National Pavilion UAE - On Syrian Artist Louay Kayyali | By Nidal Touma
  • On Syrian Artist Louay Kayyali | By Nidal Touma

     Louay Kayyali (1934 – 1978)

    First I would like to mention that writing a biographical critique about an artist is far more difficult than I first imagined, due to the contradicting opinions in media archives on the world wide web, fraudulent critiques are everywhere both praising and disparaging, especially in the case of such a famous artist about whom there are hundreds of articles.

    It is my passion for Art and affection with the humanist character of this great artist that encouraged me to keep going, scrutinizing many article to deliver-what I hope to be- a credible research paper.

    Louay Kayyali (1934 – 1978); a Syrian visual artist, whose name has always been associated with agony and the decampment of Palestinians, particularly with 1967 war and defeat. His artwork provides a window into the lives of the deprived majority of society depicting their daily struggles, and their social and physical challenges on the fringe of socio-political reality of the Arab world.

    He had a tragic life and a terrible death at the age of 44 in what some have deemed it to be a suicide. During his iconic short-lived career he was rewarded with many awards in Syria as well as in Italy. Academically his art production can be segmented into 3 periods; his beginnings 1950 – 1959 (as a painter of rich society), his first golden era 1960 – 1969 (before the defeat of June 1967), his second golden era 1970 – 1978(during and after treatment of his psychotic illness).

    The first period; the beginning:

    The Aleppo-born artist began painting at the age of 11 and held his first solo exhibition at the age of 18.

    Later in 1956 he secured a scholarship to study at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, and simultaneously he participated in a range of exhibitions during his time in Italy, including representing Syria along with Fateh Al Moudarres at the 1960 Venice Biennale. After graduating from Rome in 1961, Kayyali returned to Syria and taught arts for 2 years. He also took part in many art fairs and exhibitions for which his work -mixing realism and expressionism- was highly lauded.

    At that time Kayyali was about to start living his first golden era. However at mid-60′s he began to show signs of serious depression, which was reflected in his art; making gruesome dark-charcoal paintings depicting man’s struggles and unhappiness in life.

    Second period; first golden era

    In what’s considered to be the second period of Kayyali career he produced a series of politically charged charcoal drawings that epitomized the Arab struggle, and showed them in an exhibition called “Fi Sabil al-Qadiyyah” (for the Sake of The [Arab] Cause) in 1967.

    The exhibition traveled among several cities in Syria, however it received an incredible amount of negative criticism from spiteful artists and journalists, prejudging Kayyali’s shift from illustrating daily scenes of the high-society to depicting the highly-looked “Socialist spirit” which prevailed at that time and be closer to the working class. Blabbers such as: “the Painter of the dreamy life wants to teach us about socialism” were maliciously uttered.

    To the people who knew Louay closely; this shift was an honest reflection of his heightened sensibility, where he shunned the lush life and found his cause in turning toward the real people. It is due to this sensitivity that he couldn’t handle the harsh criticism he received at the end of the exhibition and neither the devastating news of the 1967 Six-Day-War defeat with Israel, consequently he sank into a deep depression, announced quitting painting altogether, and destroyed all but one of these paintings  (the saved one is titled: ”the man in a battlefield” , it saved and kept by his brother in law the Novelist Fadel Al Siba’ie), however the artist asked to destroy it later, which can be understood as a sign of losing hope during his suffering with his psychotic sickness.

    The third period; the second golden era, illness and treatment:

    During the years 1973 till 1976 Kayyali had a second era of fame, he bought a house in Aleppo, made several exhibitions in Beirut, Aleppo, and Damascus (where at the latest all 45 paintings were sold even before the opening of the exhibition). During this period he chose themes of still nature, village landscapes, and some recurring motifs that he has dealt with previously, although at this time the characters lacked the usual high emotional charge.

    In May 1977 his exhibition in Jordan was cancelled due to a mistake causing him a significant frustration. One month later at his 12th appearance at the People’s Hall of Fine Arts, he was exposed to harsh attacks of artists and writers again, criticizing his style for depicting the national struggles and “Patriotism” through characters of everyday people; upon whom the artist casted  his usual heightened sensibility to show how their struggles matched those of the nation, unfortunately this did not correspond to the way critics wanted the patriotic cause to be represented to the masses, and  they cruelly claimed that “Kayyali did not adhere to the idyllic image national heroes shall be represented”.

    After all of these turmoils Kayyali decided to immigrate to Italy as an escape, he sold his house and everything he owned and left the country in December dreaming that he would work on his art in Rome in a good atmosphere.
    However, three months later (in February 1978) He returned to Aleppo with a big disappointment to live in solitude. He became addicted to tranquilizers and drugs as if he was committing suicide gradually at the sight of his acquaintances.
    On the night of 10th of September he got burnt in his bed due to a fire caused by his cigarette. He was taken to the hospital where he was treated, but sadly he passed away on the 26th of December 1978.

    Kayyali’s distinguished style:

    Kayyali’s style developed from Realism (his works pre 1960), to expressionism, with a creative use of abstract (his works from mid-60’s onward), affected by his heightened emotional experience started with a refined national affection which took over his life and tainted it with a tragic melancholy

    Some of the modern art critics consider his tragic life and career to be similar to that of Vincent van Gogh  or Francesco Goya (with Gogh’s misery and Goya’s famous “black paintings” made toward the end of his life being affected with his mental sickness).

    What distinguish Kayyali’s style is his master skills to capture the psychological aspect of people in an honest and profound way, away from flashy glitters, giving the portrait more credibility and a powerful  magnitude. For example his works: “the Fisherman”,” the Shoe-Shine Boy”, “Then What”, and others…

    Many writers and novelists produced a tremendous amount of articles to commemorate Kayyali as an iconic and one of the most prominent artists in Syria, though in my opinion Kayyali is far bigger than any praise, and more complicated yet unique than any attempt to capture him in a paper, it will take an incredible amount of honesty to be able to showcase the humanist sensible side of Louay along with his genius talent and unfortunate illness.

    One of the truly fair articles written about Kayyali is the one by the famous Novelist Mamdouh Adwan “in Defense of Insanity”; where he accentuates the importance of being fair toward deceased artists by being honest, there is absolutely no need to mask the controversial aspects of their life with the claim of false respect. Hence Adwan is representing Kayyali as truly insane, and this is what makes him an invaluable asset because this indicates his saneness; for that insanity is a “healthy sign” which is “needed” to counter balance the fake prudence of the mind, it’s a normal outcome for people living life genuinely with all of their souls, and confront its grieves.

    Ultimately Adwan wishes if the insanity of Kayyali was reflected more in his art, that would have made it more valuable.

    “Then what”:

    190 x 172 cm, oil on wood, 1965; private collection of Mr. Khaled Samawi

    A work depicting the tragedy of Palestinian Arab refugees  by showing 11 characters; (8 women, a young man and 2 children) all in standing position,

    Misery is clearly shown on all faces that are illustrated with a grim and downcast gaze looking in different directions, this could be the artist’s way to depict the in-limbo state of the persecuted people. The characters are all barefoot to illustrate the fact of forced eviction the suffered.

    Movement of hands shows conclusiveness and despair at the same time, this style of hands became the typical style of Kayyali. Movements of the bodies indicate the same despair, especially for the man in the middle, who is bending down his head significantly to indicate his deep regret for having to leave his land.

    The composition is positioned at the center of the painting and fills most of it, leaving only small edges for the monochrome-dark-yellow background, which emphasizes the feeling of tension for the artist, and even transmit it to the viewer.

    Colors of the clothes are austere very dark hues of grey, dark brown, and black matching the severe tragedy represented in the motif.

    Considering the elements of the artwork in light of the National affection of the artist might lead us to better appreciate the melancholy tinting the artist personal life, his works, and the spirit of the period which brought sorrow to all Arab countries.


    Louay Kayyali website:

    Mamdouh Adwan; “In Defense of Insanity”

    Al Safeer news paper; Fadel Al Siba’ie , issue: 12495   04/06/2013

    Barjeel Art Foundation website:

    interview with Mr. Khaled Samawi

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