By James Farha, Daily Star
BEIRUT: Beirut may lack a proper art museum where people can trace the history of Lebanese art, and particularly the tradition of Lebanese painting from the 19th-century through the present, but an exhibition on view at the Villa Audi in Achrafieh through June 29 offers a specific glimpse of what such an institution could be. Businessman Raymond Audi, one of Lebanon’s most active arts patrons, has gathered together the privately held works of French modernist painter Georges Cyr for a two-month exhibition entitled "Georges Cyr dans les collections libanaises." The exhibition includes examples of Cyr’s work from many stages in his artistic life, but it focuses on the art he produced after he moved to Beirut from Normandy in 1934.

Cyr represents two important traditions in the history of art in Lebanon," says Sarah Rogers, an art historian and PhD candidate in the history, theory and criticism of art and architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rogers is particularly knowledgeable on Lebanese art history and has taught in the department of visual art at Notre Dame Universityin Zouk Mosbeh. "First is the cultural crossroads that have long given form to art in Lebanon; the French Mandate opened the country more to all things French, and because of the legacy of the laissez-faire economy put into place by the mandate, Beirut’s role as a locus for the trafficking of goods and services, and artists, only further developed post-1943," adds Rogers.

"Secondly, his atelier served as an artistic meeting place and studio for training others interested in art which is part of a longer history of art in Beirut. For instance, before the Lebanese Academy of Fine Art [ALBA] established its art department in 1943, followed by the American University of Beirut’s 10 years later in 1953, artists in Lebanon learned their craft in the studios of the previous generation such as [Charles] Corm and [Habib] Srour."

The Cyr collection on view now is made up of 96 privately owned paintings organized in six rooms. The exhibition includes works in pencil, ink, watercolor, oil and gouache. The paintings chart his career through the first half of the 20th century and encompass a broad range of modernist styles. The gallery begins with realist oil paintings such as a large, dark picture of the church at Molineaux, near to where he grew up in Normandy, painted in 1932, and pencil sketches including an undated self-portrait, from Raymond Audi’s own collection. (Other collectors who have lent works to the show include Madeleine Pierre Helou, wife of the late MP Pierre Helou and a member of the Lebanese Association for the Development of Private Funding for Culture; Saleh Barakat, founder of the Agial Art Gallery in Hamra, New York-based Lebanese painter Nabil Nahas and Naila Kettaneh-Kunigk of Galerie Tanit in Munich).

Cyr’s works are arranged in roughly chronologically order, and it is striking that even shortly before his death in 1964, he was still producing a great range of styles – from light, playful watercolors of people at a picnic to heavy cubist oils and landscapes.

Coming from the modernist painting schools of northern France, where he took up painting as a career on the advice of the artist Armand Guillaumin, around 1910, Cyr slipped into the already-thriving modern movement of 1930s Beirut. He settled quickly into a close-knit group of French and Lebanese artists then active in the city.

"By the time Cyr arrived in the mid-1930s, Beirut already had an on-spec, secular market for easel painting," explains Rogers. "By 1928, journals like La Revue du Liban highlighted the importance of art by focusing on Lebanese painters and sculptors. Moreover, Lebanese artists were far from isolated from art movements abroad. Indeed, Corm and Srour trained abroad as did the next generation."

While Cyr brought with him the influence of modernist movements in Paris, as did many of his Lebanese contemporaries who trained in Europe, the influence of his network of artist friends in Beirut also left their mark on his work.

The most overt reference to another artist is the painting entitled "Chagrin d’amour," taking its name from the title of Lebanese poet and playwright Georges Schehade’s first play. Schehade was Cyr’s closest friend in Beirut and theater scholar Leonard Lenko’s description of the playwright’s literary landscape as "a world in which the brotherhood of men with animals and objects is more than once suggested," could well be applied to Cyr’s art.

The blending of these three elements is a theme picked up on by Cyr in several paintings, aside from "Chagrin d’amour," such as an untitled watercolor from the collection of George Asseily in which a fountain painted in black in the foreground also has the appearance of a simple face with a broad moustache.

The earliest dated work in the collection is an untitled watercolor from 1922, two years before Cyr exhibited for the first time at the annual Salons des Independents in Paris.

The painting depicts a prominent tree in watercolor, a motif that traces its way through many of the works that he sold for a living to friends and local collectors and becomes a bold theme of the collection overall, often shading and framing the human subjects of his work and even appearing in some of his darker cubist painting.

"French photographers and painters had been interested in the cedar tree since the late 19th century," says Rogers. "Many artists, particularly in France, were interested during the post-impressionist period in series such as Monet’s grain stacks, cathedral and water lilies. To paint something again and again in nature allowed these artists to experiment with light and its effects on form."

"Georges Cyr dans les collections libanaises" is on view at the Villa Audi on St. Nicholas Street in Achrafieh through June 29. For more information, please call +961 1 331 600.