In an attempt to delve into the private universe of artists and art collectors, Selections is exploring the sanctuaries of various men and women, some living and others who have passed away, and shedding light on places that remain out of bounds for the majority of people. We examine how these artists and art collectors live, what surrounds them and how they go about thinking, dreaming and creating. In order to get as personal as possible, we came up with customised questions that we then presented to each of these men and women (and in the case of those who passed away to their children), tailoring our queries to the way each of them lives and goes about creating his or her work. In parallel, we shot a short film, which you can view on our website, that navigates each artist and art collector’s sanctuary. The film allows viewers to get up close and personal with artists and art collectors who seldom open their personal space up to the world. A fascinating artistic journey into the hearts and minds of some of the region’s most intriguing people.
Late artist Shafic Abboud was one of Lebanon’s most revered painters. Born in the Lebanese mountain town of Bikfaya in 1926, Abboud studied at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA) in Lebanon and moved to Paris shortly afterward, in 1947, where he passed away at the age of 77. One of Lebanon’s most influential 20th-century artists, Abboud started out creating bold, figurative paintings and landscapes and then moved on to the Abstract Expressionist style. He worked in the studios of such acclaimed abstract artists as Fernand Léger and over the course of his career created iconic works such as “La Cathédrale” and “La Serviette Bleue.”
Was art an accidental or purposeful act for your father?
Both. His initial encounter with the painter César Gemayel is accidental. He showed him his drawings when he was a teenager, and it was a key moment that helped Shafic Abboud reveal and understand his profound need to create. This vital necessity became in fact a project.
Shafic Abboud worked in a range of media, from oils and watercolours to ceramics, terracotta and artist’s books. Which was his favourite?
He said and wrote that he was “having great fun” with ceramics, tapestry and engraving. He used these materials with enthusiasm and utmost seriousness, but I think he used to approach them with a lighter manner, like almost (re)creative detours, since the strategic challenge was the canvas, the brush, the colour. Painting is unquestionably the medium with which he had the most complicated and interesting relationship, his notebooks at work confirm his continued research until his final years. For him, the perfect mastery of the technique is the essential condition of creating. He held a technical and sensitive dialogue with oils, tempera, distemper and pigments. In 1994, he wrote: “The ideal Giotto is haunting me; a research, a certain science and a work carried out in the original innocence.”
What is the spark that made your father switch from figurative paintings and landscapes to the abstract expressionist style?
There is no spark or a click. There are perhaps academic studies, a historic moment in which the abstract debate/figuration is alive, and these make us recognize it as abstract. But in many of his writings it was very clear: for him, the question is important, it is reflected for a long time but does not really concern his art. Internally or in the privacy of the atelier, he was always on a ridgeline between abstraction and figuration, without locking himself in one or another, drawing on one and the other. He is elsewhere in the pictorial theory. It is this duality that helps us understand his works, beyond abstraction and figuration, and through which we can find the key to his art.
Was art itself or the process of making it joyful for him?
Like I said before, I think that both things are absolutely inseparable.
What used to move Shafic Abboud? Was it music, happiness, pain or something else?
In my view, it is the imprint of a moment or a particular light. All of his paintings are like a sensitive plate of his life, from his childhood in Lebanon to his artistic and intellectual life in Paris. There are also unavoidable things like his passion for women but also a “Poirier à Pense-Folie” or “Les Pigeonniers d’Egypte.”
Describe a typical day of your father working at the studio.
He used to say with malice that he was a grocer who goes every morning to his boutique for work. This is the legend he wanted to build for himself. The days were of course less monotonous, but the daily work, the necessary work to achieve a “painting state” was real. Working had its rituals, like having a Turkish coffee, preparing the colours or even daydreaming – moments that he described as “unconscious observation” and that were an integral part of his creation process.
Is there a certain location that influenced your father the most?
I guess this question can join the question of what can set him in motion, because more than a place, it is surely the intensity of the present moment or a memory, the light of a place that touches him. The eighties are marked with a reactivation of childhood memories, this period directs the eye to Lebanon, but if we look today at all of his works, he was a very sensitive man who painted his life day by day, starting from his questionings in a metaphysical “Bleu Nuit” to “Les Fleurs de Février.” Finally, it was all painting materials, and we can say that the “place” is eventually the surface of a canvas.
Have his experiences with his family been transformative in terms of his career as an artist?
Yes certainly, the categorical refusal of his father for becoming a painter modified his destiny. Painting was consuming him and in the same time it liberated him. Family is complicated, his own family as well as the one he founded. His fierce affirmation of his freedom as a man and a painter was not achieved without violent clashes with his both families.
What did you do in your shared times together? Did he tell you stories from the past?
When I was a kid, I used to go to his workshop once per week. He let me do lots of painting, sculpting, reading, tapestry, etc. He was always happy with the presence of children around him. His grandmother was the storyteller in the village. He used to tell me unbelievable and funny stories, with the same amazement he had when he was a child.
Describe your father’s passion.
It is a wide subject, we need a dissertation! It is better to look at his paintings.
Did he want any of his children to follow his lead in the art world?
Luckily for him the question was not asked, I am his only child, and I never wanted to be an artist. I imagine this would have terribly tormented him.
How much did your father’s background and culture influence his work especially that he’s attached to his roots?
We can say that all his works reflect the Orient, but culture is not a fixed thing, it develops and transforms, it is a cultivated and enriched reality over the years. His Orient is the Orient of the exile, the diaspora, it is with no doubt an Occidental Orient.
When it comes to his abstract paintings, did he ask about your perception of his paintings? Did you discuss his art together?
My father built rituals, and one of them was having lunch at his house once a week, a lunch where we go to the atelier to see the new paintings. I had to tell him what I thought – and this was very difficult – but one day, he confessed that he liked to see me watching, as if it was a silent conversation that he understood more than my words. The discussion was there but could have some unexpected aspects.
As a successful artist did your father’s role as a citizen enhance?
He never thought of himself as a “successful” artist. I think he knew how to evaluate, all modesty aside, and with no ego invading the high quality of his art, but in the same time he was always tormented and in a search state. He didn’t like socializing at all, he was a man of convictions but not a militant. He was a man who left a mark, who had great charisma but was not necessarily a leader or an opinion-maker.
Was Shafic Abboud’s art separated from him or was it synchronized with his character?
It was 200% synchronized!
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Sanctuaries #47.