The Visual Arts of Kahlil Gibran
By: Jordan AbuAljazer / Arab America Contributing Writer
One of the most influential Arab American figures of his time, Kahlil Gibran was an artist of many mediums. Perhaps the medium attributed to him most is that of the written text. Gibran has written many important novels, the most popular of them being The Prophet, a book of twenty-six essays about love, emotion, and faith.
Born in 1883, Gibran Kahlil Gibran studied in both Boston and Lebanon, though he studied most often in the latter. It was in Boston that he met May Haskell, an educator who recognized the value of Gibran’s work and would fund his education and artistry throughout the entirety of his career. With this support, Gibran created works that were heavily influenced by romanticism: large and revealing themes of life, death, love, and religion filled his novels and poetry. And as has happened with many great artists, Gibran’s work has often found new homes in the hearts of the generations that came after Gibran.
For example, his most popular work, The Prophet, is one of the most translated books in history. It’s been translated into over one hundred languages, and it is also one of the best-selling books of the 1900s. The book centers on the character Al-Mustafa, a prophet who is stopped by a group of faithful before he leaves the city. When the group asks for his guidance, he offers them his stories and wisdom.
The Prophet was particularly interesting to many as a piece of counterculture, so much so, in fact, that it found an incredible increase in popularity in the 1960s. Kahlil Gibran’s work is referenced in the 1968 The White Album by The Beatles and the 1970 The Man Who Sold the World album by David Bowie.
Other writings by Gibran include The Madman and Sand and Foam, both books of parables, short stories, and poems. Several books and plays were also published in Gibran’s name posthumously.
Though it is not often mentioned in discussions of Kahlil Gibran, the writer led a healthy and prolific career in the word of visual art as well. Just as he was in his written work, Gibran was heavily influenced by romanticism when he created his paintings and drawings. He was also aspiring to be a symbolist painter, which was part of a mostly European movement to convey truths and stories through metaphors. He primarily used oil paint in his work but would at times make use of other mediums such as watercolor and pencil. Gibran had created over seven hundred visual works before his passing, and they are on display around the world. His work can be viewed in Mexico, the United States, Qatar, and more.
Even during his time, Kahlil Gibran struggled to create awareness of his work in the visual arts. When his first printed collection of his drawings was put on shelves, critics and fans alike were largely left with a sense of confusion. It was difficult for many to transition their understandings of Gibran as a nuanced romantic author to their understandings of Gibran as a n aspiring symbolist painter. This first collection was titled Twenty Drawings, a compilation of watercolors depicting the human form as a symbol of eternity, beauty, and life. The drawings of the novel all come together to feel rather otherworldly, as if the humans of Twenty Drawings have been photographed from a separately world defined by the vision of Gibran.
Stylistically opposed from the rough dreaminess of Twenty Drawings are the paintings created by Gibran during his stay in Paris, France. It was during his time there that he began to use oil paints as a medium.
In this painting titled Self Portrait and Muse, Kahlil Gibran illustrated a self-portrait of himself besides a womanly figure that he identifies as his muse. The muse is likely a symbolic representation of greater themes, something that Gibran does often with his works. Beside him is also a hand extending a large glass marble.
This painting is colloquially known as Rose Sleeves, but it was never titled by Gibran. In it is a woman with red hair and rosy skin holding a harp. She is wearing a red dress along with a crown. Seemingly on her shoulder is a reflection that is painted with blue tones, and the entire painting is illustrated with wide brushstrokes.
The history of Kahlil Gibran as an Arab-American figure of the early 20th century is incredibly interesting. He was able to construct themes in his writings that went on to repeatedly capture the spirituality of readers all over the world. Though it’s not recognized nearly as much as his work as a writer, his drawings and paintings still communicate the same thoughts and emotions that inspired Gibran and so many others.
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