Art Renaissance Stirs in Beirut the War-Torn City Gradually Rebuilds Its Once-Thriving Cultural Climate

Article excerpt

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. …

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