Paul Guiragossian (Lebanese, 1926-1993)
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Paul Guiragossian (Lebanese, 1926-1993)

Souk

Details
Paul Guiragossian (Lebanese, 1926-1993)
Souk
signed 'Paul.G' (lower right)
oil on masonite
54 1/8 x 51 1/8in. (137.5 x 130.5cm.)
Painted circa 1990
Provenance
PROPERTY FROM THE ARTIST'S ESTATE
Special notice

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Post lot text
The Paul Guiragossian Foundation, Beirut, has kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work. We thank the Paul Guiragossian Foundation for their assistance in researching this painting.

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Lot Essay

‘In the marketplace I draw the veiled women, the merchants of vegetables, the porters, the popular themes and the people. I felt that the more I did their ancient costumes I should also do the oriental language of drawing and colour so flattened the forms and worked in 2 dimensions which is very flat. With time I went back to the western technique but since we live between the east and the west, in Lebanon there is no such thing as typically eastern or western, so we create a synthesis which is eclectic and we do what comes naturally, what we feel.’
(Excerpts from short documentary Styles by Jean Antoine, 1973; translated from French).

Christie’s is delighted to offer in their 10th anniversary sale a seminal masterpiece by the Father of Modern Art in Lebanon, Paul Guiragossian. Born in 1925 in Jerusalem to Armenian parents who survived the genocide, Guiragossian experienced the consequence of forced exile from a very young age. Separated from his mother as a child and raised at boarding schools, he found refuge in art and dedicated himself ever since to his creativity. In the early 1940s, Paul moved with his family to Jaffa where he attended art courses, before moving and settling in Lebanon in 1947, where he soon married Juliette Hindian, herself a young painter. One of their children died prematurely and since, Paul’s paintings were often centreed on the mother and child figure, as a way to express his longing for his mother as well as the tragic sentiment of loss following that of his infant child. Awarded with the first prize in a painting competition in 1956, Guiragossian received a scholarship and travelled to Florence to enrol at the Academia di Belle Arti. Later in 1962, he moved to Paris and has had multiple exhibitions internationally since. Undeniably one of the most celebrated artists of his time, Paul Guiragossian is considered by many as a pioneer and the father of Modern painting in Lebanon.

Inspired by icons and classical painting, his earlier paintings depicted figures and sometimes landscapes that often evoked the history of his people and the sentiments of motherhood, patriotism, fear and exile. From the 1960s onwards, Guiragossian opted for rather abstract brushstrokes and in the late 1980s, he took abstraction to another level. His paintings became highly abstracted, yet they always subtly alluded
to the human form, albeit in a very minimal and expressionist style. His expressionist- like compositions, of which the present work entitled Souk is a seminal example, reveal line drawings that exhibit masterful renderings of gesture with fluid outlines of clothed figures, while his paintings reckon human form through thick, elongated brushstrokes. Guiragossian uses the composition of long vertical brushstrokes to seek a balance between an Expressionist touch capturing emotional movements punctuated by the vivid rhythm of tenderly curved lines.

Painted circa 1990, at a time when the Middle East was in upheaval and Lebanon was witnessing the return to peace following its ravaging Civil War, Souk is one of Paul Guiragossian’s largest and most captivating museum-quality masterpieces. The dynamic brushstrokes and the proximity of the figures to one another suggest their presence in a narrow, busy and boisterous alley. They come together in unity and with very little space visible between the tall figures, the artist creates a sense of depth in his handling of the vast crowd. Interacting with each other and seemingly willing to move beyond the surface of the canvas, the figures appear to be marching hand in hand, thus revealing a sense of positivity and union that stands against the division and grief that the country was then witnessing.

The bold lines coupled with the thick impasto, the textural quality and the density of the colours create an abstract composition. The women, men and child - who is held with affection by the far right figure - indeed become faceless imprints delineated by powerful brushstrokes, as they are each depicted by combining patches of colours. They appear to be close, yet none of them overlap and each figure, albeit deprived of apparent human attributes and expressions, convey a sense of tragedy and melancholy. Emotionally captivating and evoking both hope and despair, Souk is about contemplating art as a self-reflection of Guiragossian’s own journey, both personally and in the context of the aftermath of the Civil War. It beautifully renders, on the surface of the canvas, the noise and atmosphere of the imaginary scene, the joyful buzz of the market place contrasting with the feeling of melancholy that transpires from the figures’ abstracted appearance as their heads seem to be bent in a sign of desolation. Through his use of strong symbolism and effervescent colour palette, Guiragossian shares his ultimate personal journey combined with his creative vision that leaves the viewer with a vocabulary that represents an authentic human reality, stretching in the wide spectrum between the pain shared by people and the struggle for unity, goodness and love.

During his career, Paul Guiragossian has painted several versions of the market place – one of his favoured subject matters - a few of which have
appeared at auction. Living in the heart of the Armenian neighbourhood of Bourj Hammoud for a quarter of a century, the artist would spend
hours and days observing the people around him and sketching drawings that depicted their daily activities and occupation. Inspired by the popular traditions of his neighbourhood, he would ‘assist to all the celebrations, sometimes wedding scenes, group weddings from every few neighbourhood, five or six people getting married… everyday [he would hear] the church bells and the passing funerals which [he] draw… the children playing in the streets, the pregnant women, the discussions among women and men, it was full of life’ (the artist quoted Excerpts from short documentary Styles by Jean Antoine, 1973; translated from French). Acquainted with most of the people living in Bourj Hammoud, Guiragossian carried his sketch pads with inks and colour pencils in the streets of Beirut to draw various sketches that he would in turn combine or use as preparatory studies to his larger paintings, once he was back in his studio. Known as the ‘painter of the people’ as he describes himself in Jean Antoine’s 1973 documentary Styles on the artist, Guiragossian immersed himself within the popular crowds and it is through painting that he expressed his impressions. Souk epitomises his fascination with the people and the dynamism and activities that he would observe in the streets of Bourj Hammoud; the subject matter of the market place was in fact a vehicle to express his impressions of the popular habits and traditions that fascinated him as a painter and a man throughout his life.

As one of Guiragossian’s largest paintings ever made and to ever appear at auction, Souk is not only majestic in its composition and textural quality, but also in its size and monumentality. One of five works by the artist that are above 130 x 130cm., the present work is as captivating as works that set previous records set at auction at Christie’s Dubai, namely La Lutte de l’Existence, Le Grand Marché (which in fact is another depiction of the market place, albeit with more abstracted brushstrokes and less of a textural quality, making the present example a stronger composition), Celebrations, Automne and La Famille.

The present work encapsulates all the stylistic qualities that have placed Guiragossian at the forefront of Arab Modern art. Filled with references to the social realities of his time, evoking the difficulties and anguish witnessed during the Lebanese Civil War, it also brings together the iconography for which he is known. A striking example amongst his various depictions of the market place, Souk is undeniably one of the textural and most complete versions of his favoured subject matter, given the texture and the intricate details that are beautifully combined to create this masterpiece. The mother figure, another favoured subject matter that is visible throughout Guiragossian’s oeuvre, is repeated throughout the composition and accentuated with the abstracted depiction of an infant in the far right of the composition; the proximity of the figures allude to the presence of a family and the hope for unity, the rough brushstrokes create a sense of torment while the colourful palette infuses a feeling of positivity. The attention to details is outstanding; whilst the figures have become faceless imprints of their time, Guiragossian has delicately poured his work with intricate details. The feet at the forefront of the composition, intentionally placed on the extreme edge of the canvas, evoke the attachment to the soil and to the land, therefore becoming metaphors for the sense of national identity and belonging that is observed typically during times of conflict. The details in the white drape that covers the central figure also create a sense of depth, giving importance to the figure and perhaps hinting at her matriarchal role, one of Guiragossian’s favoured subject throughout his oeuvre. With her hands joined, as if in a position of prayer, the central figure impersonates the sense of hope that is distilled throughout the work and seemingly bonds the figures around her.

Seeking a balance between an expressionist touch that references reality and chromatic elements that express emotional movement and a new reality, the present work shows a remarkable precision in the artist’s brushstrokes and the overall composition. Souk is a visually arresting, multi-layered composition which has been held in the artist’s family collection since its execution in the late 1980s and is undeniably one of the most important works ever made by the artist, truly a collector’s piece.

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