The captivating art of Chawki Frenn

Written by
Mona Iskandar
Published on
October 1, 2004

By Mona lskandar

The war in Lebanon1 still resounds in the creative works of, many artists, leaving a lasting mark which surfaces even when the subject does not directly relate to it. The Lebanese-American artist Chawki Frenn, belongs to this group whose memories of the atrocities of war are deeply inscribed in his psyche. His powerful paintings reveal anger and pain at man, s capacity for cruelty and wickedness.


The impact of Lebanon's civil war in Chawki's work has been admitted explicitly by Frenn. "I was born in Zahleh, Lebanon, where I lived for twenty years. As a teenager I witnessed six years of civil war whosedevastating images and consequences would powerfully influence my work."

Frenn's questionings over the meaning of life in a world of evil and suffering find no reply, but help the viewer contemplate theti111eless concerns of good and evil, life and death, hope and despair, the physical and the spiritual. He calls his paintings meditation in action, saying: "My art questions, striving to offer insights but seldom, presenting answers in a world where neither knowledge nor ignorance is absolute."

Frenn's works exhibit a universal dimension. His social awareness as well as his political and economic concerns, are brought to the fore in the themes of his paintings, and become part of the depth and scope they reveal.

While studying art in the US, Frenn spent his second gradu­ate year in Italy, where his style and work came under the influ­ence of the different Italian schools of art. He adopted medieval religious symbols in Italian Renaissance styles, choosing to blend then, with Expressionism, Surrealism and realism.

In Rome, an accidental encounter left an immense impres­sion on him. He happily recounts that, " Walking down a street in Rome, I chanced upon an antique doll shop, where old and antique dolls are repaired. The front window was stacked with broken dolls, doll-heads, cracked and dust-covered. A few were missing eyes or had only one eye, half closed as if demolished in a state of sleep. I was stunned by the images." Of its impact on his artistic expression, he says: "Therebefore me, amid the inno­cence of a tinker's shop, was a silent metaphor for war and the fragility of the human condition. At that time, I was working on still-lifes and landscapes, inspired by the wealth of Italian ruins and architecture. But the doll's heads continued to haunt me. What initially began as a few paintings of that window became the very source of my personal artistic vision and growth."

Frenn's use of religious images and symbols reveals a crisis of faith and spiritual probing. One of his works called Croissance et Deuil (Growth and Mourning) incorporates many of his spiritual preoccupations. The central figure is a skeleton, wearing a black robe and holding a scale representing justice. He is surrounded by dolls, and on a shelf by his side a doll's head is planted in a chalice, as if it were an offering. On the right side is a Roman nude male sculpture from whose lap protrudes the head of a human, the artist himself. Death, art, religion, and the empty, pained looks of the dolls are juxtaposed to , create the forceful imagery and symbolism, of this painting.

In a triptych, which he calls Arrogance of Despair, he shows on the left panel a barefooted saint, dressed in a modest robe, while on the right panel, clothed in a rich and ridiculous attire, a harlequin stands in an arrogant pose, evoking the material and the worldly. The middle panel holds dolls, heads and masks that surround acentrally placed child-Jesus. To the far right is a colourful court jester, associated with truth, in contrast to the figure directly behind and to the left of Jesus, the devil, symbolising carnal desire, while an owl at the far left, looks over the scene, symbolising wisdom.

The Dance, another triptych that attests to the influence of Christianity on Frenn, shows the contrast between the living (himself),and what remains of man after death. The artist embracing a human skull is are minder of man's mortality, of the inevitability of death, and a celebration of life.

Frenn's concern with political and human rights issues spills over into his canvases and panels. Are We Standing on What We Stood For is a pun on spoken values and the lack of implementation, where George Washington, one of the founding Fathers of US democracy, stands on two giant skulls, while leaning on a Greek column, evoking Western culture and the atrocities committed on the native Indians.

National Interest Versus Human Rights is another painting based on metaphor, where the Statue of Liberty is painted as a lady holding a suit of armour instead of her torch, symbolizing war and domination, while a clenched hand protrudes from the books she is carrying in the other arm. The background as well as the inside of her attire are filled with skulls, evoking the lie of the myth of Ellis Island and the injustices suffered by the immigrants who arrived to the land of freedom.

Frenn recurrently paints himself in many of his works as a participant in the struggles and anguish he is portraying. An out- stretched hand often recurs, exposing the painter's concern about humanity and its follies and cruelty. In La Faible Source de Vie, the artist himself is at the top of a heap of dolls heads, stretching himself out to touch the hand of the man at the bottom of the pile, who is his alter-ego; are minder of Michelangelo's "Creation" painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. But while Michelangelo's stretched arms are relaxed and serene, Frenn's are tense with effort. In Als Ich Ca", Frenn seems frustratingly far from his aim, and in Acceuillir Ses Blessures, the gap is even wider.

Frenn's symbolism leads the viewer to find many interpretations and meanings in his work. While searching for a better and more human world, he is aware of the limitations of art. He says: "A painting will not change history, nor will it stop a war or feed a child. Art will not awaken those who are intoxicated with their ambitions, and drunk with their gains. Nonetheless, a painting is evidence of a period, a glance of the events that create it. You can merely aspire to be a testimony of the power that inspires you." His powerful work has succeeded by disturbing, captivating and challenging.