Commitment in the Artistic Practice of Aref el-Rayess
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In April 1968, ten months after the Arab defeat of the 1967 June War, Aref El-Rayess’s Dimaʾ wa Hurriyya (Blood and Freedom) opened to the public in the exhibition hall of the L’Orient newspaper headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. The 5th of June, or, The Changing of Horses, a realist mural painting on canvas, was the exhibition’s centerpiece. With this artwork, El-Rayess declared his commitment to national liberation and socialist revolution. The Changing of Horses was presented and received as an allegory of political commitment, but the slips, silences, and repetitions in the public reception point to its excessive, disturbing, and fundamentally uncanny character. In Commitment in the Artistic Practice of Aref El-Rayess, the first comprehensive study of the work, Natasha Gasparian weaves together a social art history from the artist’s writings, exhibition reviews, guestbook comments, personal correspondences and testimonies, as well as social, political, and aesthetic shifts, particularly as they related to the debates on commitment (iltizam) in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. By attempting to reconstruct this history of the artwork and tracing the caesuras in the discourse around it, Gasparian exposes the social antagonism that is repressed and obfuscated in the idealized narrative sustained by El-Rayess and his audiences. She argues that the oversight in the reception—the critics’ and audiences’ inability to see—attests to the delay in grasping the work historically and signals its avant-gardism.

List of Figures; Acknowledgments; Introduction; 1. The Exhibition; 2. The Artist; 3. The Reception; Conclusion; Notes; Bibliography.



Publié par
Date de parution 13 novembre 2020
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781785274640
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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Commitment in the Artistic Practice of Aref El-Rayess
The Anthem Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran and Turkey series publishes scholarly biographies of art works from the region. Each publication traces the historical trajectory of an individual art work, from the circumstances of production (including artist’s biography and sociocultural context of place) through its exhibition history with collectors and museums. This series is published in collaboration with The Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (AMCA).
Series Editor

Sarah Rogers—AMCA & Independent Scholar, USA
Nada Shabout—AMCA & University of North Texas, USA
Commitment in the Artistic Practice of Aref El-Rayess
The Changing of Horses
Natasha Gasparian
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2020
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
Copyright © Natasha Gasparian 2020
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,
no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into
a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means
(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise),
without the prior written permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-462-6 (Pbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78527-462-7 (Pbk)
This title is also available as an e-book.
List of Figures
1. The Exhibition
2. The Artist
3. The Reception
I.1 Aref El-Rayess, Tapis Volants (Flying Carpets) series, 1965
I.2 Aref El-Rayess, Ila Ruh Martin Luther King (To the Spirit of Martin Luther King), 1968
1.1 Aref El-Rayess, 5 Huzayran / Tabdil al-Ahsina ( The 5th of June/ The Changing of Horses ), 1967
1.2 Aref El-Rayess, Dimaʾ wa Hurriyya, Aley , May 1968
1.3 Blood and Freedom Visitors at Salle de L’Orient , 1968
1.4 Henri Seyrig and Victor Hakim at Blood and Freedom Opening in Salle de L’Orient , 1968
1.5 Al-Tariq, al-Fann wa-l-Thawra (Art and Revolution) issue, February 1974
2.1 Aref El-Rayess in Fidāʾī Training Camp , c. 1970s
2.2 Aref El-Rayess in Fidāʾī Training Camp , c. 1970s
2.3 Aref El-Rayess and Waddah Faris, The Palestinian , 1968
2.4 Aref El-Rayess at Home with The Changing of Horses , 1967
2.5 Aref El-Rayess, Samia Osseirane and Maurice Sakr at Le 5 Juin conference in Dar El-Fan wa-l-Adab , 1968
2.6 Wahib Bteddini, Harvesting/Picking Apples in the Mountains , 1966
3.1 Yousuf Karsh, King Faisal , 1945
3.2 Aref El-Rayess, Ila al-Raʾis de Gaulle (To President de Gaulle), 1968
3.3 Vladimir Tamari, Dimaʾ wa Hurriyya Guestbook (detail), 1968
C.1 Aref El-Rayess, Ruʾus wa Aqdam (Heads and Feet) series, 1970
C.2 Studio Starko Aley, Aley Festival for the Arts , 1978
The guidance and encouragement of many people and multiple institutions made this publication possible. I am especially grateful to Hala El-Rayess for her enduring trust and generosity, and for her friendship. I also wish to extend my thanks to Simon Tidd and Alyaa Fouani at the Aref El-Rayess Foundation who, along with Hala, graciously welcomed me into their space and walked me through the artist’s gargantuan archive.
I am indebted to Sarah Rogers and Nada Shabout, the series editors of this publication, for supporting my research on Aref El-Rayess and enabling me to redefine the structure of my work; to Megan Grieving at Anthem Press for her patience; to the curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, from whom I learned a great deal about the organization of archival material while working on the first iteration of the Saradar Collection’s digital projects, Perspective #1 ; and to Lina Kiryakos and Sandra Dagher at the Saradar Collection for their practical, monetary and moral support. It is thanks to Lina and Sandra that this publication’s titular artwork, The Changing of Horses , is printed within these pages in color. I am grateful to Rowina Bou Harb, an accomplice at the Sursock Museum; to the obliging librarians at the Archives and Special Collections at the American University of Beirut (AUB); to everyone in the department of Fine Arts and Art History at AUB (my laboratory and home since 2014); and to Saleh Barakat who introduced me to an abundance of magnificent and strange paintings, and shared tips, contacts and materials.
All my efforts would be in vain if not for Angela Harutyunyan’s years of guidance and criticism and the many activities she spearheaded and supported. Many thanks are due to Angela and to the other members of the Beirut Institute for Critical Analysis and Research (BICAR)—Nadia Bou Ali, Ray Brassier, Sami Khatib and Ghalya Saadawi—for their mentorship and camaraderie; to Joshua D. Gonsalves for stimulating discussions on “Arabstraction” and the avant-garde; and especially, to my friends and peers at AUB—Francesco Anselmetti, Milia Ayache, Abdallah al-Ayache, Andrea Comair, Nadim Haidar, Lama Khatib, Raed Khelifi, Nare Sahakyan and Karen Vestergaard—who injected my year of writing (a year of local financial meltdown and global pandemic) with humor, tension, and spirit(s). Thanks to my friends Javier Aparicio Lorente, Biana Tamimi and Carine Lemyre for being present from afar; to my parents, siblings, cousins, Yayou and Tatty for helping me to forget and to Dex for keeping me sane. My deepest love and appreciation go to Ziad Kiblawi, my companion in life and in thought.
Aref El-Rayess (1928–2005) is a notoriously difficult artist to write about. The art critics who followed the trials and tribulations of his practice throughout the years knew as much. Joseph Tarrab, for instance, characterized the artist in a pithy blurb in 1973 as:

The most mobile and versatile of our artists, one who rushes from one extreme to another without a break, as if he were looking for his own center of gravity which is always escaping him. He is constant only in his fidelity to change. He always seems to be running the risks of artistic adventure from scratch, denying his achievements to assert himself unceasingly as other than himself. It seems that a fundamental incredulity pushes him to always seek, through his works, a new approval of himself. 1
Tarrab’s remark apprehends constant flux and transformation as central to El-Rayess’s practice. Written after the turning point in the artist’s career in 1967, this blurb intimates that Aref El-Rayess is impossible to pin down—to give a name. He deployed a gamut of styles, forms and ideologies, both synchronically and diachronically over the span of his career. Ideologically, he was neither strictly a nationalist nor a socialist; neither a mystic nor an atheist; neither an idealist nor a materialist. At various moments throughout his lifetime, his practice was delimited and superseded by all these characterizations. For instance, in 1964, he produced a monumental metal sculpture of a Phoenician soldier—an emblem of Christian nationalism—for the Lebanese pavilion at the World Fair in New York, as well as a tapestry whose subject matter was the Greek myth of the Phoenician prince, Cadmus. 2 However, the specter of Phoenicianism in his work came and went like a flash, and his subsequent allegiance to the cause of Arab nationalism diminished with the Arab defeat of the 1967 June War. 3
Tarrab was correct in diagnosing the nonidentical character of El-Rayess’s practice—to put it plainly, that his work is not always recognizable as his ⁠ —but the political and aesthetic shift signaled in his 1968 Dimaʾ wa Hurriyya (Blood and Freedom) exhibition, in which The 5th of June/The Changing of Horses (hereafter, The Changing of Horses ) 4 first appeared as its central painting, was determinate for his practice. 5 El-Rayess repeatedly revisited his past styles after 1967, but he did so only through the prism of his political commitments. In a later article published in 1975 in the English-language weekly magazine, Monday Morning , Tarrab claimed that “behind the apparent contradictions, a deep coherence asserts itself in Aref’s ever-changing aesthetics: all these years he has been developing his original themes in accordance with inner necessities and the vicissitudes of his unpredictable relationship with the outside world.” 6 While it is not my intention to follow Tarrab in offering a psychobiographical account of the artist and his work, I dwell on his two statements here, which he only articulated in the 1970s, for they at once speak to the internal contradictions in his paintings after the June War, as well as to the consistency in El-Rayess’s motifs and forms over the years. 7 To grapple with the coherent, yet contradictory character of El-Rayess’s artwork, it is my contention that one has to begin from the perspective of his committed practice. The Changing of Horses —as the first painting he produced after the shock of the June War, and as the only work whose subject explicitly tackled the Arab defeat—provides a critical entry point into his practice as an artist. It was the painting with which El-Rayess publicly declared his artistic and political commitments.
El-Rayess’s commitment to social transformation—to the struggle for national liberation and socialist revolution—took on various forms in his artistic practice. On one level, he took measures to fulfill his social role as an artist. He asserted himself as a public intellectual, participated in political debates and was a founding member of numerous independent institutions and unions for the arts. He sought to make his work more accessible and took a stance against the bourgeois infrastructure of art. For instance, he refused to show or sell his politically engaged work in private galleries, and he gradually ceased to participate in the biannual national salons held at the Sursock Museum and the UNESCO Palace. 8 He also issued numerous statements and manifestos against bourgeois artistic and political institutions, and their ideologies. On another level, he mobilized painterly efforts to assert his revolutionary commitment, which was visually consecrated in realism. To produce The Changing of Horses and the other 12 paintings for Blood and Freedom, he revisited—perhaps unconsciously—the formal techniques and compositions of the works he exhibited a year prior at Gallery One. There he showed watercolors of anti-mimetic landscapes of Provincetown, Massachusetts, which he had produced on a state-sponsored trip to the United States in 1965, and a series of oil paintings of abstracted Senegalese landscapes, known by their French title, Tapis Volants (Flying Carpets). ⁠ One of the Tapis Volants paintings, made up of vertical and horizontal lines of red, orange and mauve, served as the basis for the painting Ila Ruh Martin Luther King (To the Spirit of Martin Luther King). The latter work, which was first shown in Blood and Freedom, surrealistically introduced the social into the former’s undisturbed world of form ( Figures I.1 and I.2 ). The critics of the untitled Gallery One exhibition had described the paintings and drawings in purely formal terms; they commented on color, composition, the choice of paper and technique. Although the works were representational—they were, after all, landscapes—very little critical commentary concerned their content or context. Thirteen months later, the ebullient red color that El-Rayess used in the Tapis Volants series reappeared as a denser and more darkly shaded crimson in nearly all of the thirteen works of Blood and Freedom. This time, the red color was being emphasized as a vehicle for content in every critical response.

Figure I.1 Aref El-Rayess, Tapis Volants (Flying Carpets) series, 1965, Acrylic on Canvas, 152 x 102 cm. Nicolas Sursock Museum, Beirut. Courtesy of the Aref El-Rayess Foundation, Aley.

Figure I.2 Aref El-Rayess, Ila Ruh Martin Luther King (To the Spirit of Martin Luther King), 1968, Oil on Canvas, 150 x 101 cm. Courtesy of Saradar Collection, Beirut.

It is tempting to read Blood and Freedom as the marker of El-Rayess’s transition from abstraction to realism. In its scale and subject matter, The Changing of Horses could be regarded as emblematic of this shift. However, if realism is gleaned in this work, it ought not to be understood in binary terms as oppositional to an external object or discourse like abstraction or modernism. 9 Realism is not to be conflated with figuration, as it is neither reducible to content nor to form. For Fredric Jameson, realism is a contradictory concept that is constituted by and constitutive of its very antinomies: its social claim to truth, on one hand, and the aesthetic pleasure (and terror, I contend) it promises, on the other. 10 Its negative—critical or destructive—function has historically been one of demystification. It undermines genres and highlights those features of social reality that the genre in question fails to accommodate. 11 Its positive function is a modernist impulse that transforms the technique of demystification into one of defamiliarization and gradually results in a renewal of perception in the viewer or reader. 12 Realism is therefore not a style or a form, but a method. Its negative and positive social functions are inextricable and are to be grasped dialectically. It is, in other words, a contradictory historical process whose “emergence and development at one and the same time constitute its own inevitable undoing, its own decay and dissolution.” 13 This contradictory historical process is crystallized and made visible in The Changing of Horses —an untimely work that shared with the Mexican muralism of the 1930s an epistemological claim to social truth but surpassed the conventions of realism (as style) and resulted in a defamiliarization in the viewer. 14
In what follows, I weave together a social art history of The Changing of Horses in relation to art criticism, debates on commitment ( iltizām ), dominant ideologies, available modes of representation, social classes, political struggles and historical processes. From a rich body of archival material, including the artist’s writings, exhibition catalogs, reviews, photographs, guestbook comments, personal correspondence, testimonies and news reports, my intervention pivots around this one central artwork that was produced in a key historical moment. However, I do not proceed by mapping El-Rayess’s political commitments, or ideological positions, onto his works of art. Art, whether committed or unengaged, is neither an illustration of an ideological position, nor is it simply a text, document or historical artifact. To foreground the artwork, therefore, I highlight the gap between El-Rayess’s social experience and his artistic activity. 15 In the first two chapters, I piece together by way of introduction an account of the former, and in the third chapter , I shift the focus to a formal reading of The Changing of Horses , which proceeds negatively, through an emphasis on the repressed, but constitutive, structural features of Lebanon’s social formation after the June War. More specifically, in “The Exhibition,” I trace the conditions that led to the production of The Changing of Horses , and the politics of its display in the first iteration of Blood and Freedom. In “The Artist,” I situate El-Rayess’s stance on artistic commitment, as well his changed attitude toward artmaking and artistic institutions, within the dominant intellectual currents on commitment ( iltizām ), particularly in light of the discursive shift toward revolutionary commitment ( iltizām al-thawrī ) after the 1967 June War. I analyze his first manifesto on artistic commitment, which he gave as a speech, entitled “The Artist as Fidāʾī in His Everyday Life.” Significantly, he delivered it in 1968 in a conference held concurrently with a group exhibition where The Changing of Horses was on display. In this speech, he articulated his stance on the artist’s social role and his painterly commitment to realism. He defended realism as privileging humanistic content over form and subsequently focused solely on describing the allegorical content of his paintings. In contrast to his idealized narrative of The Changing of Horses , I reconstruct a formal reading of the artwork, in “The Reception,” through what remained invisible to, and unstated by, the audiences of Blood and Freedom. I deliberately maintain the discord between artistic commitment (as conscious and avowed), and the realist method of El-Rayess’s painting. Beyond the utopian imaginary sustained by El-Rayess and his audiences, I expose the social antagonism signaled in the artwork’s historically determinate yet uncanny character. Moreover, in deferring my analysis of the work to Chapter 3, I stage the retroactive operation at work in the reception of the artwork—the belatedness in its legibility—and bring its avant-gardism to the fore. Ultimately, The Changing of Horses was an untimely painting; its avant-gardism, which came after modernism, could not be apprehended in its own time and required a new optic for its perception.
Chapter 1
Aref El-Rayess’s The Changing of Horses ( Figure 1.1 ) was first exhibited at Salle de L’Orient in April 1968, in an itinerant solo exhibition of 13 oil paintings entitled Dimaʾ wa Hurriyya in Arabic and Sang et Liberté in French (Blood and Freedom). It was the centerpiece of the exhibition display, and it provided the narrative context for the other 12 works, which included homages to the revolutionary figures Che Guevara (assassinated in October 1967) and Martin Luther King (assassinated in April 1968), to the French president Charles de Gaulle ⁠ and to the armed guerrilla combatants of the Palestinian Resistance (the fidāʾiyīn ⁠ ), as well as scenes of struggle and protest in Lebanon, Palestine and Vietnam. 1

Figure 1.1 Aref El-Rayess, 5 Huzayran / Tabdil al-Ahsina ( The 5th of June/The Changing of Horses ), 1967, Oil on Canvas, 200 x 149 cm. Courtesy of Saradar Collection, Beirut.

Blood and Freedom opened just nine months after the colossal defeat of Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian military and paramilitary forces by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which seized the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan heights in as little as six days in June 1967. In an effort to recover swiftly from the devastating events, the official discourse in Arab states historicized the June War in euphemistic terms, as the Naksa (setback), following Abdel Gamal Nasser’s use of the term on the last day of the war. The local and regional press symbolically referred to the war by the first day of battle, as “The 5th of June,” to which El-Rayess owed the commemorative title of his painting.⁠ 2 Although Lebanon was the only state of occupied Palestine’s nei

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