Just over 30 miles outside of Beirut lies the village of Rachana, which is completely covered in sculpture. Models are scattered everywhere, in front of houses, in public spaces and on the road. The town was the birthplace of Michel (1921-1981), Alfred (1924-2006) and Youssef Basbous (1929-2001), three brothers all of whom were sculptors who welcomed the art world to Lebanon by opening their hometown to an annual international sculpture symposium, and whose sons have built a museum. Now a display of the middle brother, Alfred’s work is on display at the Sophia Contemporary Gallery in London.
The Mayfair gallery plays host to twenty silky smooth sculptures and ten accompanying drawings. Amongst the carvings are both human and animal figures. Though the sculptures are stationary, the glistening forms seem as though they are full of life and have now been frozen in time. There is An Arabian tale that tells the story of a fairy whose magic wand touched Rachana, immediately after which, its inhabitants were all petrified. Nobody was spared: birds, plants, and children, not even princesses. It is possible that Basbous’s work had been made inspired by this legend, especially considering that despite studying in Europe, the artist chose to return to his Lebanese homeland.
Basbous’s sculptures consist of curved forms that one may be forgiven for comparing to the work of Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi or Henry Moore. Free of ornamentation and excessive detail, the stone, bronze, marble and testa sculptures emphasize form. The sculptor won a scholarship to the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris and even visited Henry Moore’s studio in 1972. His seated figures in particular echo the work of his modernist European counterparts. Seated Woman, 1997 and Femme Accroupie, 1972 show two faceless and limbless women comfortably, displaying their bodies proudly to their admirers. While the females have been depicted without face, arms or legs, Basbous still manages to evoke a sense of sensuality and beauty. It is clear that the artist has a clear appreciation for women. In later sculptures, the bodies of his subjects have been elongated, standing proudly like slender Amazonian beauties. In Phoenician Victory, 1992, one figure holds up another with an arm raised in the air in a gesture of triumph. This bronze bares a striking resemblance to the long-limbed figures in Matisse’s cutouts, particularly his flying Icarus of 1946.
Yet, while many writers have chosen to focus on Basbous’s European influences, there is a Lebanese spirit at the heart of his work. This is most obvious in Phoenician Head, 2003, which mirrors the small bronze figurines in conical hats that come to mind with the mention of Phoenicians. Between 1200 and 1000 BC the Phoenician civilisation made Byblos their capital, a town which borders Rachana to this day and whose souvenir shops are filled with miniature statuettes of the ancient Phoenicians. Basbous’s Phoenician Head is significantly bigger than those that you can buy outside the tourist stores. At 90 cm in height, it is almost five times as high but just as striking. The hat seems to have morphed into the face yet, in essence, not much is different from its historic counterpart. The modern sculpture, like the Phoenician relic, has been constructed out of bronze and the form is almost identical, it has simply been given it a twenty-first century makeover.
It may be worth noting that in many of Basbous’s human forms on display at Sophia Contemporary, the head and the body have been disconnected. This is interesting as the word Rachana means head in Aramaic. He therefore ensures that the viewers’ eyes are firmly focused on the form of his nude figures. On display too are a series of drawings that mirror the forms of the voluptuous seated three-dimensional nudes, allowing the audience to get a glimpse into the artist’s preparatory process. The sketches have been shaded to show where the light will hit the gleaming surface of the sculptures, highlighting Basbous’s understanding of light, it would be apt then, that Basbous meant light in old Aramaic.
Free of decoration, Basbous’s sculptures show an appreciation for both the human form and the materials used to sculpt his figures. Sophia Contemporary has presented London not only with Basbous’s oeuvre, but also with a piece of Rachana and Lebanese history.
Alfred Basbous: Modernist Pioneer is on display at Sophie Contemporary until 22nd April