D'Antone on Lenssen, 'Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria'

Anneka Lenssen
Ambra D'Antone

Anneka Lenssen. Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 296 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-34324-5

Reviewed by Ambra D'Antone (Courtauld Institute of Art) Published on H-AMCA (May, 2021) Commissioned by Nisa Ari (University of Houston)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55843

Below the Surface: Anneka Lenssen’s Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria, reviewed by Ambra D'Antone

In the context of an urgent need to decolonize the discipline of art history and critically diversify its voices, Anneka Lenssen’s monograph on modern Syrian painting is both timely and incisive. The first academic book in English devoted to this area of study, Beautiful Agitation is also one of the first publications where we can observe a multidisciplinary and global methodology in action. The author is no stranger to the field: the MoMA publication Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents (2018), edited by Lenssen in collaboration with Sarah Rogers and Nada Shabout, already proved the author to be a crucial voice on modern Arab art.

Beautiful Agitation offers a history of modern painting in Syria and by Syrians working internationally between 1900 and 1965. Drawing on a wealth of archival evidence—artists’ letters, diaries, contemporary photographs, and newspaper clippings among others—paired with sharp historical analysis and deep knowledge of the field, the book’s contents are articulated around the framework of the reservoir: in the book, the reservoir stands for a pluralistic substrate of life-affirming energy, which informed the aesthetic, political, and social experience of the “modern” for Syrian artmakers. Living and practicing in connection with multiple reservoirs, which simmered below the surface of their paintings, Syrian artists were able to generate and connect with meanings that did not perpetually fall in step with colonial or nationalist narratives. By means of the reservoir as a framework, Lenssen also reaches below the surface of established art-historical narratives, moving away from the Greenbergian model of modernism which took flatness, self-referentiality, and the reference to Euro-American centers as its primary parameters. Lenssen endeavors to show instead that Syrian modernism, while truly transnational, functioned around other criteria. The act of painting emerges as an agent of disquiet which disrupts established meanings and forms; anxiety, a shared medium for the artists that Lenssen presents, is no longer a paralyzing condition of chronic inability to act, but a fertile stirring of the pot, critically agitating the stagnating forms, ideas, and relations of power within modernity and modernism.

These criteria become clearer as the four chapters of the book unfold. In chapter 1, Lenssen unpacks the experimental quality of Khalil Gibran’s visual works—drawings and ink washes on fragile typing paper or paintings of indeterminate colors—and their new-formed connection between image and word, seeking to find form for the movements of the imagination in search of a collective Arab episteme. Gibran’s interest in the relationship between technological reproduction and traditional media also allows Lenssen to put the work of “pioneer” Syrian artists such as Tawfik Tarek under further scrutiny. In her analysis of Tarek’s Dummar Road (1908), Lenssen deftly pairs an astute visual analysis of the landscape near Damascus and its indices of modernity with historical evidence of Ottoman artistic traineeship and infrastructure of telecommunications, inviting us to see the painting as a document of the territorial expansion of the empire into Syria. Following Gibran’s movements in the United States, Lenssen is also able to sketch a transnational and exhilarating portrait of New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1912-13 and the revived enthusiasm for so-called Eastern literature in a highly diverse, multicultural, and multifaith community of emigrees and bohemians of which Syrians formed a part—disrupting the myth that Arab artists would share a single reservoir of creative imagination.

The notions of vital impetus and of the decentering of the self as origin of creativity put forth by Henri Bergson—as they were received by Syrian artists—provide the main theoretical scaffolding for the reservoir. This is explored further in chapter 2, a more philosophical chapter which, while undoubtedly dense, provides fascinating and unprecedented insight into Syrian intellectual history during the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon. Here, Lenssen complicates the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized: across the Paris-Damascus axis, the author investigates the study and display of art and heritage at the level of institutional practice. Establishments like the French Institute of Archaeology and Islamic Art, founded in colonial Damascus in 1922, engaged with the newly founded discipline of ethnography and with a revivalist agenda, contributing to an increased codification of Syrian society, politics, and “culture” in its attempt to recuperate historical glories. It is refreshing to discover the impact on modern Syrian art of known figures such as Eustache de Lorey and Louis Massignon, previously landlocked into discourses of Islamic art, as they are placed in relation to the French colonial pedagogical system of the 1920s. We are also treated to exciting material never published before, such as the work of the Syrian Khaled Moaz, whose ethnographic paintings of desert communities disrupted the atomistic tendency and veneer of scientificity of the ethnographer’s gaze.

The theoretical analysis of chapter 2 finds practical application in chapters 3 and 4, both dedicated to individual artists—Adham Ismail and Fateh al-Moudarres, respectively—whose pioneering status as national treasures of Syrian painting is also placed under further scrutiny in the book. The two artists, evidence shows, fostered a lifelong interest in automatist drawing techniques, which Lenssen explores in connection to their commitment to finding a new relationship with a substrate of creative energy. In the case of Ismail, the artistic and the political form appear as fundamentally imbricated; the artist searched for forms, lines, and colors that could be serviceable to the revival of the Arab community and the Arabist agenda in the uncertain political years following Syrian independence. At the heart of paintings like Ismail’s The Porter (1951), which operates as a potent social critique of the Damascene urban development and the subsequent dispossession of the working classes, the arabesque becomes the practical anchor of Lenssen’s philosophical and aesthetic gambit. The author traces a different narrative of the arabesque, from a crucible of line and color univocally attached to Islamic imagery and sensibilities to a trope of Parisian and American modernism, indexing a drive to express the underlying meaning of a subject, below its external shape. In the case of al-Moudarres, going below the surface entailed a rather more physical, subterranean excavation, reaching toward Syria’s buried material heritage. In the chapter, Lenssen explores al-Moudarres’s visual and conceptual engagement with the archaeological objects of nationalism, and the way the artist presented them not as witnesses of wholesome national pride, but as disturbing icons of existential struggle and contradiction. The unlocking of a reservoir of shared memory, which for al-Moudarres also took on significations of a Surrealist collective unconscious, involved the artist’s experimentation with the materiality of painting itself. Experimenting with automatism and degrees of surface manipulation, Lenssen argues that al-Moudarres aimed to disrupt any possibility of a fixed, national meaning.

As the themes of these chapters reveal, the narratives of Syrian modern painting in Beautiful Agitation are male: the book consciously reflects on the gendered notion of the modernist artist but does not readily break from it. While Lenssen discusses the written contributions of women journalists like Siham Tergeman and Aida Asmar, whose professional role in the Syrian media positioned them at the center of narrative-making, we are left wondering if other women—the poet and author Khalida Said comes to mind—also dipped into the vitalist potential of the reservoir. Nevertheless, Beautiful Agitation finds its rightful place as a monumental text within the field: Lenssen echoes the deep intellectualism and comparatism that characterized Robyn Creswell’s account of Syrian poets in Lebanon in City of Beginnings (2019), and positions herself in dialogue with foundational publications like Nada Shabout’s Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (2008), which spearheaded more critical analyses of the Arab self-identification; yet, Lenssen demands a more critical understanding of national formations and their ideological parameters. Reconfiguring notions of artistic revivalism, the book also offers an alternative understanding of heritage to the idea of turath, which key publications like Kanan Makiya’s The Monument (1991) had introduced to the field. The figures of Syrian intellectual history are exhaustively represented and critically positioned here: the canon-formation activities of art historians like Tarek al-Sharif, or Mamdouh Qashlan’s 2006 survey Half a Century of Visual Art in Syria, provide a historiographical foundation for Lenssen’s generative methodology, as she seeks to go beyond the idea of fixed qualities of “Syrian” art.

Beautiful Agitation operates as an essential act of recuperation, providing precious evidence that modernist narratives need not follow presumptions of originality, exclusive ownership, or authenticity. Certainly, it will prove invaluable to all art historians and art lovers—“critical seekers of historical connections between painting practices, as well as those attentive to their differences” (p. 215)—who wish to go below the surface.

Citation: Ambra D'Antone. Review of Lenssen, Anneka, Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria. H-AMCA, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55843

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