The Modernist

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Lost in a flat surface where conundrum of colors take shape, the emotional overtones of expressionism come through to us from those visions of beauty created by the great Saliba Douaihy. His paintings although ultra modern somehow break away from what might seem the coldness of modernism by beautiful interruptions of his geometric lines with unexpected projections, and sensuous curves. With a minimum of flat colors he has been able to create a harmony and order, moving and motionless, where light and dark, shadows and hues of sunlight congregate creating scenes of pure esthetic beauty.

Saliba Douaihy was born in 1915 in the picturesque town of Ehden, nestled among Lebanon’s tree covered northern mountains. At 14 years old, he went to Beirut to apprentice at the well-established painter Habib Srour. For two years, Saliba worked under the master’s guidance, learning the basic techniques of drawing and painting. After two years with Srour, with help from the local community, his father raised the funds to send the 17-year old Saliba to Paris in the fall of 1932 to study at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris where he won the school’s top award and exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français.

In 1936, Saliba graduated and returned to Lebanon, where he opened his own studio and soon became an established and prolific painter. During this period, Saliba was awarded many, but his crowing achievement came with the completion of the decorations commissioned by Patriarch Antoine Arida for the Maronite Church at Diman, causing a sensation in Lebanon.

By 1945, Douaihy had introduced in Lebanon a style of painting that was – though based on European traditions – refreshing, original, and pleasing, and one that could be identified as his own. Indeed, Saliba’s painting up until his early 30’s was a blend of descriptive painting with minor twists of minimalism. They were very personal interpretations of the landscape around him – the valleys and the mountains familiar to him since childhood, the colorful villages, villagers at work and ancient churches.

In 1950, Saliba Douaihy immigrated to New York City, fully prepared to understand and experiment. New York, not only began to change his artistic concepts, but it also presented him with a totally unfamiliar atmosphere that forced him to think on a different scale and thus ultimately to abandon what he considered his provincialism.

It was in New York that he painted his ultimate, and one of his favorite subjects, Mar Qozhayya monastery. The monastery was built into the narrow canyon of Kadisha at the outcropping of rock by the cave where the old saint spent his last years in seclusion. Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, and Ad Reinhardt were some of his acquaintances in those early days. He remained detached though and worked alone in his spacious studio in the loft of the Maronite Church of Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights (New York). It is there that he achieved his unique abstract/minimalist style. He left his signature on the Church, which is now a Cathedral, creating its magnificent stained glass windows and large mural over the altar.

In 1956, he started to paint flat forms, to apply straight lines to separate and define those forms with hard edges. This was finally the beginning of the movement to his ultimate. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant may, have stimulated his process of distillation and refinement he said. From Kant he derived an impetus to find the sublime, to reduce all elements to their most basic form. This was not a simple concept for him to translate into his paintings. His thorough indoctrination in academic theories and techniques presented a serious obstacle. It was the work of Josef Albers, he said, and Japanese prints that were the major factors in helping him to arrive at the total flatness he wanted.

The canvases of the late 1960s until his death in 1994 were, therefore, the result of this concentrated experimentation and search for absolute simplification of both form and color. But at the same time Douaihy sought “flatness”, he saw the concept of “infinite space” as the basis of his compositions. The paintings from those years and succeeding ones are of a type of hard-edge “minimal” style that evolves a complex system of meticulously articulated interrelationships: shape large and small, angular and curved, colors brilliant and subdued, primary and secondary, harmonizing and contrasting; angles acute and obtuse. It also produces a seemingly infinite range of variations within the strict parameters the artist has set for himself. But one constant is the interaction between the dominant asymmetrical central planes and the slender shafts of colors that intersect or border them.

By the mid-1960s, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the David Rockefeller Collection had acquired examples of his work. In 1994, Douaihy passed away at the age of 79 in New York.

The evolutionary process of reduction and simplification of his work has made him one of the great Lebanese artists of the 20th century. It was with the utmost reluctance that he found the figure could not serve my purposes. His paintings communicate the initial religious experience felt by Douaihy as he made them, embodying human emotions and landscape of Lebanon’s beauty. His colors, by imposing themselves on the spectator and by actively drawing us into its pictorial space, were to bear the burden of metaphysical content. His subject matter develops into strings of colors and shapes that bounce back and forth becoming merely a material manifestation of what is to be spiritually communicated, the love of this beautiful landscape he calls home, Lebanon.

(The general information on the artist is taken from the website: http://www.salibadouaihy.com)

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