VINTAGE LEBANESE ARTISTS
AREF EL RAYESS
Aref El Rayess (Arabic: عارف الريس)
25 October 1928 – 27 January 2005
Born in Aley, Mount Lebanon, Aref el Rayess was an artist, painter and sculptor. He began to draw and paint at the age of eleven, initially using his mother’s paints and brushes and later learnt to draw with charcoal during vacations on visits to his cousin’s home in Choueifat, a suburb of Beirut.
In 1945 Rayess completed a charcoal and pastel drawing entitled Horror, depicting Hiroshima’s atomic bomb, an event that resonated deeply with the artist. The French painter Georges Cyr, architect Antoine Tabet and art critic Victor Hakim came to view the work at the advice of Arlette Levi, a reporter for L’Orient newspaper who had seen the work during a visit she paid to Rayess’s mother.
In the autumn of 1948, having been impressed by the young Rayess, Cyr, Tabet and Hakim held an exhibition for him in the West Hall of the American University of Beirut (AUB).
Sir Julian Sorell Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO, and Peter Belew the chairman of UNESCO’s arts section, saw Rayess’s exhibition at the AUB and decided to take six paintings from the exhibition to hang them in the “Imaginary Roaming Exhibition”, held during the Second UNESCO International Conference in Beirut. The remaining thirty-six paintings were exhibited at the UNESCO Palace.
The artist moved to Paris in the spring of 1948, where (like his contemporary Saloua Raouda Choucair), he studied painting in the studios of Fernand Leger and Andre L’hote, etching with Friedlander and sculpture with Ossip Zadkine amongst others, while studying at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere.
Between 1954 and 1956, Rayess travelled in Senegal, West Africa, spending time exploring the jungles and living with local tribes. During this period he was deeply influenced by the cultural primitivism of the region. African stylization and motifs would become a notable feature of his work at this time, as well as for a large portion of his career. Returning to Paris in 1956, he spent his time attending exhibitions, mixing in artistic circles and concentrating primarily on the skill of etching. He returned to Lebanon between 1957 and 1958 and commenced studies on Phoenician, Assyrian, Sumarite and Pharaonic art.
In 1958, he was commissioned by the Lebanese government to design and execute a tapestry – The Signs of Cadmus – presented to the Unesco Palace in Paris. The Lebanese government also requested him to create two sculptures to represent Lebanon at the World Fair in New York.
He moved to Florence in 1959 after the Italian Government offered him a one-year scholarship. He then went on to live in Rome from 1960 to 1963, all the while maintaining studios in both cities. It was in Italy that his studies of ancient Semitic art forms manifested themselves in his work through the exploration of symbolism, leading to a large exhibition of works attributed to his “Sand Period”, an epoque comprising the early 1960s. He presented these works first at Galeria Pogliani in Rome, and then at La Licorne, Beirut, in November 1963, in an exhibition entitled “Temps et Murs”.
In 1963, Rayess returned to Beirut and won first prizes in sculpture and tapestry at the national contest of sculpture for the Palace of Justice. In 1969 he was elected chairman of Lebanese Association of Artists and Sculptors, a position he held until 1977. He also taught fine art at the Lebanese University. He counted a number of high profile and respected artists and figures from the art world amongst his friends, including Saloua Raouda Choucair, Michel Basbous and Chafic Abboud. His opinions were also sought and respected by people such as Joseph Abou-Rizk, the director of the Fine Arts department of the National Ministry of Education and he was instrumental in building the Lebanese arts and gallery scene, which was lacking in the 1960s.
With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, Rayess was one of the artists who interpreted the tragic events in art. Staying in Algiers, he produced in 1976 a series of etchings entitled Tarik al Salam (The Road to Peace). This work gave its name to an exhibition Saleh Barakat curated in 2009 at the Beirut Art Center, encompassing Lebanese visual arts between 1975 and 1991.
In these troubled times, Rayess showed political involvement in creating a poster commemorating the assassination of the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt.
Aref El Rayess also developed a practice of abstract sculpture. In the 1980s, Rayess travelled regularly to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, spending time living in the country at the beginning of the decade after the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon. He was appointed as the Art Consultant for the city of Jeddah and was commissioned to produce a number of monumental public sculptures for the country, the most ambitious of which was a twenty-seven metre high aluminium sculpture of the stylized name of Allah that stands in Palestine Square in Jeddah. Among the artist’s later works was a series of oil paintings capturing the nature and feeling of the Arabian desert.
He travelled to London in 1990 and worked on a number of projects including private commissions around England. In 1999 he held an exhibition of introspective works, entitled “Labyrinths” – produced during the years he spent caring for his ill father, a time of loneliness and anxiety relieved only by the time he found to paint after his father would fall asleep.
Rayess spent his latter years working in his native Lebanon and organising the annual Symposia of Painting and Sculpture, the first of which was in 1999.
Rayess participated in many group shows including the biennales of Sao Paulo (1960) and Bagdad (1974); the Unesco exhibition in Montreal (1978); the Mall Galleries, London (1986) and the Salons of the Sursock Museum, Beirut (1961, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968). He has held more than fifteen one-man shows in Lebanon.
Internationally, his Individual exhibitions include: the Poliani Gallery, Rome (1959); Numero Gallery, Florence (1959); D’Arcy Gallery, New York; Excelsior Gallery, Mexico (1964); the Rodin Museum, Paris (1966); a retrospective of his works, 1957-1968, at the National Museum of Damascus (1969); Ornina Gallery, Damascus (1974), Gallery Rasim, Algeria (1976) and in Venezuela.
Aref El Rayess won several awards in Lebanon. These include: the Lebanese Ministry of National Education Award for the 1955 spring exhibition, the Unesco Prize for the Spring Salon of 1957, the Ministry of Public Works First and Second Prize for Sculpture (1963), the Sursock Museum Grand Prix de Sculpture (1965-66) for different works exhibited and their First Prize for Sculpture (1966-67) as well as the Ministry of Tourism First and Second Prizes (1966).
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