Fall 2008 Vol. VII, No. 1
Professor John Carswell, who recently retired as director of the Islamic Department at Sotheby’s, was previously director of the Smart Museum and curator of the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. He was a professor of fine arts at AUB, 1956-76, and is currently a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
MG: When did you first arrive at AUB and what were your first impressions?
John Carswell: I first arrived at AUB in 1956, by a somewhat extraordinary route. I had met Maryette Charlton of the newly established Fine Arts Department when she visited me in an underground tomb at Jericho, where I was employed as an archaeological draughtsman. She invited me to lunch in Jericho, and told me she was just about to get married, and was looking for someone to take her place at AUB. Was I interested? For the past five years I had been drawing for various archaeologists all over the Middle East since I graduated as a painter from the Royal College of Art in London in 1951. I said yes, and promptly forgot about it. Some months later, AUB’s Dean Farid Hanania asked me to come and see him when I passed through Beirut. My first impression of the campus was that I had exchanged one oasis for another—the campus was wonderfully green and attractive, quite different from the rest of the city. So I was appointed instructor for the colossal salary of $2,000 per year. I think I can safely say I was the only faculty member ever to have been hired from a Middle Bronze age tomb.
MG: Where did you teach most of your classes?
JC: The Art Department in those days was in Jessup Hall, on the first floor. I taught drawing, painting, and sculpture—as I was to do for the next 20 years, and also participated in the newly established art seminars for the general public—lectures, demonstrations, and visits to collections in Beirut, which were highly popular. I also gave a children’s class on Saturday morning, and amongst my junior pupils were Venetia Porter (now curator of Islamic Art at the British Museum and a leading authority on contemporary art from the Arab world) and your own David Kurani, former chairman of the current Department of Art and Art History—he tells me he still remembers a compliment I paid him about a drawing.
MG: How did you find the students, and how did they compare with students you had taught previously?
JC: As I hadn’t taught previously there were no comparisons to be made. All I know was that I really enjoyed teaching (and still do), and the enthusiasm and freshness of the AUB students. The beauty of it was that the students, however intelligent they were (and they had to be to get into AUB) hadn’t a clue about art, so there were no preconceptions to be broken down. They were wonderfully naïve—practically none of them had had any art instruction at school. They asked questions such as which end of the brush to use (the answer was both). Also, the philosophy of the department was based on the Bauhaus tradition of the school of the Art Institute of Chicago (from which Maryette and a couple of other instructors had graduated) far removed from the European Beaux Arts tradition from which I sprang, with its emphasis on Greece and Rome and the Renaissance. This completely ignored the arts of India, central Asia, the Far East, and Islam. At AUB the instruction was quite abstract, concerned with design, form, and color, and no preconceived ideas about style. In fact, I myself became interested in Islamic art and architecture at that point, simply because I thought it was necessary to understand the tradition from which most of the students sprang.
In retrospect, some of the things we did together might have been considered subversive today, particularly the exhibitions we concocted and held in the now-defunct gallery in Jafet Library. As this was the area between the reading rooms and the toilets, almost the entire student body was automatically exposed to whatever we put on, sometimes to their amazement, and shock, and even protest.
I remember one exhibit in particular, which was inspired by the president’s bemoaning the fact that AUB was falling apart (I think he meant financially), so we bought a hundred meters of white nylon cord and tied the campus back together again. It started in the President’s Office and finished in Jafet Library after covering the whole campus. We had the Engineering School tied on a rope from the rocks opposite, and I asked one of the young architects to pull on it, to experience the sensation of tugging a whole building. They thought I was mad, but I persuaded one student, Nadia. She tugged, and beaming, she pronounced, “It’s wonderful!”
MG: What do you think your students would remember most about your teaching?
JC: That is difficult for me to say. I drove an Alfa-Romeo, then a Morgan sports car from the fishing village of Tabarja, where I lived, which they all certainly would remember. About my teaching, I think they might say it was always unpredictable, but they certainly learned to draw, paint, and sculpt. It was fun, but we made a point of giving extremely hard grades, so it became known that art courses weren’t an easy option.
MG: Do you keep in touch with any of your AUB students?
JC: Yes. After twenty years of teaching, I can hardly go anywhere in the Arab world without having someone recognize me. Amongst those I have kept in touch with I would name Vladimir Tamari (in Tokyo), Huguette Caland (in California), and Samia Osseiran (in Sidon). Others like Zahi Khuri, sadly disappeared without a trace, victims of the civil war.
MG: What were the most important changes during your years at AUB?
JC: The two decades were a time of terrific changes, not least a continuing succession of presidents, some good and some frankly awful. The civil war, which I endured for the first two years, had a terrible impact on the dispersal of the faculty and a divisive effect on the students. Both are now happily restored. As for the Art Department, it moved to more spacious accommodation on the top floor of Nicely Hall.
MG: You recently returned to AUB in May 2008. What were the most significant changes you noticed during your return?
JC: I have frequently been back to Beirut since the war—to Syria and Lebanon. The most significant change at AUB is the landscape, which is now like a beautifully tailored jungle, and the buildings, which have been magnificently maintained and repaired. I have been vastly impressed with the new museum, and the way in which Leila Badre and her Friends [Friends of the AUB Museum] kept the institution alive throughout all the troubles. I have also been pleasantly surprised by the current interest in what we did in the past, and the activities we engaged in, not only cultural but after 1967, political as well.
MG: What was the impact of AUB on your life?
JC: It stimulated my fascination with the Arab world and its historic interaction with both East and West. I also learned to teach, the lesson being to keep it simple and unambiguous, using whatever language is appropriate—English, with French and Arabic thrown in when necessary (as all good Lebanese do). Never use irony, which is inevitably misunderstood as just plain rude. And that Arabic really is the most difficult language in the world.
Contact John Carswell at firstname.lastname@example.org
Professor Arthur Frick arrived at AUB in 1956 to help create the art department and become its first chair. He is a painter and poet who recently retired from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where he was the long-time chair of its art department and also founded the college’s art collection and gallery.
MG: When did you arrive at AUB?
Arthur Frick: In 1955, Maryette Charlton (painter, cinematographer, art educator), and founder of the AUB Art Department and the Art Seminars Program, and Margo Hoff (painter, printmaker) “on loan” to AUB from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago recruited me when they were my students at the Ox-Bow Summer School of Painting at Saugatuck, Michigan. When I arrived at AUB in 1956, the art faculty consisted of George Buher (painter), the acting chairman, who was from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Fay Frick, John Carswell (painter), myself, and Aida Moukheibir, administrative assistant and part-time instructor in the Art Seminars Program. Aida was the first person to receive the masters in art education degree offered by AUB.
The Art Seminars Program comprised a weekly lecture series, studio courses, and Saturday children’s classes. The lectures were presented by scholars such as Ambassador Rudolfo Usigli, Mexico’s best known art critic and dramatist, and the sculptor, painter, and designer Alexander Calder. The courses were well attended. I remember when Zelfa Chamoun, wife of President Camile Chamoun, enrolled in a painting class. A former fashion model, she would sometimes pose for her fellow students. Because of the 1958 Civil War and its aftermath, that splendid program was discontinued.
MG: What was your first impression of AUB?
AF: Aside from it being one of the most beautiful campuses I had ever seen, my principle and abiding pleasure was the superior intellectual interaction between the faculties of the surrounding universities and their diverse communities. I was completely taken in by the aura of curiosity, enthusiasm, passion, and dedication to doing and accomplishment. I was immediately pleased by the students’ involvement in discovery and their willingness to seek varying ways to express themselves. Their ambitions were healthy. I soon realized that AUB was the place I wanted to be.
MG: Where did you teach most of your classes?
AF: I taught in Nicely, Jessup, Fisk, and at the Faculty of Architecture, where I gave the visual courses in perspective and three dimensional design studios for senior architects. We worked with everything from welded sheet metal to poured concrete. Students once built a gigantic mobile for an annual international industrial trade fair held alongside the architecture-engineering building that spanned most of the open space, which was surrounded by the various pavilions. It was a behemoth to suspend. The students wanted to out do the scale of the Alexander Calder mobiles, which were found in the atriums of several buildings in Beirut. Alas, sometime during the night preceding the opening of the fair, their work disappeared. Stolen! Years later, parts of their mobile were discovered in new buildings about the city.
MG: What was the biggest change you noticed at AUB?
AF: Following the 1958 Civil War, considerable enterprise was put into the construction of classroom buildings, research facilities, museum extensions, the building of the superb hospital, as well as the development of Jafet Library. A serious Art Department was constructed with studios for painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics, and photography, as well as design, theory, and art history. We also had an art library, a large slide collection and a projection room—all of which helped to significantly increase student enrollment. We also had increased facilities for music and theater and additional faculty members. Art, music, and theater were combined as the Department of Fine and Performing Arts and the cooperation between these disciplines was significant and did much to promote the fine arts.
MG: What do you think your students most remember about your classes?
AF: Here I must use the term “hopefully.” I hope that the principles they encountered concerning self development, enthusiasm, and invention in my classes endured throughout the courses of their lives. I also hope that they acquired the means to more fully understand their own cultures, as well as others. For those who became professional artists, I hope that they thoroughly learned and incorporated into their artistry meaningful self-discipline and perseverance and that they continue to develop, maintain enthusiasm, and successfully deal with meaningful content and a functioning philosophy of art.
MG: Are you still in touch with your students?
AF: Over the years, I’ve stayed in touch with many of them—David Kurani (painter, actor, playwright, professor); Helen Khal (painter, art critic); Lelia Tai (née, Shahruri—jewelry and product designer, professor); Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui (painter); Hugette Caland (painter, designer); Zareh Maranian (painter, professor); Afaf Zurayk (painter, professor); Farid Haddad (painter, professor); Fuad Debs (graphic designer); Aida Moukheibir (painter, professor). Although many of my former students are displaced and dispersed because of war, economic reversal, and lack of opportunities, many have become successful in the art world and in other fields as well.
MG: Did you stay throughout the war of 1975, and do you have particular memories of those years?
AF: I left September 30, 1976. I remember when strikers and their minions from outside AUB made use of the Art Department to print their propaganda. When they were through, the studio was trashed. That AUB survived and regenerated during those miserable years is a tribute to the courage and dedication of responsible students, faculty, administration, and staff who managed to persevere and develop in spite of insecurity, extortion, and peril. Amongst other criminalities, one cannot forget or overlook the kidnapping of the faculty senate, the murders of two deans, the president, the security officer, a librarian, and others within the community.
MG: What impact has AUB had on your life?
AF: In a word, “profound.” My single wish was to have been able to spend the rest of my professional life within its gardened walls. Although I was reasonably successful in what I did before coming to AUB, and afterwards when I had to leave, I knew that I was cut out to be at AUB more than any other place. It remains a very significant part of who I am.
Contact Arthur Frick at email@example.com
Great tribute must be given to Maryette Charlton. She came to AUB in the early 1950s and established the credit and non-credit art programs, the group major, and a system for bringing visiting professional artists to AUB who significantly enhanced the study of art. She was a true pioneer. Because of her and her unique abilities to attract funding and instill enthusiasm, the Art Department eventually became an integral part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, contributing to the promotion of art in the Middle-East. —Arthur Frick.