|Rafic Charafs art reflected his own life and
his countrys history
Lebanese expressionist started career drawing on walls and doors
Daily Star staff
With the death of Rafic Charaf last month after a prolonged
battle with lung cancer, Lebanon lost one of its most colorful and pioneering artists.
Inspired by Western expressionism and working in a deeply Lebanese expressionism himself,
Charaf was perhaps the one among his generation of painters whose art reflected the most
autobiographical emotional journey.
Born in 1932 to a close-knit Baalbek family, the blacksmiths son became a regular
personality among the Beirut intelligentsia from the 1960s to the 90s. The tale goes that
as a boy he was nicknamed the black plague because his face was always sooty
from his fathers furnace. His pockets bulged with lumps of charcoal which he used to
draw on anything that could pass for a canvas. It is said he spared no wall or door in the
It was by chance that celebrated Lebanese poet Loutfi Haidar stumbled across a drawing on
the wall of the first bookshop in Baalbek, and asked who drew it. He was told it was the
son of the blacksmith whose forge was next door.
My father found the blacksmith and told him that the then-16-year-old Charaf must go
to Beirut to study, says Azza Haidar, who became a close friend of Charaf.
Through Loutfi Haidars connections with the director of the Lebanese Academy of Fine
Arts, Charaf enrolled at the academy on a full scholarship in 1952.
His talent was recognized internationally. In 1955 he was invited by the Spanish
government to study for two years on scholarship at the San Fernando Royal Academy in
Madrid. This was followed in 1960 by a sojourn at the Piettro Vanucci academy in Perugia
courtesy of the Italian government.
Charaf never forgot Loutfi Haidars patronage and the two became close friends. One
of his most important paintings adorns a wall in the writers Baalbek home.
A Feast of Fish, as the piece is called, shows a family at table. The style is clearly
reminiscent of Picasso. Art historian and critic Faisal Sultan has called it Charafs
Guernica after Picassos 1937 depiction of the agonies of noncombatants during the
Spanish Civil War.
Charaf went through a number of overlapping and evolving phases in his career. In the
early 50s he was deeply inspired by the struggles of the poor in his native Baalbek. He
used to draw many of these in charcoal, and his expressionism evolved out of the poverty
According to friends and critics alike he was sensitive to both the human struggle and his
countrys struggle, and this was reflected in his work. The paintings were linked by
the inclusion of a small red spot, a symbol of rebellion that would become common in many
of Charafs works.
His paintings from that time were very much about hardship. Art historian Edouard Lahoud
in his 1976 book Contemporary Art in Lebanon, describes them as a black
accusation and a still blacker protest against a miserable social
The influence of Spain and Western expressionism stayed with Charaf all his life he was
rarely seen without his trademark Castillian beret.
One portrait from 1955, The Guitar Player, is a piece in charcoal on paper. It is a
beautiful and moving depiction of a suited musician in his Spanish chapeau in mid-song.
In a 1996 interview in the Arabic cultural journal Direction, Charaf stated that
modern Arab art is mostly influenced by the different schools of art in the West,
but there are some characteristics that are related to our own milieu. I tried not to be
inspired by Western artists and their styles but by our heritage and cultural
Charaf often painted birds. Initially they were dark, black, dying and miserable one
interpretation being that they expressed a freedom in death from the misery of life.
Some critics have seen the dead birds as an expression of Charafs own internal
suicide and that of the Arabs in the 1960s and 70s. Others see it as prescient of the
coming civil war in Leabnon.
Many of his paintings in the late 1960s and 70s saw him work only with simple flattened
forms, again reflecting an almost overwhelming pain.
Oiseau (Bird), depicts a sky-colored background which radiates melancholy and depression.
A bird of iron, drawn simply with a horizontal brush stroke for the body and a vertical
one for the wings, speeds fast as sound above a desert plain.
Sometimes these paintings are parted with a wire, what Lahoud calls a symbol of the
lost freedom. At other times they are spotted with a fire and a blood-red stain.
He was a man very attached to his country and to the region, says Azza Haidar,
he expressed the different political eras in his work.
Charaf was indeed active in political discussion, according to many who knew him,
believing in the peaceful integration of all ethnic groups.
He was a Shiite married to a Maronite. He was deeply bothered by the oppression of
Palestine and the Arab defeat in 1967. He created posters for Yasser Arafats Fatah
The poor boy from Baalbek became a highly regarded intellect in Hamras cafes
where he was known for not suffering fools gladly. But for those who were his friends,
writes LOrient Le Jour critic Joseph Tarrab, he was the most sociable,
impressionable, engaging and happy of men.
Charaf was a versatile painter with the ability to shock. He was the first man to exhibit
nudes of men in the 70s and his charcoal depictions of the Civil War are caustic.
Beginning in the 60s he became influenced by folk poetry and art, orally recounted tales
glorifying the hero this being the source of his interest in Antar and Abla, the
mythical pre-Islamic hero and his romantic love.
Overlapping with this phase was his period of the plains particularly the northern
Bekaa Valley, the fields of Baalbek and Hermel.
Simultaneously he mixed Koranic calligraphy with his heroic paintings. In the mid-70s
calligraphy combined with traditional Arab talismans, charms and symbols became his
subject. Although deeply personal in style, they are reminiscent of Spanish expressionist
Later he experimented with many different mediums wood, mixed-media and gold leaf. In
the early 80s he began a series of what he called Byzantine icons. Some of
these were exhibited in the United States as part of a move toward Islamic-Christian
The Antar phase is one of Charafs most important. Based on the paintings of Abu
Subhi al-Tinawy a popular artist whose folkloric drawings on glass can still be found
in Damascene souqs Charaf was a pioneer in transforming traditional handicraft into
Originating after the 1967 war, they were a response to the Arab worlds feelings of
defeat. Charaf wanted to show the heroism of past ages.
I wanted to raise the spirit of victory by getting inspiration from the image of the
folk hero who is never defeated, Charaf said in Direction, and the waiting in
our people for a hero to come and redeem them.
In this Charaf reflected reality. Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein all
played on the mythology of the Arab hero. Antar has even been interpreted as an icon for
the Palestinian martyrs.
The heroic myth is also expressed in titles like The Arab Hero on the Red Steed, which
show a pictorial density, a clever use of a simplified line, pure and transparent color.
His controversial drawings of nude lovers represented the idea of Arab men and women
breaking the chains, overcoming their faults.
Many of Charafs loveliest paintings are of the Bekaa plain, perhaps because they
reflect a nostalgia for his childhood and a passion for the earth. In these, using greens
and yellows he tried to build a new type of landscape painting based on a poetic rather
than a realistic approach.
Rafic Charaf was a Lebanese icon. His paintings, are an autobiography of his life and
the history of his people and his region. A stylistic and intellectual pioneer for
his generation, his work is exhibited throughout the world.
The legacy of the blacksmiths boy from Baalbek should not be underestimated.