Saloua Raouda Choucair, the trailblazing Lebanese artist whose richly colored abstract paintings and intricate, organically shaped sculptures in wood, clay, aluminum, and other materials were little known beyond her homeland until very recently, died in Beirut yesterday, according to CRG Gallery, which represents her in New York. She was 100.
In 2013, Choucair was the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at Tate Modern, which brought together more than half a century of her work. It included a number of early figurative pictures she painted with spare lines and bold colors in the 1940s, as well as a bounty of her sculptures—she took up the medium in the 1960s—with smooth surfaces and interlocking forms. “Saloua Raouda Choucair is an extraordinary new name,” Laura Cumming declared in a review of that show in the Guardian. “She is also in her 97th year.”
Jessica Morgan, who co-curated the retrospective with Ann Coxon, told me in 2015 that the exhibition came about because she saw a Choucair painting in a Beirut gallery, asked about the work, and learned that she was still living in the city. “We went over to her studio,” she said, “and her entire life’s work was there, basically, because she hadn’t really sold anything. It was a complete revelation.” Every piece from the Tate show came from that trove, a loan facilitated by Hala Schoukair, the artist’s daughter, who survives her. (By that time, Choucair had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.)
Saloua Raouda Choucair was born in Beirut in 1916, “the third child of Salim Rawda, an urbane pharmacist and rentier, and Zalfa Najjar, a well-educated relation,” according to the Mathaf Encyclopedia of Modern Art and the Arab World. She studied philosophy at the American University of Beirut. A stay in Egypt in 1943 was pivotal in her development, as it ignited an interest in Islamic architecture, a major influence on her practice. “All the rules I apply are derived from the Islamic religion and from Islamic geometric design,” she told an interviewer years later. “I toured the streets and mosques of Cairo and at that time I may have found the vision I wanted.”
In the late 1940s she moved to Paris, where she attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and worked in the studio of Fernand Léger. In 1951, she returned to Beirut and continued to work, becoming a vital member of its intellectual scene though her writing.
Because she was a woman and an artist working in abstraction, she did not always receive serious consideration in Lebanon. “All the timings were wrong with my mother,” Schoukair told the New York Times in 2013, adding, “She started with abstraction when people in Beirut were just discovering Impressionism. In the ’60s, no one was paying attention to her and then when they started paying attention, the war started.” (One work included the Tate show had been damaged by a bomb during unrest in the Lebanese capital and still bore holes.)
Mathematics, physics, science, Sufi writing, and modern architecture and design (she was a Le Corbusier devotee) were all enduring interests for Choucair, but she bristled at the suggestion that her work had been strong influenced by European art. “No, it’s a universal influence,” she said in same interview quoted above. “What I experience everyone in the world experiences.” She was restlessly inventive, also making tapestries, jewelry, and a series of remarkable little sculptures she called “Poems” that were composed of a number of pieces ingeniously fitted together.
When CRG presented its first show with Choucair, in 2015, it was the artist’s debut solo exhibition in the United States. In Lebanon she had major exhibitions at the Beirut Art Center (in 2011), Maqam Art Gallery (2010), and Al Nadwa Gallery (1993). As European and American institutions have worked to address gaps in their scholarship and collecting of modernism in the Middle East in recent years, Choucair’s work has appearing in group exhibitions at Western institutions like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Haus der Kunst in Munich, and the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Her work is now held in the collections of the Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
In an interview conducted by Tate Modern, Schoukair said that, regardless of how her mother’s career was progressing over the years, she “was always motivated. She wasn’t sick of modern times. She wasn’t nostalgic. She believed in the future.”