A quest for the essence: Saloua Raouda Choucair’s new show

In Paris in the late 1940s, a publicity-hungry gallerist invited a young, beautiful, unknown Lebanese artist to pose for a photograph alongside Picasso, “before death overtakes him”. Without hesitation, Saloua Raouda Choucair said, “As far as I’m concerned, he’s already dead.”

Did she protest too much? Tate’s poster image for the retrospective Saloua Raouda Choucair is a classic post-cubist self-portrait. The artist has simplified her features into a mask-like countenance; her clothes – white turban, green sweater, ochre jacket – are composed of angular, geometric elements; a background of interlocking jagged shapes underlines the formality of the endeavour. It is an engaging image, dominated by the fierce, unswerving gaze of the almond-eyes and the delicately painted turban, enclosing the head as if to announce self-reliance, the containment of an inner life. Daring you to want to know more, it also keeps you at a distance.

Raouda Choucair is still unknown, and you can see why Tate Modern selected this image to advertise her first western retrospective, which opened this week. But it is a disingenuous choice: the painting is the sole portrait in the show, and a rare figurative work. The only others are nudes, made while Raouda Choucair studied with “tubist” painter Fernand Léger; they subvert his muscly female figures into awkwardly posed blocks of flesh, breasts and faces sketched rudimentarily, to imply a feminist agenda – models reading about art history in “Les Peintres Célèbres”, or occupied with housework in “Chores”.

Essentially abstract in composition, these were a brief, angry interlude in the project Raouda Choucair had already set herself before arriving in Paris in 1948: to develop the geometric abstraction inherent in Arab art within the context of international modernism. Now 97, she has followed this goal unwaveringly since returning to her native Beirut in the early 1950s. “Arab artists,” she wrote in 1951, “did not care to depict visible, concrete reality as perceived by human beings. Rather, in their quest for beauty, they reached to an essence of the subject, stripping it of all the blemishes associated with art since the time of the Greeks until the end of the 19th century.”

Self-Portrait (1943)

Exposure to modernist art and architecture in Paris and Marseille – where she studied Le Corbusier’s “Cité Radieuse” – gave Raouda Choucair rigour and conviction. “Composition in Blue Module” (1947-51), which Tate recently purchased, is a breakthrough piece for the assurance of its interlocking forms with straight and curved edges – variations on Cézanne’s cylinders, cones and cubes, with a large triangle occupying the foreground – in a sombre blue palette, purples and lighter shades allowing subtle shifts within a tonal unity.

It is also formulaic. Over the next decade, Raouda Choucair created series after series – “Fractional Module”, “Visual Meter”, “Experiment with Calligraphy” – that take the line and the curve, basic elements of Islamic design, on a mathematically predestined walk. A module, created by drawing an irregular curving line through a canvas divided into several areas, often four squares, is traced like a pattern, mirrored and repeated in each part of the painting to build a centrifugal rhythm. Painted in a range of subdued, complementary hues, these works are solidly constructed and calmly reasoned but visually unexciting. By “Composition with Arcs” (1962-65), in which thin arc-like shapes reminiscent of Malevich’s suprematist forms line up vertically or horizontally on flat grounds, divided into two colours, the format has clearly run its course.

Raouda Choucair, though, was just hitting her stride – like most women artists who sustain long careers, she really found her voice in her fifties and sixties. Adapting the modular format of her canvases into three dimensions, she now created sculptures made up of interlocking pieces of carved stone, wood or metal, arranged in a sequence, the elements slotting together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with each individual piece contributing to the equilibrium of the whole.

'Fractional Module’ (1947-51)’

The architectural sensibility is pronounced. Some works – the tower-like “Interform”; the labyrinthine, white wood “Poem Wall” and “Poem in Five Verses” – have an affinity with 1960s high-rise and concrete brutalist styles. Others are more uneven and tactile, with ovals or circles hollowed out of a rectangular frame, as in “Secret of a Cube”. These may evoke closed-in Islamic architecture, its domed mosques, inner courtyards and walled-off gardens, with the idea of contained spiritual energy but they call to my mind the open/closed forms that Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were making at this time. And the early 1970s stack pieces – the aluminium “Poem Cylinder”, the stainless steel “Static Dynamism”, the Plexiglas and nylon “Untitled (Inter-cube)” – are a breath away from Carl Andre’s and Donald Judd’s grids of bricks and shelves.

Thus the paradox that is the chief interest of this show: despite working in isolation – she sold almost nothing – and with an obsessive agenda all her own, Raouda Choucair chimes with every western art movement, from 1950s abstract painting to 1970s minimalist sculpture. Yet, calling many of her sculptures “Poem”, or “Ode”, referencing epic Arab poetry where each stanza can be read individually while belonging to a larger work, she announces allegiance to a specific cultural tradition.

Similarly, the “Duals” series, two-part twisting forms divided by a rhythmic wavy line, in brass and aluminium or in different coloured woods, surely proclaim a yearning for unity in Beirut – they were started in 1975, the year civil war began. But they also suggest abstract renderings of the mother-and-child theme prominent through 20th-century western sculpture, while Arab commentators position them as demonstrations of tawhid, Islam’s ideal of oneness. Raouda Choucair’s daughter notes that her mother’s concern was “to express the infinite and the indescribable”, as Islamic art does through “its circles and lines and by its use of mathematics”.

Cool, conceptual, female, politically relevant in an unstable age desperate to find fusion between modernist and Islamic culture, Raouda Choucair is a predictable Tate choice. Tate’s claim that she is “a significant figure in the history of 20th-century art” is excessive; in global terms, she is neither innovative nor especially arresting. I admire her courage and commitment but, at extended stretch, her formalist repetition palls – Tate admits as much by its atypical self-portrait-poster.

While the museum’s ongoing excavation of a generation of late modernists who worked for decades in obscurity – 83-year-old Yayoi Kusama last year; 96-year-old Louise Bourgeois in 2007 – is revelatory, the conceptual framework is narrow. How I wish Tate would sometime turn its spotlight on greater, more personally expressive artists of the same epoch: Swiss sculptor Hans Josephsohn, say, or Leon Kossoff, unshown at Tate for nearly two decades. Their works would create truly unpredictable shows.

‘Saloua Raouda Choucair’, Tate Modern, London, to October 20 www.tate.org.uk

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