There’s plenty to say about Huguette Caland, on the occasion of “Huguette Caland: Tête-à-Tête” at the Drawing Center, a lovely (if too small) survey of her career, curated by Claire Gilman and Isabella Kapur.
Caland is an increasingly important figure in recent art history: After a lifetime of mainly minor successes (she died in 2019), the Lebanon-born artist’s reputation sharply spiked in her final years, during which she was celebrated in the “Made in LA” biennial in 2016, the Venice Biennale in 2017, and at the Tate St. Ives and the Sharjah Biennial in 2019.
Elegant, brash, and free spirited, the Lebanon-born Caland was a painter, sometimes sculptor, and designer of arty kaftans. Her paintings and drawings—and, indeed, even her kaftans—have an often frank, surrealist-tinged eroticism, featuring interlocking body parts and faces emerging from tangles of lines.
If I were going to write a review of the show, I would say that its best works were the “Bribes de Corps” or “Body Bits” paintings of the early to mid ‘70s. These feature curvaceous, colored shapes, given just enough definition to make you understand that they double as up-close rolls of flesh, of bodies smooshed together or zoomed in on. After that, I like her late-period abstractions, intricate, richly colored grids of interlocking patterns inspired by Palestinian textiles.
But I’ve been reading everything available about Huguette Caland for a week, and I am left a bit vexed. So instead of writing an ordinary review I decided that the most interesting question raised about the show is about how her life story gets told, and what is left out, and why.
A Complicated Inheritance
All accounts of Huguette Caland’s life story contain the same important piece of background info: That she is the daughter of Bechara al Khoury, an iconic figure in politics in Lebanon and the first president of independent Lebanon in 1943, after he negotiated the end of the French mandate. It is a bit as if you heard that the most famous painter in post-colonial United States also just happened to be the daughter of George Washington.
Al Khoury is often described in the writing about Caland as a “national hero”—which is certainly true. Lebanon’s independence day celebrates the day he was released from prison by the French authorities in 1942; Huguette had her first one-person show at Dar el Fan art center, in 1970, which happened to be located on “Bechara al Khoury Avenue.”
But his legacy, it seems, was also tarnished by the circumstances of the end of his tenure. In everything I have read about Caland, and in all the interviews I have watched with her and her family, I find no mention of how he fell from power, or what it might have meant to her. (In the most authoritative English essay about Caland’s early life in Lebanon, from the monograph Everything Takes the Shape of a Body, critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie deals with this moment in a single parenthetical statement: “his nine-year-term as president had ended in 1952”).
It may be that, given the suffering of Lebanon in subsequent decades, the upheaval of ‘52 has come to seem quaint. But it was not obscure, the first national crisis of the young nation. Bechara al Khoury and the circle around him had become increasingly associated with corruption and nepotism. As a 2012 book put it, the family had become known for having “a finger in every business deal and every senior governmental appointment and realizing money from both.” Among other things, Huguette’s mother was caught in Paris with $100,000 in gold, an embarasment that was denounced in parliament, opening the floodgates of scandal.
Opposition factions united against him. A general strike paralyzed the country. Al Khoury appealed to the military to crush the rebellion.
When the military refused, in what is to this day remembered as a heroic act of neutrality, Bechara al Khoury was forced to abdicate power in the peaceful Rosewater Revolution. Huguette was 20.
A Child of Independence
This drama predates Huguette’s becoming an artist by more than a decade. The very same year her father had to resign the presidency, 1952, she married Paul Caland, a young French-Lebanese lawyer and nephew of the legendary anti-Khoury critic and publisher Georges Naccache, connected to yet another exceptionally influential and connected Maronite Christian family (the two families were associated with rival political newspapers).
They both soon took lovers, even as they had three children, Pierre, Philippe, and Brigitte. Bechara al Khoury would die of cancer in 1964, with Huguette helping to nurse him at the family estate outside of Beirut. It was only then that she seriously thought of being an artist, enrolling in her mid-30s to study art at American University, constructing a personal studio to work on her family estate (referred to as “Atelier Caland” on her CV), and changing her entire look.
Huguette had always struggled with her weight, and decided now to cease wearing Western fashions and to take up the loose-fitting abeya as more suitable to her shape. Her husband hated the change, calling them “sacks of potatoes.” Acquaintances in Lebanese society were said to think that the “daughter of Sheik Bechara has gone mad.”
In 1970, at the age of 39, Huguette Caland would abruptly leave her husband, her three children, and Lebanon, moving to Paris to live as an artist. She craved the difficulty of living on her own, she would later tell the author Hanan al Shaykh.
The unconventional midlife turn was a dramatic act of self-realization and self-creation. “I wanted to have my own identity,” Caland said of her decision to seek an artist’s life abroad. “In Lebanon, I was the daughter of, wife of, mother of, sister of. It was such a freedom, to wake up all by myself in Paris. I needed to stretch.”
At the same time, she would remember that the deliberate estrangement was made easier because her children were official swimming champions on the French national team—her son Philippe would represent France at the 1972 Munich Olympics—so she saw them often. (Pierre Caland went on to become a financier. Her other son, Philippe, became a film producer, making the infamous Hollywood disaster Boxing Helena, and touching off an international protest by Buddhist monks for his film Hollywood Buddha—a film that features Huguette in the role of “mom.” Daughter Brigitte teachers Semitic languages at American University, is a chef, and, since 2005, has managed her mother’s legacy.)
In Paris, Caland deepened her explorations into erotic abstraction. She also, famously, met fashion designer Pierre Cardin who, liking her self-decorated kaftans, had her design “Nour,” a line of kaftans for him (four of these unique creations are shown in the Drawing Center on custom, surrealist mannequins). “It was the only job I ever had in my life,” she boasted. I haven’t been able to find any explanation of how she lived, as an artist who had only a handful of shows and proudly only did paid work a single time, but I assume that family money was somehow involved.
In 1988, following the death of a lover, Romanian sculptor George Apostu, she would move to California. There, she had an architect build her a luxurious “chateau fort,” constructed with no interior walls—not even around the bedroom or bathroom. (A 2003 L.A. Times story about the house’s delightful architecture won Caland some of her first major press in English.) She held court there, made friends in the local artist community, and perfected radiant, free-flowing abstractions that captured her restless, happy temperament.
In 2013, at 82, she returned to Beirut to attend to the sick Paul Caland, the husband whom she had separated from but never divorced.
Huguette Caland Now
On a Lebanese arts-and-culture chat show some years ago, daughter Brigitte Caland was asked what her famous mother would want an audience to take away from her work. “To like her art without thinking about a nationality or gender,” was the reply.
This is likely not a line that resonates with most of Caland’s fans just now, smacking of a dated universalism that directly contradicts the feminist and post-colonial types of criticism that have helped elevate her legacy in recent years. For me, that’s the reason to interrogate her biography a bit—because more than just celebrating her art, her life is explicitly being advertised by presenting her as a role model.
At the Drawing Center, an informative documentary Huguette Caland: Outside the Lines (produced by Brigitte) plays. In it, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie (who also reviewed the show) admits that Caland didn’t want to be called a feminist. “But it’s what you want out of feminist art which is seeing feminism in action, which is how you live your day to day,” she says.
Caland is certainly a fascinating character, living on her own terms, embracing sexual and creative freedom far in advance of what was on offer. Yet contemporary feminist theory has labored mightily to get out from under the class- and race-blind rhetoric that inflected the largely white, largely middle-class Second Wave in the ‘70s in the U.S. A more contemporary intersectional approach, it seems to me, at least acknowledges how Caland’s specific social position gave her access to forms of self-actualization that most women didn’t and don’t have.
The habit of invoking her family’s political status, but in a purely mythologizing way, is more vexing—particularly right now.
A second film at the Drawing Center, the meditative Letters to Huguette by great Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkoury, explicitly seeks to connect Huguette Caland’s seemingly self-focused artistic philosophy and the general contemporary interest in activism. It juxtaposes interviews of the elderly artist talking about her painting practice with images of the earth-shaking 2019 street protests in Beirut and then the near-collapse of the country under coronavirus in 2020.
Speaking of one young street protester, the narrator addresses himself to Caland: “just like you, he wants to affirm the rights of the individual.” The protesters on the streets, we are told, will “inevitably echo your own fight for freedom”—a heartfelt but odd tribute that seems to compare young people literally occupying the streets in collective political action to Caland leaving the country to pursue her passions on her own.
The film strikes a completely different note than any of the erotic fragments and sunnily abstract works we see in the actual show.
Letters to Huguette connects her art to the spirit of contemporary protest by showing her talking about the fear she felt as a girl when her father was a pro-Lebanese independence activist being harassed by the French. But isn’t it even slightly relevant, in the context of a film about anti-corruption protests, that her elite family was itself targeted by anti-corruption protests?
The film briefly mentions, in one line, that Caland’s father himself designed the dysfunctional political system based on institutionalized religious division that the protesters are trying to tear down, and that Huguette personally disapproved of it—but what does this mean? When the film shows us Huguette Caland holding forth on politics, she basically says that people from different backgrounds should get along, not exactly radical stuff.
She is much more convincingly passionate talking about her loves or her art or about the fear of death. And, indeed, her daughter herself, her advocate, stated on that chat show quite clearly, “She was born in a political house but I don’t think politics mattered to her.”
I like Huguette Caland’s art and I like this show! I only object to constructing mythologies that cover over contradictions. Clearly, the inclusion of Letter to Huguette shows that current events are putting a strain on the mythology all by itself. Ultimately, a comforting mythology is a fragile basis to build an art historical reputation on.
“Huguette Caland: Tête-à-Tête” is on view at the Drawing Center, New York, through September 19, 2021.
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