Infectious joie de vivre suffuses the color-drenched art and the unconventional life of the celebrated Lebanese artist, Huguette Caland.
Caland once said, “I love every minute of my life. I squeeze it like an orange, and I eat the peel, because I don’t want to miss anything,” – a statement that fully expresses the long and adventurous life that Caland lived.
Born into an elite political Lebanese family, Caland was the daughter of Bechara El-Khoury, Lebanon’s first president after the country threw off the yoke of French colonial rule in 1943 and gained its independence. El-Khoury was to rule until 1952, at which time he was forced to resign after a turbulent tenure.
It was perhaps because of the constraints of her position in Lebanese society that prevented Caland from beginning a serious career as an artist until well into her thirties, yet she enrolled at the American University of
Yet once she began, she became a forceful and unique artist and one of the earliest avowed Feminists, perpetually challenging notions surrounding perceived, appropriate roles for women in society, and definitions of female erotic beauty and desirability. Caland’s experimentation in many mediums styles and techniques allowed her to produce a prodigious body of work, which is only today – being reevaluated on its merits
As The New York Times wrote, at the time of Caland’s death in 2019, “As an artist, Ms. Caland moved freely among oils, ink, sculptures, and textiles, between representational figures, abstractions, and line drawings. Her pieces were voluptuous, organic, whimsical, erotic, exuberant, sometimes cartoonlike, but most often decidedly feminist.”
Her most famous work was Bribes de Corps (“Body Parts”) a series from the 1970s, showing fleshy, curvaceous forms that resembled parts of the female anatomy.
This explicitly erotic work was not immediately accepted (even in Paris where it was exhibited) and it was not until late in life did Caland’s work writ large begin to be reevaluated and receive full acceptance and recognition. In fact, it was not until the year she died, 2019, that she receive a long overdue solo exhibition at a museum, when her work was showcased at the Tate St. Ives Museum in Cornwall, England.
Feeling stifled and stale in life, in her marriage and by her societal position in Lebanon, Caland left Beirut, her husband, and her three teenage children, to move to Paris in 1970. This was a watershed moment for the artist. As she told the Los Angeles Times in 2003: “In Lebanon, I was the daughter of, the wife of, mother of, sister of. It was such a freedom to wake up all by myself in Paris. I needed to stretch.
It was in Paris that another event occurred that made Caland both a household name, and a beloved figure to many women at the forefront of the feminist movement, and ones who struggled with narrow definitions of female beauty.
By this time, Caland had become seriously overweight, weighing over 200 lbs. at a diminutive five foot two. To be comfortable while painting in her studio, Caland began to design caftans for herself in textile graphic “works of art to wear” in her signature bold colors and geometric designs.
While wearing one of them she entered the atelier of famed fashion designer, Pierre Cardin one morning. When Cardin saw the tunic, he asked Caland where she had found it. And when she answered that she had designed it, the designer said: “That is fabulous. Let us do a line together.” And so, they did.
When one sees her work, one also cannot be reminded of the places where she lived and worked. There is no dull fog in either Caland’s art or in her life.
Her work is entirely resplendent in colors that recall Birds of Paradise. One can immediately summon the sublime shimmer of light emanating from the Mediterranean on the corniche in Beirut Venice Beach,, acting as chatelaine at the whimsical folly of a home she built to entertain her Bohemian friends and compatriots.
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