Discover the Worlds of Willy Aractingi in Sursock

Hanine El Mir
Senior Staff Writer

As part of its special, ever-changing exhibitions, this summer the display at Sursock Museum has evolved once more, as it decides to honour painter Willy Aractingi and his particular approach to art.

The collection exhibited  at the museum consists of around 224 oil paintings Aractingi had painted from 1973 until his death in 2003. They were donated by the Aractingi family and sponsored by Fattal Group, an importing and exporting company that Aractingi had previously worked at during his stay in Lebanon before he started painting.

The exhibition opened on the evening of June 8 and will continue  until September 18. Many workshops and activities will be taking place in parallel with the theme.

Willy Aractingi was born in New York to Lebanese parents in 1930. He spent his teenage years and early twenties in Beirut before temporarily moving to Cairo.

He began  painting when he was 14 years old but gave up shortly after, as a result of believing  that his work was inadequate. Instead, he studied Chemistry at the American University of Beirut and tried to compose a few original perfumes on his own before going to Grasse, the world capital of fragrances located in France. He decided to focus on art at the age of 50.

He never studied art and taught himself everything he knew through practice, drawing the same scene multiple times, which resulted in his signature style. His hard work gave him his own combination and palette of colours, his own geometrical forms- which were mostly round- and  his own world and universe.

As part of the tour on Saturday, curator of the exhibition Yasmine Chemali described Aractingi’s palette as gradient nuances of colours in the 1980s that transformed into plain colours in the 1990s. She added that in the 90s, the background was often left blank or painted black, “not worked on.”  Aractingi would focus on composing his forms, or animals first, then work on the background.

Chemali jokingly added that having his own peculiar combinations of colours helped Aractingi. “If he were to make a mistake, no one would be able to tell.”

Aractingi is famous for being the only artist to have painted all 246 fables of Jean de la Fontaine. He finished painting the fables in 1995, in correspondence with the 300th anniversary of la Fontaine’s death.  He was also interested in other tales and heroic stories like Tarzan, Geha, as well as Abla and Antar’s love story.

To Aractingi, Sleeping Beauty is fat- “grasse”- as he refers to his depiction of her in a letter he had written in French on September 7, 1987 addressed to “all.” Yet, she gets to keep her fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. He added that he also chose to draw her naked.

In another painting he worked on during the same year, the Roman goddess of beauty and love, Venus, is renamed  “Oriental Venus” as he presents her as darker skinned, and with a round figure. In Aractingi’s world, beauty isn’t equated with slimness. He reasons in an adjacent letter that “Venus was born in Cyprus, before the arrival of the Crusaders. She was therefore a brunette, and not Venetian blonde.”

Aractingi didn’t focus on drawing hands on these women, or among the other women he drew. He wasn’t interested in drawing hands and rather preferred to focus on the pulpy bodies.

There are two more tours scheduled on Thursday, June 15, in French, but access to the exhibition isn’t limited to the tour’s time. Art enthusiasts can show up any day they want until September.

A mask-making workshop is also taking place on June 17 and July 8, in both French and Arabic.

The curators of the museum are expected to announce more activities related to The Worlds of Willy Aractingi in the upcoming months.

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