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Lebanese Painterly Humanism: Georges D. Corm (1896-1971)
The exhibition Lebanese Painterly Humanism: Georges D. Corm (1896-1971) organized by the AUB Art Gallery sets on display the work of the Lebanese painter, writer and cultural activist Georges Daoud Corm. Rather than mount a survey show of Corm’s numerous paintings and drawings, we have decided to exhibit his works in accordance with one motive: a reflection upon Corm’s aesthetic position, expressed in his art but also and more eloquently in his writings. His Essai sur l'art et la civilisation de ce temps (written in two stages during the 1960s) can be called a manifesto of painterly humanism. Here Corm most clearly enunciates his aesthetic and intellectual position, which can be broadly defined as a European humanism firmly anchored in Christian ethics. It is with this text in mind, which we republish on the occasion of this event, that we select and display Georges D. Corm’s paintings and drawings.
The question of whether artists should revere and build upon the heritage of the past, or criticize and even utterly reject it, has been posed and reposed for centuries. There were disputes over classical tradition versus innovation in the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns in late 17th century France, in the Battle of the Books in early 18th century England, and since the 19th century in countless battles fought between representatives of the academic establishment and various avant-garde factions. With the Essai sur l'art et la civilisation de ce temps Georges D. Corm brings a variation on this dispute to Lebanon, allowing it to interfere and resonate even more strongly within a local cultural context sharply divided along conflicting economic, political, ethnic, religious and cultural interests. Written in the 1960s as humanism was increasingly losing ground to a boldly emerging modernist worldview, the author firmly takes the side of a classical European tradition that he sees as perfectly fit for the young state of Lebanon. In the Essai Corm vehemently condemns the Moderns of his own time—twentieth-century Modernism—affirming instead his faith in Faith, human dignity, classical beauty, and spiritual perfection. The painter considers materialism, both as philosophical doctrine and philosophy of life, as the main problem of the modern age. Writing at the height of the Cold War, the author positions himself squarely in between two conflicting ideologies: the Soviet Union’s Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism and the straightforward consumerist materialism of the American “way of life.” For Georges D. Corm, both doctrines are highly detrimental to the human spirit, to the ideals of dignity and beauty set high during the Renaissance.
The Essai sur l'art et la civilisation expresses, above all, Corm’s concern for Lebanese cultural identity, which he saw as firmly rooted in the Christian faith and in French 19th century art and culture. Even if many of us today do not necessarily agree with these views (as many of Corm’s contemporaries did not), we launch this event in order to make the artist’s aesthetic, political and civic position known to a broader public. In this age of pluralism Corm’s painterly humanism takes its place among other doctrines and world-views, both aesthetic and political. In the end, it is Corm’s artworks, displayed in this exhibition, that give emphatic voice to his life-affirming humanist position. In response to a split and dispersed modern subject, Corm gives his allegiance to a classical theory of the subject—completely whole and firmly grounded in the knowledge of good and evil; to the disappearance of realistically depicted humans from the modernist canvas, the painter responds with studies of the soul (âme) and of “spiritual landscapes” (paysages d’âme); to the modernist dehumanization of art he answers with an art in which the human and the omnipresent Divine coexist. One should add to Corm’s artistic and aesthetic values the artist’s cultural activism, also based in humanist and spiritual values. Thanks in many respects to his tireless efforts and contributions, Lebanon has today such cultural institutions as l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, l’Ecole Nationale de Musique, the Musée de la Ville de Beyrouth, the Société des Amis de l’Art as well as many other political and cultural initiatives devoted to the promotion of a Lebanese identity and culture.
For this exhibition we show works from the Corm collection. Thanks to the generosity and foresight of Dr. Georges G. Corm—the painter’s son, who has taken care of the collection in times of war and of peace, and who has actively promoted the work of his father through numerous exhibitions and publications—we present to the public a part of this artist’s oeuvre. In addition to displaying artworks that firmly endorse Corm’s humanist beliefs, we also present works of a different nature: works that can be understood as instances of the painter’s “doubt” with regard to painterly humanism as well as works that immediately recall Corm’s religious and political convictions. Most importantly, we republish the Essai sur l'art et la civilisation de ce temps, reproducing this “manifesto of Lebanese painterly humanism” in facsimile and complemented with an Arabic and an English translation, along with other supplementary texts. With this we hope to make the work and ideas of Georges D. Corm known to scholars and to the wider public.
AUB Art Galleries Curator