Martin Giesen: The Versatility and Power of Watercolor

Nelida Nassar  11.22.2014

The exhibition currently on view at the Aida Cherfan Gallery of Fine Arts includes nearly 32 watercolors by Martin Giesen, whose skill is evident in these brilliant, highly detailed paintings. He uses tube pigments to achieve a dense, at times even opaque saturation. “Insipid fluffiness turns me off,” he says. His sole criterion for this exhibition was rigorously purist: “The medium, be it wet on wet, dry on dry, or a mixture drives the process” Giesen states.

Born and schooled in Germany, Giesen studied theology before switching to art history at the University of Berlin. A great admirer of his father’s small collection of Kollwitz etchings and lithographs, he also has been influenced by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso and Braque, as well as by the American abstract expressionists Rauschenberg, Pollock, Motherwell, and Lichtenstein. After interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and completing a Ph.D. on innovative concepts in museology, he joined the art faculty of the American University of Beirut in 1973. For some 40 years he has produced and exhibited watercolor paintings documenting the urban face of Lebanon – its neighborhoods, houses, markets, cafes and waterfronts – editing his imagery away from reality. David Tannous of Art in America has dubbed him a “Contemporary Orientalist”.

A veteran watercolorist, Giesen produces stunningly varied and precise images of architectural scenes, landscapes and maritime settings in which nature often serves as a backdrop to the built environment. In Jasmine House, a traditional white dwelling with three arcades and adjacent palm trees straddles a short driveway, beyond which lies a distant blue sea horizon. The angular composition and accurate tone of early morning light and shadow against the structures, particularly the red tile roof of the house and
the vertical white-washed façade, present yet another example of Giesen’s unerring eye and hand.

A favorite in the show is a large-scale, powerful image titled Jezzine Cliff House. The terraced ochre house perched on a rock in this image recedes behind the vine trellis of the first plane. In Downtown Bougainvillia, the artist depicts the city’s memorable cluster of buildings, churches and mosques that seem to retreat behind a red bougainvillea which sharply exerts its presence. Each element is astutely observed and executed; Giesen turns his watery pigments into textures, reflections, hues and values that make the piece dynamic and vibrant, with a surreal atmosphere.

The qualities that made the watercolor medium so useful to the landscapists of the “golden age,” particularly the British of 150 years ago – portability, cheapness, a certain tactful reticence – made it equally serviceable in the war zones that Giesen has encountered living and teaching in Lebanon then in the Arab countries. The artists who worked in this earlier tradition in the region, such as David Roberts and George Cyr, favored a narrative style, where as Giesen uses the medium to explore inner visions rather than outer spectacle. Beit Chabab Village is a delicate smudge of watery marks which wistfully recalls an intimate mood. In Loofa Man, the artist uses layers of watercolor to build up three stylized figures which seems to derive from the vocabulary of the tradition of deep pictorial space. The twist, though, comes from the fact that the figures appear on paper designed for watercolor but are positioned in enfilade, facing or gracefully following each other.

Finally there is Saida Castle with Bicycle, which has a moving perspective vantage point that follows the viewer’s position. Here he uses thick dark marks to paint abstract forms in bold color; these have been simplified into rolls of color because, he insists, water-based paint gives him a fluidity (and hence a subject: the materiality of his own art) that oils or acrylics could simply never provide.

Earlier works with titles such as Ceasefire Cardgame, Cat in Saida, Van Gogh in Lebanon, A Good Year for Chairs, Fragments of Gentility, Marlboro Tree and Waiting for the Pope betray a visceral attraction to the country he has adopted. “Lebanon is a cauldron of contrasts, paradoxes and incongruities.” He bemoans “the attempts that are made to cleanse, separate, gentrify and sanctify – as in the quasi-gated community of Solidere – If the rent is too high and access to it restricted, the energy produced by variety is sapped. The result is a monoculture more a thin broth, than a rich stew”.

Giesen continues: “My feelings [for Lebanon] are intense as I have spent some of the most tumultuous and happy years of my life in this country, taught a thousand students there, fathered two daughters and hundreds of paintings.” He has enjoyed the unwavering support of his two dealers – first Amal Traboulsi and, more recently, Aida Cherfan – and “many Lebanese opened their homes to the work because my watercolors touched a responsive chord in their hearts.”

In today’s art world, Giesen feels that “my presence is quite marginal. my images are recognizable without resorting to language of interpretation, deconstruction, semiotics and site specificity. They do not align with the current trend requirements”.

I don’t entirely agree with this assessment. Even when he does consciously look back to watercolor’s golden age, he is not engaged in an exercise in comforting nostalgia. What is fascinating is the radically modern appearance of Giesen’s explorations in his chosen medium. From this perspective, his architectural scenes, landscapes and maritime settings become more than simply exquisite renderings of natural forms; by massing colors into abstract blocks rather than striving for simple mimesis, the artist offers a self-conscious commentary on the possibilities and limits of watercolor.

Exhibition at Aida Cherfan Fine Arts until 11.28.2011
Antelias Square facing St George Center
Telephone: 961 4 444.111 – 222
Monday to Saturday 10a.m. to 1.00 p.m. or
By appointment 03.839.111

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