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Dalloul Art Foundation

AREF RAYESS, Lebanon (1928 - 2005)


Aref Rayess was a Lebanese painter, sculptor, and thinker who played a significant role in the history of Lebanese modern art. Born in Aley, Mount Lebanon, in 1928, he started drawing and...

Written by WAFA ROZ

Aref Rayess was a Lebanese painter, sculptor, and thinker who played a significant role in the history of Lebanese modern art. Born in Aley, Mount Lebanon, in 1928, he started drawing and painting at the tender age of eleven. The nomadic artist, who toured Africa, Europe, North America, and the Gulf, learned from his travels in developing his unique style but never had a formal art education. Although he was self-taught, he collaborated with Nicolas Nammar to found the Institute of Fine Arts at the Lebanese University in 1963, and taught there from 1966 until 1980. In 1969, he was elected chairman of the Lebanese Association of Artists and Sculptors, a position he held until 1977. Rayess was not only a multidisciplinary painter, sculptor, and illustrator, and he was also an astute thinker and keen observer. Influenced by the Druze doctrine and its esoteric notions of mysticism, he believed in the interconnectivity of the universe, man, and time. His works revolved around humanity, identity, and nature, denouncing injustice, materialism, and the superficiality of nationalism in the Global South. 

Rayess’s artistic talents manifested at an early age, as did his lifelong interest in the political subject matter. 

When he was only seventeen, Rayess completed a charcoal drawing depicting Hiroshima’s atomic bomb tragedy that caught the eye of Arlette Levi, a reporter for L’Orient,who happened to be visiting Rayess’s mother in Aley. Fascinated by his drawing, Levi returned the next day with the artist Georges Cyr, who was impressed and insisted that Rayess must show his work.

In Autumn of 1948, Rayess held his first exhibition in the West Hall of the American University of Beirut. He later traveled to Senegal, working merely to survive, painting scenes from his new surroundings with relish. He moved to Paris in the spring of 1948, where he trained in a variety of media with several prominent artists, including Fernand Léger and André Lhoté. While studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montmartre, Rayess learned Etching with Johnny Friedlaender and sculpture with Ossip Zadkine and learned the art of corporeal mime under the tutelage of Etienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau. Rayess was first exposed to the pantomime in Senegal and found that grasping the art of corporeal movement nurtured his expressive abilities and enhanced the aesthetic level of his works. Between 1954 and 1956, Rayess spent his time touring West Africa, exploring the religious and cultural milieu of various ethnic groups there. His work during this time depicted the built environment, landscape, and theatrical practices he encountered in his travels, and took on an expressionistic style inspired by the bold colors, patterns, and motifs of West African visual traditions. 

Rayess returned to Lebanon in 1957,where he studied the elements of Phoenician, Assyrian, Sumerian, and Pharaonic art before moving to Florence on a scholarship from the Italian government. There, he studied sculpture under the mentorship of Antonio Berti, then moved to Rome, where he trained with Lionello Vantouri and Alberto Giacometti between 1960 and 1963. Influenced by Arte Povera, he produced works mixing oil paint with sand, comprising geometrical shapes, quirky lines, and circles resembling ancient mythical lands. The skills and interests he developed in Lebanon and Italy are apparent in two important commissions from the Lebanese government during this period. The first, a tapestry entitled The Signs of Cadmus (1958), was commissioned for presentation at the UNESCO Palace in Paris, and vibrantly depicts a hippocampus surrounded by letters from the Phoenician alphabet. For the second, Rayess produced two large Phoenician-style sculptures to represent Lebanon at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. 

The artist returned to Lebanon in 1963 and established himself amongst the capital’s artists and cultural workers. During this time, he worked with Janine Rubeiz to found Dar El Fan, a cultural space that was destined to play a major role in the artistic life of Beirut. Though he had hoped to settle down in Beirut, his commission for the 1964 World’s Fair ultimately won him a scholarship to the United States, where he spent two years traveling between several different states.

The political valances that had appeared in Rayess’s work from the time of his Hiroshima drawing developed sharper edges following the Arab defeat of 1967. During the 1970s, his paintings often focused on the decadence of nations, the tyranny of leaders, and tragedies of war, as is  evident in a series of dramatic and cynical paintings entitled Blood and Freedom (1971). In 1976, while in Algeria, he produced a remarkable collection of 37 etchings from charcoal drawings entitled The Road to Peace. These juxtaposed the dreadful events of the Lebanese Civil War with jarring figures and morbid backgrounds associated with the Algerian revolution. Rayess reflected on controversial social matters too, such as in a series of works entitled The Flowers of Rue Al Moutanabbi (1971-1973), in which he depicted scenes from a brothel in old downtown Beirut in colorful representational paintings. He never associated his work with a specific movement and considered his repertoire to be a vocabulary of images meaningful to himself. His work juggles diverse styles, deploying figuration, expressionism, symbolism, and geometrical abstraction across a variety of different media. His canvases voiced an endless dialogue between shape, form, color, and texture, often yielding to elaborately patterned surfaces in sober colors. 

In the 1980s, Rayess traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he was appointed as the Art Consultant for the city of Jeddah. Commissioned by Mohammad Said Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, he produced several monumental public sculptures in marble and metal. The most significant of these is a twenty-seven-meter-high aluminum sculpture, a geometrical abstraction of the name Allah, which stands in Palestine Square. Captivated by the serenity of the desert and the extended seashores of Jeddah, he painted landscapes in artificial hues with rocks lying before surreal hazy backgrounds, maintaining a high level of plasticity in his works and depicting the desert light with a sense of purity and mysticism. 

Rayess spent his later years working in his homeland. Starting in 1999, he organized the annual Symposia of Painting and Sculpture, which invited Lebanese sculptorsto use a piece of land belonging to the municipality of Aley as an open-air studio. After the artist passed away in 2005, Wajdi Murad, Mayor of Aley, announced the opening of an outdoor museum, a garden, and an artspace in homage to the late Aref Rayess.


Selected Solo Exhibitions


AREF EL RAYESS: Paintings from 1999, Sfeir-Semler Art Gallery, Beirut, Lebanon


Noir et Blanc - Temps et Homme d'Aref Rayess, Espace SD, Beirut, 2002


Chants du carré, Galerie Janine Rubeiz, Beirut, Lebanon


Gallery World Of Art, Beirut, Lebanon


Galerie Janine Rubeiz, Beirut, Lebanon


Centre Culturel Français, Beirut, Lebanon


Hommage au petit prince, French Cultural Center, Beirut


Galerie Epreuve d’Artiste, Beirut, Lebanon


Exposition Caracas, Venezuela


Galerie Racim, Algeria


Gallery Le Point, Beirut, Lebanon


Ornina Gallery, Damascus


The Flowers of Rue Al Moutanabbi, Galerie Contact, Beirut, Lebanon


Gallery One, Beirut,Lebanon


Galerie Manoug, Beirut, Lebanon


Dar El Fan, Beirut, Lebanon


Dar El Fan, Beirut, Lebanon
National Museum of Damascus


L’Orient-le Jour, Beirut, Lebanon


Gallery One, Beirut, Lebanon


Rodin Museum, Paris,France


Galerie Excelsior, Mexico
D’Arcy Galleries, New York, USA
Galerie La Licorne, Beirut, Lebanon


Galerie La Licorne, Beirut, Lebanon


Galerie La Licorne, Beirut, Lebanon


Poliani Gallery, Rome, Italy
Numero Gallery, Florance, Italy


Galerie Alecco Saab, Beirut, Lebanon


Italian Cultural Center, Beirut, Lebanon


Dakar, Senegal, Africa


American University of Beirut, West Hall, Lebanon

Selected Group Exhibitions


Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950-1980s, Grey Art Gallery, New York University; Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Illinois; Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, New York; McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College; University of Michigan Museum of Art; US


At the still point of the turning world, there is the dance, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon


Tajreed,CAP Kuwait, Kuwait


Art from Lebanon, Beirut Exhibition Center, Beirut, Lebanon


UNESCO, Lebanon


Ministry of Tourism, Lebanon


1ere Biennale des Artistes Arabes, Baghdad, Iraq


International Exposition, New York, USA


Biennale Musée Rodin, Paris, France


Sursock Museum, Lebanon


New York World Fair, USA


Sursock Museum, Lebanon


Biennale São Paulo, Brazil


Ministry of Education, Lebanon


Ministry of Education, Lebanon


UNESCO, Beirut, Lebanon

Awards and Honors


The Tarua Europe’s Award in Rome


First Prize at the Sursock Museum’s Award for Painting in the Salon D'Automne


Ministry of Tourism First and Second Prizes for Sculpture
Sursock Museum Grand Prix de Sculpture


Sursock Museum Grand Prix de Sculpture


Ministry of Public Works First and Second Prize for Sculpture 


UNESCO Prize for the Spring Salon


Lebanese Ministry of National Education Award for the spring exhibition



Rayess, Aref. Al Layl Al Tṭawīl Wa’al Kalimah. (The Long Night and The Word) 


Rayess, Aref. Al Ayyām Al Ramādīyah: Alwān, Aḥruf, Suwar" (The Gray Days: Colors, Letters, Pictures). Riad El Rayess Books


Rayess, Aref. A Dedication to his daughter "Hodourak Fi Ghiyab Al Thol" (Your presence in the absence of the shadow)


Rayess, Aref. Matahat Jamila (Beautiful Maze). Nawfal Publishing


Rayess, Aref. A Selection of Interviews "Rehlah Dakhel al-Zat" (A journey within myself). Dar AlJadeed Publishing


Rayess, Aref. Tāriq Al-Silm (The Road to Peace). Illustration of the 1975 War in Lebanon


Rayess, Aref. A Manifesto by Rayess "Maa’ Man, Wa Dud Man" (With Who, and Against Whom)


Musée Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, Beirut, Lebanon
Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul art foundation, Beirut, Lebanon
Saradar Collection, Beirut, Lebanon
KA collection, Beirut, Lebanon
Mokbel art collection, Beirut, Lebanon
Lebanese Ministry of Culture collection, Beirut, Lebanon
Musée National, Algeria
Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE



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