Celebrating the wonderful Aractingi-Fontaine connection

‘Willy, La Fontaine’ auction to mark 400th anniversary of legendary fabulist’s birth

ArtScoops’ latest, not-to-be-missed auction features a delightful trio of works by the renowned Lebanese artist Willy Aractingi, including two paintings in which he takes us into the wonderful world of French author Jean de la Fontaine’s fables. 

Titled ‘Willy, La Fontaine’ the three-day auction opens with perfect timing on Thursday July 8, the 400th anniversary of Fontaine’s birth, in a year that France has termed ‘L’année Jean de la Fontaine’.

The three featured works, created in oils on canvas, are: ‘Le Corbeau et le Renard’; ‘La Cigale et la Fourmi’; and ‘Immigration’. 

The fables depicted in these two works are amongst the most popular of Fontaine’s tales, as Willy Aractingi’s daughter, June Nabaa, explained.

“I remember learning them by heart myself and they’re still used in schools today,” she said. “In fact, I’m often asked for copies of the pictures by publishers who are producing books of Les Fontaines’s fables for children.” 

In ‘Le Corbeau et le Renard’, Aractingi places the famed crow at the top of a tree which, intriguingly, he decides to depict with his signature surrealism, as a Christmas tree, complete with baubles. A piece of cheese is precariously balanced in the bird’s beak, head bent downwards, as he listens intently to what we know is the fox’s insincere flattery. The fox, meanwhile, is prostrate, claws and tongue out, indicating his hunger and readiness to spring into action and catch the cheese as soon as the crow drops it. 

‘La Cigale’, meanwhile, captures the industrious ant perfectly. Small and still partly underground, where he has been slaving through the summer in readiness for the colder months, he is clearly making his voice heard, mouth open, lecturing the bug about his failure to store food ahead of winter. 

Aractingi’s trademark use of bold and bright, but carefully chosen colour, deceptively simple shapes and lines, and ability to depict movement and emotions, are all to the fore in these pieces.

His love for animals – something June remembers fondly – also shines through in both the Fontaine works, making him the ideal artist to depict the stories.  “We always had pets at home, whether a dog or a hamster, and in France we’d visit the zoo,” she said with a smile. “Sometimes, exhausted after work, my father would sit and watch an animal programme on television with our pet dog on his knees.”

The sea - another of Aractingi’s loves - features in the third piece, jewel-blue below a flock of birds en route to another country. “My father always used to go to the sea, he was obsessed with it,” June explained. 

In this piece, the movement of the birds is clearly defined, with their heads pushing forward in motion and determination, as they head towards their destination, flying across the water, which reflects a richly hued sun and is edged with the artist’s signature minimalist, surrealist trees. 

June believes that aside from her father’s love for nature, his cheerful character and sense of humour also made him the ideal artist to illustrate Fontaine’s fables.

“I always describe my father’s pictures as joyful - that’s one of the things that makes them so attractive,” June said. “He was a very happy, funny man, constantly making people laugh. For example, when we used to attend the trade fairs together in Europe for our ‘art de table’ shop, ‘Au petit point’, he used to joke that I was his wife! He brought a smile to everyone’s face.” 

Being at his side in this way gave June an opportunity to really get to know her father, since work commitments meant the time they had together when she was young was limited. 

“Unlike many artists, my father held down a demanding day job, as well as painting, working as the commercial director with the Lebanese company Fattal Group for decades,” she explained. “He combined all of this with family life which was a great deal of responsibility and something he was happy to do.”

This sense of responsibility extended to his sentiments about the huge number of illustrations he did for Fontaine’s fables, as June explained. “My father created more than 240 artworks of Fontaine’s stories illustrating every single one at least once – some many times – and he thought of them with great affection as an opus,” she said. “With that in mind, in 2017, we donated a sizeable number to the Sursock Museum.” 

The generous act was acknowledged soon after, when the museum held an extensive retrospective of Aractingi’s work spanning 1973 to 2003, titled ‘Les Mondes de Willy Aractingi’, reaffirming his status as one of Lebanon’s most talented modernists. 

Willy Aractingi was born in New York in 1930 and died in Barcelona in 2003. He lived between Lebanon and Paris. His work is collected extensively worldwide and has featured in over 100 exhibitions in Lebanon, France, the UK and the US. 

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