A work by Aref El Rayess at the exhibition.
Mohammad Yusuf, Feature Writer
Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility, is an exhibition at Gropius Bau, Berlin (March 25 – June 12). It revisits an exhilarating chapter of global modernism in Beirut, from the Lebanese crisis of 1958 to 1975, the year that saw the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. The exhibition presents a heterogeneous mix of artists whose desire for formal innovation is matched only by the tenacity of their political convictions.
It traces the antagonism between the politicized cosmopolitanism of Beirut and the transregional conflicts that surround it. With 230 works by 34 artists and more than 300 archival documents from nearly 40 collections, it is the most complete presentation to date of a pivotal period in the history of Beirut, a city that continues to carry the weight of his irreconcilable ambitions.
“Our programming at Gropius Bau looks at history from a contemporary perspective while emphasizing the interconnectedness of art with current and past sociopolitical conflicts,” says Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of Gropius Bau.
Martin-Gropius-Bau, commonly known as Gropius Bau, is a major exhibition building in Berlin, Germany. Originally a museum of applied arts, it has been listed as a historical monument since 1966.
Beirut and the Golden Sixties mark a brief but rich period of artistic and political effervescence. A continuous influx of intellectuals and cultural practitioners from the Arabic-speaking Middle East and North Africa has flocked to Beirut during three turbulent decades marked by revolutions, coups and wars in all regions.
Encouraged in part by Lebanon’s Banking Secrecy Law of 1956, a flow of foreign capital has also flowed into the city. New commercial galleries, independent art spaces and museums flourished. Beirut was packed, not only with people, but also with ideas.
Yet beneath the surface of a glistening golden age of prosperity, antagonisms festered, before finally exploding into a 15-year civil war.
“Beirut and the Golden Sixties demonstrate our commitment to challenging the metanarratives of modernism by illuminating centers of artistic production often relegated to the fringes of art history,” say Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, Associate Curators, Gropius Bau. Presented in five thematic sections, the exhibition presents the range of artistic practices and political projects that flourished in Beirut from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The Port of Beirut: The Place: In 1958, Beirut was a hub of intellectual and artistic life in the Middle East. With its long tradition of freedom of expression, it has attracted artists and intellectuals fleeing autocratic regimes elsewhere in the region. The Place explores the tense notion of belonging between artists from different communities in the region. The title of the section is taken from the title of a 1974 Etel Adnan leporello.
Lovers: The Body: The second section of the exhibition, The Body, explores Beirut’s role as a site of experimentation and testing ground against the confines of a heteronormative bourgeois society. The title of this section is taken from the title of a Mona Saudi painting from 1963.
Takween (Composition): The Form: A mix of artists using and negotiating a wide range of techniques, materials and styles converging on Beirut’s rich art scene. The cultural programming was diverse and involved global players such as Max Ernst, André Masson, Wifredo Lam and Zao Wou-Ki. The Form considers local debates around the articulation of various modernist tendencies in Beirut, paying particular attention to the predominance of abstraction in the 1950s to 1970s. It traces the link between artists’ political affinities and their adherence to a style or school, ranging from oriental abstraction to informal art.
The title of this section is taken from the title of a painting by Hashim Samarchi from 1972.
Monster and Child: The Politics: The fourth section, The Politics, takes a close look at the relationship between art and politics in the years leading up to the Lebanese Civil War before bigotry took over all aspects of life in the city. During this height of cultural production, artists searched for forms suited to their various engagements – from the utopian projects of pan-Arabism and postcolonial struggle to the divisive political alignments of the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Palestinian cause.
The title of this section is taken from the title of a painting by Fateh al-Mudarres from 1970.
Blood of the Phoenix: The War: The final section of the exhibition examines the lasting impact of the Lebanese Civil War on cultural production in Beirut. With the closure of galleries and independent art spaces and the migration of artists to Europe, the United States and the Gulf (prefiguring migration from contemporary Lebanon in crisis), the war took its toll. The ensuing devastation exposed the irreconcilability of Beirut’s complex politics, laying bare the myth of a ‘golden age’.
The title of this section is taken from the title of a tapestry by Nicolas Moufarrege from 1975. Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility was drawn up concurrently with the October uprisings, the devastating explosion of August 2020, to Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis and the global COVID-19 pandemic. A complete multimedia installation is created specifically for the exhibition by artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, who live and work between Paris and Beirut. He contemplates the transformation of works of art by acts of violence in an immersive installation of screens and performances.