Ranging from declarations of love and outpourings of grief to observations on sales, or the lack of them, our collection of letters from and to artists offers a rare and fascinating glimpse into the private world of a creative force

While artists will always express themselves first and foremost through their work, what they say to loved ones and colleagues in writing can be equally revealing, as our collection of letters on the following pages shows.

The compilation is both varied and inspirational, comprising a mix of correspondence provided by the historian and curator, Sam Bardaouil, whose book and show on the Surrealism movement in Egypt are featured later on in this edition, and extensive research undertaken by the Selections team.

Some of the correspondence is factual, giving us a wonderful insight into the challenges that artists faced when attempting to promote or sell their work, while other notes are brimming with emotion.

Highlights include a letter from a series written by Gibran Khalil Gibran to Marie El Khoury, shared with Selections by Ashkan Baghestani, head of sale, deputy director, Contemporary and Modern Arab and Iranian art at Sotheby’s. A note to self by Willy Aractingi provided by his daughter, June Nabaa, makes for another wonderful read, as does correspondence between the artists Saiid Baalbaki and Marwan Kassab Bacha, both of whom were based in Berlin and regularly exchanged letters.

Among the most poignant mementos are a touching birthday wish written by the artist Fawzi Baalbaki to his daughter Youmna, and shared with Selections by his son, the painter Ayman Baalbaki, and the letter that the artist Minas Avetisyan wrote to Paul Guiragossian after his good friend was forced to have his leg amputated. Equally touching is the farewell note penned by the Jordanian sculptor Mona Saudi to Guiragossian on his death.

Other correspondence, such as the exchange of letters between the artists Georges Hanna Sabbagh and E.L.T Mesens and another written by Mahmoud Saiid, all shared by Bardaouil, gives us some insight into the practicalities that they had to deal with, such as transporting their works.

Significantly, a separate contribution in the form of a letter that Amy Smert (Nimr) wrote to Mamoud Saiid enabled Bardaouil to place the artist for the first time at the heart of the art scene in 1930s’ Paris since it included her address, highlighting the role that artefacts can play as tools of historical research. Also of historical interest are the thoughts of the poet Georges Henein, writing to the artist Ramses Younane against a backdrop of political and cultural change in 1940s’ Cairo.

Other more unusual, but equally captivating missives include notes inspired by a poem created by the Lebanese talent, Zad Moultaka, and a painting of a rooster that the Iraqi artist Ismael Fattah sent to a printing studio.

We hope you enjoy reading our compilation of communiqués as much as we delighted in putting it together.

To: Paul Guiragossian
From: Minas Avetisyan
Provided by Manuella Guiragossian

September 19, 1974

My dearest Paul
Preserve the harmony of your eyes, hands and heart as the light of your paintings reaches us through these three elements.
I have seen a lot of difficult circumstances in life, but this last one has been the heaviest.
Hang in there my brother. Our hearts ache for you.
Yours, with love, Minas

To: Saiid Baalbaki
From: Marwan Kassab-Bachi
Provided by Saiid Baalbaki

Wednesday, February 9, 2004

There was a day a long time ago, while at a Machraka vantage point on a mountain in Amman, a polite and beautiful boy came and said: “My name is Saiid from Baalbeck, Lebanon. My father’s name is Fawzi and in his youth, everyone used to call him Adham, when youth was youth and when there was a revolution and hope in the country.”

The boy Saiid stood up and opened a box of colouring pencils and began to bring a piece of fabric back to life with apricot and sky-blue turquoise and apple green. The dream of youth, of giving and love and the universe was what the son of the mountain was holding in his heart today and for tomorrow. Upwards, he goes, wrapped in nostalgia, from the cedar tree and the yellow roofs and the sea underneath him, far, far away to the north, armed with his mother’s love and Youmna with Ayman and God’s light, perfumed with hope and prayers and the love of the soil and glory and love of Lebanon.

Saiid did not forget the linen, the pen and Chawki, since they all added to his path through life in the country of snow and the roads of expatriation. He enters the chamber of darkness and, with his brush and memories, he iluminates the space and the moments of darkness, until everything that surrounds him becomes beautiful, like orange orchards, and the childhood districts and kites and the calling of the pigeons, and the Night of Power rises.

And Saiid has a boy today, a garden of faithful relatives and friends who planted him in their heart like loyalty and a flower of love, who walk with him in life and share the shadow and joy on the road of life. They always say today and tomorrow that the sun will rise in the morning, warm with the memory of yesterday, and that the river of life holds a basket of colours and lines and writings for us that we will keep, in chapters, of our lifetime of memories. And, as time passes, from tomorrow, to after tomorrow, we will say we had a friend and a father and a son, and we had Marwan who had great luck when he knew Saiid, with the orange and apricot colours at the Machraka of Amman.

To: Youmna, on her birthday
From: Fawzi Baalbaki
Provided by Ayman Baalbaki

May 20, 2013, Beirut

My daughter
It seems that speech has betrayed me, and that the tongue did not consider the reality of what my heart holds and desires; and that every time my soul tried to open up and express my feelings towards the ones I love, the words slipped away from between my fingers and fell to profound depths; for the language here is like a mirage: every time I take one step closer, it runs away from me!

I wonder whether this is caused by weakness or negligence?

Negligence?? Far be it for me to allow myself to be stigmatised in this way, especially when I talk about my little Youmna! But the thing is that I don’t know where to start the poem from, because, as Hassan Abdullah says, to tell the truth, I haven’t found a safe, linguistic balance to quell the fire inside of me!

Excuse me, my daughter, when I say this language is cursed and that every language is a reflection of people’s emotions and inflamed feelings. And in this situation, I am like Abou Sakhr Al Hazli, who became weak every time he saw his lover Olaya, or like Al-Sharif Al-Radi when, away from home, he couldn’t find the words to reminisce, so he let his heart talk instead of his tongue, by saying, “The heart looked around.”

All I can say is that you are the blessed rib that completed my family, the perfect conclusion. Blessed is the soul between your ribs that can hold that never-ending love! You are for me, as well, like the tissue of the heart and its membrane, moving over the map of my soul like a bee, and sleeping in its vast heartfelt shadows!

Say with me loudly: Halleluiah… Halleluiah… Blessed be the name of the Lord!


To: E.L.T Mesens
From: Mr Georges Hanna Sabbagh
Provided by Sam Bardaouil

November 13, 1934

Dear Mr Mesens
I would like to thank you for your lovely letter of the 13th of this month. I charged Mr Van Thienen to forward my paintings. I think that the potential buyer that you mentioned to me did not pursue his enquiry, in which case I would like to ask you (after you have kindly confirmed this) to forward the drawings and watercolours that I have in my luggage via post. I didn’t declare them to customs and thought about sending them with the paintings. Sending my thanks to M. Giron and yourself for your kind intervention. Please find here, dear Mr Mesens, my heartfelt regards.
Mr G.H. Sabbagh
IO, rue Philibert Delorme

Courtesy of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, copyright: The (Palais des Beaux Arts) BOZAR Archive, Brussels.

To: Mr Georges Hanna Sabbagh
From: E.L.T Mesens
Provided by Sam Bardaouil

November 13, 1934

Dear Sabbagh
Mr Giron and I are both very touched by your lovely letter.
The exhibition has ended, unfortunately, with no sales. We are very sorry and want you to know that we did our best to represent your interests.
There is, however, still some hope; an art lover asked about the prices of numbers: 1 — 6 — 7 in the catalogue after the exhibition closed. I took the liberty of telling him 1000 francs for the first one and 1500 francs for the other two. I expect him to visit in a couple of days.
I did not see the Egyptian minister again, nor the art enthusiast Gantois who asked for prices towards the end of the exhibition.
Maison Van Thienen came to get the frames back. I think it would be better to wait a few more days during which, by the way, I will call some art lovers who didn’t have the chance to visit the exhibition and ask them to view your paintings in our warehouse.
Please accept, Mr Sabbagh, my best and heartfelt regards.
The secretary
E.L.T. Mesens

Courtesy of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, copyright: The Farhi/Henein Estate Archive, Paris.

To : Ramses Younane
From: Georges Henein
Provided by Sam Bardaouil

My dear Ramses
What have you been up to? For two or three months and since I received the philosopher’s stone, the touchstone of the unknowable, I have had no news from you.
I recently had trouble with the painters who were pretending to represent the continuation of ‘Art et Liberte’: Kamal Youssef — Hassan — Gazzar -Nada — Masseouda — etc. They planned to form a new group, ‘Art et Culture’. But when it came to defining its objectives, they were talking about ‘the national personality of the artist’, and eliminating artists like Eric de Nemes, pretending that he didn’t express the quintessence of Egyptian life and that there was nothing really to admire. That’s it, we have to paint a gamousse, a goza, a sakia, a kouttab class.
Everything is tainted with cosmopolitism, the absolute worst, a morally fuzzy fascism, enveloped in an incurable ignorance. Futile beginnings convince us that the country is not sufficiently mature to cope with the ‘effendis’ in uniform.
Thanks to the tension these days, Zehir showed a combination of comical innocence, malice and a spark of life. Our dear librarian prepared his candidacy for some dubious elections for the hundredth time …. Did you read the last Abellio? Why does it have to be subjected to this odious terminology? Some of the passages (relating to the science of evolution) are excellent but, still, how much nonsense enveloped in a barbarian language?
For you, our nostalgic recollections

Courtesy of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, copyright: The Farhi/Henein Estate Archive, Paris

To: Paul Guiragossian
From: Mona Saudi
Provided by Mona Saudi

To Paul Guiragossian
All the women are sad today.
Women in green and black
and blue. Women holding white roses,
and holding their babies in their hands and in their uteruses.
And women gathered at the wedding,
as if at a funeral.
They come out from paintings, as if they are coming out from their bedrooms,
all coming to your eternal bed,
holding flowers that were years in their hands without becoming dry,
scattering them in your goodbye.

To: Note to self
From: Willy Aractingi
Provided by June Nabaa

September 8, 1987

Today, I am 17. It’s difficult, but I don’t feel that I’m getting old at all. I certainly have other pleasures (though some remain the same) and interests, but that’s it. Perhaps also more enthusiasm, but the same vitality and energy (some people complain about it) and more of a taste for life than ever; I feel like I started my life at the age of 50, when I left Fattal for good, (or almost), when I left Beirut, (or almost), or when I began to paint 100%, (again, or almost).

I’m increasingly changing the palette. The shades are more tinted and the solid colours bigger; the tint occurs through the juxtaposition of colours more than through the shift from light to dark.

I’m discovering the browns, the blacks and the greys. I recently saw a Foujita and struck up a relationship of sorts with it. I must study it closely.

With my naivety, I belong to Rousseau, to Gauguin with his colours, to Matisse with his solid colours and, because I’ve always admired him for his fine art and still do, to Foujita.

Great news! Antibes Art Gallery has sold ‘Suzanna at her bath without the elders’. It’s the canvas I painted back in ‘84 and exhibited at least three times. And then I noticed that I put her breasts a little high — clumsiness. We must believe that the amateur likes big, high breasts. I prefer those that are sagging slightly; they promise more experience — rather like a cake.

To: unspecified
From: Jawad Salim
Anonymous provider

It’s an Italian movie solely about love and lust. The direction is perfect, and the star is beautiful, with a strong sexual attraction. And these are two real scenes from the movie.
‘Blanche-Neige et Les Septs Nains’ (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
A great, wonderful movie. I remember I mentioned it to you in my previous letter. I liked it so much that I watched it four times. And this image that you see is from my memory.

To: Marie El Khoury
From: Gibran Khalil Gibran
Provided by Sotheby’s

27 Tyler St. (Boston)

O Beloved Marie
Beginning Sunday and up till this hour, I have been among friends and acquaintances, like a boat in the middle of the sea rolled by the waves and buffeted by winds. I became tired of being honoured and flattered and invited, however, I am yearning for the golden corner that is filled with quiet and silence – and now, I stole an hour away from my friends and came to a room to be alone and talk to you to revive my spirit with ideas and dreams that swim around my head when I sit alone and think of you. You, Marie, are like the pure morning breeze carrying the fragrance of flowers and breaths of bouquets. So, when I think of you I feel an internal calm, as though my spirits have been bathed by waves of this perfumed breeze.
Christmas has passed, but it left nothing except regret, longing and sad memories. However, I put on an appearance of happiness and joy in front of those whom I like and who like me. And I hate putting on appearances, even the kind that make other people happy. Holidays, Marie, are seasons of happiness for some people, but seasons of sadness for many.
I will return to New York by the end of the week, and were it not for some work, I would return tomorrow, but life steers us sometimes through valleys and other times to the top of the mountains. And even though I consider myself to be free, I am still obliged to give my work, and the relationships it has created with others, attention.
I long for you, O Marie, with all the yearning of fire. I long for the playing, laughter and smiles, and for the touch of your hands and your shoulders. And I long for your teasing me!!
Think about me a little if you are able, and allow me to place a small kiss—a very small kiss—on your tender palm.
May the heavens keep you

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

To: Mahmoud Said
From: Amy Smert
Provided by Sam Bardaouil

July 14, 1934
101 rue de la Tombe Issoire

Dear Sir
Thank you so much for your lovely article, it made me really happy. I thought that the reproductions were very well done and that the article showed a real appreciation for my works. This has made me feel that it’s worth fighting on in a world that cares only about the financial crises and politics.
I’ve felt recently that there’s no longer a place in the world for the arts.
You asked me to give you some personal details about my artistic evolution: I’ve always preferred the human side and working (even though it can produce some unpleasant side effects) rather than going for a spontaneous result. Nowadays, I choose to rebel against the excessive amount of decorative arts that have come to characterise our era, the garish colours that clash, and against the overly planned aesthetic. I think that the composition of a painting must respond to what we see in real life, that colours are beautiful when they’re brought together and that the colour is secondary, alongside the atmosphere and light. But this is hard to explain on a sheet of paper. If you pass through Paris, you can see my paintings, and if you write to Miss Hayer in advance, she can make sure to be there. I won’t return until October, since I’m going to Berlin tomorrow, then to the Harz mountains and England.
I can explain what I am looking for better in conversation.
Thank you again for your kindness and enthusiasm, I was really touched. Please accept, sir, my deepest gratitude.
Amy Smert

Courtesy of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, copyright: The Paul Vanderborght Archives of the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels

To: Jean Khalifeh in Rome, Italy
From: Michel Basbous
Provided by Agial Art Gallery and Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation.

13 April, 1960

To: the printing studio
From: Ismael Fattah
Provided by Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation

Ismael Fattah, Untitled, 2002, retouched etching, unique, 76 × 56.5 cm, courtesy of Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation.

To: undefined
From: Saloua Raouda Choucair
Provided by Agial Art Gallery and Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation.

Choucair’s annotations on the back of the the photographs of interiors from Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille c. 1950

Inspired by a poem he wrote,
by Zad Moultaka
Provided by Zad Moultaka and Galerie Janine Rubeiz

Today, Venice has taken possession of the rain,
which hesitates, frightened by the night’s glances.

She looks herself in the eye,
her face shivering on the skin of the mirror…

Courtesy of the artist & Galerie Janine Rubeiz