A fascinating exhibition at the American University of Beirut explores the history of the nude in the world of Arab artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, questioning to what extent their work contributed to social change

For millennia, the nude body has been a favourite subject for artists. Prehistoric civilisations made fertility statues modelled on the female form, the ancient Greeks created sculptures of the “ideal” male and female bodies whose sublime beauty is captivating to this day, and during the Renaissance the nude form became the overriding preoccupation of the Western world’s most talented artists.

From this history, however, the Middle East has largely been absent. Today’s attitudes towards the naked body in much of the Arab world, conservative by global standards, are often retroactively applied. If people today have old-fashioned views towards nudity, the assumption goes, then 100 years ago those views must have been even more outdated.

In The Arab Nude: The Artists as Awakener, a fascinating two-part exhibition on show at the American University of Beirut until August, these assumptions are swept aside. Gathering paintings, sculptures, photographs, books and periodicals and newspaper and magazine articles, the exhibition demonstrates the open-minded attitudes towards the naked human form displayed by artists from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th century.

More importantly, perhaps, it addresses the idea that these artists used their work to express liberation from Ottoman and European colonisation. As the title suggests, the exhibition, curated by Octavian Esanu and Kirsten Scheid, seeks to establish to what extent these artists used their artistic explorations of the nude as a means of promoting social change in line with the spirit of the nahda – a period of modernisation known in Arabic as the “awakening.” In the context of discussions about the meaning of identity, community, citizenship and internationalism, and of what it meant to be “an Arab,” what was the significance of the Arab form laid bare?

There is much here to enjoy on an intellectual and historical level but equally on an aesthetic one.

In the AUB Rose and Shaheen Saleeby Museum on Sidani Street, accomplished paintings by Western-trained artists such as Moustapha Farrouk, Omar Onsi and Khalil Saleeby show how a generation of artists trained in Europe returned to their homelands and adapted their training to an Arab context. Early modernist works by key figures including Saloua Raouda Choucair show how realist depictions later tended towards figuration.

A fascinating series of black-and-white photographs, taken in Rome and Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, show young, besuited artists posing after life drawing classes, along with their nude models. Books and periodicals published in Lebanon in the 1930s display scantily-clad women on their covers and nude photographs within their pages.

At the AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery in Ada Dodge Hall, large sculptural works take centre stage. Pieces in terracotta, plaster and painted gypsum by Halim al-Hajj, Leon Mouradoff, Onsi and Choucair capture the curves of the female form in classical style, models posing in a kneeling position, arms raised behind their heads, framing their faces.

More interesting, perhaps, from a sociological perspective, are the selection of cartoons featuring nudity and a collection of black-and-white photographs of male and female bodies dating from the 1920s onwards. Photographs of a voluptuous female model lounging on a bed, looking seductively towards the camera from amid rolls of naked flesh, and a studio portrait of a small boy, his hair in ringlets, clad in a white dress that he has raised in both tiny hands to reveal his genitals, are two of the images that would be considered daring, possibly even taboo, by today’s standards.

The Arab Nude: The Artists as Awakener is an eye-opening exhibition that forces viewers to adjust misplaced assumptions about attitudes to the body in the Arab world. Wide-ranging, entertaining and expertly curated, it is not to be missed.

The Arab Nude: The Artists as Awakener continues until August 1 at the AUB Rose and Shaheen Saleeby Museum and the AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery.