Aref El Rayess, Temps Moderne et Tiers Monde (Modern Times and the Third World), 1974, lacquer on wood, 10 3⁄8 × 10 3⁄8".

Aref El Rayess, Temps Moderne et Tiers Monde (Modern Times and the Third World), 1974, lacquer on wood, 10 3⁄8 × 10 3⁄8".

Aref El Rayess

In his 1968 review of “Blood and Freedom,” an exhibition by Aref El Rayess (1928–2005) that opened in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, journalist Walid Shmait noted formal inconsistencies in the artist’s work. He observed: “The path of revolution, for El Rayess, is split in its appearances but is unified in its concept and depth.” In pointing out the apparent stylistic variation of the paintings on display, Shmait succumbed to a common misperception about El Rayess, one that continues to this day. This misperception signals a problem—an impasse—in the reception of the artist’s oeuvre. The trouble with El Rayess, whose work spanned a plethora of modes, mediums, and ideologies, is that his practice appears coherent only retroactively, when the full sweep of his work is seen together.

In this long-awaited retrospective exhibition, curator Catherine David (with the assistance of researcher Sabine Chaaban) has made the bold choice of introducing El Rayess with seven large collaged panels from the early 1990s. David’s unexpected decision to begin with late work foregrounds the persistent return of certain visual (and immanently political) motifs and themes in El Rayess’s art. For instance, anchoring the lower center of one panel, Untitled, 1992, is the towering figure of Kamal Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party and later leader of liberationist Lebanese National Movement. The politician also made appearances decades earlier, in the gouache Kamal Beik Jumblatt, ca. 1958, as well as in the opening pages of the book of etchings The Road to Peace, ca. 1976. By the 1990s, however, such repetitions materialized symptomatically as pastiche—in a flattening of history on a single spatial plane. 

Having prioritized these seven collages, and El Rayess’s late-career attempts at historicizing his own practice, David surveys the artist’s trajectory leading up to those works: from his early portraits produced in Senegal in the early 1950s—at once primitivist and postcolonial, thus presenting another quagmire for the contemporary critic—to his numerous series of war paintings, “Blood and Freedom,” 1967–68; “Temps Moderne et Tiers Monde” (Modern Times and the Third World), 1974, alternatively titled “La marche des peuples du Tiers-Monde entre le Développement et la Révolution” (The March of the Peoples of the Third World Between Development and the Revolution); and “Technologies of War,” 1978. In between are portraits of the combatants of the Lebanese Civil War of 1958; exquisite, abstract fresco-like canvases studded with sand and gemstones, made in Italy between 1962 and 1963; an untitled group of four sinister figurative paintings precipitated by the Algerian War, 1960; and a selection of abstractions from the series Hommage aux Tapis Volants (Tribute to the Flying Carpets), 1967. This last series would later serve as the basis of the artist’s foray into realism—an unintentionally excessive realism, a sur-realism, which he achieved by injecting social elements into new iterations of his older and purely formal compositions. This dialectic, so pervasive in his practice, is glimpsed in the magnificent oil painting Hommage à Martin Luther King (Tribute to Martin Luther King), 1968, but does not inform the broader logic of the display here. In another digression from the show’s relatively chronological layout, a large body of work produced in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s occupies a room to itself. Included are maquettes of monuments—some commissioned by the mayor of Jeddah as part of a citywide beautification project—and paintings of the Saudi desert so bright they are practically neon. Yet these efforts lack proper contextualization: The shift from a practice of political commitment (iltizam) after 1967 to one of divine unification (tawhid), amid the prevailing civil-war discourse of sectarianism in Lebanon in the 1980s, is lost on the viewer.

Light on text and archival material, this monographic show is intended to be seen as a rough draft—“stage zero,” in the curator’s words—for an institutional retrospective set to tour museums in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Future versions of the exhibition will include additional components that will likely lend more insight into the logic structuring the repetitions and ruptures across the artist’s formidable career.