During my recent afternoon in London, after I’d finished at the Courtauld Gallery, I headed over to the Tate Modern. It was about 4:30 by the time I got there, and the Gallery shuts at 6 p.m., so I didn’t have a lot of time to look round the massive collection. So what to see? There’s so much there it overwhelms you. So I decided to take advantage of my Tate membership and have a look at one of the temporary exhibitions. I thought the exhibition of works by Saloua Choucair sounded interesting, and I liked the self portrait used on the poster advertising it (see above) so decided to take a look.
It was the right decision. I was bowled over by her work. A modernist painter – a Lebanese female! And a real talent whose work combines western abstract art with Islamic influences.
The exhibition included some lovely little modernist female nudes, abstract patterns (some clearly influenced by Islamic designs) sculpture in wood, metal and stone and a room of Constructivist structures – not unlike those by Naum Gabo. She needs to be much better known.
According to the Tate Modern website
Through painting and drawing, architecture, textiles and jewellery, as well as, of course, her prolific and experimental sculptures, visitors can discover how Choucair worked in diverse media pursuing her interests in science, mathematics and Islamic art and poetry. Many of the works, made over a period of five decades, have not previously been seen outside of Lebanon.
A rare female voice in the Beirut art scene from the 1940s onwards, Choucair’s work combines elements of western abstraction with Islamic aesthetics. It is characterised by an experimental approach to materials alongside an elegant use of modular forms, lines and curves drawn from the traditions of Islamic design.
Once in the exhibition I realised I’d seen some of her sculptures before, when we visited Tate Modern in January. I’d snapped a couple of small sculptures.
Poem (1963-5) and Poem of nine verses (1983-5) by Saloua Choucair
The self portrait used to advertise the exhibition isn’t that representative of her work, the majority of which did not include figures. There were some delightful semi-abstract nudes, however, amongst the pictures on display in the first room.
Les Peintres Celebres 1948–9 (Source: Tate website)
No photographs were allowed in the exhibition, which is a pity as I don’t have a record of what I saw (I should have bought the catalogue, but, as these things are, it was relatively expensive, but I may regret the decision not to shell out for it). However, the following video, from the Tate’s website, features a significant number of the works on display
and there are pictures of exhibits on the Tate website.
The exhibition included a large number of sculptures, maquettes and sculptural objects. In some cases I could see similarities with works by Barbara Hepworth although Choucair’s works tended to have more complex, intricate forms for example
Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces1966-1968, seemingly simple cubes or blocks, which house intricately carved and highly complex internal forms. Infinite Structure1963–5 is a tower of multiple rectangular stone blocks, one atop the other, each with individual square and spherical holes cut into them. (Tate website)
Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces (1966-1968)
Some of the sculptures and maquettes were models for water fountains, public projects, architectural structures and even everyday objects like pepper pots.
Saloua Choucair is still alive, in her nineties, but is suffering from Alzheimer’s. But her work is a testament to a relatively unknown talent and shows that there’s more to modernist art than the works by Europeans and Americans that are mainly bought and displayed in art galleries. The exhibition certainly changed my perception of Arabic art and I was surprised that a woman from an Islamic country, (albeit one that, despite it’s more recent troubles, has a cosmopolitan culture) was able to produce modernist works, some including female nudes. What other surprises await discovery?