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

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