In Hesiod’s “Works and Days” (c. 700 BC), the Greek poet illustrates his advice to his idle brother Perses, praising the merits of honesty and hard work, and describing the curse of sorrow that gods unleashed on men after Prometheus stole fire from Zeus. Later, when Pandora releases all the evils of mankind from a jar deceptively gifted to her by the gods, only hope (Elpis) remains trapped. The poem describes the five successive ages of man, from the abundant and harmonious Golden Age, then Silver Age, to the destructive Bronze Age, the noble Heroic Age when warriors save the world, and finally, the miserable, shameless, dishonorable, enduring Iron Age.
While MoMA PS1’s exhibition dedicated to the Lebanese artist Simone Fattal is titled after Hesiod’s poem and depicts humanity’s deepest tragedies and fiercest heroes in an epic of war and suffering, it is also imbued with undying poetry and hope in the face of history.
Fattal, who was born in 1942 and began to sculpt after leaving war-torn Beirut for California with her partner Etel Adnan, found in clay the life that she was desperately seeking after a brutal exile. She chiseled a found block of opalescent, flesh-toned alabaster into a torso, mounting it on a makeshift wooden pedestal and naming it “Torso found in Today’s Downtown Beirut” (1988) to immortalize the fallen bodies and abandoned ancient sites of the city. This sculpture, her very first, evoked the sensual lines, abstraction, and luminosity of her earlier Sannine Mountain paintings, in which the artist rendered Lebanon’s towering peak with washes of white and bursts of sunny primary tones. Through sculpture, for the first time, her work represented humans.
“This sculpture embodied everything that was to come: the present and the past,” Fattal told me at the PS1 exhibition opening. “The wonderful thing about American schools is that professors let you do whatever you like. I thought, I will treat this stone like a piece of paper. I used the tools like a pencil and followed the lines on the stone.”
She then gave shape to a tiny Adam and Eve couple, marking the beginning of lust and the curse of humankind; she later crafted a miniature apple. Impulsively, she molded rugged, delicate objects — sirens, horses, trees, fruits, lions, houses — building an imaginary of loss and love. Steeped in ancient myths from Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, this world is ruled by the thick, monumental warrior sculptures of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and other epic heroes that inhabit Fattal’s mind. They are at once heavy and fragile, eternal and ephemeral, organic and manufactured. Their edges are often left unfinished; they are sometimes pierced or wounded; and they are glazed with washes of soft earthy hues. The urge towards abstraction which runs through the artist’s work transforms these vestiges into monuments, memorials, temples, and totems.
Syrian-American curator Ruba Katrib’s bold exhibition design emphasizes this archeology by grouping sculptures together on ziggurat-like steps, columns, and pedestals. She also juxtaposed them with the artist’s paintings and collages, creating a semi-mystical movement of calligraphic lines, fluid forms, and radiant colors. The exhibition design itself is circular, never falling into chronological considerations or endings. The central exhibition space, filled with abstract black and white paintings and four massive warrior sculptures, exudes a particularly powerful graphic and spiritual dynamic.
While the artist herself is absent from these works, “Self-Portrait 1972-2012,” a video projected in the basement theater, reveals the radical, rebellious nature of a woman who broke the rigid molds of her time for a life of freedom, intellect, and creativity. A young, nonchalant, neurotic Fattal speaks to a camera recorder on matters of love, art, and philosophical pursuits. The Damascus-born artist was raised in a Beirut boarding school before attending the city’s École des Lettres to study philosophy and then continuing her studies in Paris. She returned to Lebanon in her twenties filled with dreams and projects; she took up painting in 1969 and met Etel Adnan, among other artists and thinkers in a city ripe with idealism and creativity.
“It was a heated time in the city,” explained the artist. “We were all reacting to the historical events in Palestine and the region. We were very politically engaged even though we didn’t have an agenda or party. We were participating in the city’s culture, we wanted to make something new and authentic. The codes were changing, the systems were changing, the sixties had an impact everywhere. I was living alone which was also a big thing then. But when the war started I was thirty and it had taken all these years to get to where I was — to grow as a tree — and then the tree was cut. That’s why I couldn’t do anything artistically for a long time. It was more ravaging than an earthquake.”
Moving to San Francisco after these traumatic experiences, Fattal stopped making art from 1980 to 1987 and founded the Post-Apollo Press, publishing an English translation of Adnan’s seminal wartime novel Sitt Marie Rose and several poetry books. Soon after was when Fattal took up ceramics and discovered her profound connection with clay. Inspired by her lifelong obsession with archeological sites from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Sufi poetry and Islamic art, she created a sculptural language of her own.
“In every mythology, man was created from earth,” explained the artist. “Earth is the most alive, the most spontaneous medium; you create your sculpture with your hands. I barely use any tools. Earth brought a human element to my work.”
The 30 years the couple spent in California before they moved to Paris were peaceful, productive, and liberating. They continued to visit Beirut, where they both exhibited their work, during and after the civil war. Now, after decades of toiling and hardship, they are both experiencing a renaissance as the world finally rediscovers and recognizes the importance of their work — a feminine expression of pure modernity from an ever-conflicted Beirut. “We have seen absolute horrors, but we kept working,” said Fattal. “And when you live in exile you worry even more. But life is stronger than war, and love is stronger than death.”
Simone Fattal: Work and Days, curated by Ruba Katrib and Josephine Graf, runs through September 2 at MoMA PS1.