Village de Choueir – Liban (esquisse) is one of several comprehensive preparatory oil sketches known as ‘modelli’, considered as masterpieces in their own right that Mahmoud Saïd produced for a bigger scale painting depicting the same subject matter. His ‘modelli’ are a genuine transcription of the great painter’s memories or perceptions of his subject onto a two-dimensional painted surface, and hence represent a direct reflection of his artistic genius. The larger version, most likely painted from the ‘modello’, is one of Saïd’s most important and most ambitious known Lebanese landscapes. The subject is the picturesque mountain town of Dhour El-Choueir that overlooks Beirut, one of the popular summer getaways of the region.
The snapshot of the massive grey-white mountain in the background, the peak of which has been cut off by the works’ edges, gives it an even more dominant position in the composition, as its colossal triangular shape lays majestically above the hills in front of it. Saïd preserved the landscape’s peaceful harmony by giving a literal interpretation of the theory of complementary colours, which had been extensively explored in various ways by early 20th century Modern European pioneer artists. A deep bright green answers to a vibrant burnt-umber orange tone in different places throughout his canvas. Whilst the depth of the warm-hued hill at the lower right of the composition is enhanced by the concentration of lush Aleppo pine trees in the foreground, characteristic of Dhour El-Choueir’s surrounding forest, the other hill on the left appears to be almost abstract with its vast plain of green shaded tones, dotted with clusters of houses painted with contrasting sharp orange and white touches. The forest of trees is denser in the larger work, whilst Saïd maintained a more linear organisation for the trees in the oil sketch, having simplified the landscape to avoid being distracted from the composition’s harmonious geometrical structure.
The invention of an aerial perspective, praised by 16th and 17th centuries Dutch and Flemish painters, allowed those artists to achieve an effect of depth through the use of layers of colours, displayed in a specific order, from the most saturated tones in the foreground to the less intense hues in the background. Saïd has a modern approach to aerial perspective in his distinct cut-out of the three traditionally used tones, a warm earthy colour in the foreground, followed by a luminous green pigment at the middle of the composition, finally leading on to the atmospheric grey, white and light blue tones in the background. These three colour planes, carefully superimposed on top of each other, yet again highlight the diagonal dynamism of the entire composition. This colouring, as well as the composition and the faceted rendering of the jagged mountain, are unmistakable nods to one of the fathers of 20th century European Modern Art, Paul Cézanne, and more particularly to his famous views of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
By combining his personal style with the theories of Italian and Northern European Renaissance fused with early 20th century art trends, Said recorded the spectacular view from Dhour El-Choueir in a perfectly balanced composition, both in the present jewel-like oil sketch and in the larger painting, capturing the essence of the Lebanese landscape.