IN 2010, when curators from the Tate Modern in London stepped into the Beirut home of Saloua Raouda Choucair, a Lebanese artist, they were amazed. The house and studio of the woman they would come to call “a pioneer of modernism in the Middle East” was crammed with so many sculptures that some pieces doubled as furniture. Yet hardly any of the hundreds of abstract works, in stone, wood, metal and fiberglass, along with early paintings, had ever been seen in public.
That oversight has now been corrected. In the first major international showing of her work, this little-known Muslim woman artist, who is now 97, has been restored to her “rightful place as a significant figure in 20th century art.” Many strands of modernism emerged after the second world war but Ms Choucair’s is unique, the Tate curators agree. She was the first to interpret Islamic aesthetics through the medium of Western abstraction. Over a period of 60 years, the artist created a body of work that is at once rigorous, sensuous and playful.
“Saloua Raouda Choucair”, at Tate Modern until October, is an intense and enthralling show. In the space of four small galleries containing 120 paintings, sculptures, and notes, visitors follow the journey of a singular mind. The exhibition begins with a beguiling self-portrait from the 1940s, which Ms Choucair painted in Beirut before moving to Paris to study art in her late twenties. With its planes of blue, green and rose it might be a canvas by Sonia or Robert Delaunay. Yet the portrait is a tease. Her interest in figurative painting was fleeting; by the time she returned to Beirut three years later, she had devoted herself to expressing the Islamic principle of infinitude through the abstract forms of line and curve.
Her Paris paintings fill the first gallery, and reveal an intuitive command of shape and movement. Some offer a humorous feminist response to the work of Fernand Léger, in whose studio she studied. In addition to boldly coloured semi-abstract images of women like “Les Trois Graces”, Ms Choucair painted a series called “Les Peintres Célèbres” that turns the tables on the male painterly gaze. In one, four models take a break from posing, drinking coffee and turning their attention inward; one reads up on their employer in a book about famous painters. These early figurative paintings, however, soon gave way to a fascination with mathematics and structure.
A visit to Marseille to see a prototype of the “Cité radieuse”, Le Corbusier’s experiment in urbanism, was decisive. Had she lived another life, Ms Choucair once said, she would have been an architect. Back home in Beirut she began a lifelong experimentation with form that was little understood by her compatriots. Had she remained in Paris, says Jessica Morgan, co-curator of the exhibit, she would have been as well-known today as Sonia Delaunay.
In her sculpture, the artist continually explored art’s potential for movement and infinite recombination. Many pieces are complex interlocking structures that can be reassembled, or fit tightly in an intimate embrace. She used individual blocks—pieces of stone or wood, bored or internally carved—and stacked them in a tower. Some of these towers she twisted or pulled apart. A lover of puzzles and equations, she was inspired by science and the symmetry and infinite variety of the natural world. One painting series, “Visual Meter”, grew out of her interest in the double helix of DNA.
Among the most striking works on view is “Infinite Structure”, a stack of hewn tufa stone that simultaneously evokes desert dwellings and urban tower blocks. A series called “Poems” reprises this theme in large mortised stones and smaller, delicate stripes of aluminum or wood. These sculptural poems are inspired by Sufi poetry, in which each stanza is both part of a larger whole, and yet can stand alone.
The metaphor could be applied to this overlooked artist, too. Fiercely independent, her misfortune was to be a woman from the Druze religious minority whose most productive years coincided with her country’s civil war. Though known in France she found little support in Lebanon, says her daughter, Hala Schoukair, the director of the foundation that preserves her mother’s work.
Saloua Raouda Choucair dreamed of creating total works of public art and architecture, “to be part of the city as it grew.” Recognition came too late for these plans for civic fountains, buildings and sculptures to be realised. Yet her vision, however incomplete, is expansive. So too is the Tate Modern’s effort to broaden the Western view of modern art. The Choucair show is the first of four this year the museum is dedicating to lesser-known but “truly cosmopolitan” artists, says Chris Dercon, its director. It is a revelation that should not be missed.