Art Renaissance Stirs in Beirut

The war-torn city gradually rebuilds its once-thriving cultural climate

IT has been four years since the war in Lebanon officially ended. Beirutis, their city in shambles, are living in the precarious peace with wary enthusiasm, furiously restoring and building a shattered infrastructure. A feeling of quasi-normalcy has returned and with it a renewed interest in culture and the arts: Each week several art exhibitions open and this year's ``Salon D'Automne'' at the Sursock Museum contained close to 100 paintings and sculptures by young Lebanese artists.

Thirty years ago Beirut was the cultural heart of the Middle East. As authoritarian political regimes stifled cities such as Cairo and Baghdad, Arab intellectuals and artists converged on Beirut, which had come to symbolize freedom of expression in all areas.

Painting was a relatively new medium for the Lebanese, but a fledgling art movement was soon in full expansion; Lebanese painters experimented with all styles ranging from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalist art. Nazig Khater, art critic for the Beirut daily An-Nahar, describes the city in the 1960s as a ``laboratory'' for avant-garde expression in the Arab world.

Throughout the 1960s, galleries opened, the Association for Lebanese Painters and Sculptors was created, and in 1965 the National Academy for the Arts was set up, functioning with the help of government subsidies.

Nineteen seventy-five marked the official beginning of the civil war but, according to Mr. Khater, it barely affected the cultural heyday.

``There was a long period of time during which the warlike fever increased slowly, little by little. But exhibitions continued to open and the same bourgeois society grouped around the same painters, bought and hung paintings,'' he says.

What brought the era of artistic ebullience to an end, says Mr. Khater, was the psychological impact of the Israeli invasion of the capital in 1982. ``Beirut's golden age was over, and a new period began: one of war culture.''

Paintings began to reflect the war, if not always directly. Khater explains: ``In its most elementary phase, war-culture painting was representative and anecdotal - destroyed houses, ruins, death, etc. But there was also a form of escapist painting. Artists depicted beautiful landscapes of cypresses and hills under a spring sun.'' Paintings also became ideological, taking political sides or proclaiming peace.

The war became not only the silent subject of all paintings, but it also inspired some Beirutis, such as the well-known poet Huda Naamani, to paint. ``I needed a new language with which to record the war,'' she says. Ms. Naamani used the color gold (which, to her, represented a mask) preponderantly in her paintings. ``Everything was so painful that I wanted to hide or cover my feelings with this color. My sense of loss became hidden in symbolism in the paintings.''

Lebanon's generation of painters who came of age during the early 1980s developed a bizarre, symbiotic relationship with the war: While it created feelings of terror and desolation, the unleashing of emotions provided constant subject material. The war isolated art students and dashed the hopes of studying abroad for the less fortunate (the traditional destination used to be Paris), but at the same time their loneliness drove them to work harder, and fueled their determination to become painters.

Mansour El Habre, a 23-year-old who recently graduated from the Arts Academy, came to Beirut as a refugee in 1983 after his village in the mountains was destroyed. Throughout the war his artwork was his main concern, which set him apart from most people.

``My drawings during the war reflected anguish, but also solitude because everyone was concerned with the quotidian and rarely thought about what art might have to say,'' he says.

The solitude that young artists felt was compounded by a sense of isolation from Lebanon.

Jean Marc Nahas, a painter who left Lebanon during the last few years of the war says he did so not to escape the bombs but for lack of artistic stimulation: ``The worst thing was the stagnation, there wasn't anything to see. Libraries were burned; there weren't any art books or magazines to be had,'' he says.

INDEED, Mr. Nahas felt his work improved with the change, but his painting went through its darkest period during that time.

``The war affected me more being outside the country than inside,'' he says. ``I painted children in their coffins and didn't sell one painting. But I think it was my best work.''

Naamani, who recently exhibited 60 colorful large-scale oils in a one-woman show, also spent the last few years of the war abroad, which provided her with fresh ideas. ``Lots of painters who stayed in Beirut ended up repeating themselves.... They needed a renewal and new contacts.''

The quality of painting and the general cultural level dropped due to the absence of international horizons, says Nicolas Nammar, founder and president of the Association for Lebanese Artists and Sculptors.

Students at the Academy of Arts suffered from a lack of qualified professors; moreover the Academy was split in two, as was the rest of the city.

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