The first step you take into the Nicolas Sursock estate transports you directly into another world, where art in all of its forms exists freely and peacefully, away from all forms of oppression happening outside the gates. You are first taken aback by the magnificent architecture of the villa combining east and west, virgin white paint and stained-glass. The villa was turned into a museum following Sursock’s will. After massive renovations, the museum reopened its doors to the public last week.
The ground floor of the villa is made of twin galleries, each currently housing audio-visual installments about Beirut- its streets’ history, its architectural evolution, the shared spaces within it, and the interaction between the buildings and individuals. “What does the city look like when it is reflected upon, distanced, and transformed through the lens of art?” asks 98weeks, a research project, throughout four workshops that took place in Beirut. The account of these workshops takes you through a multidisciplinary journey across the city, on foot, by “service” (or public taxi), both horizontally and vertically. You also get to experience a road trip through the Occupied Palestinian Territories on one of the TVs hanging on the wall of the gallery, wondering how two places that are so much alike do not have the chance to interact properly.
Moving upwards, through stairs housed in modern glass structures, you are hit by the fine mélange of classical and contemporary. The first floor consists of different galleries, a mesmerizing Arab salon with Arabic calligraphy painted on wood and carved in marble, and Nicolas Sursock’s preserved study. The collection galleries include paintings by Lebanese artists; painters from the 20th century who were often sent to France and Italy as apprentices and who returned to paint here. The portrait gallery includes pieces by César Gemayel, Daoud Corm, Habib Srour, and Omar Onsi. The landscapes and genre scenes gallery holds paintings by Moustafa Farroukh, Georges Sabbagh, Georges Schehade, Georges Cyr, and Khalil Zgaib. Another room on this floor contains the Fouad Debbas collection, a collection of old photographs from various Beiruti and Arab studios. These photographs show the different social components that formed the Lebanese society of the late 19th century.
Another gallery, on the second floor, is comprised of paintings and sculptures showcased at the yearly Salon d’Automne from 1961 to 2012, whose posters are on display at the museum. It features Lebanese artists and foreign artists who resided in Lebanon. The museum introduces the viewer to paintings from various styles, mostly abstract. Some of the artists on display are Halim Jurdak, Laure Ghorayeb, Hussein Madi, Simone Baltaxé-Martayan, Juliana Seraphim, Wajih Nahle, Théo Mansour, Paul Guiragossian, among others. This multitude of pieces overwhelms the Lebanese viewer who is unfortunately not used to such grandiose displays.
The basement of the villa was converted during the renovation into a vast exhibition space. It currently encloses a collection of hundreds of pieces narrating Beirut’s history entitled “Regards Sur Beirut”, 160 years of images of the panorama, the port, the city, the littoral, and the suburbs. The museum offers yet another fascinating journey throughout Beirut, across space and time.
After a sort of magical trip through the city’s history and the country’s art, you are but to feel a sense of cultural gratitude. This museum does Nicolas Sursock’s will justice as it serves as a lieu of cultural and artistic meeting. You cannot but leave this place satisfied and enchanted by the journey you embarked on into the wonders it has to offer.
Tania El Khoury