Gibran Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese painter and writer, was born on January 6, 1883 in Becharre, a typical mountain village in northern Lebanon, near the famous millenary cedars. Twelve-year old Kahlil, with his mother, half brother and two sisters, fled the Ottoman Empire’s oppression when they emmigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. Sixteen years later, at the age of twenty-eight, he moved to New York City; he died there on April 10th, 1931, and his remains were returned to the country of his birth.
Although an immigrant, he was able to join important intellectual and art circles of his time. As a precocious young artist, he began as an illustrator for the prestigious publishing house of Copeland and Day, soon gaining a reputation as a symbolist painter––first in Boston, and then in Paris where he studied at L’Académie Julian where he was influenced by painters Eugène Carrière, Pierre Marcel Béronneau, and Gustave Moreau. As an author, he captivated thousands of readers not only with his writing in Arabic, his native tongue, but also in English, his adopted language, in which he learned to excel. The success of this poet who wrote about everyday life, this mystic, idealist and visionary rebel who loved nature and was eternally in search of truth, lies in a unique personal blend of pure literary style with colloquial language, incorporating the best of Biblical and Oriental thought.
By 1917, Gibran had met the young publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, who recognized the enormous appeal of the poet’s aphoristic style. Soon Gibran’s The Madman was creating noise in the literary world. With the publication of The Prophet in 1923, a literary legend was born. Acknowledged as the second most read book after the Bible, it was translated into multiple languages and became a phenomenal international success.
Early on, Gibran’s influence in parts of the Mexican literary community was apparent. A young Syrian Orthodox priest, Anthony Bashir, living in Mexico at the time, was the first person to write an Arabic translation of The Prophet, a work originally written by the poet in English! During the mid-twenties the correspondence between Gibran and Bashir (he was to become Archbishop of the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of New York and All North America) revealed a lively dialogue between the poet living in Greenwich Village, New York, and his translator then living in Chihuahua, Mexico. “Only you,” Gibran wrote Bashir, “could have tailored such a beautiful Arabic garment for my prophet.”
In 1934, three years after Gibran’s death, Leonardo Shafik Kaim, a Lebanese immigrant in Mexico, translated The Prophet into Spanish. Then, in 1981, for the fiftieth anniversary of Gibran’s passing, sculptor Ramiz Barquet Landy created a bronze bust of the poet that the Lebanese community presented to Mexico City. Today this portrait resides on the corner of Barranca del Muerto and Minerva, in the Florida neighborhood of Mexico City.
The Soumaya Museum’s introductory Gibran Kahlil Gibran exhibit features only a small part of what is now the largest collection of Gibran’s work anywhere in the world; it includes original manuscripts and correspondence in English and Arabic, notebooks, sketches, drawings and oil paintings by the author, and vintage photographs, as well as several signed first editions of his work and a fascinating group of personal items. This collection of inestimable value is the result of many years of perseverance on the part of Gibran’s godson, cousin, and namesake, the sculptor Kahlil Gibran. In July 2007, he approached the Carlos Slim Foundation in search of an appropriate institution able and willing to protect the collection while sharing it with the world, and to honor his family’s legacy as he had done over the decades––collecting, curating and preserving it.
Kahlil Gibran the sculptor was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1922. His father N’oula, originally from Bsharri, Lebanon, was a cousin of Gibran Kahlil Gibran, and was a carpenter and craftsman who often collaborated on wooden objects with the poet. N’oula immigrated to Boston in 1905 where he met and married Rose, also a Lebanese immigrant––Kahlil was the third of his five children. When the poet Gibran baptized this child with his own name, he transmitted to his godson, perhaps unwittingly, a great responsibility that the younger artist was destined to fulfill superbly. From a very early age, Kahlil demonstrated a passion for art. The young boy visited his godfather whenever the poet came to Boston from his Greenwich Village studio. It was not unusual for family and friends to notice Gibran’s expectations for the budding artist. In fact Kahlil began his painting career as a noted member of the Boston Expressionist School (Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine, David Aronson, Bernard Chaet, et. al.) before turning to sculpture. About his turn to sculpture from painting he once explained in jest, it “helped him sleep better at night.” His incredible energy and tireless activity led him to develop other creative skills that included ironwork, jewelry, and woodworking; he even repaired and built musical instruments, even discovering the secret technique of Stradivarius!
With significant national and international recognition, including two John Simon Guggenheim fellowships, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, and a gold medal from the International Religious Art Exhibit in Trieste, Italy, Kahlil was to earn a reputation as a recognized sculptor. Many of his bronze sculptures adorn public parks in Boston. These include a remarkable commemorative bas-relief portrait plaque of Gibran Kahlil Gibran in Copley Square, Boston, unveiled in 1977 by the Mayor and world religious and academic leaders.
In 1974 with his wife Jean English Gibran, Kahlil co-authored Kahlil Gibran, His Life and World, an exhaustive and scholarly biography of the poet based both on documentation found in Gibran’s personal archive, and on never- before seen material housed in international libraries and collections. The definitive biography presented the first truly realistic portrait of the poet/painter. The sculptor, Kahlil Gibran, became a beloved and popular figure in Boston’s cultural scene. It was not unusual for folks to greet him with easy affection and sincere admiration during an opening or public gathering.
When the poet Gibran Kahlil Gibran died, he left the rights to his unpublished manuscripts outright to his sister Marianna. Mary Haskell received the artwork, including drawings and oils, his library and personal belongings in his studio in New York in the will, but she waived her rights and released all these to Marianna. Marianna, the Executor of his Estate, and Mary Haskell, a close friend of Gibran, together with Barbara Young, his secretary and confidant, fulfilled his last wishes—those works that he had often earmarked for his hometown were sent to Bsharri; he depended on the immediate family to help Marianna take care of the rest. Years later, the young Kahlil had become not only her favorite relative, but also a trusted and reliable personal assistant.
Kahlil shared with us his recollection of one day visiting her when he found a box with Gibran Kahlil’s manuscripts in “Aunt Mary’s” home––she generously told him to take them and care for them. This magnanimity of spirit gave rise to an intense determination in Kahlil to track the artistic path of the poet and to learn everything he could about him. Custodianship of those manuscripts, and later of Marianna’s entire collection, transformed the young Kahlil into a dedicated curator who was to fulfill this role with great responsibility and uncompromising dignity.
Marianna, like her brother Gibran, never married nor had children, and upon her death in 1972 she gave Kahlil the responsibility of caring for what she had preserved. Throughout the years he not only maintained what fate had entrusted to him, but he deemed it a major part of his life’s work. He dedicated endless hours and resources on increasing and enriching the collection; he searched galleries, bid at auctions, and contacted people to obtain more of his godfather’s drawings and oils, as well as his correspondence. The collection he built remained secure in several safety deposit boxes and an enormous vault at a downtown Boston bank. Today these holdings belong to the Museo Soumaya.Fundación Carlos Slim.
Although the younger Gibran lent drawings and oil paintings to several museums in different cities and countries, his dream was to eventually open a Museum dedicated to the poet where he could exhibit the entire priceless collection of art and documents gathered throughout the decades. When Kahlil turned eighty-four years of age, he recognized that he might not have the time to fulfill this dream personally, and with the help of his lifetime friend, private art dealer Stuart Denenberg, he found the ideal solution in Fundación Carlos Slim.
Once he had insured the future of this unique collection, Kahlil Gibran, the sculptor, godson and cousin of the Poet was able to rest in peace. He passed away in April 2008 with the comforting knowledge that he had accomplished his mission. Those of us who were privileged to meet him will never stop valuing his laudable activity as a collector; but we especially remember and admire his vitality, his artistic creativity, his sense of humor and his human warmth—he was a direct link to the humanity of his legendary cousin, the poet and artist he knew as “Uncle Gibran.”