Gibran and Blake

Mónica López Velarde Estrada

Every evening my spirit returns to Paris and wanders among its houses. And every morning, I wake up thinking of those days we spent amidst the temples of art and the world of dreams.

Kahlil Gibran, letter to Youssef Howayek

Gibran and Rodin

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Paris was a “moveable feast.” The avant-garde movements advanced like beasts opening their maws of experimentation and protest. The principal scene of the epic of modernism was Paris. But the City of Light had not done it alone. From Vienna, communicating vessels full of new blood flowed into it through the originality and creativity of the visions of its own heroes: Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Sigmund Freud, Otto Wagner, and Adolf Loos, all of them imbued with the Ver Sacrum, and the Nuda veritas of the Secession and the discovery of the unconscious.

In Paris the artistic milieu was being convulsed by the cubist movement. The first decade of the twentieth century saw Picasso offer a new vision of reality with his great painting Les demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. The bohemians, sentimental survivors of the fin-de-siècle crisis, went from bar to bar discussing the “New Objectivity.” The art world stood in veneration of “the last great heir of nineteenth-century romanticism,” whose work had foreshadowed modern sculpture: Auguste Rodin.

In Boston, around 1908, Mary Elizabeth Haskell was maintaining a friendship with the Lebanese immigrant Gibran Kahlil Gibran. During one soirée she proposed financing a stay in Paris for the young artist so that he could consolidate himself as a creator. The benefactress who would become his “angel from Boston” provided Gibran with the material means to travel to the Mecca of the Western art world.

Gibran Kahlil Gibran arrived in Paris on 13 July 1908. He settled in Montparnasse, a quarter frequented by artists and intellectuals, at 14 rue de Maine. He enrolled in the popular atelier of Rodolphe Julian, through which Matisse, Bonnard, and Léger, among others, had also passed. Avid for instruction, he also audited classes at the École des Beaux-Arts on the rue Bonaparte. He studied under Pierre Marcel Béronneau, a well-known painter and disciple of Gustave Moreau, and frequented the Académie Colarossi on the rue de la Grande-Chaumière, a school which would become famous for having accepting as a student a temperamental young woman by the name of Camille Claudel.

One of the accounts we have of an encounter between Gibran and Rodin comes from around this time. It is said that the future author of The Prophet, made a series of portraits of some of the great figures of the time: Paul Bartlett, Claude Debussy, Auguste Rodin, and Henri Rochefort, among others.

When his stay in Paris was coming to an end, Gibran succeeded in being invited to participate in one of the most important annual exhibitions, the Salon d’automne. He exhibited the painting Autumn, “a melancholy vision interposed between the joy of summer and the sadness of winter,” in the interpretation of the painter himself. It is now in the Gibran Museum in Bsharri, Lebanon. Gibran had submitted The Ages of Woman, to the committee.

Auguste Rodin, then seventy years old and the very image of a universal artist, with his long white sage’s beard, surrounded by an aura of fame, visited the showing at which the young Gibran’s painting was exhibited. But Gibran would have been better off depicting one of the theological virtues: Hope. According to biographer Alexandre Najjar, the sculptor glanced at the painting for an instant and moved on without saying a word.

The phrase “Gibran is the Blake of the twentieth century” has often been attributed to Rodin without any historical foundation. Nevertheless, the comparison between the English poet and the Lebanese poet, our contemporary, has occupied the pens of some and made others thrill with emotion, as they have reflected on the similarities between the two artists and their important oeuvres.

Blake and Gibran

He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing eye can see, does not imagine at all.

William Blake

It might be said that the quest for transcendence is the common denominator between Blake and Gibran. Both were poet/painters and their work bears witness to the fact. Prophets of a land called Creation, they expressed their visions in enduring literature and art.

William Blake was born in London on 28 November 1757 and died in 1827. He was interested in drawing from an early age. At the age of fourteen he entered the workshop of the engraver James Basire, who had him do drawings of the tombs of Westminster Abbey. When he was twenty-one he became a student at the Royal Academy. In 1872 his brother Robert died, and Blake claimed he later visited him in dreams to teach him the method of engraving and coloring text and illustration at the same time, thereby creating a single work in which drawing and poetry illuminate each other.

Blake’s literary career began with the publication of the Poetical Sketches Tin 1783. These were followed by An Island in the Moon (1784), Songs of Innocence (1789), The Book of Thel (1789), and his most famous work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790).

His work, like Gibran’s, is a constant reflection on man and nature. An admirer of Greek, Egyptian, and mediaeval art, Blake belonged to the first generation of the visionary poets of English Romanticism. His mottos might have been: “Dare to feel” and “Have the courage to follow your own intuition.”

For the visionary poets, as for Gibran, faith was founded on something beyond reason, on feeling, not argumentation, on experience. Their religious and metaphysical positions were based on intuition and spiritual delight, not on logic and analytical reason.

From William Blake to Gibran Kahlil Gibran there stretches a bridge through which literary creation transmits a poetry of extreme paroxysm. Artists confronting a materialized world whose poetic destiny is defined by the transcendence of matter.

“A pulsation of the artery” is the English poet’s description of vision. Blake and Gibran give an account of it in their works. Temperament flows through their writings.

In his book Gibran and Blake: A Comparative Study, Radwa Ashour states that one of the features shared by the two artists is that they were notably religious beings who formulated their expression of this condition through mystical precepts of transcendence. The Bible was an important source for both. Both admired the life of Christ, who was ever-present in their works. Blake blended different cultural traditions in order to make something of his own. Gibran turned to the style of the Bible in composing his parables and aphorisms.

Blake and Gibran also resemble each other in their kinship with Platonism and Neoplatonism. The Lebanese writer demonstrated this early on in Music (1905), a copy of which is in the Museo Soumaya collection. Later, in his English-language writings, he would give ample evidence of his knowledge of Plato and idealist philosophy.

Gibran always felt the urge of the artist. His exile from Lebanon, a country abundant in natural, cultural, and linguistic riches, nourished the fire of that Prometheus who, fleeing his own destiny, found in distant lands a gateway to art. Paris, Rodin, and Blake, among other encounters, would widen the creative horizons of one who was never in exile from himself.