much like the decrees of a patriarch. An open call to artists swiftly followed. The museum’s inaugural Salon d’Automne placed the jury’s chosen winners on display, filling the long corridors of the former private residence with large canvases of abstracted landscapes, knotted metallic sculptures, and an audience all too familiar with the Sursock name.

Today, on the occasion of the re-installation of the museum’s permanent collection, titled Ten Stories from the Sursock Museum Collection 1923 – 2016, the hilly streets of Beirut’s Achrafieh district are still lined with opulent buildings that partook in the Sursock baptism. There is no multi-generational saga that attests to the family’s vast sphere of influence, in the style of Balzac or García Márquez, but few dynasties are more deserving of novelistic treatment. From the second half of the nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth, the Sursocks’ mercantilist ambitions, shrewdly arranged marriages to members of other powerful Mediterranean aristocracies, and investments in Ottoman land markets brought them immense material wealth within the burgeoning capitalist sphere of fin-de-siècle Lebanon. The Stories re-installation is an insightful – if stubbornly self-satisfied – exhibit of the artworks in Nicolas Sursock’s possession upon his death. It also includes works that entered the permanent collection through yearly Salons d’Automne, and as donations and acquisitions after the museum reopened in 2015. With each of these different chapters, the growing supremacy of modern abstraction – actively championed by the institution’s patrons – and the comparative absence of alternative traditions provoke a necessary reckoning with the nature of early capitalist accumulation in the Middle East.

The 7th Salon d’Automne, circa 1967-68. Sursock Museum collection.

The normative origin story of modern capitalism tells us that it all began with rapid industrialization in Western Europe, a model that was then exported, fully formed, to countries that were in the early days of being weaned off feudalism. For those equipped with a decent pair of Orientalist X-ray goggles, the Sursocks’ nineteenth-century ascension to the zenith of the Mediterranean’s economic order complicates this account. As historian Kristen Alff contends, far from being rooted in pre-capitalistic elements, the Sursocks’ dominion depended on a form of economic syncretism that granted them access to both European markets and Ottoman social formations. It was precisely this flexibility that enabled their rapid evolution from local tax farmers and silk factory owners to formidable competitors on the global market and allowed them to easily ingratiate themselves with fashionable European circles.

In place of the thousand-page tome it might command, the history of the Sursocks’ impact on art production in Lebanon is represented in this exhibition by ten “stories” or “conversations” between twenty-one artists that fill up the main gallery space. The subject of these stories ranges from naïve art to differing conceptions of humanist art, to the consequences of abandoning figurative representation. The range is wide, but a central conceptual thread conspicuously lassoes the artists together: the place of abstraction in the modern Middle East.

Dressed in varying terms, each of the ten stories stages a confrontation between proponents of abstraction and its detractors, drawing from decades-long debates between the patrons, artists, and viewers to the Salons d’Automne. At the forefront of the conflict is the unresolved question of whether abstraction flattens cultural difference, dissolving the particularities of Middle Eastern culture into a homogeneous universal. Or whether instead, by obscuring and distorting the human subject, abstraction serves to obstruct and ward off Orientalist expectations.

Some types of flatness were actively desired. In the partitioned corner dedicated to “The Challenge of Landscape Painting,” a color-blocked landscape by Saliba Douaihy (1912-94) renders the sands of a Lebanese beach salmon pink; the merciful calmness of a yellow sunset turns the waters a cool cerulean blue. The concept of “infinite space” fascinated Douaihy, as it did the group of artists he befriended during a stay in New York in the 1950s: Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt. Their influence helped him achieve the process of reduction and simplification that characterizes his later works.

Saliba Douaihy, “Untitled (View of Batha),” ca 1970s.

Hanging next to Douaihy’s work, a small realist landscape by Georges Daoud Corm (1896-1971), whose defense of figurative art testifies to a fiercely-held Christian humanism. Here he presents the viewer with a massive, verdant mountainside. The mood is one of awed triumph: man trapping nature in all its violent splendor under his brush. Forced together, the dialogue is at its most contentious between these two contemporaries. Though the aesthetic breach is wide, it is evident that both artists are equally interested in forging an artistic identity for Lebanon that is distinct from the dominating currents in Europe; that foregrounds the locality of their country – the quality of its Levantine light, which as Etel Adnan once wrote, is a fiddly subject since it “saps the colors and renders everything gray.”

While Douaihy, like some of his contemporaries, became acquainted with Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism through schooling in France and travel to New York, others refused to concede the roots of abstraction to the purview of the West. “Towards an Oriental Abstraction,” a suspended conversation between the bright, expressionist works of Stelio Scamanga (1934–), Mounir Najem (1933-87), Adel Saghir (1930–), and Saïd Akl (1926-2011), represents one of the most striking highlights of the exhibit. A filmed interview with the artist and theorist Samir Sayegh accompanies the section. Sayegh evokes the relationship between tajrīd, abstraction, and the Sufi concept of tawhīd, meaning the attainment of complete mystical unity with God through the passing away of worldly reality. He insists persuasively that, in the Arab-Islamic world, the two have long been synonymous.

Sayegh’s theory depends on the existence of an unbroken genealogy of Eastern abstraction that stretches back to the earliest form of Islamic art – khatt Islami, or calligraphy. In its development across centuries, he stresses, “Oriental abstraction” comes to differ fundamentally from its Western counterpoint in the representation of space. While European and American artists experimented with modernist ways of rendering material reality, bending and twisting it into three-dimensional oddities, Eastern abstractionists concerned themselves with two dimensions: the physical plane and the world of mystical elevation. The result, according to Sayegh and his contemporaries, is a style of abstraction that privileges movement inwards, into the depths of a canvas in order to overcome it – in order to abandon all sense of individual, corporeal identity. More than any other piece in this section, Najem’s mysterious Arab house folded into itself reminded me of Ibn ‘Arabî’s famous metaphor for Sufi enlightenment: a viewer beholding a smudged mirror while it is being polished suddenly ceases to notice the mirror.

Mounir Najem, “Oriental Nostalgia,” 1967.

While these interventions raise important questions about the resurgent narratives of the origins of modern abstraction, they are also a sign of the institution’s grip on the formation of categories of taste. The presence of elite juries, that controversial motor of aesthetic consensus, is impossible to ignore. It is a well-known fact, one constantly underscored by the exhibit’s wall-texts, that during the ‘60s and ‘70s the Salon d’Automne’s juries pushed for an increased presence of abstraction in painting and sculpture, to the exclusion of other forms. Unsurprisingly, contemporary media continue to be omitted from the museum’s collection – a notable indicator of the reactionary character of the salon’s jury structure. Photography is nowhere to be found but in the impressive collages of Laura Ghorayeb (1931–), Beyrouth appellee les générations futures [Beirut calls to its future generations] (2010-2011), which memorialize the Lebanese Civil War and address the project of national rebuilding that followed the Taif Agreement.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, representations of violence in Lebanon during the Civil War and the 2006 Israeli invasion belie those who fault abstraction for its inherently “apolitical” or “co-optable” nature. In a corner titled “New Additions to the Permanent Collection,” dedicated to works that have entered the Sursock’s permanent collection since the museum reopened in 2015 after extensive renovations, two small terracotta sculptures by Simone Fattal are grouped together under the title La Guerre [War] (2006). In the first, a vaguely anthropomorphized figure with four limbs is impaled by a single nail to a wall behind it. The second piece consists of two of these walls, one shorter than the other, within which a garden of spikes grows. Seen from the front, both give an illusion of static quietude; the presence of the nails is obscured. A change in perspective, however, reveals the painful impasse connecting the two works – the impossibility of movement, violence as their primary condition. The work is sober; the affect poignant.

Laura Ghorayeb, “Beyrouth appellee les générations futures [Beirut calls to its future generations], 2010-2011.”

It’s one thing to encourage the kind of historiography that rescues the story of the Sursocks from a thick bog of Orientalist misconceptions; quite another to contend with the forms of cultural hegemony that the moneyed dynasty imposed upon the region. Celebrating the development of modern abstraction in Lebanon – its early innovations, the look towards endemic trends and styles – amounts to feeble criticism if we fall short of the latter imperative.

Therein lies the tragic contradiction of decolonization: the most important utopian gesture of our times is unable to guarantee the sudden appearance of new utopias. Instead, more often than not it leads to the discovery of new forms of exclusion, variations on the nefarious workings of power. These are  crucial crumbs to keep following: conflicted histories that, when made visible, are as insightful as the presence of new traditions. Though the Sursock Museum doesn’t exactly put these on display, they nevertheless bob to the surface – foggy but unmistakably expressive.

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