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
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
"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. …