Stanislaw Frenkiel Fine Art

BEIRUT DAYS by the artist

Beirut Drawings, 1944-47

The Beirut drawings form a set of sketches and compositions in pen and ink produced during intermittent visits and subsequent two years of studies at the Academy of Fine Art. They embrace three years from 1944 to 1947 and have been kept in portfolios ever since. They record the life of the city and its vicinity as it appeared in the early years of Lebanon's independence, at the end of the French Protectorate between the two World Wars. These years have left a strong imprint; but the city possessed its own unique tradition and has, as it was in these years before the long civil strife, remained in my memory as the cultural capital of the Levant with an admirable tradition of religious and national tolerance, two independent universities and a number of colleges attracting students from all parts of the world. It was at the same time a city with traditions dating back to remote antiquity, where various communities of Christians, Moslems, Druzes and other creeds lived in mutual respect and relative harmony. There were vast social and political differences and potential conflicts, yet to an outsider the life of the city was fascinating in its variety, peace and stability.

I went to Beirut in 1944 on leave from the army in Egypt to visit my wife who was studying medicine at the American University. I was 25, a soldier of the Polish forces in the Middle East under British command. Before the war I had spent two years studying art at the Cracow Academy of Fine Art and had enjoyed a brief stay in Paris where I met other artists of that epoch on the eve of World War II. Early in the war I had been imprisoned in Russia and after an amnesty worked as a free-lance painter: called into the Polish army I was shipped from Russia across the Caspian Sea to Iran. After a year in Teheran I stayed in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria, and towards the end of the war went to Beirut a number of times. When the war ended I was granted study leave to complete my art training at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts. Thus at 25, I had some experience as a painter and my arrival in Beirut in November 1944 marked the beginning of two happy years with my wife in a civilized atmosphere allowing for work, study and unreserved commitment to art. Apart from studio work at the Academy I was free to...roam the town with my sketch book and to record scenes and events of the community's life in cafes, markets and bazaars, as well as the more distressing sights of the city in the poor quarters where beggars, cripples, drug pushers and houses of prostitution provided rich material for drawing and painting. My companions were Jozef Galuba, a Polish painter who later lived in London, and a Lebanese painter Farrid Awad who died in Paris a few years ago. Apart from the drawings and watercolours I worked also in oils and produced prints. Most of the oil paintings were acquired by Lebanese and Polish collectors but the drawings remained in their portfolios.

The inhabitants of Beirut, whatever their creed and background, were helpful and friendly; a stranger could go there and be treated with hospitality. Women were modest in dress and conduct. When the idea of a nude model was introduced for the life class at the Academy, in place of the traditional plaster casts of antique statuary, the event was regarded in town as a major sensation, and the students were charged with the difficult task of finding a suitable model. Eventually Mademoiselle Marie agreed to pose and, I am told continued to be the life model for the next two decades.

There were many Christian missions, with monks, nuns and protestant preachers; Islamic scholars and Indians. From the slim minarets muezzins called the faithful to prayer. Many distinguished Europeans had stayed in Beirut during the previous century. It was here that Renan wrote The Life of Jesus and the Polish Romantic poet Slowacki wrote his poem Anhelli while staying in a convent at El Chazir.

Beirut was much more than the capital of Lebanon; its academic communities drew scholars from both the French and the English speaking centres of learning. There were excellent concerts of the 'Quatuor de Beyrout, conducted by Alexis Boutros, the Director of the Academy. Stage performances of drama and opera in French and Italian were accessible to all, in addition to art exhibitions, religious festivals and hospitable receptions at various embassies. There was a large Polish community dating from pre-war days and the Polish Envoy, Zawadowski, was a personal friend of the President Beshara Khoury who often moved in Polish circles. The best hotels in those days were the 'St. Georges' and the 'Normandie', the best restaurant was the 'Lucullus' (''chez Gaidon tout est bon!''). Huge Rolls-Royces brought Emirs and Sheiks with their families to the 'Normandie', driven by chauffeurs armed with Damascene sabres. The Secretary of the Polish Embassy Count Michal Tyszkiewicz, actively helped young artists by sponsoring exhibitions and bursaries. His wife, the celebrated singer and actress Hanka Ordonowna often invited artists and writers to their apartment, and I was fortunate enough to paint a number of portraits of her in theatrical costumes. There was a large Russian emigre community and a regiment of Cossacks maintained by Prince Nagichevansky. The little restaurant 'Chez Alyosha' was run by a talented Russian who sang Vertynsky's ballads to the strains of a balalaika. British, French and Polish soldiers presented a variety of outlandish uniforms, ranging from Scottish tartans and kilts, to the red trousers of the Zouaves and the smart Polish armoured corp tunics. The cafes, cabarets and restaurants provided good jazz, Italian music and Spanish dancers. Life in Beirut appeared to me full of hope and promise of a better world to come after the grim years of war. Towards the end of my stay, our son Andrew was born in Beirut and was christened in the Maronite Cathedral. In autumn 1947, having completed my studies at the Academy under Cesar Gemayel, I held with two other artists an exhibition of paintings at the American University. I was recalled to the army in Egypt in order to be shipped to Britain where I have lived and worked ever since. Beirut of the nineteen-forties does not exist any more. Subsequent modernisation and civil war have destroyed much of its former splendour. The drawings represent a closed chapter of my youth but have remained an integral part of my life's work.

I am happy to entrust the whole collection to my friend Dr Bushra Fakhoury, the present owner of the drawings, with whom I have shared interest in Lebanese culture and tradition.

It is to Beirut, in those distant days a city of peace, good will and tolerance that this collection is dedicated..

Stanislaw Frenkiel

London, 1986