Paul Guiragossian, Portrait of Juliette, 1978, oil on Masonite, 78 3/4 x 39 3/8".

Paul Guiragossian, Portrait of Juliette, 1978, oil on Masonite, 78 3/4 x 39 3/8".

Paul Guiragossian

Beirut Exhibition Center

Paul Guiragossian, Portrait of Juliette, 1978, oil on Masonite, 78 3/4 x 39 3/8".

At its best, to be Lebanese meant to be multicultural avant la lettre, having to cohabitate with seventeen different religions and several ethnicities and languages—all in an area not much larger than Delaware. The Armenians, descendants of Great War refugees who suffered an acute trauma in the 1915 genocide that decimated their communities and stripped them of their ancestral home in Anatolia, form one of the smallest Lebanese communities. They are thoroughly urbanized, cosmopolitan, and polyglot.

This was the culture from which Paul Guiragossian emerged, and that his life and art encapsulated. Born in Jerusalem in 1925 to a family devastated by the Armenian genocide, he experienced exile both as heritage and destiny when his family relocated to Beirut in 1947. Lebanon became his home, and its multilayered cultures his cloak of many colors. He excelled in assimilation, learning many languages and espousing both Armenian and Arab causes while embracing European mores, ideas, and artistic modes. Yet Guiragossian was a fundamentally transpolitical artist, an introspective individual for whom the love of family represented the surest anchor in the shifting world of identity politics in Lebanon between the 1950s and 1993, the year of his death. Guiragossian was recognized during his lifetime as one of the most singularly cerebral Arab painters and exhibited widely. But his work had never been so comprehensively shown as it was in the recent retrospective “Paul Guiragossian: The Human Condition.” Ambitiously curated by Art Reoriented, a team consisting of Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, this show brought together nearly two hundred drawings and paintings, in addition to photos and documents chosen from the archives of the Paul Guiragossian Foundation. Shunning chronology, the curators arranged the works in eight open sections titled “Self,” “Family,” “Woman,” “Theater,” “Faces,” “Faith,” “Despair,” and “Life,” all revolving around a circular central zone that featured the monumental painting Antiques, 1970—the sole surviving panel of a triptych Guiragossian made for a theater play—suspended from the ceiling. But to avoid being overly didactic, they provided cleverly chosen openings between the sections to create vantage points from which the viewer could glimpse from a distance a painting that might complement or complicate the one at hand. This strategy was well suited to an oeuvre already steeped in self-reflexivity.

Modern to the core, Guiragossian’s art is characterized by a fluidity engendered by his constant search for the expression of the artistic and the emotional moment through the immediacy of charcoal or China ink, the transparency of watercolor, or the gestural boldness of heavy lines and thickly layered oil paint. He moved between naturalism and the abstractly figurative without fixating on either. But he focused almost exclusively on the human form, which he claimed to “worship, warts and all, from the head to the toes.” His oeuvre includes depictions of himself, members of his family (especially his mother, Rahel, and wife, Juliette, whose stunning full-length portrait from 1978 greets the visitor at the show’s entrance), and people he admired, as well as almost fully abstracted figures. These are often little more than attenuated color stripes—friezelike sequences of which populate his most celebrated compositions, such as the somberly evocative Hiver (Winter), 1991. Guiragossian’s most emotionally piercing works, however, retain more evident figural contours. La Victime, 1958, for instance, shows a group of figures tinted in strong earthen hues reacting in various ways to the accidental death of a boy whose body occupies the central foreground. This masterpiece recalls, more than any twentieth-century source, frescoes at sites along the Silk Road, such as those from the first century bc in Dura-Europos, Syria, or from the fourth century AD in Penjikent, Tajikistan. Guiragossian’s modernity had deep roots. This exhibition revealed him as a sort of phenomenologist who dug deep into his own consciousness to construct an intimately conceived yet profoundly humanistic oeuvre. “A true painter paints the interiority of the human being,” as Guiragossian himself declared. It is time he was critically appreciated on the international scene.

Nasser Rabbat