Born in Beirut in 1916, Saloua Raouda Choucair has become a pioneer of abstract art in theMiddle East. Her long career, exceeding fifty years, has surpassed many cultural and political constraints, though her work has rarely been exhibited outside of the Middle Eastern region since the early 1950s. Featuring pieces from the late 1940s through to the 1980s, this exhibition explores Choucair’s unique vision.
The earliest work in the exhibition is Choucair’s Self-portrait from 1943, a stylised rendering of a serious young woman. This painting was made shortly after Choucair began painting under the tutelage of leading Lebanese artists Mustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. Contrary to the tastes of her teachers and against the grain of the fashion within Lebanon at that time for art of Impressionist or Realist styles, Choucair developed a passion for Islamic art and architecture during a trip to Egypt’s capital Cairo in 1943. Inspired by the geometric patterns, calligraphic scripts and architectural features, she set out to prove the validity and relevance of non-representational art of Middle Eastern design to that of modern Western abstraction.
In 1948, Choucair visited Paris where she stayed for three years, studying at the École Nationale Superieur des beaux-arts where she took classes in drawing, mural painting, sculpture and engraving. It was during this time that she first came face-to-face with the abstract modernism being practiced in Europe and also spent time under the instruction of cubist, figurative painter Fernand Léger. Several series of gouaches from this era are displayed in Room 1 of the exhibition.Choucair’s nude studies already show her preference for simple, flat shapes and bold colours. The domestic scene explored in the three versions of Les Peintres Celebres was most likely based on Leger’s Le Grand Déjeuner, a large painting depicting a harem of three naked women having tea around a small table. But rather than recreate the scene a la Léger, Choucair instead conducted a deliberate, feminist ‘de-Légerisation’; visibly softening the female forms to reveal a human geometry within their relaxed resting positions and arming her subjects with cups of tea held confidently above books on the topic of art history. The figures gaze out of the picture at us – raising an uncertainty as to who is observing who.