Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Modern Art in West Asia: From Colonial to Post–colonial Period

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

Colonial Period 1900–1950s

A growing literate class, along with an increase in the number of published translations and literary salons, set the stage for new trends in painting in the Middle East. At the beginning of the century, Western-style easel painting was seen as a liberating form of individual expression unrestricted by rigid rules of traditional art. The first generation of artists trained in Turkey, Europe, or with earlier masters in Beirut and Damascus who had adopted an academic style that depicted landscape, daily life, village scenes, and historical subjects. Portraiture was popular among wealthy merchants of Beirut, religious establishments, and government officials (Daoud Corm, Portrait of an Ancestor). Early work was also influenced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Orientalist painters and photographers. The latter introduced photography to the Arab world in the early 1850s, taking photographs of archaeological and biblical sites. The earliest photographic studios in the region were founded by resident Europeans, such as the Bonfils family and Jules Lind in Lebanon. Many of the Orientalist photographers and painters came to the East with visions of an exotic world fueled by romanticized European Orientalist literature; such imagery dominated Western views of the region for most of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Arab photographers, trained in these studios and with Armenian immigrants, excelled at their profession (Khalil Raad, Tourists dressed up in traditional clothing, Jerusalem, Palestine). European-trained Jewish artists adopted the Orientalist style, melding European techniques with Middle Eastern idioms in biblical scenes and romanticized imagery of the East.

After independence, artists in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria experimented with a variety of techniques and styles irrespective of the current international trends.


Cited Works of Art or Images (10)

  • Hafiz al-Droubi: Old Baghdad
  • Mona Saudi, Woman Bird
  • Saliba Douaihy: Lebanese Village
  • Faiq Hassan: At the Market
  • Dia Azzawi: Western Bird
  • Omar Onsi: Women at an Exhibition
  • Khalil Raad: Tourists dressed up in traditional clothing Jerusalem, Palestine
  • Daoud Corm: Portrait of an Ancestor
  • Ismail Shammout: Exodus
  • Louay Kayyali, Siesta


During the period of French rule over Syria and Lebanon, French language and culture dominated the educational system and cultural environment of Beirut, yet artists returning from their studies abroad were determined to uphold their national identity and individual styles. Unlike earlier generations, their work was not imitative (32.45.5). In Lebanon, a larger segment of society was eager to adopt Western lifestyles and showed less resistance to nude paintings, which were displayed in exhibitions in the early 1930s (Omar Onsi, Women at an Exhibition). Landscape became the national genre. A third generation of Lebanese artists experimented with Cubism, Dadaism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and abstraction. They laid the foundation for Lebanese art, most notably in abstraction, which continued to be the prevalent style until the end of the twentieth century. Known as master colorists, they captured the bright light and color of the Mediterranean in what is referred to as the Lebanese Style, which endured for several generations. These paintings became popular among the Lebanese at home and in the diaspora (Saliba Douaihy, Lebanese Village).

The first group of Iraqi artists to study art in Europe adhered to academics styles. Landscape, still life, and naturalistic representation were dominant features. Later referred to as the Pioneers, established as a group in 1950, their unique contribution was in their commitment to art education and to nurturing public awareness of the arts; they were members of an all-Iraqi faculty at the Institute of Fine Arts and the only link to Western art discourse until World War II, when several Polish artists arrived in Baghdad with the Allied forces. They introduced an Expressionist mode that captured the imagination of Iraqi artists, who eagerly adopted this new free style more suited to expressing an increasingly complex reality. The rising tide of nationalism, economic stagnation, and the daily human struggle in such conditions were manifest in an Expressionist Realist art trend. Cubism was also a significant Iraqi art movement during this period, with a focus on village scenes, a rapidly disappearing rural life, and cityscapes (Hafiz al-Droubi, Old Baghdad; Faiq Hassan, At the Market).

Postcolonial Period (1950–70)
After independence, artists in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria experimented with a variety of techniques and styles irrespective of the current international trends. Their quest for a national consciousness in art was evident in their choice of subject matter, which ranged from lyrical works with an emphasis on technique and form (Louay Kayyali, Siesta), to figurative works with symbolism adopted by many Palestinian artists (Ismail Shammout, The Exodus) and later made popular in poster art. Lyrical abstraction and indigenous styles that gave the Arabic letter a new visual aesthetic developed in sculpture, graphic art, ceramics, and painting. Iraqi artists who were exponents of the Calligraphic School of Art explored the metaphysical and philosophical interpretations of the Arabic letter (Dia Azzawi, Western Bird). Abstraction appealed to many of these artists, an attraction that can be attributed to their familiarity with abstracted Islamic forms and design.

Islam's discouragement of the depiction of human figures in art was intended to prevent idolatry and was restricted to religious images. This did not inhibit painting, although it may have had an influence on the slow development of sculpture in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also attributed to the fact that naturalistic figuration had not been part of the local artistic traditions since the pre-Islamic period. In the rest of the region, public and private sculpture was typically executed in a formal abstract style (Mona Saudi, Woman-Bird).

In the 1960s, Israeli artists began moving away from fixed styles to a more pluralistic art with diverse forms of expression and technique, including Abstract Expressionism combined with Eastern spirituality (1992.301.2), kinetic art (1991.402.3), and individualistic art with expressive Jewish imagery (1996.343).

Salwa Mikdadi
Independent Curator

Old Baghdad, 1972
Hafiz al-Droubi (Iraqi, 1914–1991)
Oil on canvas, approx. 66 7/8 x 78 3/4 in. (170 x 200 cm)
Baghdad Museum of Modern Art (listed as missing during 2003 invasion)

In 1942, Hafiz al-Droubi became the first artist to open a freelance studio in Baghdad. He studied in Rome in 1936 and earned a government scholarship to attend Goldsmiths College in London. A pioneer of modern Iraqi art, he was a co-founder of the first Iraqi art society and a member of the prominent Pioneers. He is known for establishing the Impressionists Group in 1953, which, in spite of its name, was credited with encouraging experimentation in a variety of Western styles and techniques. He became dean of the Iraqi Fine Arts Academy and was one of the four artists honored by the state at the al-Wasiti Festival in 1972. Al-Droubi, who influenced and mentored a generation of Iraqi and Arab artists, explored Surrealism and Futurism but is known for using the Cubist style to depict local themes. In his works, colors and abstract shapes traverse to create a feeling of spontaneity.

Woman-Bird, 1975
Mona Saudi (Jordanian, born 1945)
Marble, 32 3/4 x 15 x 5 1/8 in. (83 x 38 x 13 cm)
Collection Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Jordanian sculptor Mona Saudi graduated from the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1973. Influenced by the art of Constantin Brancusi, she works predominantly in stone. Saudi has created a number of large-scale sculptures for public spaces, which are on display in Paris and throughout Jordan. Her monumental stone sculptures are often inspired by dynamic calligraphic forms stripped down to their precise and bare essence. Her sculptures are both essence-oriented and abstract, and they allude to her overarching themes of fertility, generational continuity, and the symbiotic relationship between spirit and body.

In Woman-Bird, Saudi depicts a long, totemlike figure with thick curved and winglike arms. The arms, unequal in length, are separated in the middle by a spatial void, which is then followed by generous womblike legs that flank the bottom half of the figure. Sculptural balance is achieved by juxtaposing the short arm with the long leg and vice versa. Although the s Lebanese Village, 1950
Saliba Douaihy (Lebanese, 1912–1994)
Oil on canvas; 15 3/4 x 24 in. (40 x 61 cm)
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art, Doha, Qatar

Saliba Douaihy began his artistic education as an apprentice to a Lebanese artist, during which he painted large church murals. He graduated from the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1937, he returned to his village, where he painted landscapes and the local people. He was also commissioned to paint the walls, stained-glass windows, and ceilings of the Diman church. In the 1950s, Douaihy began to work in the U.S., where his style underwent a gradual change to abstract forms that led him to international recognition. He experimented with the simplification of form and color while seeking flatness. He drew on the concept of infinite space as the ultimate source for his compositions. In Lebanese Village, Douaihy explores the passage of light in the bright Mediterranean sun, his warm colors outlining the abstract dimensions of the painting.

At the Market, 1958
Faiq Hassan (Iraqi, 1914–1992)
Oil on canvas; 36 1/4 x 61 1/8 in. (92 x 155 cm)
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art, Doha, Qatar

Faiq Hassan played a leading role in the anchoring of a modern art movement in Iraq. He showed artistic talent as a young child and was one of the first two Iraqi painters to win a scholarship to study abroad. He graduated from the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1938. The next year, he founded the painting department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, and thus became instrumental in the introduction of European art movements there. In 1950, Hassan established the Société Primitive, later renamed Al-Ruwad (the Pioneers). He continued to exhibit with the group until 1967. His repertoire of styles ranged from the highly skilled academic to a freer Impressionism to abstraction. Continuously evolving, in the end his art developed into a realist style with native Iraqi themes, including paintings of horses and deserts. Hassan participated in many national and international exhibits and in 1964 was the recipient of the Golden Prize of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Iraq. Western Bird, 1995–96
Dia Azzawi (Iraqi, born 1939)
Acrylic on canvas, 300 x 700 cm
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art, Doha, Qatar

Azzawi began painting while a student in the Department of Archaeology at Baghdad University; he also attended the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. His training in archaeology led to a lifelong interest in ancient Mesopotamian culture that is evident in all of his work. He was influenced by pioneer Iraqi artists Jawad Salim and Hafiz al-Droubi, who called for a distinctive Iraqi art rooted in its heritage, from ancient art to later work such as that of the thirteenth-century illustrator al-Wasiti. Azzawi's works are filled with Assyrian and Babylonian figures, his characters, marks, and lines defined by color. In 1969, Azzawi co-founded the New Vision group, which advocated a more individualistic approach with freedom to reinterpret local elements within a sociopolitical context. New Vision works are marked by a profound graphic sensibility. Along with his painting, Azzawi began to produce etchings, lithographs, and silkscreens. He illustrated a number of books that accompanied classical poems, poetic fo Women at an Exhibition, 1945
Omar Onsi (Lebanese, 1901–1969)
Oil on panel, 14 5/8 x 17 3/4 in. (37 x 45 cm)
Collection of Samir J. Abillama

In 1922, Omar traveled to Jordan, where he began painting the desert, camels, tents, gazelles, the royal family, and Bedouins. His fame grew in the region and he soon moved to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian. During this period, he painted portraits, nudes, and landscapes. After the death of his wife, Onsi traveled to Syria for a meditation period of three years, during which his paintings were deeply tragic. He returned to Beirut in 1933 and became known for his Impressionist paintings and watercolors depicting Lebanese nature. Women at an Exhibition features women dressed in black, looking in dismay at nude portraits and holding back a child to shield his view; in the distance, Onsi included a Lebanese woman with modern demeanor and dress looking relaxed in this setting. The painting is a commentary on exhibitions of nudes paintings in Beirut at a time when artists working from nude models challenged the norms of a conservative society.

[Tourists dressed up in traditional clothing, Jerusalem, Palestine], 1910
Khalil Raad (Lebanese, 1852–1957)
Collection Fouad el Khoury / AIF
Image © Arab Image Foundation
Collection of Fouad el Khoury / Fondation Arabe pour l'Image

Born in 1854 in Bhamdoun, Lebanon, Khalil Raad apprenticed in the photography studio of Garabed Krikorian in Jerusalem. He opened his own studio in 1898 in Jaffa on a street facing Krikorian's, setting off a ferocious competition between the two until 1913, when Johannes (Garabed's son) returned from Germany and married Najla, Raad's niece. Just before the outbreak of World War I, Raad left for Switzerland to work with the photographer Keller. In 1919, he married Annie Muller, Keller's assistant. A Christian Arab Palestinian, Raad was the official photographer for the Turkish army during the war. After the British victory, he moved to Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, where he ran a studio until the 1930s. Specializing in Orientalist portraits, he dressed up his models and clients in traditional costume, in front of paintings representing gardens or European castles.

Portrait of an Ancestor, ca. 1900s
Daoud Corm (Lebanese, 1852–1930)
24 1/2 x 18 1/2 in. (62 cm x 47 cm)
Collection of Samir J. Abillama

Corm was ten years old when a Jesuit priest discovered his talents and invited him to teach art at the Jesuit school. In return, the young Corm asked to be tutored in languages. In 1870, he trained under the official court painter Roberto Bompiani at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, studying Renaissance art and the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian. He gained recognition when he was commissioned to paint the portrait of Pope Pius IX, and later became an official painter to the Belgian court of King Leopold II. Upon his return to Lebanon, he was sought after by local elites and officials, and received commissions from churches in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. In 1894, he completed a portrait of Egyptian khedive cAbbas II. His religious paintings convey delicate feelings and deep faith, after the manner of Italian Renaissance painters. Corm trained many young Lebanese artists, among them Omar Onsi and Saliba Douaihy, leaders of the Lebanese modern art movement.

The Exodus, 1953
Ismail Shammout (Palestinian, born 1930)
Oil on carton
Collection of the Artist

In 1948, Ismail Shammout, at eighteen years of age, was made a refugee in his own country. He painted while living in the refugee camp, his images detailing the tragedy of the Palestinian people. At the time, like numerous artists in the Arab world, he painted on cardboard boxes and cartons to compensate for the prohibitive cost of canvas. By 1953, he organized his first solo exhibition in Gaza City, the first to be held by a Palestinian artist in Palestine. Shammout went on to study in Cairo and Rome. His paintings became a testament to the struggle of his people—realistic scenes and portraits depicting the 1948 Nakba (exodus of refugees), Palestinian resistance, and rural scenes illustrating the Palestinian people's attachment to the land. The Exodus reenacts and memorializes the long and arduous journey of refugees that he personally experienced and consistently documents with warm colors and arduous strokes.

Siesta, 1975
Louay Kayyali (Syrian, 1934–1978)
Oil on canvas, 37 3/8 x 19 3/4 (95 x 50 cm)
Collection of Mrs. Mouna Atassi

Kayyali began painting at age eleven; he studied law briefly before receiving a government scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, where he won several medals and awards. His style is distinguished by tight composition and strong lines that define massive figures, which hint at Soviet Socialist Realism. After the defeat of the Arabs in the Six-Day War of 1967, Kayyali sank into a depression and destroyed a collection of thirty black-and-white charcoal drawings that included expressive compositions of tortured figures; the theme was the Arab individual's struggle against a grim reality. Kayyali stopped working for many years, retired from his teaching career, and returned to his hometown, Aleppo, where in 1978 he died a tragic death attributed to suicide. He focused on sociopolitical themes; many works, such as Siesta, featured the daily life of laborers, marginalized and deprived of basic human rights, their personalities underscored by the large scale and expressive features. His paintings