Paul Guiragossian: Curtain Call
Paul Guiragossian was celebrated in many places: in Jerusalem, where he grew up; in Lebanon, where he made his home in 1947; in Florence, where he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in 1957, and won first prize at the city’s 1958 biennale; and in Paris, where he achieved the same distinction in 1961. Marking 25 years since his passing, Paul Guiragossian: Testimonies of Existence is a thoughtfully curated exhibition at the Barjeel Art Foundation, which has proved seminal in showcasing the cultural history of modernism in the Arab world. Including a rare look at his family’s archive, the show is a sensitive overview of the life and art of a man whose painting style became instantly recognisable for its preoccupations with the essence of humanity, maternal love, kinship and exile. Anna Seaman speaks to the artist’s daughter, Manuella Guiragossian, to find out more.
The foreword to the exhibition catalogue begins with a personal anecdote by Manuella. It recounts a conversation in which her father explained the difference between playing music and painting. “I adored playing the piano,” she recalled, “but my father pointed out that while music may be important to the soul, it disappears into thin air after playing. Whereas a painting lives on, even after we die.” I asked her to elaborate on this story. “He was encouraging me to paint, at a time when I was very young and immersed in my music,” she continued. “I was also intimidated as a female artist and didn’t think my work could ever have the same impact.”
However, after Guiragossian's death in 1993, when Manuella was just 21, his words took on a new significance and she gained in confidence. She is now a successful artist, as are two of her older brothers, Emmanuel and Jean-Paul. “My father was someone who inspired so much respect in all those around him,” she explained. “He was such an intellectual, he had a different way of thinking and a magical way of explaining himself...”
Guiragossian’s body of work reflects elements of his own personal struggles, which began with a childhood spent largely in the care of others and later played out in the shadow of displacement. The son of refugees
who survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 onwards, ed to Palestine and were then exiled in 1947, in the months leading up to the creation of Israel, Guiragossian settled with his family in Lebanon. As a young child, he was sent to boarding schools at convents in Jerusalem because his mother feared for his safety, and it was during this period that he first started to draw and paint. These early influences undoubtedly informed his later practice, which took his immediate environment as a starting point and was peppered with religious symbolism as well as the recurring, integral motif of the maternal figure, recalling the complex relationship he had with his mother.
With his core subject as the human condition, rendered in gestural abstractions, Guiragossian moved between figuration and representation and portrayed an introspective yet collective sense of loss and longing inside his paintings. Facing the works gathered for the Sharjah exhibition, with their fluid and elongated figures huddled in a togetherness, it struck me that this was the first time I had seen so many of his signature standing silhouettes in one place. The overall impact was one of powerful virtuosity, leaving me in admiration of his skill at harnessing the language of the body as a vehicle for visual expression and colour – emphatically expressed in thick strokes and striations to demonstrate a ceaseless, undulating movement of beings.
Maisa Al-Qassimi, guest curator of the exhibition and programmes manager for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, emphasised the enduring centrality of Guiragossian’s humanist concerns in her selection. The show included works in the Barjeel collection from the late 1950s to the early 1990s, as well as from other prominent UAE-based private collections, such as Silhouettes (1987), borrowed from the collection of Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, and Le Centre Du Monde (1983), from HE Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh. “The question of existence is one that was focal to Guiragossian’s work for more than half a decade and it remains as relevant and essential today,” said Al- Qassimi. “With continuous conflict in the region, now more than ever we can look to Guiragossian’s work as a symbol of hope.”
Curatorial advisor Mandy Merzaban poignantly depicts in the catalogue a 1970s interview with Guiragossian by Etel Adnan for a Lebanese newspaper, where the artist explained his raison d’être, and indicated that for him, “art-making is an inexplicable response to acknowledging and understanding existence.” Such documents, held in the Paul Guiragossian Foundation’s archive, which the family established in 2011, illustrate how between the 1950s and 1970s Lebanon was a vibrant cultural hub for refugees, dissidents, artists and writers, as Merzaban notes. Many were responding to major sociopolitical changes, and used aesthetics and critique to represent a collective experience. Guiragossian was very much part of this defining historical moment and remembered as one of the Arab world’s great modernist masters. Although there isn’t enough documentation on the lives of Arab modernists generally, and in particular on the encounters between them, his work still bene ts from being viewed in the context of others from the region.
However, while other regional artists at the time were engaging with nationalism and concentrating on establishing distinct identities away from the influence of the West, Guiragossian’s oeuvre was filtered more through the lens of private human experience. He intuitively painted figures from the world around him, including his family, friends and neighbours, although many were depicted as faceless or feature-less under heavy layers of paint. They represented shared ideas of belonging and of the artist’s eternal grappling with complex questions of exile. It is, perhaps, the use of such universally accessible tropes that has allowed Guiragossian’s work to stand the test of time.
“Exile has existed as long as humankind has existed across many civilisations and communities,” said Manuella, when we reflected together on this. “Those who experience it directly can explain it better, and my father protested about it with his art. However, he was not only talking about Armenian, Lebanese or Palestinian people. He often spoke about the pain of exile in societies around the world. This is why I feel his work is not specific to this region – he was not just an artist for Arabs or Armenians, but for everybody.”
Meanwhile, this year’s Art Dubai saw the launch of an academic monograph on Guiragossian. Published by Silvana Editoriale, Paul Guiragossian: Displacing Modernity charts his oeuvre from the late 1940s onwards and is edited by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, co-founders of Art Reoriented (they curated The Human Condition retrospective of Guiragossian in Beirut five years ago). The publication is a collaboration with Manuella, who said that the next step for the Paul Guiragossian Foundation is a catalogue raisonné, to further cement his place in the region’s art historical context. “We want to make sure that his legacy is remembered, not because he is my father but because he is so relevant to current artists as well as to global art history,” she explained. “He was a game-changer, and made it through impossible situations.”
Despite her father’s coaxing to pursue painting over piano playing, she likens his impact to that of a compelling piece of music. “He poured his lifetime of tragedy and joy into each canvas and this transcends space and time. Just like music does when it touches you.” So it was that the unique and pivotal Paul Guiragossian shaped the modern art movement around him and articulated an individual’s perspective on the idea of collective struggle.
- Paul Guiragossian: Testimonies of Existence. February 24 - April 28. Barjeel Art Foundation, Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah. NB: This was the last exhibition in the Barjeel Art Foundation space, which has functioned since 2010. In 2018, it entered a period of restructure and opened a five year exhibition of the collection at Sharjah Art Museum.