“My character is my biggest privilege,” said Huguette Caland in an interview in 2009, “because I am born happy.” Joy, coupled with humour and a sense of celebration of any subject she chose, emanate from Huguette Caland’s work, perhaps belying the ground-breaking, radical rebelliousness inherent to her practice and the considerable challenges she faced. In a career spanning 5 decades, Caland broke with traditions and spurned taboos, a feminist embracing and depicting the female form, including her own, with defiant gusto while also living her life with the same unconventional verve.
Born 1931 in Lebanon, Caland was the daughter of Bechara El-Khoury who became Lebanon’s first president after it gained independence from France in 1943, when Huguette was 12. “Lebanon was fighting for its independence,” Caland recalled many years later, “but I was fighting for mine.” A member of Beirut society, Caland rebelled, marrying the nephew of her father’s greatest (and pro-French) political rival, with whom she had 3 children, and also taking a lover who appears in her work. In her 30s she began studying art at the American University in Beirut. By the time her children were in their teens she knew she had to pursue her art, and so moved to Paris in 1970, leaving her family and lover behind her though she always maintained close ties. “I had wings to fly, so I said good-bye to everybody.”
Liberated and free, in Paris Caland integrated herself into the artistic community, beginning her Bribes de Corps (body parts) series of semi-abstract, sensual and suggestive paintings of nude body parts, often her own. Already a departure from her own cultural background, the paintings challenged the tall and thin beauty conventions of the 70s with their voluptuous exuberance. Caland also designed kaftans, drawing on traditional Lebanese clothing but giving them her characteristic sense of naughtiness by painting them with nudity. Wearing one of her designs, she caught the eye of fashion designer Pierre Cardin. The two ended up collaborating on over 100 haute couture items.
The works included in The Arts Club’s show, Faces and Places, come from later in Caland’s life, after she had moved to California in 1987 following the death of her Paris lover, artist Georges Apostu. Moving to Venice Beach to be near her children, Caland established a bright and airy studio that became a nexus for such artistic contemporaries such as Ken Price, Ed Moses and Billy Al Bengston. In California she entered a new phase of work, a much more detail-oriented style of painting that evoked cross-stitching techniques. These works capture the spirit of the woven textiles, rugs and tapestries, which Caland grew up with. “My family loved rugs – they were everywhere…,” she said in 2009, “when I see my work, it’s all about rugs, fabric, tapestry.” Also evident are faces – characters whose different parts peek out at the viewer, inviting them to look. Despite living thousands of miles away, her memories of Beirut and Paris – of family, friends, nostalgic imagery of her childhood in Lebanon, her own children – emerge in the paintings she developed while living in America.
Though Caland was contented with life in California, in many ways the community overlooked her extraordinary practice. Caland struggled to find shows and representation. It’s only in more recent years that her work is finally getting its due, included in a show at UCLA’s prestigious Hammer Museum, last year having a solo survey at the UK’s Tate St Ives, a major solo show at Doha’s Arab Museum of Modern Art, and later this year she will have her first US museum solo show at The Drawing Center in New York.
The Arts Club is thrilled to be a small part of the resurgence of interest in Caland’s wonderful oeuvre. We are extremely grateful to Kayne Griffin, in particular to Beatrice Shen, for working with us to make this show happen.
Faces and Places III, 2010
Mixed media on sheep skin
106.7 x 76.2 cm