Saliba Douaihy

Saliba Douaihy is one of the great Lebanese artists of the 20th century. Born 1912 in Lebanon he moved to the USA in the 1950′s where his style changed dramatically from beautifully observed classical landscapes to technically brilliant abstracts in his later years.

In this period he changed his painting medium from oil to acrylic for his ‘hard edged‘ paintings. AUB has three hard edge abstracts that illustrate very well the artist’s process in mastering the nature of paint and paint mediums to enable painting in the ‘hard edge’ style.

We do well to reflect at this point that modern painters only got to where they are now because paint mediums changed. Pollock and Rothko could never have painted their large-scale format works or use the painting techniques they did (pouring, spraying, dripping etc) were it not for new developments in paint materials that began before, but were delayed by, WWII.

Picasso, who refused to have his ideas tethered to fixed working methods and materials, experimented with household paints in the first decade of the 20th century. Their fluidity, quantities, intense synthetic colours, durability, rapid drying and relative cheapness were just a few of the characteristics of household paint seized upon by creative geniuses seeking new modes for expression.

Sequieros inspired many mid 20th century ‘Greats’ to explore modern commercial paints in his 1936 workshops in New York, paving the way to the modern art of painting we know today.

The American University of Beirut has in its collection seventeen paintings by Saliba Douaihy. This collection covers his oeuvre from the classics of the 1950′s, to 1990′s abstracts and his embracing of the modern movement.

Having worked as Conservator on these seventeen paintings more will be written about them in a later article. However, a piece of advice learned from my exposure to Douaihy’s paintings is on how they should be handled – Do Not Varnish them.

Most of these Douaihy paintings, whether early landscapes or later abstracts are without varnish (one oil on panel had a patchily applied resin varnish). It was the artist’s choice; whether he didn’t have any varnish, didn’t like varnish or simply forgot, there is precedence for not varnishing.

It is problematic for the Conservator; removing imbibed surface dirt is complicated, difficult and sometimes impossible. For the Collector, Curator and Conservator alike without a protective coat of varnish paintings are even more vulnerable to dirt and environmental contaminants; display and storage environments are matters for serious and professional concerns (more on that in a later blog).

In this article though I wish to draw attention to another of Douaihy’s talents, that of designer of Stained Glass.

In the USA he lived and worked in an atelier above the Maronite ‘Church of Our Lady of Lebanon’ in Brooklyn, New York. I visited the church earlier this month to see its stained glass pictures of Saints in the lower windows and the great arch window above the Nave entrance.

The stained glass is quite remarkable.

The windows are not traditional leaded lights but a mosaic of overlapping pieces of coloured glass in several layers, acting as a prism. I was fortunate to view them on a glittering autumn day (a week after the late October hurricane which wreaked such havoc on America’s East coast but cleared the atmosphere of particulate pollution) the light was spectacular.

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Fortunately the Church (currently undergoing scaffolded maintenance) was in good and safe order.

Dr Saleeby, collection donor to AUB and friend and confidant of the artist said Douaihy would sketch out his basic designs and lay his glass mosaic pieces over the image.

It is both a direct and expressive technique enabling him to draw upon his painters consciousness and his eye as a great colourist.

 

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I will write again on his technique in making the windows but to finish this introduction on a painterly note, I bring the subject of his paintings and his glass work together.

Above the Altar Douaihy painted in oil on plaster a huge landscape vista of  ‘Our Lady of Lebanon’  a 20metre high statue catching the eye of both pilgrim and passerby as it towers above Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean sea. It is an instantly recognisable landmark.

In in a display of artistic beauty and conceit Douaihy mirrors his painting in his stained glass design for the Church. Using the same subject for the stained glass window above the Nave we see changes of shape from the naturalistic to the stylised forms dictated by the medium. More intense colour requiring sunlight to inform us of the spirit of the place is pressed upon the artist by the medium.

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The medium of stained glass forces a change of vision and in doing this Douaihy shifted too and we see signs of the future artist he was to become.

Douaihy brought prodigious, yet to be discovered talent, into this Church and used it to remind everyone of his love for his homeland.

As his paintings begin to receive ever greater International recognition Douaihy’s work directs this towards Lebanon, a tribute he most surely intended.

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