A Tale of Two Cities

“Beirut and the Golden Sixties”, which forms part of the current Lyon Biennale, titled “Manifesto of Fragility”, might have past decades as its focus, but the pervading themes, which include resilience in the face of extreme hardship, are as relevant today as ever for Lebanon, as our interview with its team reveals.

Copyright: 'Blaise Adilon'

        Legende: "Beyrouth et les Golden Sixties. Vue de l’exposition. Au premier plan, Simone Baltaxé Martayan, The workers, ca. 1950-59. Sursock Museum. À droite, 3 œuvres de Georges Doche. Courtesy The Saade Family / The\nGeorges Doche Collection. Exposition organisée en coopération avec le Gropius Bau, Berlin. 16e Biennale d'art contemporain de Lyon, Musée d' art contemporain – macLYON © Blaise Adilon"

What was it that drew the Biennale team to Beirut and its “sixties’ era” story when looking for concepts that aligned with the chosen theme?

During several visits to Lyon and through extensive research, the curator duo Sam Bardouil and Till Fellrath discovered Louise Brunet, a young woman who was sent to prison for taking part in the revolution of Lyon’s canuts (silk weavers) in 1834, only to find herself a few years later on a perilous journey from Lyon to the silk factories of Mount Lebanon. This micro-narrative serves as the foundation for an innovative exploration of fragility, where the real, historical Louise Brunet is reimagined as different protagonists living in different times and places. Fiction and reality converge in a rewriting of this forgotten woman’s story, which becomes an opportunity to delve into various experiences of fragility through the lenses of race, gender, mortality and economy, amongst other considerations.

Out of this micro-narrative, the biennale expands into its second layer, broadening its scope to explore fragility through Beirut, where Brunet arrived around 1838. Titled “Beirut and the Golden Sixties”, this section of the biennale alights on a fascinating, yet lesser-known period of prolific artistic production and political engagement in Beirut. The focus on Beirut acquires added poignancy in Lyon, given the two cities’ historical entanglements, particularly through the 19th-century silk trade and during the French Mandate era in Lebanon from 1920 until 1943, which set the stage for the 1950s-1970s period of central concern to this biennale. Through the connections discovered between Lyon and Lebanon, “Beirut and the Golden Sixties”, explores fragility and resistance in the Beirut art scene of the mid-20th century as an example of resilience in the face of unfathomable hardship. 

The biennale posits a point of intersection between the two axes to initiate a focused exploration of fragility within the context of the dazzling, yet tumultuous 1960s’ era of Beirut’s so-called Golden Age, featuring 230 artworks by 34 artists and more than 300 archival documents from nearly 40 collections worldwide. 

Copyright: 'Blaise Adilon'

        Legende: 'Beyrouth et les Golden Sixties. Vue de l’exposition. Mur gauche : Simone Fattal, The Last Moon the Fida''i Saw (diptych), 1978. Courtesy Simone Fattal Studio. Exposition organisée en coopération avec le Gropius Bau, Berlin. 16e Biennale d'' art contemporain de Lyon, Musée d'' art contemporain – macLYON © Blaise Adilon'

Much has been made of the cultural and artistic boom in Beirut during this era (1950s – 1970s). How would you describe the art coming out of the capital city at this time?

Set against the historical backdrop, “Beirut and the Golden Sixties” examines Beirut’s cultural awakening following Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Unlike other Arab cities emerging from decades of colonial rule, such as Algiers, Baghdad and Cairo, Beirut did not produce a singular or definite artistic movement or school. A succession of drastic political shifts in the surrounding region - which were often a result of increasing intolerance towards liberal and oppositional currents - led to a prolonged influx of intellectuals, cultural practitioners and artists who fled to the relative stability of Lebanon. With them came foreign capital, which was further encouraged by the fast-growing economy and Lebanese secrecy laws protecting the privacy of individual investors. Increased commercial activity meant a rise in the number of affluent individuals with purchasing power and an interest in arts. As a result, the art market boomed.

New cultural institutions and unconventional exhibition spaces sprouted up across the city and a post-independence generation of Lebanese artists came to prominence. Artists of diverse backgrounds made Beirut their home and contributed to the ever-broadening field of artistic practices and intellectual endeavors that engaged the political concerns of the time with the same vigour with which they challenged artistic conventions.

Copyright: 'Blaise Adilon'

        Legende: "Beyrouth et les Golden Sixties. Vue de l’exposition. Au premier plan : Khalil Zgaib, Evénements 27 (Le début des Evénements de\n1958), 1958. Courtesy Private Collection, HE Mr. Samir Moubarak. Exposition organisée en coopération avec le Gropius Bau, Berlin. 16e Biennale d' art contemporain de Lyon, Musée d' art contemporain – macLYON © Blaise Adilon"

While phrases such as “The Paris of the Middle East” are often used to describe Beirut at this time, the context is much more complex, with civil war looming and an unsettled regional landscape. How did you set about ensuring the art and artists selected would relay this complicated backdrop?

Presented in five thematic sections, the exhibition introduces the breadth of artistic practices and political projects that thrived in Beirut from the 1950s to the 1970s:

The first section – ‘Le Port de Beyrouth’ – deconstructs concepts in relation to a place that is constantly changing to meet the many expectations projected onto it. The presented works highlight the disparities between those who benefited from Beirut’s prosperity and those who watched as onlookers from within, forever anticipating the fulfillment of the promise.

The second section – ‘Lovers’ – examines how changing social values in Beirut and across the world in the 1960s influenced and inspired new artists’ tendencies. International liberation and anti-establishment movements reflected and inspired similar debates and actions in Beirut. Home to a socially diverse group of artists, the Beirut art scene was at the forefront of these topical debates.  

The third section – Takween (Composition) – examines how decisions by artists in the Beirut scene to subscribe to certain formal styles or movements were far more than simple expressions of taste and aesthetics, with the visual expression of their work a clear reflection of their identification for many. Artists utilising a wide variety of techniques, materials and styles converged on Beirut’s 1960s’ art scene and their diverse interests influenced an emerging cultural landscape. This section considers the local articulations of various modernist tendencies in Beirut, paying close attention to the predominance of abstraction from the 1950s to the 1970s.