“I love every minute of my life,” said the artist who made this painting. “I squeeze it like an orange and eat the peel, because I don’t want to miss a thing.”
Have you eaten orange peel lately? It’s oily and bitter. But if Huguette Caland knew some bitterness in her life, she also had a knack for prolonging life’s sweetness.
Caland painted “Visages” in 1979. Ravishingly beautiful, it’s a square-shaped painting with 31-inch sides that was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.
Caland was born in Beirut in 1931. When Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, her father, Bechara el-Khoury, became the country’s first president. Forced to resign after nine beleaguered years in office, el-Khoury can’t have been thrilled when, that same year, his daughter married Paul Caland, a French-Lebanese man who was a nephew of one of his political rivals.
But Huguette wasn’t naturally rebellious so much as libertine. She and her new husband both took lovers soon after their wedding. But she also devoted many years to caring for her father as he aged. She only enrolled at the American University in Beirut and became serious about painting after he died in 1964.
In 1970, tired of the weight of her family name, Caland left her husband, their three children and her lover, and moved to Paris. “It was such a freedom, to wake up all by myself in Paris,” she later told the Los Angeles Times. “I needed to stretch.”
In Paris, she could explore erotic themes in ways she couldn’t in Beirut. She began a series of paintings she called “Bribes de Corps,” or “Body Parts,” to which this painting belongs. In French, “bribes” can also mean “bits and pieces” or “scraps,” and there was a sense in which Caland’s immaculate, gorgeously colored renderings elevated something regarded as abject into something smooth, tumescent and transcendently beautiful.
They invited you to dream. And they encouraged those dreams to be erotic.
The forms in “Visages,” one of the last in the series, are abstracted, but they suggest real-world phenomena. The shapes at the top of the painting could be feathers, flower petals, plant fronds or stylized tufts of body hair.
The composition’s two main yellow forms are rimmed at the center by shading, subtly graduated to suggest volume. They are separated by a thin line of white which, at the bottom of the canvas, sprouts two rounded forms that evoke testicles or eggs.
The painting clings, like any good lover, to ambivalence: Should we read the white as negative space or positive form? Are we looking down on something or across at it? And if the color yellow, spilled from the sun, represents drenching bliss, how much of it exactly can we bear?
Caland didn’t just paint. She also sculpted, drew and worked with textiles. In the late ’70s, she collaborated with Pierre Cardin on a fashion collection. In 1987, after the death of her latest lover, the Romanian sculptor George Apostu, she moved to Los Angeles to be near the children she had earlier left in Beirut. But near the end of her life, she returned to Beirut to care for her ailing husband, from whom she had never divorced.
Artistic accomplishment is so often linked to suffering. Did Caland’s happiness inadvertently act as camouflage, obscuring the depth of her achievement? She wasn’t given her first museum solo show (at Tate St. Ives in England) until 2019, the year she died.
The art historian Kenneth Clark once opined that no aesthetic sensation lasts longer than the smell of an orange. Perhaps so, but he hadn’t met Caland, whose art continues to prolong her most blissful sensations long after her death.
Huguette Caland’s “Visages,” 1979, is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.