Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Readings @ Albareh Art Gallery

First published on ArtClvb

Albareh Art Gallery presents “Readings”, an exhibition by Lebanese painter Fatima El Hajj, rendering homage to the “book” and the act of reading – the building block of human culture. In these paintings, the Wardanieh-born artist, classically trained in her native Lebanon, and then in Leningrad and Paris, explores the material intimacy of reading through a visual pilgrimage, unfolding as pastel-colored gardens of pages and words. Exhibited internationally since 1985, El Hajj deploys the use of modern elaborate techniques alongside motifs from the world of nature, intellectual landscapes and spiritual meditations.

For El Hajj, reading is not an accumulative journey but instead, a timeless presence filled with introspection and warmth, taking cues from the lesson of Saint Augustine, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”. Her canvases open up before the viewer in the dream-like form of time travel, demanding from those who want to enter them, careful observation into the nature of things, looking at their internal composition. The contemporary reader, skilled in noise and preoccupation, will find himself perplexed by the sobriety and smooth harmony offered here not in wholes, but as fragments of postcards from far away.

Gardens and nature occupy a prominent place in her work, indebted to her fascination with the greenery of Wardanieh from an early age, growing vegetables and roses in the family estate, and then later on, the beautiful garden of roses outside her atelier in Rmaileh, near Sidon. The artist remarks, “My passion for colors came from my daily observation of roses blossoming and continuous season changing. As I sat in my garden to draw, I made sure to be in the presence of all degrees of green, red and yellow”. While paintings of nature are often associated with figurative landscapes and still-lifes, El Hajj reaches beyond.

The modernist technique, somewhere between Pointillism and Impressionism, is not simply mapping nature as an emotional landscape but attempting painting impossibilities: breeze, air, wind, the sounds of water, the morning dew, the fog, the smell of leafing pages. Through the succession line of her mentor Chafic Abboud, the greatest of Lebanese painters and a pupil of the French school, she receives directly the impetus of the old masters and her work admires Monet with the brush, who also painted from his garden of lilies in Giverny. “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment” says Monet, sharing with El Hajj the obsession with light:

“What I am looking for, instantaneousness … the same light spread throughout, the same light, the same light”, exclaims Monet. And it is precisely here that Fatima El Hajj, somewhere between abstract and figurative painting, leaves the European masters behind to enter her own world in Lebanon and the Levant: Her shadows are not inanimate beings or merely decorative, but rather souls full of light and flight. She received inspiration from the facsimile of a manuscript she found during her research at the Bibliothèque nationale de France: The illustrations of Yahya Ibn Mahmood al-Wasiti for a thirteenth-century collection of stories written by the poet Abu al-Qasim Muhammad bin Ali Al-Hariri.

Following from the exhibition “Gardens of the Spirit” – a retrospective of her work from 2005 to 2010 –, “Readings” expands the spiritual dimension of her work, showing how the activity of reading – not the quick leafing of pages on the Internet but the intimacy of touching the pages of a book – opens the vessels of the soul and transports the person to a world of serenity, where purification through color invades her frameless canvas and emulates travel through lands foreign but yet recognizable through the great wisdom of the past. The strong light of the Levant that inspired European painting, appears here as a spiritual warning against darker times.

Fatima El Hajj’s “Readings” warns against the bookless “marketing” society that devours the environment and replaces the experience of beauty with abstractions, in a reckless drive of market consumerism. In her work it is possible to leave behind the intoxications of modern life and enter a moment both serene and sublime. All what is necessary is to pause and contemplate. As art critic Shaun Randol remarked recently: “In contemplation, we lose the desire to consume because we are busy getting lost in art, in beauty, in truth, in ourselves and in each other. The future always deferred becomes the ever living present. We cease to live in the market and begin to live in the moment.”

About Fatima El Hajj

Fatima El Hajj was born in Wardanieh, Lebanon, in 1953. She is a graduate from the Institute of Fine Arts at the Lebanese University and received art training in Leningrad and Paris. At present, she is a professor of art at the Institute of Fine Arts in Lebanon. Since her first solo exhibition at the Spanish Cultural Center in Beirut, 1985, her work has been showcased extensively throughout the world and is part of several important public and private collections.

Several works of the artist have been sold at important auctions, including “La Lecture”, sold at Christie’s Dubai Modern & Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art in 2011, and that can be seen as a prelude to the current exhibition, “Readings”. She received the International Picasso Award in 1984 and is a recipient of the first prize for the 2007 Emmar International Art Symposium, Dubai. The exhibition runs April 9th through 30th. 

Arie Amaya-Akkermans

Source: Albareh Art Gallery

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