Saloua Raouda Choucair: Age cannot wither the Tate's new sensation

At 97, the artist Saloua Raouda Choucair has a major show at last

In 1940s Paris, Saloua Raouda Choucair cut a distinctive figure. A rarity as an Arab woman working independently in France, she was producing an unfamiliar kind of abstract art influenced by Islamic design that left some perplexed. Greater miscomprehension was to follow when she returned home to Lebanon in the 1950s. While in Paris, she came to win the respect of critics as an avant-garde artist who dared to call into question the Western concept of modernity. She got a far colder reception from the Lebanese art establishment.

Once back in Beirut, having married, she worked in isolation, an outsider to the movements around her that regarded her work with suspicious eyes, partly because she was a woman in a male-dominated scene but also because they didn't understand the art she was producing.

A decade later, she had not sold a single piece of work in Lebanon (her first sale was in 1962) yet she carried on. Now, Tate Modern is staging the world's first major exhibition of her paintings and sculptures, many of which have never been seen.

The varied, and prolific, work of Choucair, now 97, ranges from ambitious architectural projects to plans for large-scale sculptures which were never fully realised in Lebanon, though she continued to make small models for what she hoped would one day become monumental public sculptures.

When she exhibited in 1940s Paris, the Lebanese arts community showed national pride in having a fellow artist cause such a stir abroad but reviews in the Arab media were nevertheless unfavourable. Kirsten Scheid, an art historian writing in Tate Modern's catalogue, notes that at one Paris show in 1952, the Lebanese ambassador had remarked to Choucair: "Your type of work is curious… Have you not done any Lebanese works for us?"

She was so misunderstood in subsequent decades that she apparently kept a bag next to her bed that was filled with objectionable press reviews on which she scribbled corrections such as "wrong" and "misinterpretations".

Her earlier paintings take gentle, and witty, swipes at French artists such as the 1948 series, Les Peintres Célèbres, featuring voluptuous females reminiscent of Gauguin's native Tahitians, whom Choucair shows reading art books and making cups of tea. Jessica Morgan, curator of the Tate Modern exhibition, says, "These were women who read about art and met your gaze. At the time, this might have been described as a feminist spoof."

She took a trip to Egypt to study its architecture and design and it was at this point that she began to consider the abstract in Islamic art. When she arrived in Paris, and started working in Fernand Léger's Parisian atelier, she brought the notion with her. Her Poem series reflects a contemporary experimental outlook. The series comprises a sculpture made from multiple smaller parts that can be taken apart and re-arranged by the viewer. "It is not a monolithic sculpture," says Morgan. "It can be re-interpreted by the viewer who is given an active role." The series was partly inspired by Sufi poetry in which every stanza can stand alone, as well as a whole.

Morgan says that while Choucair was incredibly prolific over her long career, her work was not sold. "No one was interested in acquiring it. She knew she was good. She has spent a whole life saying, 'When are they coming?'" The purpose of this show is not to right that wrong, she concludes, but to place her in her "rightful position as a significant figure in the history of 20th century art".

Saloua Raouda Choucair, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) tomorrow to 20 October

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album