UC Berkeley History of Art Department

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The Arabesque in a Global Mode, 1930-1960

Anneka Lenssen


Anneka Lenssen is a candidate for our faculty position in Global Modern Art History.  A summary of her presentation follows.

The global exceeds the nation-state. The expectation that this transition – keenly anticipated but perpetually deferred – must take place is one of the central promises of a global history of modern art, and also one of its most persistent methodological problems. In my talk, I examine this problem of forging a global conceptualization of modern art by a close historical reading of artworks that adopted a global mode, i.e. a mode of placing their spectators beyond the boundaries of state power. Specifically, I track a series of deployments of an arabesque line – a rhythmic arrangement of a continuous line that manifests itself as if in durational time rather than as gestalt effect or material presence – as a means to achieve an organization of space that rivaled the institutions of the state and their imperative to manufacture the experience of the real as different from representation. The talk begins with an elucidation of the radical qualities of the arabesque paintings that Syrian artist Adham Ismail made in the aftermath of French colonial control, and in particular the modern doctrine of self-determination that had placed the artist's hometown of Antioch in a disputed border region between Turkey and Syria into a crisis of political filiation (1936-1939). At the discursive heart of Ismail's “Arab abstraction” as he practiced it in 1950s Syria, one finds a claim to the ahistorical validity of line as pure form that derives from a lineage of French Modernist writing on the arabesque as unmediated sense-data. The second part of the talk considers contemporaneous deployments of unending or capricious lines as a site of recuperative corporeal experience – pieces by Egyptian artist Mounir Canaan, Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, and Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana – and analyzes them as analogous impulses to recalibrate the national against the state. My guiding concern is to treat these counter-deployments of Modernist theories of spatial composition not as mere colonial legacy, but rather as an effect of the modern crises of political representation that motivate the imagination of the global.