When disciplines dovetail

Ribal Molaeb talks lockdown painting, learning from his father and Lebanon as a source of inspiration 

As a renowned and award-winning musician, do you find your art and music always complement each other or are they ever in conflict? Can you explain how the two interact and the dynamism between them? 

I would put it this way: painting is my mother language and music is my foreign language. But this does not mean that my foreign language is weaker; I mean this only in the sense of my initial approach to those two practices of art. Painting is something I’ve done since I was a child, while classical music is something I had to travel to learn. I left Lebanon for Salzburg aged 17 to study music, but I have always practised both arts in parallel. However, I waited until my paintings reached a certain level before revealing them publicly. 

Whether it is in painting or in music, my motivation is the act of creation! Playing classical music is an act of ‘interpretation’. I have a daily urge to ‘create’, which is why I make sure to paint every day. I’ve also learned a great deal about how to paint while thinking as a musician. My art and music undoubtedly complement each other. I build my paintings like any musical composition on the basis of harmony, movement, rhythm, dynamics, accents and even certain ‘intonation’ between the colours. I use my understanding of classical music theory and compositions in order to produce my paintings. 

You were personally taught by your father. How do you think your tuition varied from what you might have learned at an art institution? Do you think his status made it more difficult for you to find your own style and individuality as an artist? 

I spent my childhood working with my father in his studio and learned by watching, as well as by being his assistant in his workshop. I sometimes even skipped school to work with him! It was an intense daily artistic lifestyle for a child which I wouldn’t get at an academy. My father use to tell me that if I’d studied at a traditional art academy, I wouldn’t be able to paint in the way I paint now. Spending my last 10 years between Austria, Germany and Switzerland has enabled me to regularly visit modern art museums which in my case contributed to my visual art tuition. His status did not make it more difficult to find my own style - I simply see myself as a continuation. And this is happening naturally. 

You have cited key Lebanese 20th century abstract expressionists as sources of inspiration and more recently, Paul Klee. Can you see elements of Klee in yourself, given that he was also an accomplished string player? 

I learned a great deal by looking at the paintings of Lebanese 20th century artists. We have a large collection of their works at home - Aref el Rayess, Shafic Abboud, Paul Guiragossian and Saliba Douaihy to mention few - and we were always discussing them. While living in Switzerland and learning more about Paul Klee, I discovered that there are many similarities between us, both being musicians, string players and painters. In the same way I like to approach my paintings, there is a musical orientation in the compositional, rhythmic and melodic aspects of many of Paul Klee’s paintings and for a long time, he was undecided whether to become a painter or a musician. We do have a similar understanding of colour distribution and orchestration, and this is supported by knowledge gained in classical music studies. 

Lebanon features in your art. Why do you think you find yourself drawn to your birthplace in your paintings, despite living and working abroad? 

Each painter paints the cosmogony of himself. Our subconscious is full of images from our childhood and maybe sometimes from our past lives. Despite leaving Lebanon aged 17, when I dream at night, the dreams are always coming from my childhood home. I don’t wait for inspiration and I don’t need exterior elements to inspire me; I can easily paint the Mediterranean Sea while working in my studio in Zürich. This is because the brain has a vast amount of data. I progress my data, in colours and forms, on a canvas. 

Both the visual and the performing arts have been severely affected by Covid. How have you accommodated the pandemic to remain active in your work and has it affected your art in terms of creativity/production? 

Nature forced us to slow down and to dive deeper into ourselves. The pandemic gave me the space and time to think and work even more and without having to travel and tour for concerts. I realised even more clearly how fragile we humans are, how short life can be. What will I be remembered for?! When things are collapsing around you, the infinite space of the imagination can offer solace. I took refuge in painting. I spent my whole year in my studio in Zürich. I painted every day without any exception. 

What art are you working on now? 

I am progressing over this period what I have recently painted and distributing my paintings between four exhibitions taking place currently and soon this year in Beirut, Zürich, Paris and London - details to be announced soon...

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