Father of modern Lebanese art gets a home

American University to house collection of works centered on Khalil Saleeby.

Beirut, central district_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Beirut, central district_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
More than 80 years after he died, the father of Lebanese modern art finally has a home for his oeuvre and the country is getting its first museum of modern art.
It’s all thanks to a donation of 30 major works of Khalil Saleeby to the American University of Beirut (AUB) and an equal number of paintings by other leading Lebanese artists of the early 20th century. Together, they will form the anchor of Lebanon’s first modern art museum.
“He [Saleeby] is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Lebanese modern art, but he is not well known,” Henri “Rico” Franses, a professor of art history at the AUB, told The Media Line. “Even though his name is well known, not many of his paintings are well known. We have no real art museums here in Lebanon, so people have not really seen his work.”
Born in 1870, he went off at age 20 to study in Europe and America. Saleeby died tragically in 1928 when he and his wife were murdered in a dispute over water rights. His paintings were inherited by a relative and for last 80 years the bulk of them have been tucked away in the private home of one of his descendants.
Samir Saleeby, today a retired ophthalmologist, is the donor. Delighted by the paintings that adorned the family home as a child, he later inherited them from his father and over the year rebuffed lucrative offers to purchase pieces. He wanted the collection to stay in Lebanon to be displayed together in a museum.
“I loved them and at times talked to them and the men and women that [Khalil] Saleeby made so vivid, and his landscapes I used to talk to because they were so real,” he told the BBC World Service.
Saleeby’s other work that remains in Lebanon is in private collections, so for the first time that ordinary Lebanese will be able to view the work of the founding father of their country's modern art movement. “There are almost no spaces for modern art,” Franses said, saying that this did not mean that there were no galleries showing contemporary art.
The contemporary art scene in Lebanon is booming, and Beirut is home to scores of galleries and exhibition spaces. But for modern -- that is art from the late 1800s to the early 1900s -- there are "very, very few places," especially to see modern Lebanese art, Frances said.
“We are almost unique in that respect and we are hoping to bolster that collection. This is really part of Lebanon’s history, artistic history and also a part of its national history. There are scenes of Beirut painted that no longer exist.”.Franses said that displaying of Saleeby’s works will also help today’s artist in Lebanon become more aware of their roots.  “I suspect they will be fascinated by his technical skill. He was really a master oil painter and it just provides one more layer of history, of what was happening inside this country, which has had such troubled history, a hundred years ago.”
Saleeby’s family chose AUB because they felt that in the absence of a national art museum, the university would be able to give it the care and prominence the paintings deserved. The university is hoping for a summer opening at a renovated building located on campus.
Conservation of the Beirut paintings is currently being undertaken by Lucia Scalisi, the former senior conservator of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, while the entire collection has been appraised by Sotheby’s, the AUB said. The collection also includes works by Saliba Douaihy (1915-1994), Cesar Gemayel (1898-1958) and Omar Onsi (1901-1969).
Saleeby worked with and was influenced by Puvis de Chavannes and John Singer Sargent. He was mostly a portrait and landscape painter, but he also did nudes, four of which are currently on display in Paris. Four of his works will figure in “Le Corps Découvert,” an exhibition exploring the theme of nudity and representation of the body at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
“There is nothing cheesecakey about the nudes. They are all solid figures, bursting out of the canvas and it will be very interesting to see the kind of paintings that were being done in the Middle East in the early part of the 20th century.”
The Beirut museum comes at a time when the world-class exhibition halls are sprouting up across the Gulf, with major museums planned in Abu Dhabi that will serve as outposts of Paris’ Louvre and New York’s Guggenheim.  In Qatar, the most the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Museum of Islamic Art opened in Doha in 2008.
But in the traditional cultural capitals of the Arab world -- Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad -- a lack of funds and political unrest have left museums ignored when they are not being looted.    “I always said that it was important for there to be Arab art museums in the Middle East. There are none really,” Said Abu Shakra, the curator of the Umm Al-Faham Art Gallery in Israel, told The Media Line. “There are good, even great artists and galleries in the Middle East. The problem is that there is lack of awareness to support local art.”
He said his gallery has just completed the purchase of the first collection of Palestinian art and hopes to display it next year and eventually in a museum of Palestinian art slated to be built.