Written by Badr el-Hage
The best evaluation of the work of Saliba Douaihy (1913-1993) are the views of the artist himself of his artistic experience. What follows is a brief overview of a number of extensive recorded conversations I had with him in London between 1982 and 1986, after he had left the United States of America. In these conversations, Douaihy relates his personal history and his views and convictions on the development of the art he produced between the mid-1930s and the 1980s.
I first met Douaihy in Brooklyn, New York, during the winter of 1981. He was living in a large room above a Maronite church. He lived like a hermit in a modest room, filled with hundreds of paintings and drawings which he had produced at various stages of his life. In Lebanon, Douaihy was known for his paintings of rural scenes and was one of four distinguished Lebanese artists referred to as the 'Big Four', who also included Moustafa Farroukh, Cesar Gemayel and Omar Onsi.
However, what I saw in his atelier was vastly different from the work of his colleagues. Douaihy had carved out a unique and distinctive path in the world of visual arts, both in Lebanon and within the Arab world.
In these extensive recorded conversations, Douaihy recalled his childhood days in Zgharta and Ehden, his move to Beirut in 1928 to study drawing in the atelier of Habib Srour (1860-1938), his subsequent travel to Paris in 1932 to continue his education in the art of drawing and portraiture, and then his return to Lebanon in 1936 to immerse himself in the task of completing the painting at the Diman church, and his painting of the natural scenes of the Wadi Qadisha.
In March 1950 he emigrated to the United States of America, returning to Lebanon in 1955 to dedicate himself to the completion of the drawings and paintings of the church of John the Baptist, in his home town of Zgharta. He then returned to the United States before revisiting Lebanon in 1972, to complete the paintings on glass for the church of Mar Cherbel in Annaya. In 1978 he produced sixty-five paintings on glass, for the church of The Lady of Lebanon in Jamaica Plain, near Boston.
Douaihy spent a few years (1982-1986) in London, and then moved to Paris. He died in 1993.
Douhaihy considered his artistic career as following four distinct phases:
The first stage: the beginnings and academic study.
The second stage: the painting of natural scenes in Lebanon and the completion of the paintings in the Diman Church.
The third stage: referred to by Douaihy as the 'Veteran Stage', during which he produced paintings which moved between both abstract and natural scenes.
The fourth stage: the abstract stage, which encapsulates his artistic experience.
The following summarises what Douaihy discussed, which is a mixture of personal history, views on his artistic career and his evaluation of the artists of his generation.
'I was born in Zgharta in 1913, I remember well being taught to read and write under the walnut trees, in a school in Mar Boutros, Ehden. The teacher Boutrous al Douaihy was very hard on the pupils. Sulaiman Ayroun taught the principals of Arabic calligraphy, and we used to read from a book with the title The Exhibition of Arabic Calligraphy.
I moved to study in Fréres School in Zgharta, and used to copy photographs from books by La Fontaine and others. My father used to make the wooden parts of rifles. He would carve them and paint decorative patterns on the metal in an artistic way, and I would assist him.
After completing my studies in the Freres School, some people suggested that I should go to Rome to the Vatican, to study the art of painting and drawing. In those days such decisions were primarily referred to the Maronite Patriarchy. One monk in the patriarchy suggested that I begin my studies with Habib Srour and leave the decision of whether I should subsequently travel abroad to further my studies with him. Srour liked my paintings and told me that I was in need of further training and study. He suggested that I should join him in his atelier in the Gemmayzeh district in Beirut.
I remained with Habib Srour for several years. He adopted me like a son and taught me the principles of drawing and painting, but I have to say that Srour did not show me the way to modern art. He preferred that a composition is interpreted traditionally, and his conversations with me often focussed on his opposition to the new trends in art.
When it came to colour, I had no skill during that period. Srour did not allow me to use it. My evaluation of Srour's portraits was that they were classical and very beautiful, rivalling the works of the most important Italian painters, but in the final analysis they were parochial and of limited horizon, and for the most part they were similar to the work of his colleagues Daoud Corm, Philippe Murani, and Khalil Al Salibi, and were limited to representations of churches, dignitaries and religious figures.
Myself and César Gemayel and the two Omars – Farroukh and Onsi – were among the second generation of artists to follow the pioneer generation (Srour, Murani, Salibi, and Daoud Corm), and despite our success and the exhibitions we mounted, I continued to feel that there was something substantial lacking in my work. It was for this reason that I emigrated to the United States in 1950, in order to explore the new trends in modern art, and I succeeded, while my colleagues continued to work in the same vortex. I do not wish to give the impression that I underrated them. The cultural climate in Lebanon did not give them the chance to broaden their horizons and search for new artistic styles. The fashion was for the artist to wait for a client, then carry out his wishes, and in most cases the absence of a client meant that there was no painting.
I used to read the writings of Gibran and Almanfalouty. Their books were popular, and I remember hearing of Gibran's death when I was working in Habib Srour's atelier. As for my views on Gibran's work, I consider him unique and find his work poetic and expressive of his rebelliousness and the environment in which Gibran grew up – the very same one as I did.
Going back to the four years I spent with Habib Srour, I would say that those years deepened my understanding and study of painting and improved my skills and I, in turn, helped my master with his portraits.'
'In 1932 the Lebanese government gave me a scholarship to study in Paris. I sat an examination at the Academy of Fine Arts. I passed and came second among hundreds of students. My grades were excellent and I obtained a grade of nineteen out of twenty in painting and drawing on the basis of what I had learnt under Habib. My grades allowed me to become a student at the school of fine arts, and I was admitted to the Academy. I started work at the atelier of Paul Albert Lawrence, one of the most prominent academic artists, beginning with nude portraits of men and women. I spent almost four years in Paris and during my studies I mastered painting and drawing, but had no knowledge of, or preoccupation with, what was happening around me in terms of modern artistic trends. I used to visit art exhibitions with some of my colleagues, but our passion was purely for the classical style, and everything outside of it was, in our view, a waste of time.
During the years I spent in Paris I produced several paintings representing Parisian life. I participated in a number of exhibitions, one of which was the Français, where I exhibited a painting with the title La Vénus de Milo which was a depiction of the sculpture of Venus in the Louvre.
I remained wedded to the classical principles of visual art until my studies in Paris came to an end, and I returned to Lebanon in 1936. One of the memories from my days in Paris is of meeting the Iraqi artist Faiq Hassan at the Academy of Art. Faiq's paintings drew the admiration of his professor.'
'After my return to Lebanon I focused on drawing inspiration from the Lebanese landscape. I began to paint villages, houses, valleys, monasteries and villagers. I painted the landscape as it was, without alteration. These rustic scenes carried the fingerprint of this phase, a phase which was more sincere than others. I spent almost a month in Maaloula, Maksa and Damascus, and painted scores of paintings. After which I returned to Beirut and opened an atelier in Mohammed Al Hout Street.
I began work on painting the ceiling of Al Diman church at the end of the 1930s, and was glad to be painting in the style of Michaelangelo and Raphael. The classical scenes focussed on the muscles and the movements of the body and on the landscape. During that period I began reading about modern art. I used to look at modern paintings, which most people considered ugly, and found that in my eyes, they were beautiful. Gradually, I began to lean more and more towards these paintings, and I became certain that art is creation and not the imitation of nature. Nature is one thing and art, another.
My understanding of this concept continued to grow. For example, when I painted a scene containing the sea, I used red instead of blue, on the basis that what mattered to me was not the scene, but the harmony of colours within the painting.
During this phase I developed a passion for travelling abroad. I was sufficiently well-known in Lebanon and journalists discussed my work, particularly after I completed the paintings of the Diman church and the art exhibition mounted in 1945 at the St George hotel in Beirut. Unfortunately art criticism was non-existent in our country during that period. Criticism usually informs the artist, sets him on the correct path and encourages his development. However, what was called criticism in Lebanon was limited to either praising or trashing the work.
I decided that if I remained in Lebanon and carried on working in the same way, my reputation would remain limited to a small sphere, and that I would repeat myself without creativity. For all those reasons I decided to emigrate to the United States of America.'
'The Lebanese government furnished me with a semi-official passport, and I left Lebanon in March 1950 and travelled to New York via Paris. When I arrived in New York, I started working in my atelier and immersed myself in study. A new and broad world of art opened up before me. I painted day and night until the new schools of modern art revealed themselves to me. That was in the early 1950s. I used to attend lectures and study international art, past and present. I borrowed art books from public libraries. I became familiar with Cubism, Surrealism and Impressionism. In this way, and as a result of these studies, I came to understand the international artistic movement and began the serious work of finding a place for myself on the artistic map.
I painted without affiliating myself with any particular school of art, or imitating any artist or using his style. I wanted to have a style of my own. I started producing modern works that were an extension of my experimental phase in Lebanon. In other words, the Douaihy who, in Lebanon, had painted the Lebanese landscape, returned to this landscape in America and painted it in an abstract style founded in a Middle Eastern aesthetic. For this reason, anyone who saw my abstract works said that they were a carbon copy of my previous paintings, in an abstract style.
I painted as I felt and as I wished. At the beginning I wasn't satisfied with my classical works, considering them old-fashioned, and taking the view that there were many artists who could paint likenesses or even better them. I felt that they revolved around a very limited subject matter, which was the Lebanese landscape.
Now my view of these works has changed and I have come to appreciate them, because they were the springboard from which I leapt into the world of abstract modern art. If I wished, I could prove to you by way of example, how after three or four paintings of the monastery of Mar Qasheya in Wadi Qadesha, the fourth and final painting would be abstract by comparison with the first one. This occurs by using fewer lines, and eliminating classical curves, and via a lack of detail. The broad line comes to represent a single complete expanse without division or interruption. Most of my abstract paintings today depict lines, which represent the Mediterranean Sea. I am in reality a Mediterranean artist, and the beauty of my new abstract works is that I have dispensed with classical curves. The simplification of space in my work is Arabic in nature, as in Arabic calligraphy. My works have come to contain a single expanse that is not three-dimensional.
As I have said before, because of the non-existence of art criticism, our countries were taken over by powerful European trends, whether political, military or artistic, and we became impressed by Western paintings because they represented nature. As the saying goes, «their paintings lack nothing more, than to speak». I believe that such visual realism has no place in the concept of modern art.
I return to my abstract works. In my personal view, there are two aspects of the abstract within them: the first is related to Arabic calligraphy, the second has nothing to do with calligraphy and is what some call the American aspect.
When I held an exhibition in New York in 1966, most critics confirmed that the artist was not American, but Middle Eastern from the basin of the Mediterranean.
Naturally, this position was based on their perception of my colours and compositions. American artists use different colour palettes and forms. My work bears no relation to the American palette or to American art whatsoever. As for my works, which relate to calligraphy, I remember well that I began these works almost thirty-five years ago. For my part, I have never seen anything more beautiful than Kufic calligraphy which finds its origins in the Syriac script. I wrote for the first time about the importance of calligraphy in a long article in Al Shoala magazine in Beirut, in which I invited the Arab artist to adopt calligraphy as an emblem for his art, style, and ongoing work. Ibn Arabi says: 'The letter is one of God's secrets, and gaining knowledge of it is one of the most noble pursuits preserved by God.' A single letter of the Arabic alphabet can become a great painting in the world of art, on the condition that the artist knows how to get to the heart of the matter and produce his work with artistic precision.
There is one final point that I would like to mention about my abstract works. I once explained these works in a letter to an art critic, saying: 'I have lately looked at some of my recent works, painting by painting, and noticed that the scale has become more modest, and gained in confidence. I saw the colours replete with life, freshness and warmth, with no relation to nature, but as a symbolic and concise existence in the imagination. The colours have acquired meaning. The lines themselves have become simpler and straighter and more upright. Having developed in proportion and colour, I noticed the problem of depth and perspective. Objects in the middle distance had crept towards the foreground so that the layers had become fused together, as a unified construction.' The details and impressionistic touches, which expressed a passing feeling between one colour to another, had been replaced with abbreviated studied construction. At this point I could say what Ibn Al Athir said when speaking of the richness of the Arabic language: «To be brief, by way of articulateness and the mastery of language, is preferable to rendering the matter at length.»
I had become as sparing as I could be in my work, and had reached the limits of brevity. Had Ibn Yehia not said: «If you can reduce your books to mere signatures, then do it»? A work of art like mine no doubt demands deep and total peace and quiet, which can only be a kind of worship.'
The Church of Mar Johanna, Zgharta
'I returned to Lebanon in 1955, having been commissioned by Qablan Al Makary to complete the painting of the church of Mar Johanna Al Memidan (John the Baptist) in Zgharta. Before beginning the task, I researched Eastern arts and looked at examples of Byzantine art and illuminated Syriac manuscripts, which dated back to the sixth century. I also looked at the bibles kept in the libraries of Paris and Florence, and studied Assyrian and Persian art and Syriac calligraphy. Against this backdrop, and in particular that of Byzantine art, imbued with the Syriac spirit that gave it its distinctive nature, I completed the painting of the Zgharta church. The four portraits inside the church are inspired by Assyrian art. The Assyrian masters were creative. They incorporated in a single body the four miracles of creation: man, the eagle as king of birds, the lion as king of the jungle, and the ox, which represented fertility.
From the third millennium to the present day, human civilisations have handed down these symbols as representations of the unchanging language of creation.'
Painting on glass
'This subject is dear to my heart and I place great importance upon it. When I began painting on glass,
I found that the colour was more vibrant than that painted on canvas. In my works on glass I found that colour itself has varying degrees of luminosity depending on the external light source focussed on it. In olden times, the people of my country used glass, in dark rooms to soften the gloom. I began with this idea, and started to cut and section the glass sheets, so that they would reflect strong light, in a way that would be impossible to recreate on canvas.
I noticed that the artists who worked with glass in the traditional way, in houses of worship or luxurious palaces, used black rods of iron and lead to weld together the panels.
I saw for example a portrait of someone shadowed by the blackness of lead, which I believed disfigured it, and yet the artists of days gone by, were obliged to use lead as welding material for sections of glass. From that point, I adopted a new method that differed completely from the traditional one. I dispensed the lead and used a different and invisible welding material called Ibcos, a modern invention, which was little known in the past. I became able to layer sections of glass, and as such the darkness of lead vanished, and my works in glass were transformed into luminous panels of bright light.
There is another technical matter I would like to refer to; the fact that, if the sun shines on a section of green glass, which is adjacent to a yellow section, with a white line in between them, the colours will reflect a special radiance that twinkles when the eye alights on it, as though in constant motion. I decided to continue in this direction, and experimented for almost twelve years. In 1972, I began work on the windows of the church of Mar Cherbel in Annaya, and completed them in this style. Unfortunately, some of them were destroyed during the civil war.
Those who have seen the windows of Mar Cherbel in their varying sizes will realise that the natural light in Lebanon helped me to complete these works, which are far more beautiful than the ones I completed in the church of The Lady of Lebanon near Boston. It was in this way, that the two churches became places of worship as well as museums, and a reflection of the culture and civilisation of thousands of years.
Painting on glass is hard work, and the artist must take many precautions. However, despite the difficulty of working in this medium, I find great solace when I look at my works, which radiate with a luminosity, absent in my paintings in oil. What interests me in these works are the rays of light which emanate from them, and the joy of the beautiful vibrant colours.'