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).

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game