Monday 28 October 2013

Saloua Raouda Choucair


Saloua Raouda Choucair at Tate Modern

Born in Beirut in 1916, Saloua Raouda Choucair has become a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East. Her long career, exceeding fifty years, has surpassed many cultural and political constraints, though her work has rarely been exhibited outside of the Middle East since the 1950s.

Self-Portrait, 1943

This is the earliest work in the exhibition, a stylised rendering of a serious young woman. It was made shortly after Choucair began painting under the tutelage of leading Lebanese artists Mustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. Contrary to the tastes of her teachers or the impressionist or realist styles fashionable in Lebanon at that time, Choucair developed a passion for Islamic art and architecture. Inspired by the geometric patterns, calligraphic scripts and architectural features that she discovered on a trip to Cairo in 1943, she set out to prove the validity and relevance of non-representational Middle Eastern art to modern Western abstraction.

Les Trois Graces, 1948 (gouache on paper)

In 1848, she travelled to Paris where she stayed for three years, taking classes in drawing, mural painting, sculpture and engraving at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. It was during this time that she first came face-to-face with the abstract modernism being practiced in Europe and also spent time under the instruction of cubist, figurative painter Fernand Leger. Several of gouaches from this era were displayed at the Tate.

Her nude studies show her preference for simple, flat shapes and bold colours. Her female forms are visibly softened to reveal a human geometry within their relaxed resting positions.

Untitled, 1948-49, (gouache on paper)

Untitled, 1948-49, (gouache on paper) 
 Les Peintres Celebres
The domestic scene explored in this painting was most likely based on Leger's Le Grand Dejeuner, a large painting depicting three naked women having tea around a small table.
Fernand Léger. Three Women. 1921-22
Le Grand Dejeuner, Fernand Leger
But rather than recreate the scene a la Leger, Choucair's female forms are visibly softened to reveal a human geometry within their relaxed resting positions, and have been armed with cups of tea held confidently above books on the topic of art history. The figures gaze out of the picture at us - raising an uncertainty as to who is observing who.


Chores, 1948-49, (gouache on paper) 

Subhan, 1950 (gouache on paper)

Nude with Roses, 1948-49, (gouache on paper) 

Trajectory of a Line, 1957-59, (stone) 

Plan for a Pool, (1959-60)

Fractional Module (Sphinx), 1947-51, (gouache on paper)

During the time in Paris she started creating abstract painted compositions which she called 'Fractional Modules'. Many of her gouache studies are made up of repeated shapes, underpinned by mathematical and geometric rulings. She was interested in using the two basic elements of Islamic design - the straight line and the curve - as a starting point to create simple shapes which she duplicated in various combinations and divisions across the picture plane. Her small gouaches were often studies for textile pieces such as rugs, murals or larger oil paintings.

Paris - Beirut, 1948 (gouache on paper)

 Composition in Blue Module, 1947-51, (oil on canvas) 
Two=One, 1947-51, (oil on canvas)

Untitled, 1956-58, (oil on canvas)

Rythmical Composition in Yellow, 1952-55, (oil on canvas)


Choucair returned to Beirut in the early 1950s, following a brief visit to America to research enamelling techniques and jewellery making. She focused increasingly on sculpture, a medium in which she could explore form and structure in three dimensions. Her earliest sculptural series focused on the trajectory of the line and its potential to change shape or to reach infinity. 



Her sculptures often resemble architectural structures, in particular those with repeated units, such as modular housing. She once said that given another life she would choose to be an architect. Her ideas - both architectural and sculptural - incorporated flexibility. She saw her modular sculptural towers as changeable structures, with the potential to be stacked in different configurations.




Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces, 1966-68, (wood) 

looking closer




This was a common sight in the exhibition - people bending down, kneeling, contorting their bodies in an attempt to look closely at these intricate towering sculptures and understand their complex structure.
In this sculpture, as well as others in this, the last room, Choucair focused on the trajectory of a line or arc, exploring the effects of tension, space and repetition on a single line. She demonstrates how a line, following a route to define a shape, when continued and repeated, transforms into an infinite pattern, one which appears to move and twist as the viewer circulates it. 


  1. It is so good that the Tate is broadening its pool for exhibitions. We have had too narrow a view of art in this country. I just wish that Choucair had been exhibited her in the 60s. Thank you for this article.