“Kifak inta” (2011) mixed media on canvas
Renowned Belgian artist Pascal Courcelles came to this country for the first time in May and June of last year. He came to Lebanon with the express purpose of creating a new series of works
and he brought an inquiring mind with him as he did so.
During his stay in Beirut, for instance, the artist says he asked himself one question: “What is missing and what is necessary in such a beautiful city?”
He decided nature plays a central role in the beauty of Lebanon as a whole.
Courcelles took a huge amount of photographs – training his lens on trees, vineyards, flowers and mountains – and used these as source materials for a sort of homage to the Lebanese landscape.
The fruits of this creative harvest are on display in the exhibition “Des Jardins, Des Montagnes” (The Gardens, the Mountains), which opened this week at Alice Mogabgab Gallery.
This show is comprised of 23 of Courcelles’ paintings. Though all these works variously represent the artist’s esteem and wonder for Lebanon’s natural environment, they are neither floral studies nor landscapes as such. Rather they fall somewhere in the middle ground between the two.
His 160x160 cm mixed media-on-canvas piece “Il n’est de Parfums que ton Rire” (Your laugh is the only perfume) is a representation of a tree in bloom, one that fills the frame with a patchwork of pastel shades. The homogeneity of the pink-brown background wash, whose textures are accentuated by the application of sand, held on the canvas with a transparent fixer, is punctuated by blotches of bright colors that Courcelles uses to represent the flowers.
When looking at the painting from a distance, the impression is one of flowers rendered in great detail. Approaching the canvas, you’ll notice that these floral arrangements are bundlings of pinks, purples and oranges. So many hues of paint are deployed to depict a single flower that each of them protrudes from the canvas like a bas relief. It’s almost enough to tempt you to smell the flowers.
Unlike conventional landscape paintings, there is a want of background detail here. Courcelles doesn’t necessarily set out to neglect the landscape context. The want of detail in the harmonious background wash may be read as a vacuum, the artist’s way of inviting his viewers to “step into” the canvas.
Gallerist Alice Mogabgab told The Daily Star that Courcelles’ stylized landscapes do not attempt to render nature with a photographic naturalism but rather with “a perfume, a feeling, an atmosphere.”
Courcelles’ work is reminiscent of the wide and varied traditions of floral representation found in various parts of Asia. Illustrations of thin-trunked, bountifully flowering trees are a common theme in the traditions of Japan, China, as well as Persian miniatures.
There is likely to be an element of emulation, or at least stimulation, at work here since, according to his gallerist, Courcelles has read many books on Asiatic art and foliage.
The trace of latticework rendered on the right hand corner of his 130x260 cm mixed-media work “Kifak Inta” (How Are You), fixes the tableau of leaves and flowers on a terrace or balcony. Alternatively the latticework could suggest the back of a chair, as though awaiting a guest (the viewer?) to sit. As for the flowers and branches, they fill the canvas like wild vegetation. Airborne objects – a dragonfly, something resembling pollen from the flowers – are all delicately painted in white.
Here, the traces of yellow and grey in the background wash seems to represent adjacent architecture. If so, the focus on the greenery suggests that whatever lays behind this greenery is relatively insignificant next to the growing things.
Courcelles’s works betray his mastery in combining color, detail as well as cluttered vegetation.
It seems the artist had trouble completing his 130x192 cm work “Voyage, les Yeux Fermes” (Traveling, eyes closed). In the beginning, Mogabgab explained, he left the canvas for several months just with the branches and the range of trees (evident in the center of the canvas) because something was preventing him from continuing his work.
At one point, he realized it was the trees that had blocked his inspiration. He then decided to cover them with more branches, and his creative motivation returned.
Courcelles’s latest work makes use of a wide palette of colors, ranging from the fiery to pastels, to depict Lebanon’s natural habitat. A part of the country that many seem to have forgot nowadays.
Pascal Courcelles’s “Des Jardins, Des Montagnes” is on display at Ashrafieh’s Alice Mogabgab Gallery until Feb. 11. For more information please call 03-210-424.