Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 2021
Anneka Lenssen Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 296 pp.; 57 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520343245)

How did artists in Syria develop Arab modernist painting and aesthetic philosophies at the start of a century characterized by warfare and in the midst of the violent imposition of borders by colonial powers, the displacement of people, and the assignment of new identities? Anneka Lenssen’s Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria explores the question of modern art’s place in this turbulent era. The book is an authoritative study of the emergence of modernist art in the context of contemporary politics and territorial contestations in Syria, spanning from the last years of the Ottoman Empire through 1965, when the Ministry of Culture, having recently been taken over by the Ba’ath regime, announced that works in the annual exhibition were to be examples of “national art”—that is to say, art focused on heroic national ideals.

Lenssen’s history of modernist art and its political context in Syria is a close-up and detailed view with fine-grained descriptions. Her carefully considered and brilliantly laid-out account relies in equal measure on attentive visual readings and primary historical documents. The author’s extensive archival research in several languages is exemplary; equally impressive are her insightful visual analyses, conveyed by an ekphrastic language that contextualizes forms and compositions into the aesthetic and political world of twentieth-century Syria, a world in which philosophies of the imagination and representation were developed by a group of young artists and intellectuals during the struggle for independence from colonial rule.

While Beirut, Baghdad, and Cairo have received some attention in art history as centers of modernist art movements, Syrian art has been less familiar to the discipline and its subfield, global modernism. Beautiful Agitation is a book that more than fills this lacuna in the scholarship—yet it is by no means a nationalist account. Rather, it is one that traces links and relationships across the region and describes transnational encounters and intellectual exchanges. Lenssen tells a story of modernism in which Syrian artists and intellectuals in Paris, Rome, and New York and European artists in Damascus and Baghdad interacted in equally productive ways. She therefore counters traditional accounts of modernism, in which artists from the Global South are affected by imperial centers in a model of unidirectional paths of influence. Aesthetic philosophies in modern Syria thus developed from Arab intellectuals’ and artists’ engagement with Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche, but they also drew upon Arabic and Ottoman traditions and Islamic philosophers, such as Ibn Sina (980–1037 CE) and al-Ghazali (ca. 1058–1111 CE). In order to explain how philosophies and antirationalist spiritualism become manifest in painting as visual forms, Lenssen brings to bear her formidable visual analysis of particular works of art in order to guide the reader through the aesthetic principles at play in Syrian modern painting. Addressing presence and appearance, mutability and transience, she unfolds a world of painting that seeks to explore an aesthetics of innermost life forces. The title phrase Beautiful Agitation refers to a notion of agitation or anxiety—qalaq in Arabic—that Syrian artists took as an internal point of departure for an aesthetic production spurred on by emotional states. This qalaq indicated a life force of immanent energies and natural affinities. Many of the earliest artists had allegiances with Symbolist literary and artistic movements in Europe.

Vitalist ideas and romantic theories of the imagination as an untamed and generative force are all explored and explained by the author, with the support of primary documents. Lenssen’s research into archival sources both in Syria and elsewhere covers a range of materials, from newspapers and journals to family letters and photographs. This diligent investigation allows the author to describe a twentieth-century art world in Syria that is intellectually dynamic and internationally connected, yet locally rooted at the same time. She makes clear that an ethno-nationalist account cannot fit this region, as the aesthetic landscape included the influx of displaced Armenians arriving in the 1910s and then, after 1948, Palestinian refugees displaced from the newly established state of Israel. There were also Polish refugees in the Second World War as well as Free French soldiers fleeing Vichy authority, among whom were also artists spending the duration of the war in Syria.

The book is divided into four main chapters, with an introduction that sketches out the complex and fraught history that Lenssen is about to take us through. The first chapter, “Arab Romantics,” focuses on the life and career of the Romantic-Symbolist artist Kahlil Gibran, who became a part of the post-Ottoman Syrian diaspora, tracing his journey from Lebanon to North America. The second chapter covers the period of French mandate rule between 1920 and 1946 and looks closely at a group of young intellectuals and art critics who were associated with a short-lived journal called al-Thaqafa, including Kazem Daghestani, Jamil Saliba, and Zaki al-Arsuzi. Some then became Arab nationalists and Ba’ath Party members, taking the narrative beyond its midcentury end point. In the third chapter, the focus shifts again to one artist, Adham Ismail, and in the fourth to Fateh al-Moudarres. These final sections, devoted to two pivotal figures in Syrian modernism, finally provide detailed accounts of their historiography, their lives, and their work. Each chapter unpacks the depth of their artistic experiments, style development, and relationship to politics, archaeological and historical heritage, and national dialogue. The careers of these leading artists are thus presented in social, cultural, and artistic depth, along with many examples of their work, beautifully described by the author.

Ismail and his brother Sidqi were also displaced artists: they left Alexandretta (İskenderun) in 1938 when it became part of Turkey. The national story of Syria and modern Syrian art within it is complex, but the violent history of the early twentieth century, with the imposition of new borders and forced movements of populations, also contextualizes the Arab nationalism that was to arise. Beautiful Agitation is a much-needed contribution to the field of art history, but it is also a serious historical account of a volatile era from which the region is still suffering aftershocks. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in looking beyond the standard definitions of modern art and the traditions of art historical writing.

Zainab Bahrani
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, New York