We normally expect Tate Modern to put on blockbuster shows from exceptionally well-known artists who pull in the punters. Lichtenstein is the perfect example but just a couple of floors above this popular current exhibition is a retrospective by an artist that I doubt many people have actually heard of. You’d be forgiven for not having heard of her too as she is still relatively unknown. Tate has taken a risk here as this is not what people expect of them; they have mounted the world’s first major museum exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair who has never really exhibited outside her homeland of Lebanon – she is now 97. Older artists are certainly on trend at the moment.
Saloua Raouda Choucair in 1974. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Choucair is a truly cosmopolitan artist and Tate ask us to consider this exhibition on level four in the context of Tate’s collections. Although she rarely left Lebanon, Choucair did visit Egypt in 1943 and spent a few years in France from 1948 when she joined the studio of Fernand Léger. Her crude copies of Léger’s works are a long way from mere imitations although this is how they may appear at first glance. She imbues his style with a very personal reading and a new strident sense of dynamism and movement. The women shown here aren’t fussed by our viewing them; they carry on with their activities, looking at art books, oblivious and uncaring. The women who do look at us are forceful. Choucair lacks the crispness for which Léger is known, her figures are much rougher and less precise. Through these works we instantly see her humourist and proto-feminist position. The works articulate abstract forms and interlocking planes with an incredibly strong sense of colour. Although, due to her use of natural materials, the palette in her sculpture is much reduced the forms recur again and again.
Crude copies? Own photograph.
To put together this exhibition, the curators were allowed to rummage through Choucair’s studio and one room includes a cabinet of hundreds of maquettes, drawings and documents that are actually stored in similar glass cabinets in her Beirut studio. Through these maquettes we are able to see her thought processes in 3D and her varied and prolific output. Choucair was very interested in architecture and architectural inventions; her sculptures illustrate her knowledge of architecture and her clear position on form where she liberated herself from the monolith of sculpture. The creative energy of this artist is seen through her constant experimentation and need to be making things. A lot of these objects remain small but she imagined them all big!
Choucair’s cabinet of curiosities. Own photograph.
Choucair has not had an easy journey and did not even sell a work in Lebanon until 1962 when she was in her 50s. Of course, looking back through art history this in itself is far from unique but the political struggles that she had to endure add a further element. Plus, through all this, we must not forget that to be a woman in this environment was exceedingly difficult. One painting with holes and splinters of glass is the direct result of a nearby bomb during the civil wars; the violent history of Beirut can be followed through her art and much of her public art no longer survives. Yet, she has continued producing and left us with an extraordinary body of work that constantly strives to break the boundaries of her environment and seek independence from her culture. We must not underestimate how hard it was for her to create figurative works and even her choice of materials is extraordinary within the culture.
The interlocking forms of Choucair’s sculptures. Own photograph.
Chouchair is fascinated by endless lines in her sculptures and the potential of the infinite. She succeeds with the idea of playing with modular systems that can be taken apart and re-ordered in our mind’s eye. The sculptures shown here are a highlight – ingeniously crafted and pulsating with life. The forms of western design merge with Islamic motifs to create interlocking geometric puzzles. Her works known as ‘duals’ present two carefully interlocking parts while some pieces stack together in a similar but more flexible way.
Choucair, Infinite Structure, 1963-5. Own photograph.
The final room presents a completely different Choucair – a much more contemporary, altogether different artist. But, look closer and the same ideas and principles are still very much hovering beneath the surface. The tension, movement and dynamism is omnipresent.
The final room of the exhibition. Own photograph.
Tate has produced a wonderful catalogue to accompany the exhibition that further elucidates Choucair’s career with remarkable insight and clarity. This is a small show with only four rooms but I think it is the right size (entry is priced slightly lower than usual to reflect the size difference); I don’t think we would have been ready for a bigger exhibition of her work yet. This is a well considered show. Tate has kept it simple and not tried to cram in too much. They have let us learn about Choucair for the first time. They have let us come away intrigued and ready for her next exposure wherever and whenever that may be.
Saloua Raouda Choucair is at Tate Modern until 20th October 2013, www.tate.org.uk.