The Pictorial Universe of Kahlil Gibran

The Pictorial Universe of Kahlil Gibran

by Eva María Ayala Canseco

The Bohemian Club of Boston

When Gibran Kahlil Gibran and his family arrived in the United States from Lebanon, they encountered a nation in the midst of an industrial boom. The city in which they would settle was Boston, the scene of great historical events in the United States. Florence Pierce, the young Kahlil’s teacher, recognized his exceptionally precocious talents and sought to guide his education. It was then that Gibran made the acquaintance of Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), philanthropist, publisher, and leader of the American pictorial photography movement, who took Gibran under his wing and introduced him to a world he would conquer with his charisma and talent: that of the opulent Boston intelligentsia.

In the “American Athens,” master and pupil enriched each other’s creative facets. Day helped the artist economically and also guided him in his reading in a way that would later influence his work. The young Lebanese artist soon became a subject of numerous portraits and his drawings illustrated some of Day’s well-known publications.

In the Gibran collection of the Fundación Carlos Slim there is a sampling of photographs by great artists such as Day, Frederick H. Evans, Edward Steichen, and George W. Harting. Executed in the noblest of pictorial techniques, the platinum print, or platinotype, they recall a world when the most revolutionary scientific and technological advances coexisted with currents of oriental and classical thought and even with spiritualism.

Lovers of the Mist

We take delight to-day in subtler gradations, in semi and quarter tones, the losing of forms in mystic shadows….Grey is the colour of modern life.

Sadakichi Hartmann, The Whistler Book

In 1880 the first commercial cameras began to go on sale, at first becoming popular, owing to the cost of materials, only among the wealthier sectors of society. On both sides of the Atlantic, clubs of amateur photographers sought recognition of their artistic talents.

For the pictorialists, the work was composition and study. It involved the careful arrangement of the scene, the prolonged study of models, the search for symbolic representation, and exhaustive darkroom experimentation with techniques and supports.

The initial rather academic style turned out to be somewhat stiff and rigid. Among certain artists, especially in France and Great Britain, there developed a contrasting trend of evoking poetic impressionism. Rather than following the contemporary French movement, American photographers turned toward the pictorial tradition and added elements of symbolism, such as the exploration of inner life, as well as ornamental and allegorical aspects, to the formal language of tonalism.

Tonalism was a movement in American painting which began around 1880 and lasted until 1915. It was characterized by misty tones and the use of predominantly neutral hues such as grey, brown, and blue. Art critics began to use the term “tonal” to describe these paintings. The most prominent painters associated with the movement, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and George Inness (1824-1894), sought to represent nature and the emotions awakened by it,

Pictorialism developed in open conflict with the advertising of the Eastman Kodak Company that led amateurs to acquire photographic equipment: “You press the button, we do the rest.” It was the first movement to attempt to distinguish artistic photography from that of amateurs.”

Two publications were decisive: Pictorial Effect in Photography: being hints on composition and chiaroscuro for photographers (1869) and Naturalistic Photography (1889). The latter drew on the most advanced studies in optics to offer advice on achieving out-of-focus effects. The author, Peter Henry Emerson, recommended using special lenses, though he warned that “the so called ‘fuzziness’ must not be carried to the length of destroying the structure of any object, otherwise it becomes noticeable…and is then just as harmful as excessive sharpness would be.”

The Reign of the Platinum Print

The lasting charm and mystery of the work of the American pictorialists were achieved in large part to the monochrome printing process of the platinotype or platinum print. The artists valued the variety of tones they were able to achieve: the fine texture of the black and the matte surface, with its high content of textile fibers, which made the photographs resemble canvases. The platinotype process was patented in the United Kingdom by William Willis in 1873. A decade later, a platinum paper designed as a support went on the market. Around the beginning of the First World War it was discovered that platinum was an excellent catalyst for explosives and the metal became unavailable. When the paper stopped being manufactured in 1917, many artists—including Fred Holland Day and Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943)—abandoned photography.

Between Lenses and Cameras

In the Mexican collection there are at least ten magnificent platinum prints. One of the works most appreciated by Gibran was the portrait of the poet and dramatist Josephine Preston Peabody (1874-1922). The young Gibran was enamored of Peabody’s beauty and drawn to her by intellectual affinity. The portrait is charged with the mystery and eroticism that characterized all the work of Fred Holland Day. The semitones of the subject’s clothing are rendered with a sfumato effect that recalls the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Captured in a nighttime setting, the subject crosses her hands in front of herself as her face and right eye emerge from amidst grey tones. The form of her left eye can only be guessed at in the darkness. This sort of prophetic gaze was common in the work of the pictorialists, as for example in Solitude, Fred Holland Day, which Edward Steichen (1879-1973) exhibited at the Salon du Champs-de-Mars in Paris in 1901.

In 1902 Gibran and Day met again in Boston. Gibran had returned from Lebanon owing to illness and the death of his sister Sultana, while the photographer was back from Europe where he had exhibited his work. Day had also brought an emblematic photograph with him: F. H. Day in Algerian Costume. The portrait had be taken by Evans, the most prominent English artist interested in photography and a member of the most important British association of photographers: the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring.

The photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn described the circumstances in which the portrait was made:

Holland Day had been to Algiers to make some ‘native’ photographs and he returned with a number of Arabic costumes, and so one evening we dressed up in some of them and went to call on Evans. There were then, as always, many foreigners in their native costumes walking the streets of London, and so no one paid the slightest attention to us, but Evan’s housekeeper nearly fainted away when she opened the door and beheld us. Evans however rose to the occasion and did the obvious and entirely correct thing—he photographed us!

The story reveals Day’s fondness for stage settings. The philanthropist, avid for universality, enjoyed re-creating different paradises: now the Middle East, now the Middle Ages, Africa, or utopian Arcadia. In spite of the fantastical ambience that surrounded Day, when Gibran returned to Boston from a stay of two years in Paris in 1910, he found the city too slow and “full of silences.” He decided to move to New York City, where he met George W. Harting (1877-1958), a member, since the society’s founding in 1917, of the Pictorialist Photographers of America.

The Lebanese writer posed for Harting on several occasions. The photographs capture him with an insouciant air: in a painter’s smock, in Arab garb, smoking a cigarette, playing the violin…Gibran inhabited the mystical and spiritual world of pictorialism with fascination and his paintings reflect its motifs: ethereal nudes, nebulous faces, forms that in their very lack of definition offer glimpses of symbolic and subjective truths. Thanks to Fred Holland Day, Gibran’s work represents the unusual case of painting receiving the influence of symbolism by way of photography. The Boston philanthropist warned against the perils of technology and called on artists to remain outside “the bastions of materialism.” His pupil shared with him a faith in the universality of humankind and, although Gibran constructed his own creative destiny, he addressed his mentor with affection: “you, dear Brother, who first opened the eyes of my childhood to light.”

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Photograph by Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) Gibran aged 14

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