An Atypical Artist
June Nabaa, daughter of the late, Lebanese painter Willy Aractingi, reminisces about her father’s influences, his family loyalties and her all-time favourite works
…growing up in an artist’s household:
My father was still busy working as a manager at Fattal Group when I was a child, but I do have vivid memories of the summer of 1975, during which he painted portraits of my mother, brother and me, alongside others of our close friends. We were in Aley at the time, waiting for a lull in the fighting. I remember his happiness and joy as he discovered a new world of painting. We’ve kept many uncompleted, black charcoal drawings from that summer and a wonderful ‘coloured’ piece, titled ‘La plante de Nada’. Nada remains a very close family friend to this day. Like many Lebanese families, we were divided after that summer by the war.
…Willy’s commitment to balancing art with family:
My father was very aware of his family responsibilities. Apart from working at Fattal, he also created ‘Au petit point’ with my mum and, only when he felt that they could afford to live from the business did he begin painting. Artists are often depicted as creative, but also irresponsible and unable to manage in the real world. However, given that my father spent more than 50 years at Fattal and took the decision to paint cautiously rather than impulsively, I think it’s evident that this description certainly didn’t apply to him.
…his description of himself as a naïve primitive artist:
Naïve art is recognised for its childlike simplicity and frankness, with paintings typically having a flat rendering style and a rudimentary expression of perspective. Certainly, my father’s work is spontaneous and expresses a sensitivity that is accessible to all. However, I think that technically speaking, his work is far from simple. Many of the paintings are full of wonderfully shaded colour. My father also never used just one colour – in fact he was always mixing several. When it comes to primitivism, it’s certainly true that two primitive artists – (Paul) Gauguin and (Henri – Le Douanier) Rousseau - influenced my father’s way of painting. This style often draws on the simplicity of Oceania and Africa art, with painters freeing themselves from realism in the representation of characters and objects. ‘Paulette au jardin’ reminds me of Gauguin’s Tahitienne, while my father’s jungle paintings recall Rousseau’s ‘Les males’.
…his fascination with folklore:
I think this stemmed from the fact that my father was living in France and, like so many expatriates, he missed his birth country and wanted to reconnect with his origins. When he was young, his father used to tell him the ‘Les fables de la Fontaine’ stories. Once the 244 fables were finished, he found inspiration in the oriental version, ‘Antar and Abla, Geha’.
…the illustrations in Jean de La Fontaine’s fables:
My favourite will always be ‘Le lion et le rat’, as I love the way that a small creature is shown helping the king of all animals. On a personal level, the picture serves as a reminder that all people, whoever they are, have something to offer and are worth knowing. I also like the way that the net is painted with the two animals located behind.
…‘Chicago’, featured in Artscoops’ September auction:
This piece was created after a trip my father made to the Windy City. The tree represents a natural element which is present in all his paintings, while the clouds are depicted as cotton candy. The pastel colours are specific to this period, namely the shading in the green of the tree and the pink of the background.
…his sense of humour:
My father was always joking when he wasn’t working and it has been said that humour can be found in his work. I’ll never forget how he told me, before entering the church for my wedding, “You can still change your mind.” I also remember when he and his close friend, Raymond, put on my mother’s wig…
…the evolution of his work:
While I see my father’s paintings as falling into distinctive periods, I don’t feel that this relates to his life. My personal preference is for the landscapes featuring round trees. You can see the various shades of colour repeated in each tree, while, in the distance, you are able to see the trees painted more sharply, against the sun. I call these trees so characteristic of his work ‘Paysages à ronds’.
…maintaining and honouring his legacy:
I know that my father was trying to make an inventory of his work, but was unable to do so. Computers were very different then and it was extremely difficult to take photos of a good resolution. I am confident, therefore, that from where he is, he’d be very happy to see us managing to achieve this. It hasn’t been difficult to get started because he left plenty of documentation, as if he knew that would help me. However, it is an endless task since I come across new paintings every day. I view this role as recognition or gratitude for the childhood he and my mother gave me, rather than a challenge.