Christie’s is delighted to offer the present work by Saliba Douaihy that perfectly captures the signature abstraction and colouration of then legendary Lebanese Modern artist. Saliba Douaihy has a way with colour and form. His bright canvases famously feature vivid blues, reds, yellows, oranges and greens; a dominant broad area of colour is typically punctuated with narrow, angular passages of colour, which at once separate each colour as well as unite them. Douaihy’s work demonstrates the artist’s deep understanding of the minimalist aesthetic as well as abstract expressionism. His oeuvre can be divided into three periods of artistry – landscapes, followed by stained glass windows and canonical works and, lastly, vibrant abstract expressionistic works like the present composition. The most striking of Douaihy’s works come from the latter period where he developed his own visual lexicon, allowing himself to exaggerate colours on his canvases.
Born in 1912 in the town of Ehden in the mountains of Northern Lebanon, Douaihy spent much of his early childhood copying pictures from his schoolbooks. As a young child, Douaihy was mesmerised by the natural and scenic landscapes of his native land. Inspired by the quaint villages, churches and pastel architecture of rural Lebanon, the artist began painting at an early age. A young Douaihy moved to Beirut in 1928 and flourished under the apprenticeship of the well-known painter Habib Srour.
Later, Douaihy went to study in France after he received a scholarship from the Lebanese government to attend the School of Decorative Arts in Paris from 1932 to 1936. His initial works were a combination of figurative art, classical scenes and landscapes. After finishing his art education, Douaihy returned to Ehden to paint its four seasons, the coast as well as the life of farmers and labourers in the mountains. In 1950, Douaihy moved to the United States where he participated in group exhibitions at the New York International Fair, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and also at the renowned Guggenheim. Furthermore, the Lebanese artist presented solo exhibitions of his works at the Art and Science Centre of New Hampshire, the Contemporary Gallery of New York and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Two works that were on display in the latter institution’s 1978 exhibition called The Art of Saliba Douaihy which are now held in important collections.
Charged by the energy of the exploding art scene and discovering the works of his American contemporaries while in New York, including Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman and Ad Reinhardt, Douaihy moved away from his earlier academic style and began his much sought-after series of minimalist abstract paintings. By the end of the 1950s, the artist’s works encompassed of flat monochromatic forms, fine lines and sharp edges, anticipating the more successful half of his illustrious career. Until his death in 1994, Douaihy continued to paint his minimalist canvases, which remained the epitome of artistic simplicity in both colour and form.
Douaihy’s third artistic phase, from which this present work belongs, is when his canvases featured a non-naturalistic use of colour. Colours vary ‘from primary to secondary, from harmonising to contrasting and from brilliant to subdued and varying in contours from large to small and from angular to curved, the canvas always integrates and guides the eye easily from the dominant focal colour to the outer edge and back’ (P. Jean Sader, ibid., p. 178). The underlying purpose was to exaggerate colour to the point where it did not reference the natural world or reality.
The colour passages in his works are oriented vertically, as if extended towards infinity. The precision of line and colour is derived not from geometric exactitude but rather from balancing different intensities of colour that makes the passages and colour planes seem perfectly defined. Moreover, slivers of colour appear dynamic as if pushing and pulling other planes of colour. The present work showcases Douaihy’s unique interlinking of planes and shafts, each one filled in with a distinctive colour, appearing to extend beyond the boundaries of the picture. The painting is dominated by an expanse of blue-green, intersected by an olive-green asymmetrical plane and red, yellow and green passages. The beauty in the painting, with its strong and opposing colours, resides in the overall harmony and coherence – a harmony that references nature in that, despite its myriad colours, there is an overarching unity in the natural world. In true Douaihy form, the use of these flat colours in the present work imparts a sense of two-dimensionality to the paintings, yet the verticality suggests depth. He believed that harmony of colours was more important in a painting than the accurate representation of a scene. The present work, significantly larger in scale than most of his abstract works to appear at auction, is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that comprises of the very best of Douaihy’s skilful techniques and inspirations, a signature style that has been widely celebrated and acclaimed since the 1960s and have placed him at the forefront of Modern Abstraction in the Middle East.