“Modern Art Sometimes Gives Rise To…”

Persisting Forms of Syrian Modernity in an Ambiguous Image from a Lebanese Newspaper

Fig 1: Abu Subhi al-Tinawi, Untitled (Abla on Horseback), 1949. Reverse glass painting. Reproduced in Chérif Khaznadar and Louay Kayyali, “Lettre de Syrie: L’Artiste Damascène Rappelle Picasso”, L’Orient Littéraire (13 January 1962), 1.

An article which appeared on Saturday 13 January 1962 in the Lebanese cultural newspaper L’Orient Littéraire , co-authored by the Syrians Chérif Khaznadar (1940 –), a poet and art critic, and the painter Louay Kayyali (1934 – 1978), presents us with a visual and logical conundrum. In the lead to the article, Khaznadar and Kayyali reported a thrilling artistic discovery they had made in Damascus: in the dark and cluttered shop of a merchant in the Bab al-Jabiyyah souq the two found a painting, “a marvellous specimen of ancient Damascene art”, which they were eager to study.[1] The painting (Fig.1), reproduced on the issue’s cover page, captured a scene from the well-known heroic tales of Antar Ibn Shaddad al-Absi, a mythical pre-Islamic warrior and poet whose feats appeared in folk epics and images of the popular imaginary, with extensive circulation in the Islamic world.[2] Abla, Antar’s beloved, is shown on horseback in the painting, holding a piece of fruit as an attribute of plenitude and fructification – the name Abla is scribbled in Arabic over the figure’s head, forcing the image under this particular epic tradition. Yet, against the authors’ resolute statement under it that “this painting is two-hundred years old (“cette peinture a 200 ans”), another scribbled inscription at the bottom identifies it as a “drawing by Abu Subhi al-Tinawi, 1949 (rasim Abu Subhi al-Tinawi ٩٤٩١)”, placing it just over a decade before Khaznadar’s and Kayyali’s article. Suddenly, the image no longer adheres to a coherent category, its immediacy is compromised, its legibility turns to opacity, leaving us to wonder: what is its time?

This temporal entanglement was not accidental, and as the article unfolded Khaznadar and Kayyali unravelled more elements of this voluntary equivocation. By means of the ambiguous temporality of Abla’s image, the authors had synthetically collated two distinct artistic experiences: on the one hand, a set of 150-year-old drawings of Antar’s epics that they had found in Damascus, and on the other hand the more contemporary images by the artist Abu Subhi Al-Tinawi, which they claimed to have “discovered”. At the core of Abla’s image, nonetheless, was an evaluative judgement: while the unknown, ancient Damascene artist was praised for his originality and the untrained spontaneity of his forms, the living Abu Subhi al-Tinawi (1884-1973), who was left anonymous in the article, only copied the image in the present; the authors described him as a “painter in his spare time”, a “hardware painter (peintre-quincailler)”, almost an accidental and “ignorant” artist who, holed up in his tiny studio, copied ancient paintings by the hundreds. Al-Tinawi’s ephemeral role in Damascus as “perhaps the last naïf Syrian painter”, made his position in the Syrian artistic pantheon, at best, questionable. In reality, al-Tinawi already occupied a significant, if somehow unspoken, political role in post-Independence Syrian art. al-Tinawi, an artistic moniker for Muhammad Ahmad Harb, was a merchant and self-taught artist from Damascus who wove tapestries, painted on canvas and on glass with the reverse glass technique and was well-known for producing images from vernacular mythology. In 1955, seven years before the article in L’Orient Littéraire, al-Tinawi’s works were exhibited in the National Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions in Damascus and celebrated as part of the Syrian cultural patrimony.

The museum had been established in 1954 in the Azem Palace with Shafiq al-Imam as its director, with the aim to preserve and showcase objects of traditional craft industries in the Syrian region, and to elevate them to the status of artwork.[3] Azem Palace was a historical marker of Syria’s colonial history, and its repurposing by the Syrian government after the proclamation of Independence in 1946 was an assertive statement of Syrian identity and culture after long-standing foreign presence in the region. Built in the eighteenth century, Azem Palace had been the residence of Asad Pasha al-ʿAzem (1706-1758), the governor of Ottoman Damascus between 1742 and 1757, and remained under Ottoman ownership henceforth. The French Government bought the palace in 1920 during its Mandate control of Syria and Lebanon, repurposing it to house the French Institute of Muslim Art and Archaeology, later known as the French Institute of Damascus.[4] The French orientalist Eustache de Lorey – author, among other things, of a 1938 article that traced the genealogy of Cubism all the way back to Islamic medieval painting, affording precocious modernity to Islamic medieval art – served as director of the French Institute between 1922 and 1930.[5]Under Shafiq Imam’s direction, the National Museum of Popular Traditions sought instead to celebrate familiar objects of Syrian arts and crafts as indices of local memory within a formal museum setting, with great success amongst the public. It is within this institutionalised reconfiguration of Syrian artistic memory and identity that we should understand al-Tinawi’s work; still, it also found circulation outside of Syria, earning al-Tinawi a widespread reputation as a folk artist around the Levant, North Africa and beyond.[6]

Fig.2: Detail from Chérif Khaznadar and Louay Kayyali, “Lettre de Syrie: L’Artiste Damascène Rappelle Picasso”, L’Orient Littéraire (13 January 1962), 6.

In their article, by means of the ambiguous divorcing of the putative author of Abla’s image from the artisan – and of the original image from the contemporary copy on glass plate – Kayyali and Khaznadar operated a reflection on the making and nature of modern art, advocating for a reappraisal of art’s “primitive” qualities, such as spontaneity and naïveté, as essential markers, and makers, of modernity. Their argument was supported by a formalist considerations: comparing the drawing of a foot (Fig.2) from a folk image of ‘Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, fighting the monster Ra’s al-Ghoul to the detail of a foot from a Picasso drawing, the authors established a formal – as well as causal – relationship between the naïf forms, which they cast as ancient, and modern productions by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne, to whom they attributed a reformulation of those spontaneous forms in modernity. Accompanying one of the two images was the elliptic subtitle “modern art sometimes gives birth to (L’art moderne fait parfois jaillir)”; while it is an imprecise use of the French verb jaillir, which grammatically requires a copula, the truncation allows for boundless, generative meanings.

The return of the form of the foot, which survived from ancient Damascene artist to Picasso, into a vocabulary of modern Syrian art was urgent, articulating the conditions for Syrian modernity against biomorphic models of progress and decay.[7] Yet, by dint of this argument al-Tinawi’s work was also fundamentally altered and promoted from outdated relic to the status of modern forerunner. This genealogy, built on frayed temporalities, prompted Kayyali and Khaznadar to locate in the images of the past a precursive and powerful source of creativity from which modernity gushed forth – a power which, in more recent times, the art historian Horst Bredekamp has termed energeia: the latent power of images to persist across history outside “the human order to which they owe their creation”, and the actualisation of that power.[8] As a vehicle between different temporalities, al-Tinawi’s image of Abla was an impossible object which simultaneously inhabited the present and the past, or, to use Georges Didi-Huberman’s term, an “overdetermined” image which, operating on multiple and intersecting temporal levels, determined that Syrian modernity did not and could not conform to teleological models of Western modernity and modernism, but instead sought alternative, generative sources.


[1] Chérif Khaznadar and Louay Kayyali, “Lettre de Syrie: L’Artiste Damascène Rappelle Picasso”, L’Orient Littéraire (13 January 1962): 8.

[2] Akram Qansū, Al-Taswīr al-Shaʽbi al-ʽarabī. Kuwait: Al-Majlis al-watanī li-l-thaqafa wa-l-funūn wa-l-adab, 1995: 55-58

[3] Charlotte Bank, “Art Education in Twentieth Century Syria”, in Drawing Education: Worldwide! Edited by Nino Nanobashvili and Tobias Teutenberg. München: Heidelberg University Publishing, 2019: 308-309.

[4] Sibel Bozdoğan, “An Uneasy Historiography: The Legacy of Ottoman Architecture in the Former Arab Provinces”, Muqarnas 24 (2007): 39

[5] Finbarr Barry Flood, “Picasso the Muslim: or, How the Bilderverbot Became Modern. Part I”, RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 67/68 (2016): 44.

[6] Elizabeth Miller, “Nationalism and the Birth of Modern Art in Egypt”. DPhil diss., Oxford University, 2012: 139.

[7] Georges Didi-Huberman, The Surviving Image. Translated by Harvey L. Mendelsohn. University Park: the Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017: 16.

[8] Horst Bredekamp, Image Acts: A Systematic Approach to Visual Agency. Translated and Edited by Elizabeth Clegg. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2018: 6-7.


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