'My painting express my personal tendencies purely, more often than not, I translate these through Abstract painting. It proves to me that from time to time, that I need to return to the simplest and naive of forms.'
(The artist, quoted in Après La Galerie Pogliani à Rome, Aref Rayes expose à la licorne, 1963, translated from French).
One of the most eclectic Lebanese artists in style and artistic interest, Aref El-Rayess is undoubtedly one of the leading figures in Lebanese art history. Born in Aley in 1928, his eclectic upbringing between Lebanon and Dakar exposed him to a plethora of inspirations that served as the basis of his prolific body of works. In the 1950s, El-Rayess relocated to Paris where he concentrated on developing his knowledge in etching. In the hopes of exhibiting his works, he had sent some images to advertise his paintings in the infamous Art et Spectacle Magazine, which created a wave amongst his artist counterparts already based in Paris. It was a turning point in his career when Nicholas Al-Nammer took the young El-Rayess under his wing and El-Rayess used Al Nammar's atelier as a base to explore new ideas and the works in the museums of Paris, exposing himself to the masters of art history, including mime, theatre, African textiles and the works of Fernand Léger and André Lhote. As a result, El-Rayess became known as a multi-disciplinary artist and thinker, who expressed himself in sculpture as well as painting, with a rich body of illustrations. Although El-Rayess managed to create a few distinct styles over the five decades of his work, he was fast to switch between these multiple styles in different periods of his artistic career, revisiting and re-appropriating his many subject matters and compositions throughout. Very much influenced by the doctrine of the Druze, El-Rayess' works and thought processes imply a deep-rooted belief and obsession in notions of mysticism, reincarnation and the symbiosis of man, universe and time. A key theme that runs through all his works denotes the plasticity of a thought where mysticism rests on an experience of a vision.
Christie's is honoured to be showcasing, for the first time at auction, a work by the artist from 1963 that provides deep insight into the inner workings of a mysterious yet esoterically ancestral Modern master.
From 1957 to 1958 El-Rayess returned to Lebanon to study the intricacies of the Semitic art forms of Phoenician, Assyrian, Sumerian and Pharonic art. Armed with a plethora of symbolic inspiration, in 1959, a grant by the Italian government relocated El-Rayess to Rome and Florence until 1963, serving as a base for his many international exhibitions in the US and around Europe. There, challenged by the emerging Arte Povera movement, studies of these artworks along with his knowledge of ancient forms, manifested themselves in a new set of works attributed as the Sand Period that explored the notions of symbolism of which the present work is a seminal example.
Arte Povera - 'poor' or 'impoverished' art - was the most significant and influential avant-garde movement to emerge in Europe in the 1960s. It grouped the work of around a dozen Italian artists, such as Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini and Giuseppe Penone, whose most distinctly recognisable trait was their use of commonplace materials that might evoke a pre-industrial age, such as earth, rocks, clothing, paper and rope. Their work marked a reaction against the modernist abstract painting that had dominated European art in the 1950s. In this respect Arte Povera works oppose modernism and technology, using evocations of the past, locality and memory as an emphasis.
With this in mind, El-Rayess' compositions adopt the use of sand with paint in a representation that is on one level architectural and on the other mystical. A combination of geometric shapes with tribal colour palette harks back to the artist's African exploration while retaining the rawness of his use of sand, the most basic of mediums. In an amalgamation of forms and lines, the painting appears to be situated at a point of fusion between the fantastical and the real. At this level lines and colours are transformed into symbols where forms, words, shapes or anything familiar is voided, nothing is sensible. Instead the viewer is teased with a memory of the past, a sense of a mythical land that is a sanctuary for the artist's inner workings and thoughts that are spontaneously brought together into one composition. Although El-Rayess travelled extensively throughout his lifetime, appropriating a local visual vocabulary, it is clear that his works always hint at his native homeland; although abstract in its depiction, each of the geometric forms and lines are reminiscent of the amalgamation and melting pot that was Lebanon in the 1960s, the scratchings referencing Phoenician iconography - everything becoming intertwined in a deliriousness that is visually rich and delightful.
El-Rayess' legacy leaves behind a rich body of works that embrace expressive realism and symbolism while reaching some form of abstraction. His Sand Period did not last long and thus using different channels as the intellectual necessity required, he later used research and experimentation with Arabic calligraphy, blocks of shapes, surfaces of objects, light and colour to deconstruct and rebuild notions of man, humanity and the universe in a multitude of artistic style and practice. With this in mind, Untitled is thus a pivotal piece in the large puzzle that is El-Rayess' oeuvre, representing a period of experimentation that was quickly transformed as the artist exhibited extensively in America.
A champion of Modern art in Lebanon since his return from Africa in 1957, El-Rayess' work has had significant influence on the next generation of artists, particularly as he continued to teach up until his death in several universities, having become the President of the Lebanese Association of Painters and Sculptures in 1973. His atelier in Aley became the centre point for gatherings of teachers, artists, students, poets, intellectuals and art collectors to muse about artistic developments and philosophies of life.