French-Lebanese contemporary artist Mouna Rebeiz was classically trained in the tradition of the Old Masters. Over the course of her career, however, she has developed a personal style that is decidedly modern, engaging with a wide range of subjects, themes, and materials.
In 2018, her solo show “The Trash-ic, or Trash in the Face of Beauty” at Saatchi Gallery, London, featured 17 works that played on the concept of trash, or, as she described it, “something you don’t want to live with, something you reject.” The works in the show reflected on a cultural period of filtered realities and depreciated personal connections.
This past year, Rebeiz was selected to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, where she presented “The Soothsayer” (2022), comprised of 22 works based on the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseille. Painted on polished aluminum panels, and employing styles and compositions of the Old Masters, the works aim to symbolize and reflect ideas of psyche and self-awareness.
We recently spoke with Rebeiz to find out more about her practice and the inspiration behind “The Soothsayer.”
Can you tell us a bit about your background? What inspired you to become an artist, and how did you get your start?
I grew up surrounded by musicians, painters, and poets who influenced my painting. I was always fascinated by the multiple facets of the human being and the human psyche, hence why I studied psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris.
In 1995, I met Alix de la Source, a lecturer at the Louvre specializing in 18th-century painting, who taught me about the techniques of the great masters. I also perfected my mastery of patinas in the Renaissance courses I studied with Abraham Pincas, a painter and teacher at ENSBA Paris, along with Mohamed El Rawas, a Lebanese painter and engraver teaching at the Fine Arts School in Beirut. In my works, both figurative and abstract, I capture the energy of life itself, and the life of woman, in its simplest expression, as a universal crucible of emotion. My sculptures are set to the rhythms of the present time in the playfulness of space.
You frequently engage with a range of nontraditional materials, from trash to A.I. tools. Are there unifying themes or ideas across your oeuvre, or are you always looking to work with something new?
I do not seek to work with new materials just because they are new but because they best express my thoughts. For example, for “The Soothsayer,” I choose polished aluminum at human scale for its mirrored quality so as to create an immersive device—because the tarot is the mirror of the soul. Another example is the choice of material for “The Totems,” which are made of transparent Plexiglas to better express the element of transcendence inherent in them.
My recurring theme would be the woman, whether in my “Betty Boop” or “The Tarbouche” series, which are all about confronting reality and virtuality. This is in opposition to the classical approach, which renders the original beauty of the female body, and the modern angle, which markets an “airbrushed” version as the ultimate object of desire.
In “The Tarbouche” I show just how far the “woman-being” surpasses all contradictions. I chose the tarbouche, an object that in cultural and historical context was essentially a male article of clothing and put it on the head of a naked woman to recall her place in the world.
Another theme that is dear to me is the human psyche, the archetypes. The universal story related in the 22 major arcana cards of the tarot deck recalls the existence of humanity, the passage from innocence to enlightenment. To follow this journey, the cards are numbered from 0 to 21, the 0 being the Fool and the last card in the deck being the World.
Can you talk about your creative process from a practical standpoint? What’s the most important tool in your studio? Do you plan everything out or is it more intuitive?
There are no rules for me. I don’t have a pre-established roadmap. I work intuitively. And, besides, the creative process is part of the mysteries of life.
Music is the most important tool. I’ve always worked with music, and it is from here that the concept of transcribing music into painting came. Between emotions, senses, and pure creation, my “Operas” invite the viewer to contemplation; a unique approach that is quasi-metaphysical.
This year, you presented “The Soothsayer” at the 59th Venice Biennale. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this body of work?
The whole work was conceived as a vast installation revolving around mystery, spirituality, and revelation. I don’t know why I approached the tarot. I’ve never had a tarot card reading, but I’m fascinated by the richness of the images on the cards. There’s everything in the tarot: numerology, astrology, astronomy, alchemy, kabbalism, paganism, and Christianity. Before “The Soothsayer,” I wanted to speak about the emptiness in our existence, a De Chirico-type metaphysical void with its lifeless stations…When we are isolated and no longer have much faith in anything, we begin to question ourselves deep down inside; it’s an essential process of introspection. Then I turned towards the tarot, and from there towards divination. When one loses all hope, one seeks to hold on to the truth. Since we are in the age of artificial intelligence, I decided to connect it with the art of divination. “The Soothsayer” will replace the fortune-teller of yesteryear. It’s an improbable coming together of the spiritual and A.I.
What do you hope viewer’s experience of your work is like? What do you want them to take away with them?
I wanted to talk about magic, about life and color, and an enchanted world. I wanted to give joy because we lacked togetherness. I added many colors, a little magic, playfulness (as in Johan Huizinga’s , play is a part of human nature), humor, and comic strip art. I wanted to combine the spiritual with the playful, the sacred with the profane.
What artists, historical or contemporary, have influenced your work the most?
I was inspired by many artists from different eras. My abstract work was influenced by J. M. W. Turner, especially at the end of his career when his work announces the beginning of abstraction.
And by Clyfford Still, where he best expresses this tearing of the being involved in the creative process.
Speaking of my figurative work, the female body has always been a recurring theme in my paintings. Therefore, I have been very much imbued by the sensuality and opulence of Rubens and the tormented soul of Bacon and Schiele through their depiction of bodies.
I would like to end with this quote from Kant: “Genius is the natural endowment that gives the rule to art.”
What are you currently working on, or hope to work on next?
I am currently finishing the “Flower Power” series that I started before the pandemic, which was interrupted because I was selected to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. The question was: What will “flower power” be in 2020? The days of Jack Kerouac, the Beat generation, and the counterculture revolution of the 1960s are long gone—but have we truly left them in the past?
And I have to finish the whole tarot deck. I already composed the remaining 56 minor arcana.