Café de Verre, Café Hajj Daoud, Café Palestine, Café Al Bahrein is undeniably the most extraordinary work, or rather, ensemble of works forming one unique masterpiece, by Lebanese pioneer artist Shafic Abboud to ever appear at auction. Comprising of 130 individually painted tempera on panels, they not only provide a rare insight into Abboud's personality and embody the essence of his oeuvre, but they also pay tribute to the 'cafés engloutis' of Abboud's beloved city, Beirut. Coming directly from the artist's Estate, these temperas used to hang on the wall of the artist's own bedroom in his apartment near the Parc de Montsouris in Paris' 14th arrondissement where he had permanently settled since 1977 until his death in 2004.
Literally translated as the 'engulfed cafés', the 'cafés engloutis' are one of Abboud's most important series from a psychological, historical and stylistic point of view. The 'cafés engloutis' refer to the vanishing café-culture that had been widely popular in the Arab world and more particularly in Ras Beirut, an area west of downtown Beirut, in the 1950s and 1960s. These cafés were 'engulfed' by the civil war that broke out in 1975, being 'drowned' within the destruction of the city and 'swallowed' by the consequences of war. The café-culture slowly disappeared, yet the conflicts ravaged not only the physical building of the café but equally as important, it dissipated the effervescent intellectual, political and artistic circles that had emerged from these cafés and that were at the core of Modern Lebanese art and literature. Furthermore, during the various cycles of conflict raging through the mythical Lebanese capital in last quarter of the 20th century, the 'cafés engloutis' also served as an escape to freedom, spare of any sectarian division, a place for Beirutis to reminisce the past, to contemplate the present and to hope for a better future. As political and religious turmoil still haunts the city today, Beirutis struggle to find Abboud's 'cafés engloutis' to be their recreational refuge and emotional relief from the torment surrounding them.
The present work encompasses four series of 'cafés engloutis', with 30 panels dedicated to the Café de Verre, 35 depict the Café Hajj Daoud, 35 refer to the Café Al Bahrein and the remaining 30 pay homage to the Café Palestine. The latter opened its doors in 1936 and was renowned as a preferred spot for playing cards and for smoking water pipes. Café Palestine is the only name out of the four cafés which he spelled out in Arabic in a vibrant blue calligraphy in one of the 130 temperas of the present work (third row from the bottom, second column from the right). The Café Hajj Daoud was one of the popular cafés on stilts, located on Beirut's coast, that Abboud's daughter recalls going to with her father as a child. It was also often frequented by families from Damascus on Fridays and author of the Lebanese national anthem, Amin Nakhle and Lebanese poet Moustafa Faroukh were amongst its regular clients. The Café de Verre, literally translated from its Arabic denomination 'Ahwat al-Azaz' and otherwise known as Café Gemmayzeh is probably the best known out of the four. Situated in downtown Beirut on Gouraud street, near Martyr's Square in the historical district of Gemmayzeh, its architecture and location fused Ottoman elegance with an Art Deco bistro-style whilst its food and ambiance incarnated the heart of Lebanese culture. Café de Verre recently made the headlines of the international press when it was closed down in January 2011, having opened its doors in 1920, because of the building's annual rent being unaffordable after it tripled. Angèle Abi Haidar, whose family managed the Café de Verre since 1951, was interviewed by UAE-based news agency Emirates 24/7 and explained that, 'the history of this café is closely intertwined with the history of Beirut (...) Every inch of this café carries a story. It has witnessed the country's major political events and survived through the 1975-1990 civil war (...) The café was also popular among intellectuals who could sit for hours debating about culture and poetry' (AFP, "Beirut's iconic 'Glass Caf\a' takes its last bow", Emirates 24/7, Thursday 6th January 2011).
Franck Salameh, in his biography of Charles Corm, wrote that 'the famous Glass Café with its towering iconic glass windows would come to represent a symbolic and actual 'looking-glass' through which pivotal events of modern Lebanon's history would play out, get witnessed and recorded' (F. Salameh, Charles Corm: An Intellectual Biography of a Twentieth-Century Lebanese 'Young Phoenician', Lanham 2015, p. 150). Salameh further described Charles Corm 'as an ambulant Glass Café in his own right' (ibid.) because he first-handedly witnessed Beirut's turbulent times, just as Abboud was an 'ambulent Glass Café' transcribing his emotions and reactions to the war raging through his country into these wonderfully intimate temperas, that he painted in Paris. Although he had moved to France in 1947 and adopted French nationality in 1969, he frequently visited Lebanon, usually teaching in Beirut for three months every year, except during the tense years of civil war from 1976 to 1991. The fact that these 'cafés engloutis' surrounded him in his modest Parisian home not only soothed his nostalgia and homesickness, but they were also a reminder of the sad reality looming over his country, the pain of which was remedied by the lively atmosphere of these traditional Beiruti cafés.
Within Abboud's oeuvre, Café de Verre, Café Hajj Daoud, Café Palestine, Café el Bahrain, form the continuity to a similar ensemble he had produced a year earlier in 1989, entitled Les Inspirations, described as 'a sort of inventory of matrix forms; in them, one finds all his themes: the seasons, windows, studios, rooms, women, nudes, nights, childhood memories, landscapes, etc.' in the artist's most recent monograph (P. Le Thorel, Shafic Abboud, Milan 2014, p. 166). In Les Inspirations, Abboud told a story through colourful snapshots of his childhood memories transcribed onto 91 temperas on panel. In the present ensemble of 130 temperas, Abboud revived his lively moments, this time from his adulthood, spent in these 'cafés engloutis' that he frequented with his friends, but he also paid tribute to an aspect of Beirut's history and captured the intrinsic nature of Beiruti culture. Abboud's wide variety of pigments, textures and designs that animate each individual tempera echoes the liveliness, cultural richness and hope embedded in the Lebanese people, that have resisted decades of war and terror, and still permeate through the city today. Whereas he gave shape and colour to his 'inspirations' in the ensemble of 1989, he transcribed his impressions and emotions in Café de Verre, Café Hajj Daoud, Café Palestine, Café el Bahrain. There is no doubt that these 'vanished cafés' impregnated not only Abboud's memory, but also his five senses, enabling him to grasp and to communicate with his palette of pigments the sight, smell, sound, touch and taste of these legendary places that had been his own refuge so many times.
In 1989-1991, Abboud also painted four single large-scale canvases bearing the title Les cafés engloutis, in which he further explored the sensorial impact that a particular café had on him. At the same time, he worked on the present ensemble whilst carefully putting together a photo album of images of these temperas, classifying them by the names of the four different cafés. Later in 1998, the same series inspired him for a fifth monumental work, Les cafés engloutis: La collection, which presents a medley of the present work's temperas. The ensemble of 130 small panels allows the viewer to have a more comprehensive vision of an important and profound aspect of Abboud's life. Despite their melancholic connotation, they provoke an explosion of colours and emanate a transcendental light that brought memories, hope and a certain gaiety to the Lebanese artist in his bedroom in Paris, just as they constitute a mosaic of joyful colours and emotions to the viewer today and celebrate a precious fragment of Beirut's vanishing café-culture, transformed by the Civil War and threatened by globalisation.