The Story Behind the Subject

The Story Behind the Subject

Flavia Codsi talks to Artscoops about her landmarks, love for old houses and life-size portraitures


What prompted your move from interior design into art?

I’d enjoyed painting as a hobby from a young age, but it was when I began taking part in collective exhibitions in the mid-1990s and received such a positive reaction from the public that I decided to take my art more seriously. The shift from painting in my free time to becoming professional was a gradual one.

One of your milestones was illustrating a children’s book on houses. What particular challenges did this produce?

I was delighted to work on this project since the person who commissioned it wanted to create a book for her daughters depicting our wonderful houses before they disappeared and this was a topic close to my own heart. I love old houses and I live in one myself. It breaks my heart to see them being torn down. When doing the work, I was aware that the illustrations had to be colorful and cheerful to appeal to young readers, so I made sure to include toys, as well as flowers and trees.


Your early work often involved recreating scenes of Beirut. What drew you to the city as a subject?

Coming from Beirut, I’m a city girl at heart. I also grew up during the civil war, so witnessed firsthand the many changes that the city has undergone. I’d always been fascinated by the traces of time on worn-out walls, the different layers of paint and rust. Another draw was the effects of destruction on buildings, such as cavities created by bombs and the way they could sometimes reveal surprising interiors, like a broken, suspended chandelier. Industrial spaces were another source of inspiration. As the owner of an old car, I used to spend considerable time at the mechanics and found the whole environment, from dark, greasy interiors to stacked tyres and spare parts lying around, fascinating.


Since focusing on life-sized portraitures, you are known to scout for potential models when out and about. What are you looking for in a subject?

I usually sketch my idea on paper based on a picture in my mind and then look for a subject that fits with my drawing in terms of theme or composition. Sometimes it’s the other way round and I meet a person who inspires me. It might be a small detail, such as the colour of their hair or a fleeting expression.


You are known for your ability to relay hidden expressions and the raw emotions of your subjects. Is this a conscious challenge you set yourself?

It’s something I do naturally and consciously. All my paintings tell stories; I’m not setting out to paint technically accomplished pretty pictures and I hate it when people describe me as a hyper-realist artist. Although I paint detail, I’m only looking to provide enough to ensure my characters look alive. To me, the story is the most important part of the painting.

Why did you choose oil as your preferred medium?

Oils suit what I do very well. I wanted to paint people life-size and express their inner feelings and emotions. I realized that by painting in oil, I could work in a large format. Oil is also very sensual and vibrant. The colours are rich and dry slowly, unlike acrylics, which allows me to blend them.


Tell us something about the artists that have inspired you and any other motivators you credit with influencing you...

There are many. Early on, when I was doing a lot of ink and pencil work, I was drawn to Leonardo da Vinci. Botticelli was another influence for his sense of detail and refined beauty, especially the way he painted hair. Then there’s Rene Magritte for his imagination and wit and, of course, Salvador Dali. Much later, when I was already professional, I discovered the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and Anselm Kiefer, from Germany, whose backgrounds and textures influenced my work. My father was a major motivator, encouraging me from an early age. Fellow artist and friend David Kurani also played a key part in my development, giving me water colours and brushes, and showing me techniques. It was important for me to make the most of these opportunities as I’m self-taught.



You have won several prizes over the years. Has one of them been more important to you than others?

I think the time when I won the Dorothy Salhab Kazemi prize at the Sursock museum’s Salon d’Automne in 1994 will always be a special moment for me as it marked the moment when I realised I could do something with my art. I received a lot of media coverage and decided that day to take painting more seriously.

Tell us something about Dog Day Afternoon, the work featured in Artscoops’ Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Auction…

It was a very hot summer when I did that painting and stray dogs in the neighbourhood were keeping me awake at night barking. I was trying to prepare for a solo exhibition at the time, so the lack of sleep was a real challenge. I decided to include the experience in the show through two works and a related one. I painted two artworks with dogs as subjects, while a third of a couple unable to sleep, appropriately called Insomnia, was hung near the other two.

What are you currently working on?

While painting remains my priority and always will, I’ve also been experimenting with photography and would like to show some of my photographic work one day. I’m also finalising a video that I filmed over a month-long period some time back of a 1950s building being demolished. It features the interaction between those involved, including the workers and neighbours. In some ways photography and video-filming are hobbies that I hope will evolve in the same way my painting did before.


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