Beirut’s Sursock Museum Bloodied But Not Beaten

Time stands still on the Sursock Museum’s website, with the home page featuring a virtual tour dated March 20, 2020 and the downloadable restaurant menu frozen in June.

Screenshot of Sursock Museum home page frozen in time

It’s understandable.

The modern and contemporary art Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum in Beirut houses an exquisite collection of paintings, sculptures and countless works by Lebanese, Arab and international artists.

At least it did, and they were intact, until a cataclysmic explosion at the port of Beirut dubbed “Beirutshima” (after Hiroshima) ripped through the building blowing beautifully carved wooden doors off their hinges, shattering stained glass windows, ripping through the roof and causing immense damage to priceless treasures therein.

The August 4 blast that killed and injured over 6,000 (and counting) and left at least 300,000 people homeless, was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate parked in a hangar at the port that triggered a terrifying multi-colored mushroom cloud seen and heard for miles across Lebanon.

Sursock Museum in Beirut on July 4, 2018 (Abu-Fadil)

Senior government officials, from the top down, have been accused of criminal negligence for letting this catastrophe happen.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time for a country suffering a crippling economic meltdown, battling the coronavirus with limited resources, mired in corruption and facing all manner of shortages.

It’s as if Lebanese artist/author/activist Aref El Rayess could see all this coming when he penned his 1972 manifesto “Maa’ Mann, Wa Dud Mann” (With Whom and Against Whom) slamming the Lebanese political system’s corruption that eventually contributed to the 1975–90 civil war.

Aref El Rayess’ series of six paintings “Modern Times and World History” mixed media on MDF (Abu-Fadil)

Ironically, El Rayess drew Horror in 1945 based on the Hiroshima bombing and was influenced by various conflicts in the Middle East region that came out in his works as striking reds, pointed angles and a strange mix of imagery.

Similarly, Laure Ghorayeb’s mixed media on paper creation “Beirut Calls the Future Generations: Cain and Abel, or the Fratricidal War” (2010–11) is an unsettling jolt of reality given the characters it features.

Laure Ghorayeb’s “Beirut Calls the Future Generations: Cain and Abel, or the Fratricidal War” (Abu-Fadil)

The pictures of warlords, militia leaders, and politicians (past and present), as well as their victims, are a painful reminder that Lebanon still hasn’t healed from its internecine battles.

I saw these and hundreds of treasures during a July 2018 visit to the museum, promising myself to go back for more, but distractions got in the way. I regret it immensely as there was still much to see and appreciate.

Blown out stained glass windows (courtesy Larissa Aoun)

It was shocking to see hollowed out windows where meticulously crafted stained glass once adorned them.

Artist Maya Husseini had restored these windows destroyed during the civil war to be showcased from 2015 when the museum reopened after several years of fixing up at a hefty cost.

“An Encounter Around the Wheel” exhibit with works by Dorothy Salhab Kazemi (Abu-Fadil)

The windows were a great backdrop for exhibits.

The one I saw, “An Encounter Around the Wheel,” included works by sculptor/ceramicist Dorothy Salhab Kazemi who learned her craft from Danish and English potters Gutte Eriksen and Bernard Leach. Her bold pieces combined Islamic, Japanese and European techniques.

Painter of clay Samir Müller’s pieces (Abu-Fadil)

Another striking exhibit at the time highlighted pieces by potter Samir Müller, whose fingers shaped clay and engobe (a white or colored clay slip coating applied to a ceramic body to give it decorative color or improved texture).

According to curators: “His ceramic paintings include abstract landscapes, dancing figures on globular vases and urban scenes in which human silhouettes haunt the streets of Beirut adept at rendering both harmonious, almost perfect plasticity, and roughness where the material appears almost crude, Müller mastered earth and fire, presenting an art bordering on craftsmanship.”

The body of work by Amine El Bacha includes paintings, illustrations, sculptures, written texts, mosaics, jewelry and tapestries, of which I came across an interesting couple of pieces. One was a preparatory drawing for a tapestry in paper and wool threads and the other an untitled colorful tapestry against an earthern background, both dated 1984.

Amine El Bacha’s preparatory drawing for a tapestry and an untitled tapestry (Abu-Fadil)

Lebanese modernist César Gemayel, who thrived in the first half of the 20th century, marks a transition from the commissioned, academic portraits of his predecessors to the portrayal of landscapes, nudes and still lives.

Gemayel’s and his contemporaries’ paintings, such as his self-portrait, are characterized by experimentation with light, color and loose brushstrokes associated with the tradition of European Impressionism.

César Gemayel self-portrait 1936 (Abu-Fadil)

The various collections above and below ground are housed in what was art collector and philanthropist Nicolas Sursock’s former residence, built in 1912. The mixture of Venetian and Ottoman elements in the museum’s architecture was typical in Lebanon at the turn of the 20th century.

The “Salon Arabe” where Sursock greeted his guests (Abu-Fadil)

A particularly complex and sumptuous creation is the “Salon Arabe,” where Sursock greeted his guests, with its hand-carved woodwork of walls and ceiling imported from Damascus in the 1920s.

Various pieces are exhibited in glass cases and shelves behind a semi-circular divan in that room, with a typical water fountain as a floor centerpiece.

Nicolas Sursock’s study (Abu-Fadil)

Another room reflecting the patron after whom the museum is named is his study with its heavy wood paneling and hard-to-miss icons behind the desk.

Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities classified the museum a “Class-A” historical building in 1999. It first opened as a repository of art and culture mainly from the late 1800s to the early 2000s in 1961.

But the pain of recurrent upheavals and conflicts is indelibly etched in many of its works, some dating back to World War I.

Sculptor Youssef Hoyek’s “Martyrs’ Memorial or The Weeping Women” (1930) in limestone is a testament to that.

Youssef Hoyek’s “Martyrs’ Memorial or The Weeping Women” (1930) in limestone (Abu-Fadil)

He was commissioned to create a statue commemorating martyrs who opposed the Ottoman ruler at the time and were executed in Cannons’ Square, now Martyrs’ Square, in downtown Beirut on May 6, 1916.

The statue represents a Christian and a Muslim woman sitting across from each other and reaching for a funerary urn signifying their sons’ martyrdom. The urn is symbolic of Lebanon’s Phoenician history, where cremation was a common practice.

The pain cuts deeply with the recent Beirut blast but efforts to repair the museum are underway.

Auction house Christie’s is organizing a sale to help support Beirut’s artistic heritage.

UNESCO, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, the Institut du Monde Arabe, the National Museum of China, the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, the World Monuments Fund and the Louvre in Paris have all pledged “cultural first aid” to Beirut — something the Lebanese government has failed to do.

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Magda Abu-Fadil

Magda Abu-Fadil is a veteran foreign correspondent/editor of international news organizations, former academic, media trainer, consultant, speaker and blogger.