Lebanese-Armenian painter Paul Guiragossian was one of the Middle East’s most respected painters. Born in 1926 in Jerusalem to survivors of the Armenian Genocide, he moved to Lebanon in 1947 with his family where he taught at various schools and worked as an illustrator. After studying art in Florence and Paris, he returned to Lebanon in the mid 1960s to become the country and the region’s great artistic figure. He remained in Lebanon throughout the Civil War, infusing his paintings with messages of hope. He completed his final painting, L’Adieu, on the day he died, November 20, 1993.
How important is the painting “L’Adieu” by Paul Guiragossian, to you and your family?
All of my father’s paintings are important to us. “L’Adieu” specifically was the final painting he did, the day he passed away on November 20, 1993. We named it “L’Adieu” as a way of saying goodbye. Based on what my father said to me that morning after coming back from the studio, this was a work that summarized everything he was trying to achieve over the years. He said “I finally got to what I want, I brought the old and the new together.” The way I interpret that is that he got to create a fusion of figuration and abstraction, since technically my father never believed in “old” and “new” or the concept of time in art general. To him, prehistorical cave art was as contemporary as any work today, but I understood what he meant by his statement. It’s a sense of achievement with an energy of having produced an amazing painting that morning. It was great to see him that enthusiastic about it, and he absolutely wanted me to go see it, but the day went ahead very differently.
The world knows your father through his art. How do you know him?
The way I knew my father when he was alive is very different from the way I know him today. I got to experience him as a wonderful father, my best friend and accomplice in so many ways and most importantly my greatest teacher until he passed away. Later as I started researching and archiving his life and work through his writings, his interviews, the rest of my family, his friends and people who knew him well, I got to know him as the artist and the thinker. I had to also often separate myself as his daughter and approach things as a researcher. I got to know him from many different angles, and my fascination led me to publish the monograph “Paul Guiragossian: Displacing Modernity” that was just released. I had to share all my discoveries with the rest of the world. If you know more about him, his art will have a greater impact on you.
Did he share with you anecdotes about his childhood?
He shared many stories from his childhood, but I was too young to connect them together and have an understanding of their connection to each other. If it were the Manuella from today I would have been taking notes and making videos and asking more questions in detail. Back then they were only separate stories of his childhood, nevertheless they made a lot more sense later during my research as I found videos of him recounting some of them and often he wrote them down. This enabled me to connect them together and create some form of a timeline of his life before coming to Lebanon. The stories are too many to recount in a Q&A, but one of my longtime dreams has been to make a documentary or a movie about his life because it was fascinating.
Do you think your father has carved out a particular niche?
Absolutely! I don’t think this alone, the whole world does. He created his own school and many of his contemporaries and next generations still try to imitate him. Their only problem is that they haven’t lived his life or understood his thinking process and experiences to have evolved into that style. They simply tried to mimic him because he was so successful. Those people never evolved further out of that style, but he did because he created it in the first place. If he lived an additional decade or more, I’m sure his work would have developed even more.
Describe your father’s working process.
In his early years (before he lost his leg in an elevator accident in 1974), his working process was very different from the post-accident years. He would work mostly at night as he slept all morning and spent the day with his intellectual friends in the cafés in Beirut like La Palette at first then later the famous Horseshoe. These places were the meeting grounds of all artists, writers, poets, theatre people, art lovers, students and art critics. He would return home late after the family already went to bed, and painted all night, then went to bed right before everyone else woke up. The family barely saw him. After the accident, the surgeries and rehabilitation, he got into a regimen and started waking up at 5am. He would listen to world news on his radio, then he’d get ready, have his coffee with my mom, then go straight to the studio. He would work there until noon then come for lunch. He would rest and then go back to the studio. He was somehow obsessed on retiring by 8pm, to sleep as early as possible and get up before anyone else and go to the studio. Whether we had guests or whatever, he would go to his room by 8pm. He was very productive to begin with, but got even more so after the accident. He was constantly sketching if he wasn’t in the studio and was also still teaching in the major art academies in the country and that also was sacred to him. It didn’t matter anymore if he made enough money or had been very famous. He wasn’t teaching for the money, he loved to do it and wanted to give back to the next generations.
What do you think were his objectives from his paintings?
Initially I think he was painting out of the need for self-discovery. He was mostly self-taught and always dreamt of getting an academic training but didn’t have the means in the beginning. Gradually he started depicting scenes and events from his own life and neighbourhood. He would say he was like a reporter of his environment. He would often take his easel and go after a wedding or a funeral taking place in his neighbourhood and paint it immediately. When he was unemployed, he painted the street porters who were unemployed and hungry. When he got married, he painted motherhoods. When he started having children he painted families and so on. I would say his objective in the early stages was portraying the marginalized people based on his own life and eventually it turned into tackling humanity’s issues like migrations, exiles and displacement. Pretty much everything that humanity suffers from to date. After the war his focus shifted towards a protest against violence and aggression. He was expressing his anger by talking about the truth behind mankind’s greed provoking wars and the destruction of self and nature. He was doing so in his interviews as well as his art. His outbursts were being transformed into strong colours and his figures were becoming more absorbed in one another as if he was trying to regroup them and turn them into one element.
Did he think that art was an evolutionary or revolutionary concept?
This is a more complex question to answer in my father’s place but all I can say is that he was one of those true artists who had sensitive perceptivity and often predicted society’s changes and where art was heading in his time. He was concerned about artists who were out there to commercialize it and destroy it, taking it to levels of absurdity, and with that end the educational effect art has on people by making it easier to manipulate the crowds with nonsense and create more superficial societies. He was concerned that art was heading towards a direction where it is less concerned with mankind’s common and very serious predicaments and more interested in fame and fortune. Looking at the art world today, I’d say he was 100% precise.
How different is Paul the artist from Paul the father?
Paul was a passionate man both in his art and towards his family. There was such an abundance of love in his heart that it manifested in his work, his personality and towards his family. He was both a great artist and a father and may I say a very understanding father who cultivated our talents and taught us so much in art and life alike. I truly miss spending time with him. He charged my mind with brilliant thoughts and education, you rarely find anyone like that in life. Being a good parent is not always about discipline really, it’s more about inspiration and motivation. If you’re inspired by your parent, you automatically learn and do the right thing yourself. You don’t need anyone to directly tell you do this or suffer the consequences. You should want to do the good and right things by getting inspired from an amazing role model. That’s the kind of father Paul was, and I think it’s also why he was a great artist.
Did an idea form in his mind at random or did he purposefully direct his thoughts towards an idea?
I think it was a bit of both. He was a very spontaneous person and always carried a small sketchbook, pens and pencils in his pockets or even small, palm-size stacks of paper. He was constantly sketching wherever he went. He would see people in the streets that we usually wouldn’t even notice and he’d do tons of sketches, then once back at the studio he would turn them into paintings. He was also a big reader of all subjects. He had this amazing curiosity and collected a lot of books and magazines where he’d also get ideas. He was like a productive machine and once he’s in the zone, you can’t really tell what’s going on in that brilliant mind of his. He would get into some sort of trans. All you can do is be in awe of the process, if you were lucky enough to witness it.
Did he devote a huge part of his time to his family? How did he balance between his family and his art?
While his career was taking off in the early years, he didn’t spend as much time with his family as he wanted and my mother somehow played a role in giving him all the space he needed to paint and succeed because the family’s wellbeing depended on it. He won two scholarships to Florence then Paris in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and my mother looked after the family while he was studying abroad. The love postcards he sent her were a testament of how much he was devoted to her and his kids and how hard he was working for them. As my mother Juliette was an artist herself, she knew what it would take for him to thrive so she gave him all the support he needed. He relied on her and entrusted her with everything. My siblings didn’t get to spend too much time with him, during their childhood, except on weekends. It was different in my case since I’m the youngest and by my time, he had lost his leg in an elevator accident and the Lebanese Civil War broke out, so I got to spend all my time with him. Family of course meant everything to him. He taught all his kids to be close to one another and support and love each other no matter what. This is why a lot of people today are fascinated about how much of a close-knit family we are and how well we support each other. It all comes from Paul and Juliette.
Did he make his artistic journey for practical or inspirational purposes?
In one of his interviews Paul explains the actual core of how his artistic journey began. He says that as he was placed in boarding schools throughout all of his childhood, his first concern was to find himself. As he didn’t grow up in a family, he needed to figure out what his identity was. This was the first reason why he started painting, as it was his only way to self-discovery and to figure out what he wanted in life and what his purpose was, where and with whom he belonged. “The world was too split apart from one another like maps, they each have limits and borders, they each have their own flags and languages, races and religions, but I was born without any of these things, no borders, no race, no religion… I was just a lost human being not knowing which where to go. This is the reason why art dove into me. I could see the human being and consider myself as one and alone and thought the rest of the world is like me. I didn’t understand borders and all these things as I didn’t know my mother, I didn’t know my name, when I was born or who I was. My childhood was a total confusion. As I grew up I began to speak multiple languages and started searching for the truth, which I do until today. I realized that the rest of the world is living a lie and separating from one another whereas I was the only one trying to regroup them all as one. For this reason, if there was famine in India, I would be the first one suffering famine with them. If there were any catastrophes in Somalia or America, I would be the first one to be an American, first Russian, first European, first Muslim, first Christian and first everything because I realized there was no one to limit me as one thing. I didn’t care that people labelled me as an Arab, Armenian, French. These things didn’t really matter to me… I lost a million years in my childhood that I can’t bring back… this is the power that drove me to art.”
How did he describe the language of his art?
He considered it a universal language, as it was the only one he could express himself best in. In an interview he said: “When I was a child, people around me were talking in different languages. I was wondering then: who am I? And in what language should I express myself: in Armenian, Arabic or French? Finally, I understood that my first language is painting; and I should only talk through painting and nothing else.”
A part of your father’s art had messages of hope to people during war. To what extent do you think his early experiences have influenced his art?
My father considered that wars often produce great artists (painters, poets, musicians) because a lot of questions arise within them immediately. Questions about existence, death, humanity and ignorance, and so the Lebanese Civil War added to his mother’s memories of the Armenian Genocide and his own childhood predicaments, generated within him a bigger sensibility towards human tragedy and suffering. In an interview with As-Sayyad newspaper’s Georges Trad on September 19, 1984, he was asked the following: “Concerning the state of affairs in Lebanon, how are the traces of bloody events reflected in the work of Paul Guiragossian?” His answer was: “Love and peace are more powerful than war. That is what the Lebanese people have demonstrated to the world. The authentic artist must be committed. Goya was committed, in his art, to fighting Joseph, the brother of Napoleon. Da Vinci was committed. Michelangelo as well. The greats are always committed. As for the lesser artists, they are incapable of elevating themselves to the level of commitment… the paintings I made during the war overflow with the suffering of the Lebanese people, and they reflect the people’s aspirations and their insistence on life despite all the forces conspiring against them – those forces are crushed by the people’s devotion to life. My paintings are a thunderous cry that springs from the war.”