Anneka Lenssen, Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria (University of California Press, 2020).        

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Anneka Lenssen (AL): The book is a study of artistic practices developed by Syrian painters over the period 1900 to 1965 in response to a political setting characterized by border disputes and the proximate threat of forcible displacement. As such, it is a study of how artists imagined their connections to others and activated these connections in their work without necessarily accepting or affirming official designations of belonging (such as citizenship in a nation-state defined by language or religion). Prior to the solidification of Ba`th Party rule in the mid-1960s, artists in Syria explored different schemes for expanding communal recognition and registering a plenitude of being. These became apparent to me once I started to access materials in family collections—private correspondence and sketchbooks—containing evidence of a dissonant and agitational quality that differed from the values touted by later Syrian critics invested in notions of Syrian Arab greatness. Because the documents reveal deep ambivalence about modern ideas of self-sameness and constancy, I decided I wanted the book to bear witness to how artists Kahlil Gibran, Adham Ismail, Fateh al-Moudarres, and others made work that destabilized rather than buttressed the heroic developmentalist narratives that became the norm.

My second, quite practical motivation in writing Beautiful Agitation had to do with making visual materials available to other researchers. During my fieldwork in Syria during the period 2007 to 2011, I enjoyed access to many drawings and paintings that had never been published in reproduction. For a variety of reasons, ranging from gross economic inequity to intellectual differences in critical focus, studies of Syrian modernism tend to feature only a small set of relatively low-quality image reproductions. This means that anyone interested in giving credit to Syrian artistic practices as bearers of meaning always starts from a disadvantage because the available images look poor and insubstantial. Quite early in the project I came to the conclusion that I needed to gather sufficient resources to subsidize high-quality color reproductions. Later, I took the further decision to privilege drawings and other ephemeral records of creative process over framed oil paintings that more typically anchor studies of modern art in the SWANA region. A sketch rendered in ink or watercolor on paper might never appear in a public exhibition; it might instead circulate through an intimate circle of comrades. In the 1940s, Adham Ismail made drawings at secret Ba`th party gatherings and Fateh al-Moudarres practiced Surrealist ink techniques in café settings in Aleppo. When I encountered these drawings in person, some sixty years later, I was reminded of how the material dimension of the sketch can serve as a site of recalcitrance, subversion, and pleasure. By reproducing them in the book, I hope to make it possible for others to regard their dynamics of “manifestation” and consider my arguments about the tactical use of ambiguity in composition.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AL: On the art history side, the book addresses work in comparative avant-garde studies. A most important focus for me was the phenomenon of vitalism in art, literature, and political organization. By vitalism, I mean philosophies of life as a sustaining, procreative force that persists outside a singular body or bodily form. Thinkers as diverse as Henri Bergson, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Zaki al-Arsuzi (who in turn discerned core vitalist notions in the philosophy of Ibn Sina) all posed vitalism in opposition to positivist codes of civilization. To get a handle on the appeal of vitalist thinking in anticolonial and postcolonial conditions of struggle, I drew on brilliant studies by Donna V. Jones, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Pheng Cheah, Mark Antliff, and others. The book tries to take seriously how vitalist ideas could take on right-wing or left-wing guises, thereby engaging with the double movement of universalism and hypernationalism that characterizes much twentieth-century politics and produces recurring slippages in identification(s).

In terms of the politics and histories of political formation, I engage most closely with critical studies of the so-called “Wilsonian moment” and of international politics based upon principles of self-determination and territorial sovereignty. I first entered this literature through studies of the Alexandretta Crisis of 1936 to 1939. Its violent negotiations of the identity categories of “Arab” and Turk” came to bear directly upon the life trajectory of artist Adham Ismail. His was a multilingual, middle-class Alawi family living in a semi-autonomous Alexandretta territory articulated by the French colonial government as upholding a doctrine of protection for minority language rights for Turkish-speaking subjects. But he emerged from the crisis as a displaced Arabic-speaking Syrian subject who left his home in Antioch so as to enroll in French Syrian preparatory schools. The experience left an indelible mark on his thinking about Arab identity as a creative impetus or “source” for the world. I was surprised by how challenging it was to fit the details of his family’s moving recollections of the conflict into the official story of the dispute. It is a challenge that repeats, in different ways, in my readings of the life of both Gibran and al-Moudarres.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

AL: Beautiful Agitation evolved out of research for my doctoral dissertation at MIT. My initial fieldwork had a different focus. I was interested in finding a way to frame a modern art history without (implicitly or explicitly) assuming that a modern institutional triad of public museum, private gallery, and free press ought to anchor a fully realized art scene. I felt that the Syrian case had much to offer to broader studies of modern art because few Syrian artists ever accepted the autonomy of art. This put Syrian art history at meaningful odds with the foundational post-WWII liberal commitment to “art for art’s sake.” Even at the highpoint of Syrian abstract painting in the 1960s, which was accompanied by active and sophisticated discussions of artistic freedom, the resulting artworks drew interest not as things in themselves but rather as tools for honing the sensory capacities of Socialism’s “new men.” After interviewing artists and paging through scrapbooks of clippings, I wrote a dissertation that proposed four other art world institutions that structured different modes of Syrian experimental practice: the ideological political party; the foreign art academy; the literary journal and its complex mediation of print/image distinctions; and the national art school.

Only later, once I defended the dissertation, did I realize that the institution of the political party had provided a consistent underpinning to these other institutional forms and formats. The record of Syrian aesthetic commentary shows everyone from literary editors to secondary school teachers to corrupt politicians engaging in vitalist rhetoric that can be traced to the youth-oriented, oppositional character of the early political parties. My writing process became one of inverting my dissertation, converting what I thought was a subtheme—the investment of youthful creators in the power of excitation as a basis of social transformation—into a primary object of investigation. This involved researching two new chapters to establish the earlier twentieth-century history of the vitalist formation: one recovering the oppositional quality of Gibran’s Romantic paintings and drawings in the wake of the “positivist” Young Turk Revolution, and another tracking how the French occupation of Syria (1920 to 1946) instigated new appeals to vital forces. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AL: At present, many art historians who teach in universities in the United States, myself included, are working to update old courses on modern art in ways that contextualize changes of style, tactic, and meaning in a matrix of multiple sites of contestation. This represents a major shift away from the previous focus on developments in a handful of market centers (Paris, New York, and so on). I hope my book can contribute specific images and narratives to global modern teaching of this kind. For instance, I reproduce Surrealist drawings by al-Moudarres that respond to images by French refugee artists but also develop a distinct reading of archaeology and dreams that is conditioned by colonial excavations in Aleppo. These may now be incorporated into a lecture about automatism and displacement alongside work by figures such as Leonora Carrington and Cesar Moro. Equally, I hope my book can help to show that studying modern art in light of global contingencies is not a choice or a fad to be replaced by another method. It is hardly an option to be an isolationist art historian when we are the legatees of a history of American empire and policy interests that entangles modernist formations in the United States with those in Syria. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AL: My next book examines postcolonial art pedagogies in the socialist countries of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1960s, with a focus on schools in Egypt, Syria, and Algeria. I am interested in a question I pose to undergraduate students in my courses at UC Berkeley: In the wake of hard-fought independence from European occupiers, after you break the plaster casts and throw out the stretched canvases imposed by foreign instructors, what do you make? Why? And with what effect on which audience?


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, pp. 187-192)

In October 1962, a call went out from the artists of the AMI [Galerie Art Moderne Internationale, in Damascus]. At issue was a desire to bring the modern art movements of their region to a world stage once and for all. By making use of their connections at Syrian newspapers, the gallery was able to arrange to publish a statement addressed to Arab artists, writing, “We affirm that the Arab artist has been given his freedom, liberating him, and granting him responsibility for creating forms or tearing these forms down.” The resulting artistic goal, at least as it was framed that month in Damascus, was to express a version of man who was advancing toward an “eternal future.” The AMI’s group of intellectuals and promoters had begun to imagine plans for convening a conference of Arab artists and establishing a biennial exhibition, and this call—poignant in its desire for filiation to others—proposed a collective commitment to a modern art based on change over stasis.

The previous year had been consumed, in part, by the dissolution of the UAR. Even though nationalist narratives of Arab restitution remained alive, enthusiasm for Arab state formation reached a kind of nadir. In many ways, the gallery had a front-row seat to faltering confidence. Because they occupied the fourth story of a building on a downtown square, they could witness how the crowds that assembled to cheer the breakup had cheered again once Abdel Nasser made a radio announcement that the union had been repaired, and yet again at later news of a final dissolution. Severing ties with Egypt seemed to offer some initial relief from the state’s claim to hold a monopoly on cultural activity, and many in the city made moves to cultivate a commercial arts sector. Two additional galleries opened, briefly, and the AMI reached out to a gallery partner in Beirut for the purpose of bringing Syrian painters to the Lebanese market. As Robyn Creswell has discussed, Lebanon’s central government had remained unusually limited in growth, which not only gave intellectuals room to maneuver but also ensured a deregularized economy and a powerful local community of financial and mercantile elites (an anomaly in the Arab world in this period). The AMI’s effort to forge ties to these buyers also benefited from the efforts of Chérif Khaznadar, a Beirut-based journalist and friend of the gallery. Writing for the Francophone paper L’Orient Littéraire, Khaznadar promised access to a vibrant scene that had developed in Syria away from all “clamor or publicity.” Painter Mahmoud Daadouch, who produced ugly concretions of dross and nebulae in pastels and gray pigments, was presented as the enfant terrible. And [Fateh] al-Moudarres was introduced as a cerebral artist who worked with codes, putting together strange “abstractions” through a delirious imagination and frustrating novice readers and facile interpretations.


[Abdul Aziz] Alloun, al-Moudarres, and Daadouch saw the exercise through to releasing a document they dubbed a “Plastic Arts Movement in Syria” in late May 1962. Although it was partly a promotional ploy in the tradition of Futurist manifestos, the text took pains to address the atmosphere of precarity following Syria’s abdication from the UAR, including consideration for the problem of maintaining an authentic (rather than imposed) responsibility to the self and to others, from both past and future. The authors often strike a mystical tone, ratifying an affinity with Sufistic metaphysics, suggesting that an artwork has a fourth dimension (that of cyclical time), and asserting that even inanimate material becomes “alive” once it is incorporated into a work of art. But their most provocative points arise from their responses to the key terms of social obligation that had begun to anchor national art policies. For instance, they suggest that authenticity is to be secured by art’s continued radiation and “growth in perpetuity.” Further, the artist’s responsibility to the collective is real but cannot be consciously seized at the moment of creation, and traditions are limits that a person may apply and abandon freely. And, in their point nine, the authors declare the right of artists to abdicate from positive arts of formation so as to pursue formlessness as a virtue—this latter being the “right” they eventually claimed for all Arab artists in the Arab countries.

Circa 1962, national art discourse in Syria was only just beginning to feature discussion of “form” and its relationship to national objectives, and the conversations typically occurred under the cover of skepticism about the ideological content of abstract painting. The notion that the task of the artist resided in acts of positive formation had been enshrined in the bureaucratic vocabulary in about 1958, when the creation of a Ministry of Culture during the UAR years prompted the recharacterization of the category of “fine arts” (al-funun al-jamila), a former province of the Ministry of Education, as “plastic arts” (al-funun al-tashkiliyya), which followed the UNESCO lexicon by highlighting individual acts of molding and making form. But al-Moudarres and Daadouch had both studied and worked in Italy during the years when existentialist versions of art informel began to fill the galleries, an ethos that was defined less by a commitment to negating form or structure than as a rejection of premeditated ideas that constrained earlier modern painting (including earlier geometric abstraction). The text of the Syrian manifesto would seem to tread a similar path, fumbling toward a dialectical position outside—or beyond—all kinds of coming binary thinking that would characterize acts of formation as humanist and declare the absence of fixed forms a recidivist position.

The authors assert, “The formless is an established condition, like form, and is acceptable in the work of art.” Further, this condition of being unformed or without form is to be reached through movement. A truly formless painting cannot be achieved by withholding delineations of form, as an “abstract” painter might do, but entails obscuring even the loci necessary to track succession. To illustrate the idea, the three authors turn to imaginations of landscape, invoking the desert as an active yet boundless place. “The desert is a formless painting,” the manifesto reads, “because it is the unbroken movement of one grain of sand.” This imagination of timeless, contemporary, unformed practice challenged the presumptive scale of the artwork as matching the vision of a person, rewriting it as an embrace of a totality incorporating both the uncountably minuscule and the inconceivably vast. It also made the formless painting a product of Syria itself, with its huge desert interior as a connecting void between cities.

Importantly, this declaration of the validity of formless arts coincides with al-Moudarres’s intensifying interest in sand as a component of his paintings. That very April, at the Spring Salon, he made a public debut of paintings incorporating sand in their gesso preparations. The innovation enjoyed brief yet informed coverage from the Ministry of Culture’s newly launched monthly journal, likely because the AMI had succeeded in fortifying ties to that sector. The journal explained to readers that al-Moudarres was interested in bringing the “background” of the picture into a continuum with his “colors” (lit. al-alwan, a term used interchangeably for pigment or colors). As such, the artist’s sand experiments constituted an update on the longstanding perceptual problem of figure and ground. To add sand to painting was to introduce desiccating properties to the mix, with the result that colors placed upon the canvas sunk into the space and never quite resolved on the surface as a standalone figure:

Fateh al-Moudarres, Family in the Open Air (alt. The Last Supper), 1962. Mixed media on canvas, 60 × 90 cm. Collection of the Atassi Foundation for Arts and Culture, Dubai. URL:

Al-Moudarres was not particularly interested in claiming the mantle of “abstract painter,” and his paintings make use of sand not only to ensure a quality of general irresolution but also produce shifts of narrative. For example, the sand in Family in the Open Air renders its titular reference to “open air” into contradiction, for earthen material fills the area designated as sky. Indeed, the presence of sand is not visible on the surface of the work, which, although thickly sedimented with pigment, exhibits almost no granular texture. Rather than telegraph a clear intention, the sand conveys an atmosphere of ambivalence to the “family” al-Moudarres assembles from his repertoire of figural parts. In this instance, the artist absurdly overarticulates the bodies, adding pairs of circular breasts that repeat in other orb shapes, as in round fruits on a table and the round trees in the landscape. These set up a contrast with the central character, who bears an X. Positioned against the repetition of circles, the X prompts readings of the figure as Christ (so much so that the painting later accrued the title The Last Supper). To the O of the female, the X is both cross and a sign of gender difference (that is, not O, or the negation of O). This play with signs of repetition and difference helps to establish a space of intertextual myth in the work, such that the accursed figure bearing an “X” may be an antihero, Christ, a messiah, or all three at once.

Credit: Excerpted from Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria by Anneka Lenssen, published by the University of California Press. © 2020 by Anneka Lenssen.