The Lebanese-born, Zurich-based painter and classical musician Ribal Molaeb talks to Artscoops about harmonising his two beloved practices and the pros and cons of having a famous artist as a father
You’ve spoken about the influence that your musical education has had on your painting. Do you find music and art complement each other or do you find you have to separate them in your creativity?
When I paint, I think as a musician. I compose my paintings very delicately, thinking, as in music, of harmony, dynamics and colour. To me, a painting is a visualised musical composition. I see art as a way of life, an identity, rather than a profession. My musical and artistic output have progressed in parallel, with my paintings and musicality arising from the same inner need for expression. But just as expression can come more easily through a medium in which an artist isn’t necessarily traditionally schooled, I found refuge in painting. I feel more free spending long nights in my atelier in Zürich. Having these two disciplines makes me feel rounded. I have two wings – music and painting – which enable me to fly. Arnold Schönberg, who was an Austrian composer and painter, and Paul Klee – a Swiss-German painter and violinist – are two examples of historical artists who mastered both painting and music.
Have your surroundings in Switzerland and Austria influenced you in your art or do you still find yourself drawing on your Lebanese roots?
It was very inspiring to spend eight studying years in Vienna. I was living in a street near where Franz Schubert had lived and Beethoven’s house was around the corner – you can feel the energy of historical composers in the city. Vienna is the go-to place for classical musicians. I had a small art studio in Vienna and, after I moved to Switzerland, I opened my art studio which is on a main street. However, wherever I live in the world, my landscape painting remains a Mediterranean Lebanese painting. Those images are deep in my subconscious and come out when I paint. My warm colour palette comes from the unique light and colour which is found in the Lebanese Mediterranean and mountains. No aspect of nature warms my heart in the way that Lebanese nature can. Recently, though, my actual abstract paintings recall musical notations orchestrated on canvas as delicate as a musical composition – harmony, dynamics and orchestration. The Swiss artist Paul Klee is a perfect example of a painter who depicted music in his paintings.
'Lebanese Landscape' 90 x 120 cm, oil on canvas. Zürich 2022
What is it about oils that make them your preferred tool?
When I started working in my father’s art studio as a child, he was working solely with oil. I used to help him mix colours and fill certain spaces on the canvas. I loved the texture and the smell! Oil paints have an unparalleled richness – with oil you gain flexibility and richer, denser colour, with a wider range spanning light to dark. In Vienna, I started painting using only oil colour – it feels the most natural material for me to use. When he saw my technique, my father was super pleased and advised me not to paint in any material other than oil.
You were personally trained by your father, Jamil Molaeb, early on. Would you say there were advantages and disadvantages to having a famous artist as a father?
Having a master artist at home was the best thing during my childhood, since I learned my painting technique directly from him and was able to enjoy time spent in an artist’s studio. The only disadvantage I face now is that people will always compare my work to his. Whatever I do and however I paint, people will search for similarities. However, I decided not to hide away because of this and I believe I’ve found my personal painting story and style. I also have daily discussions with my father about art and these are very precious to me.
'Lebanese Landscape' 70 x 100 cm, oil on canvas. Zürich 2022
You name Lebanese 20th century abstract expressionists like Saliba Douaihy, Aref el Rayes and Shafic Abboud as influences. In what ways have these artists inspired you?
I was raised looking at paintings by Lebanese grand artists such as these, with their works among our collection at home. I was, of course, inspired by the Mediterranean works of Saliba Douaihy who, after meeting Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann and Ad Reinhardt, moved towards minimalism. I love his aesthetics, which reveal a deep interest in colour. The rough, wild and mysterious compositions of Aref el Rayes are an inspiration – his crazy character and free way of living alone is inspiring! I remember him often visiting us in Baissour and I once played violin in front of him. My father told me that five days before Aref passed away, he called him and asked him to preserve my future. The balanced harmonious compositions of Shafic Abboud also speak to me. His painting has power in it – his way of life and his relationship with Lebanon. He was a pioneer of the Lebanese abstract painting. I would like, one day, to be considered a part or a continuation of these genres of Lebanese artists.
Your work has been shown in exhibitions and art fairs across Europe. What do you regard as career highlights so far?
Taking part in the Paris Art Fair 2022 at the Grand Palais Ephémère was definitely a career highlight to date, as were my solo exhibitions at Galerie Esther Woerdehoff in Geneva (2022) and Galerie Claude Lemand in Paris (2021). I’m also very proud of my yearly solo exhibitions at various venues in Zürich where I live and was introduced to several Swiss art collectors.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a new series of paintings titled ‘Music Visualised’, which involves creating paintings in parallel to musical compositions. I cherish being both a classical musician and painter, and I’m keen to interconnect both practices in my exhibitions. My upcoming solo exhibition will be in Lucerne, Switzerland in December 2022.
'Music Visualized' 120 x 90 cm, oil on canvas.Zürich 2022