On ViewThe Sursock Museum
October 9, 2015 – February 8, 2016
The exhibition Regards sur Beyrouth 160 ans d’Images 1800 – 1960, curated by Sylvia Agémian, is one of the inaugural temporary exhibitions at the newly renovated Sursock Museum in Beirut. Built in 1912, the beautiful Italianate former home of Nicholas Sursock, a prominent Lebanese art collector from one of Beirut’s aristocratic families, boasts an intriguing past as a villa, a palais d’hôtes, and became a museum of local and international modern art in 1961. It closed in 2008 for a $12-million renovation, funded by both public and private sources, to revamp what had become a dormant and slightly old-fashioned institution. The reopening of the museum, fronted by Regards sur Beyrouth, marks a cardinal event in the “Beirouti” calendar. Loosely translated as Eyes on Beirut, the exhibit brilliantly fits the museum’s “comeback” agenda: a contemporary exploration of a city, flanked by the history of its local arts, and a history of place.
Regards sur Beyrouth is housed in a large, open gallery space split by glass vitrines, tables, and draping banners. Agemian has organized the exhibit according to six geographical characteristics pertaining to Beirut: the panorama, the port, the city, the coast, the provinces, and the surrounding hillsides. The divisions are slightly old-fashioned, even colonial in their connotations of conquest, but are historically fitting. How else could these disparate records of place be presented? Chronologically? Counter to expectations, the images are not shrouded by a heavy, historical backdrop; few information panels accompany individual pieces or subsections. There is no aim to transform the show into a historical timeline of Beirut. As the title suggests, the show is an invitation to glance at privately held images of a city visitors know, but is long gone. There is an impressive quantity of material, much of it quite similar, but the show remains approachable. The curator has allowed for focus on the actual works of art, rather than overburden them with text, history, and chronology. Although the images are not consciously disrupted by a weight of historical information, it is difficult to subvert the role of these, and all, images as holders of information, historical relics, records of a past life, in preference to an exclusive membership to a solitary realm of art. The images are overwhelmed by the hang, rather. Drawings, prints, and paintings are displayed on slanted stands on tables, or in glass vitrines with books and binders to peer over, but the overall impact is still cluttered. Careful consideration of images is encumbered by their sheer quantity.
The selection is a goldmine of visual information on the broken histories of Beirut, a city famously ruined by natural disasters, religious and political conquest, and re-built seven times. Despite Lebanon’s notoriously rich history, there is no public national archive; existing archives remain hidden in private collections. Sectarian strife hinders agreements on historical facts of the Civil War, but there is also a battle to acquire images of Beirut before 1975 due to the destruction of architectural remains at the hands of the Ottomans, the French and finally the Civil War. Regards sur Beyrouth succeeds at not only publicizing valuable historic information, which has largely remained private until now, but also at unifying a variety of private collections, arranged thematically in a single space and subverting entitlements of ownership. The priority is to unveil a wealth of information on a political past that people are aware of, but is less immediate; it is of a bygone era, elusive in Beirut’s topography marked by Civil War strife, other local violence, or conflicts with Israel. Publicizing this collection in a city where even access to the sea is barricaded by skyrocketing entry fees is necessary, and nothing short of admirable.
The majority of the works on display are etchings of Beirut’s old ports under Ottoman rule and the French mandate. There are several paintings of street scenes and seascapes—“coast-scapes” (if the term is permitted). Maps delineating old quarters under foreign occupation are a rarity. The images are by local artists, and foreigners, in Beirut on leisurely visits or with more political incentives. Artists of different generations and origins capture the capital city, prioritising its beauty, aura, or simply aiming to achieve likeness—the majority of the works are records of an exciting, foreign place of political importance, in the tradition of Orientalism. Beirut rings true to depictions of exotic lands by artists like Delacroix or Ingres operating at the same or a slightly earlier time. In a large range of subject matter and stylistically similar works, a few stand out: a stunning colored-pencil and ink drawing by David Hockney, Rivoli Cinema on the Place des Canons (1966), of the building’s iconic façade framed by a pair of palm trees and a couple of passers-by rendered hastily. (The Place des Canons is the pre-civil-war name for Martyrs’ Square on Beirut’s Green Line.) Hockney visited Beirut in 1966 in search for a cultural equivalent to C.P. Cavafy’s (1863 – 1933) Alexandria. His trip served as research for Hockney’s In the dull village, a book of illustrations for fourteen poems by Cavafy. Another noteworthy inclusion is Lebanese painter Hussein Madi’s Untitled (1999). The flattened, faintly geometric rendering of a vista at the American University of Beirut is reminiscent of walks on campus grounds—although simplified and highly saturated in color, the painting clearly evokes a particular viewpoint, a window through the shrubbery onto the roofs of university buildings, a clock-tower, the sea, and mountains across the cove.
Regards sur Beyrouth is an important, well-presented show of complicated histories on display in a building that evidences Lebanon’s assorted narratives. The Museum’s permanent collection supports local artists, while art of international calibre is displayed simultaneously. The artworks—both portrayals of Beirut by foreigners and by Beirut-based artists—embodies a satisfying duality attuned to the institution housing it. With its reopening, the Sursock Museum becomes a symbolic relic of Old Beirut, a novel Beirut hotspot, and a prized and rare open space in an urban jungle. It is the place to be seen at lunchtime, but foremost, a place preserving the Beirut of several generations, and therefore an important national symbol dedicated to an advocacy of and support for local arts—a rare gem in Beirut.