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Art

Now in Her Eighties, Huguette Caland Is Celebrated for Her Sensual, Feminist Art

Huguette Caland, Untitled, circa 1970. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland, Untitled, circa 1970. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

When ’s father died, she responded in vivid red oil paint. Cancer/ soleil rouge (1964), a dense ochre atmosphere with faint concentric circles emanating from its center like shockwaves through a body, marked a beginning and an end. It was the Lebanese artist’s first painting and the start of her artistic liberation—and the end of her old life, one she saw as defined by family responsibilities. “She felt free for the first time in her life,” said Brigitte Caland, the artist’s daughter.
Huguette Caland at Dar Al Fan, Beirut, Lebanon, 1970. © Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland at Dar Al Fan, Beirut, Lebanon, 1970. © Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland. The First Dress, 1970. Courtesy Huguette Caland

Huguette Caland. The First Dress, 1970. Courtesy Huguette Caland

Huguette Caland’s father died the year that she entered art school at age 33, then a mother of three. He left behind “a void as well as an urge,” as Brigitte has written, leading Caland to ultimately abandon her life as a wife and mother and move to Paris to enter the world of the French avant-garde. But the seeds of her rebellion against convention had been planted many years earlier.
The Lebanese artist, who is now in her late eighties and is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at the U.K.’s Tate St. Ives, was born in Beirut in 1931. Her father, politician Bechara el-Khoury, became the first president of independent Lebanon in 1943, helping to force French colonial rulers out of the country. Caland’s family life was traditional, but she drew and painted from an early age; her room was filled with art as a child, an expression of her imaginary world.
Huguette Caland. Parents, 1971. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland. Parents, 1971. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Barely a teenager, she infuriated her parents by deciding she would marry Paul Caland, the nephew of the founder of pro-French newspaper L’Orient. Still, she pursued a life that conformed, more or less, to expectations: Caland and Paul became husband and wife when she was 21, and would go on to have three children (though they would also both take lovers).
Yet it was the expectations around a woman’s body, perhaps more so than marriage and motherhood, that Caland would come to flout with particular vigor. Naturally plump and fleshy, she was born with a body that she did not like, in a society and era that rewarded women who were tall and thin. But the artist, by her own admission, was also “born happy,” and not one to dwell on misfortune or to succumb to prevailing tastes and conventions.
Huguette Caland, Bribes de Corps, 1973. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland, Bribes de Corps, 1973. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland, Bribes de Corps, 1973. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland, Bribes de Corps, 1973. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

If her body caused her pain, she set about making it a source of primary pleasure in her life—as evidenced in her rich body of early erotic work. “She saw life through her body, and through the way others perceived her body,” Brigitte explained. “She always said that she didn’t like her body but her body served her well—what else can you ask from a body? I think she probably meant that it never stopped her from doing anything that she wanted.” Brigitte added that a lot of her mother’s art is inspired by bodies—the roundness of the body and the feminine side of the body. “It’s very sensuous, and very experimental.”
Caland began making erotic and body-inspired images in the 1960s, not long after entering the American University of Beirut to study art. (Around the same time,she began wearing long, loose kaftans for greater comfort, ease, and mobility; later, she would design and make them herself, decorating them with embroidered biomorphs or kissing lips.) But it was after 1970, when she left her husband and three children in Lebanon and moved to Paris in pursuit of artistic freedom, that she developed her “Bribes de corps (Body Parts)” works—abstracted, surrealistic drawings and paintings of bodies up close that in some cases seem to swallow the canvas whole.
Huguette Caland, Parenthèse II ("Parenthesis II"), 1971. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Huguette Caland, Parenthèse II ("Parenthesis II"), 1971. Courtesy Huguette Caland.

Two paintings from 1973, titled Self-Portrait (Bribes de corps) (Body Parts), show pink and orange flesh engulfing the picture plane, save for small cleavages at the perimeter of the paintings that suggest lips, labia, or ample buttocks. Some of them are still more abstract: A different painting from the same year zeros in on yellow masses separated only by a sinuous vein; another shows mountainous pink forms intersecting, with a fine slither of light visible in a break between them. The 1976 work Bribes de corps (Body Parts) is a white plane interrupted only by pink and yellow shapes that emerge from two corners of the canvas, evoking male and female genitalia. (The perky head of a phallus? Breasts? Testicles?) They are connected by a faint line. Cleavaged and conjoined parts are abundant across the series, as are bodies that are full, generous, and free.
In Paris, Caland found liberty and pleasure, but not necessarily artistic acceptance. Her erotic work was “very controversial, in an unpleasant way,” said Brigitte. “It was dismissively received—like she didn’t know how to do anything else.” The cultural establishment felt that “she wasn’t an artist or painter because all she did was erotic work—which wasn’t true, but this was the perception.” While the avant-garde bohemia of Paris maybe wasn’t “as critical, not as judgemental,” as the cultural milieu of Beirut, she said, it was not positive. Her exhibition history is thin, even in Paris, up until the 1990s, when her work began to draw recognition in the Middle East. By then, she had settled in California, and her work had evolved to quite different subject matter—cityscapes and textile-like fields of abstract pattern.
Installation shot from The Tate St. Ives. Huguette Caland, Visages sans bouches, bouches sans visages ("Faces without Mouths, Mouths without Faces"), 1970–1. Courtesy of Huguette Caland and The Tate.

Installation shot from The Tate St. Ives. Huguette Caland, Visages sans bouches, bouches sans visages ("Faces without Mouths, Mouths without Faces"), 1970–1. Courtesy of Huguette Caland and The Tate.

But Caland was, according to her daughter, “relatively immune” to the critiques and the snubs she faced in the first few decades of her career. Instead, she was deeply absorbed “by an exploration of the sensual possibilities of the human body,” as the artist herself has remarked—an experimental spirit that comes through in her dynamic drawings, which seem to luxuriate in the abandon of line. In her drawings—a wonderful selection of which are on view at Tate St. Ives, alongside her erotic paintings—a free-flowing ink line wends a loose pathway through the silhouettes of numerous faces and the outlines of bodies cavorting, kissing, and consuming one another.
In an untitled drawing from 1973, nerve-like tentacles (each containing pile-ups of stretched-out, naked bodies) reach out across a field of squiggly lines that could be taken for a great big field of pubic hair. It’s tempting to see the composition as representing a giant clitoral nerve center for female pleasure, though that may be imposing an overdeterminedly feminist reading onto her work. As her daughter explained, she never thought of herself as doing something radical (though when people tell her that her work is feminist, she smiles). Rather, her work was moved by “a sense of freedom,” said Brigitte, “and a sense of lightness.”
Tess Thackara