Curator Gaby Daher chats about Philippe Jabre’s spectacular artworks
Philippe Jabre’s eclectic art collection, with curator Gaby Daher at its helm, focuses on Western creations spurred by close and distant encounters with Lebanon. Rich with over 300 artworks and artefacts, the collection spans almost 400 years, going from a 17th-century view of Batroun to modern and contemporary works by names such as David Hockney and Andy Warhol. Nineteenth-century Orientalist art constitutes the heart of the collection, with rare, museum-level works by important names such as Gustav Bauernfeind, Antoine-Alphonse Montfort, Pierre-Francois Lehoux and Prosper Marilhat. Eager to share its treasures with the public, the collection, which was started three decades ago, has been lending works to exhibitions and institutions such as the Sursock Museum in Beirut. This past September, Beirut Art Fair hosted the sprawling exhibition Lebanon: The Journey, entirely comprised of works from the Jabre collection. Showcasing over 100 works , the show included historical Orientalist paintings of Lebanon’s mountains and largest cities, Beirut and Tripoli, as well as rare works by major 20th-century artists, such as 1960s watercolours by Hockney, alongside works reacting to the Lebanese Civil War by Warhol and A. R. Penck. Besides paintings, the show featured a selection of tourism and movie posters, and even automatons and dolls, among other objects, completing a journey of discovery via multiple images of Lebanon, filtered through Western eyes across the centuries.
How has working with the Philippe Jabre collection influenced your curatorial outlook?
Thirty years ago, in 1989, when we started this collection, based on views of Lebanon by foreign artists (thus excluding Lebanese and Arab artists), I was not destined to be a curator or anything like that. But now, with over 300 works in the collection ranging from a 17th-century view of Mseilha castle in Batroun to 20th-century works by David Hockney, Andy Warhol or A. R. Penck, I suddenly realise that I have accidently become the only curator of this collection. The reason is simple: I have lots of knowledge about artists who visited Lebanon in the past centuries, and so far haven’t been able to find anybody who could assist me in my research in this particular field. So somebody must take care of this unique collection – and here I am. I am also working on a detailed and illustrated catalogue of the collection, which is going to be available in 2020.
What are your responsibilities as an art collector and as a curator?
Prices on these particular works are so high that I can only afford to be a buyer for other collectors. I keep little gems in my Beirut flat, and this sometimes annoys my clients. But you must understand I need a “room with a view,” and in particular, on the Mediterranean Sea (Diemer painting). As a curator, my responsibilities are comprehensive: finding the painting (this could be in any part of the world), researching it, making sure of the location and the artist, and, if bidding at auction, register. If the work sells, I need to arrange payment and collection. Then, I need to collect the painting from customs, and last but not least, try to find an empty wall in order to hang the new acquisition – and, believe me, that’s not easy.
“I KEEP LITTLE GEMS IN MY BEIRUT FLAT”
Which are the most important names in Orientalism?
Gustav Bauernfeind, for instance, has a museum dedicated to his works in his hometown near Stuttgart and five books about him. He lived in the Middle East and painted exactly what he saw. His large paintings (around 25) are mostly in museums (Dahesh, New York, Qatar, Jordan) and fetch very high prices ($6 million for the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and $4.7 million for the Great Mosque in Damascus). He only executed two large Lebanon-themed paintings: a view of Baalbek (at the Pinakothek in Munich) and a view of Tripoli (in the Jabre collection), which are reproduced here. Then you have French artists Antoine-Alphonse Montfort and Pierre-Francois Lehoux – both came twice to Lebanon, in 1827 and 1837. They stayed at the Emir Ali Abillama’s palace in Broumana. Montfort’s family donated most of his works to the Louvre Museum, and Lehoux’s works are extremely hard to find. Their works mainly depict Lebanese people in traditional costumes. In my opinion, the most beautiful painting about Lebanon belongs to the Qatar Museum. Executed by Montfort, it shows the Emir Ali Abillama leaving his palace in Salima to go on a hawk hunt (reproduced here). But I believe Orientalism really started with Prosper Marilhat. He’s considered a pioneer of the genre, and he spent several years in Egypt and did some nice images of Lebanon as well. He died very young, at 37. His paintings are mostly in museums (two in the Louvre and one at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg).
What are the main subjects of Orientalist art, and how does Lebanon feature in them?
Orientalist art features plenty of views of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, lots of Istanbul and Cairo, but very few of Lebanon and Syria and almost nothing on Iraq or Persia. We’re fortunate to have some views of Lebanon because Beirut was the main port for foreign tourists whose main destination was Jerusalem. And Baalbeck and Palmyra were more interesting for tourists than the coastal cities of the Levant or Damascus.
What is the market like for Orientalist art today?
The market is downward for the non-topographical views and genre scenes. But well-established artists are still very much in demand, as evidenced by the Pierre Bergé sale at Sotheby’s Paris last year. The demand for views of Lebanon is increasing, given the fact there are at least 10 serious collectors. For example, if a view of Beirut at auction is estimated €10,000, we have to start bidding at €50,000.
Which period had the best Orientalist art output?
Certainly the 19th century, when the “Grand Tour” and Orientalism were most in fashion, and the second half of that century because of photography. Artists were thereafter pushed by their governments to go explore Africa and Asia instead of the Holy Land.
What is the challenge in collecting Orientalist paintings?
The challenge is to find them, especially the views of Lebanon. According to Orientalist art expert Lynne Thornton, you hardly see a view of Lebanon at auction. But after the Montfort sale at Drouot that scored high prices was widely covered in the media, people who owned paintings of Lebanon started to offer them for sale at auction. The Internet also made sales information available to everybody worldwide and helped the spread of new collectors in this particular niche.
Do you feel that you have a sense of educational responsibility to popularise Orientalist art?
My aim is to build a collection based on works by foreign artists who painted Lebanon, and you have to keep in mind that these works were produced in the artist’s country of origin and not in Lebanon. Artists would come to Lebanon, draw some sketches and execute the final paintings in their studio back home. These paintings were sold mainly to Europeans and American, so the challenge is to find them and reunite them with their land of origin: Lebanon.
How do you evaluate the public’s interest?
We tested the public interest with three exhibitions. The first one took place in 2016 in Beirut at the Sursock Museum and had Beirut as its theme. The second one, Baalbek: Archives of an Eternity, also took place at Sursock Museum, in 2019. Then, Lebanon: the Journey was staged in September 2019 at Beirut Art Fair. Although it lasted only four days, it was a huge moment for the Lebanese public to discover paintings of their country they’d never seen before. Now many know that Eugène Flandin painted Tripoli in 1840
(reproduced here) and that David Hockney visited Lebanon in 1966. He stayed for two weeks, and we know of five works from him about Lebanon, two of which are in the Jabre Collection, including View of Lebanese Mountain.
What do you think of today’s art market? How has it changed over the years?
Our niche has nothing to do with the art market at large, since it concerns a few serious and passionate collectors ready to buy all the works they can find to add to their collection. As long as they are active, the demand will remain solid and prices might keep soaring.
What type of traits do you think a collector needs to possess to build a great collection?
A collector cannot build a collection without the help and advice of an expert.
Do you enjoy the hunt associated with collecting art or the joy of ownership?
My biggest joy is hunting for works. I could never have imagined that I would one day buy an oil painting by Lehoux from a dealer in Saint Petersburg, or, in North Carolina, a view of Nahr al Kalb by the famous American Orientalist Edwin Lord Weeks, who stayed in Lebanon only four days according to his travel journal at Paul Getty Museu (reproduced here).
What work of art do you wish you owned if the price did not matter?
Do you have any idea how I could steal the Montfort from the Qatar Museum?
What was the first artwork you purchased?
A view of Latakia by Prosper Marilhat. I sold it quickly and easily to a man from Latakia through his decorator, for 300,000 French francs, and I was paid in less than 24 hours. The buyer was very happy to own a very rare work by a great artist who painted his hometown.
Describe your collection in four words.
My collection is Philippe Jabre’s collection. This serious collector entirely shares my passion and is very happy when I show him new discoveries and acquisitions. His aim is to keep enriching his unique and rare collection.
Which are the names on your wish list?
Recently, the Metropolitan Museum in New York put online a series of watercolours depicting views of Baalbek by the great American artist John Singer Sargent. And I am sure that soon I will find a new work on Lebanon by Gustav Bauernfeind that’s not yet included in his curated catalogue.
All images are courtesy of Gaby Daher
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, SHOW & TELL #51 PAGES 134 – 139.