August 26, 2019
by Lara Arafeh
Saliba Douaihy is considered to be one of the leading 20th century painters of Lebanon. Born in 1915 in a mountainous town in northern Lebanon, Douaihy was first exposed to painting and art through the churches in his hometown. Due to his apprenticeship with Habib Srour at the age of 14, his style was initially realistic and figurative. Srour was a portrait painter of religious, social, and political Arab figures in Lebanon and taught Douaihy the techniques of drawing and painting. Douaihy later assisted Srour in large church murals.
An interview with the artist revealed that during his time as Srour’s student, he was not exposed to using colour. Srour was a classical painter and Douaihy reflected that his work was “rivalling the works of the most important Italian painters, but were parochial and of limited horizon.”1 This is the start of Douaihy’s interest in developing his technique beyond what he was taught as a classical artist.
Through support and help from his father and community in northern Lebanon, Douaihy received a grant allowing him to participate in a cross-cultural exchange program between France and Lebanon. He studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. During this time, his work was included in several prominent French salons. While Douaihy was exposed to modern art in Paris, he was still practicing art classically. “I mastered painting and drawing, but had no knowledge of, or preoccupation with, what was happening around me in terms of modern artistic trends. I used to visit art exhibitions with some of my colleagues, but our passion was purely for the classical style, and everything outside of it was, in our view, a waste of time… I remained wedded to the classical principles of visual art until my studies in Paris came to an end” (Douaihy in an interview with Badr el-Hage)1. After graduating, Douaihy returned to Lebanon and opened his own studio. Producing rural and religious paintings, his work was met with success and he was commissioned to paint frescoes in the Maronite Church of Diman. This was the start of his professional association with the Maronite Church. Douaihy also painted secular works at the time, showing a personal growth and development as he moved between abstract and natural scenes in this stage of his career. A blend of descriptive painting with twists of minimalism, his painting showed his personal interpretations of the landscapes of Lebanon. These early works were impressionist in style and show his passion for landscape and his native land. Here, he began to expose himself to modern art through reading, and found that he enjoyed what was then seen as ‘ugly.’ His understanding and dedication to modern art grew into his practice, “[he] painted a scene containing the sea, [and] used red instead of blue, on the basis that what mattered to [him] was not the scene, but the harmony of colours within the painting”2.
In 1950, at the age of 35, Douaihy was named Cultural Representative of Lebanon by the President of Lebanon and was asked to travel to the United States and Mexico to bring attention to Lebanon as a cultural destination. Feeling like his work was lacking something substantial and that Lebanon would limit him creatively, Douaihy intended to move to the U.S. to explore new trends in modern art which then started his journey as an important figure in Lebanon’s cultural scene. When Douaihy moved to New York City, he settled in the loft of the Maronite Church of Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights. Initially, his job was to make stained glass commissioned for Lebanon, Massachusetts, or New York. In 1978, Douaihy produced sixty-five paintings on glass for the church of The Lady of Lebanon in Jamaica Plain in Massachusetts. This short absence of creative production was followed by a rebirth reflecting a renewed sense of style. In concurrence with ‘minimal art’ that was becoming popular during that period, his approach developed while his style remained unique. His new aesthetic showed his evolution to non-figurative painting. The main subject is secondary, allowing shape, colour, and form to act as the dominant focus. His development didn’t follow any rigid doctrines. But rather represents a desire to distance himself from Western cultures and form a particular mode of artistic expression reflecting his existential meditation, thus creating his unique style.
Exposure to art and trips to Europe and the U.S. influenced the various phases of Douaihy’s practice. Douaihy saw this exposure as crucial to his career and stylistic development stating that his colleagues that stayed behind worked in Lebanon’s cultural climate that wasn’t nourishing in broadening their horizons and they remained in “the same vortex.” 3 His move to New York allowed his style to develop towards minimalism. Douaihy was exposed to many post-war abstract modernist artists. Exposure to new forms of thinking and creating challenged Douaihy’s practice and allowed him to question his technique and way of thinking, pushing him to think on a different scale. Meeting Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, Ad Reinhardt, and others played a role on his practice. The writings of Emmanuel Kant stimulated Douaihy to reach a formalist aesthetic. These metaphysical reflections led to his developed painting style. Douaihy never joined or identified himself with any particular group or movement. However, the exposure he gained inspired specific works including his Hard Edge paintings series. This series represented the majority of the works that he created from when he first moved to New York until his death. His new style showed expression through curves and lines, vast colour, and planes defined by colour. Colours that regularly appeared in his work are red, green, orange, and blue. The concepts of “flatness” and “infinite space” were the basis of his compositions where he used precise shapes and abrupt changes in colour to explore depth and space through his painting. Most of his abstract paintings depict lines which represent the Mediterranean Sea. Douaihy considers the simplification of space in his work Arabic in nature, as in Arabic calligraphy.
The transition of Douaihy’s style is evident when he revisited a painting of Mar Qozhayya monastery. He first painted the monastery in a realistic manner while the revisited version shows the essence of his later abstract work. His process of growth, reduction, and simplification is seen at an early stage. The sky shows a transition into the style of his later works, in which he worked with dominant planes of colours. The composition of Douaihy’s works in the 1960s and ‘70s embodies the concepts and beliefs that inspired his later works. The ‘classic’ period of his painting showed impressionist paintings of his village depicting valleys, houses, mountains, and farmers to recreate the world of his childhood – a classical and traditional romance. The ‘nostalgic’ period shows him revisiting those moments, nostalgic for his homeland.
Untitled (c. 1960-1969), shown as part of the exhibition “Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s,” is one of Douaihy’s works that depicts the later years of his practice. This piece is inspired by the works of Josef Albers, using blue extensively to dominate most of the canvas and create a single plane adjacent to asymmetrical, angular bursts of red, yellow, and green. The shapes are different in size and colour, which move the focus around to the outer edges of the painting. The flat composition and geometric precision of each colour suggest a lack of perspective but the vibrancy of the colours and the positioning of the shapes challenge the dimensionality of the painting. The distinct planes show depth and space which ties back in with his earlier works of Lebanon’s landscapes.
Douaihy worked alone in his studio in the loft of the Maronite Church of Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights. The church is now a cathedral where the artist left his mark by creating its glass windows and mural. The works Douaihy created from the late 1960s until his death in 1994 were a result of his concentrated experimentation — he searched for absolute simplification of both form and colour, two elements which he handled exceptionally. His style was a complex system of interrelationships between shapes, colours, and angles. Characterised by a minimalist aesthetic, his work reflects his interest in colour and form. His paintings reflect the stages of his life and the inspiration he drew from his surroundings. He moved away from the academic style he had when he was Habib Srour’s student in Lebanon, toward the radical modernist approach he developed during his time in New York. Douaihy’s unique technique and vision of asymmetrical planes embody his interpretation of the sublime and infinite space. Through his art, he creates an illusion of a world, one that evokes tranquility and peace. His development and evolution makes him one of the true pioneers of Arab modernism.
Douaihy’s paintings are part of museum collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and the Grey Art Gallery in New York.
1 el-Hage, B. (n.d.). Saliba Douaihy: Autobiography and Artistic Views. [online] Encyclopedia.mathaf.org.qa. Available at: http://www.encyclopedia.mathaf.org.qa/en/essays/Pages/Saliba-Douaihy,-Autobiography-and-Artistic-Views.aspx