Tate Modern, London

Charles Darwent on art: Saloua Raouda Choucair - An eye on the future, a feeling for the past

3.00

Influenced by Matisse and Léger, inspired by science, maths and architecture, an enduring Lebanese artist gets her deserved retrospective

Saloua Raouda Choucair's painting Two = One is arresting for all kinds of reasons, the most obvious being the holes in its canvas. The Argentinian artist Lucio Fontana didn't start his famous series of punched-through pictures, Buchi, until 1949. Two = One dates from 1947, which makes Choucair very avant garde indeed. Or it would have done, had she put the holes there herself. In fact, they were made by a bomb that fell near her flat in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s.

And so the question: is Two = One an artwork or an artefact? Does its interest lie mainly in its aesthetics, or in some other history? It is a question that recurs as you walk around 97-year-old Choucair's show at Tate Modern. This is in a suite of rooms, small by Tate standards, tucked away up on Level 4. The show is not a blockbuster, nor has it been sold as one. It has a tentative feel, which is understandable.

Where Continental art museums have been integrating non-European work into their programmes for years – the Louvre has its Pavillon des Sessions, the Pompidou is planning Guggenheim-style offshoots in Brazil and India – British galleries have tended to stay Eurocentric. There are moves at Tate Modern to change this, of which Choucair's exhibition is a sign.

This makes the first work in the show, a self-portrait, unusually complex. When it was painted, Choucair was studying with a Lebanese artist called Omar Onsi. Lebanon being under French mandate in his youth, Onsi had trained in Paris. The question of whether he and his pupil were Western painters who happened to be Arabs or Arabic painters who worked like Westerners hung in the air. If Choucair is frowning in her picture, it is not surprising: she painted it in 1943, the year of Lebanon's independence. Self-portraiture is to do with self-identity. How the French-Lebanese-Eastern-Western woman painter was to see herself is a question etched in her own brow.

But how do we see her? If Choucair were a French painter, the answer would be easy. We would say that her self-portrait was old-fashioned for its day, but that it had a strong colour sense. Choucair isn't French, though, or not entirely. Works in her Les Peintres Célèbres series of 1948-49, painted in Paris, show the influence of Matisse and of Fernand Léger, her teacher at the time. Since they are of scenes from a women's hammam, though – Les Baigneuses painted from the bathers' point of view – Les Peintres Célèbres have another interest. They are exotic, out of our world; non-European.

From Ingres' 19th-century houris to Matisse's odalisques, there had been a history of male French artists painting female Arab nudes. The so-called Orientalists liked other Levantine subjects, too: hammams were a favourite. And so, a puzzle. Roauda is reclaiming, for Arabic art, the depiction of something quintessentially Arabic. And yet that subject had been mostly painted by Europeans, and the style in which Choucair does her reclaiming is French.

Confused? Why not? The Western pigeon-holing of non-Western culture is fraught with embarrassment: think of those dire terms "world music" and "indigenous art". Reading the 1951 review of a Choucair show by the French critic Léon Degand makes you wince. The artist has bent the rules of Modernism, Degand says, by bringing to them "her Arab mentality". If Choucair opts for abstraction, then that is Arab, too: after all, strict Islam forbade representation. You sense, in its underselling of her show, the Tate walking on post-colonial eggshells.

How to get around this problem, I really do not know. For what it's worth, Choucair is a wonderful artist – sometimes, at least. Early abstracts such as the Compositions with Arches, gouaches that look like paper collages, have a colour sense that anticipates, and maybe surpasses, painters such as Patrick Heron. The Naum Gabo-esque strung Plexiglass sculptures she made in the 1970s look 50 years out of date and, to my fuddy-duddy mind, are none the less elegant for that.

Choucair has a particular fascination with fitting bits together. Stacked tower-sculptures such as Infinite Structure turn building blocks into buildings. The edifices they evoke are the Modernist ones Choucair saw going up around her in Beirut – blocks that owe their Unité d'Habitation look to a Swiss-French architect, le Corbusier. The point about Corb's International Style was that it should be just that: international; and yet it remains European at heart, unavoidably colonial. The same must be said of this show.

To 20 October (020-7887 8888)

Critic's Choice

You'll need to queue for a ticket for Bowie Is… at the V&A, which has been selling out amid the current Bowie mania. Set aside a decent whack of time, however, and you'll be richly rewarded with mountains of Bowie ephemera, costumes, videos and music (till 11 Aug). And if that wasn't enough spangle, Glam! is waiting to take you back to the Seventies at Tate Liverpool. Style, sexuality and nostalgia combine in this wide-ranging show (till 12 May).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz