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

See works of art
  • Sketch for Jesus the Son of Man
  • Relief Rhythm
  • Self-Portrait with Open Mouth
  • Untitled

Works of Art (5)


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.

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 academic 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

October 2004


Mikdadi, Salwa. “Modern Art in West Asia: From Colonial to Post-colonial Period.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

Further Reading

Faraj, Maysaloun, ed. Strokes of Genius: Contemporary Iraqi Art. Exhibition catalogue. London: Saqi Books, 2001.

Goodman, Susan Tumarkin, et al. After Rabin: New Art from Israel. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Jewish Museum, 1998.

International Network for Contemporary Iraqi Artists (online resource)

Additional Essays by Salwa Mikdadi