Painting as Critique: Oil Painting as a Site for Social and Political Negotiation in Syria

Charlotte Bank
  • Asiatische Studien – Études Asiatiques, January 2016, De Gruyter
  • DOI: 10.1515/asia-2016-0031

Early oil painting in Syria and its importance for social critique

What is it about?

The article discusses the work of the early Syrian painter Tawfiq Tarek, who was one of the first artists in Syria to adopt oil painting in the European manner in the early twentieth century. Rather than following the artistic avant-garde, he painted in the realist, academic manner he had learnd in Paris in order to keep his work accessible to his audience. His paintings follow genres such as history painting and even Orientalism, but they often hold subversive political messages and are declarations of his commitment to progressive and nationalist ideas. In this way, Tawfiq Tarek can be seen as a "committed" and critical artist.

Why is it important?

Early Arab painters have often been dismissed as derivative, not moving beyond simple imitation of European painters. I suggest a different reading, namely that academic genres were chosen consciously by these artists in order to convey progressive messages to their audiences and advocate for social and political change.


Charlotte Bank (Author)
University of Geneva

I hope that my article can contribute to making people look at the work early Non-western painters with new eyes and see them as artists with strong personal commitment and as active agents, rather than imitators.

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