Mohanna Durra (b. 1938) is widely regarded as the pioneer of the Jordanian art scene, introducing the European principles of abstraction, expressionism and cubism to Jordanian artists. On November 27th (and running until the 31st of March 2019) the Jordanian National Gallery of Fine Arts opened its retrospective exhibition on Durra’s career, featuring works from 1948 to the present day. artmejo was present on the opening night to be the first to experience the new retrospective and was given exclusive access to the artist himself, interviewing him at his home.

Paintings decorate the insides of the Durra residence (images by artmejo team)

    Walking down Durra’s unassuming street, it is immediately apparent whose house belongs to the artist. In a mass of green trees, the bright red fencing surrounding his garden makes it clear that this is someone who values colour and vibrancy. Inside, we were greeted by a whiff of oil paint coming from recent works gracing the walls, ones yet to be seen by the outside world, while all other spare wall space is dedicated to filled bookshelves. Hours could be spent browsing the array of artefacts on display, were it not for the arrival of Durra himself. Emerging directly from his studio and proffering a welcoming hand stained with fresh paint, we were received like old friends. Over some tea and biscuits, we spent 2 hours with the artist. Throughout, all manner of subjects were broached, from nostalgic childhood memories to the ubiquity of art in everyone’s daily life.

As the surroundings suggest, Durra is a man obsessed by painting, and the pride he feels when talking about the Jordanian National Gallery of Fine Art’s new retrospective is palpable. In talking about the exhibition, Durra gave us never-before heard insights into his paintings’ provenances, which we have shared with you in this review.

Mohanna Durra, Abstraction, Oil on Canvas, 151×301cm, 2016

The all-encompassing exhibition of the artist’s long and illustrious career sees the works divided over four floors, separated into ‘Figures’ on the ground floor, ‘Clowns’, ‘Portraits’ and ‘Drawings’ on the first, ‘Abstraction’ and ‘Landscapes’ on the second and ‘Abstraction’ on the third floor. With 194 paintings taken from private collections, the museum’s permanent collection and Durra’s personal collection, the exhibition brings together a comprehensive assemblage of a lifetime of work as will most likely never be seen again. Durra himself expressed his joy at being reunited with lost works, saying “I was delighted to see many of my old paintings again.”

Mohanna Durra, Cowboy and Windmill, Oil on Canvas, 23×32.5cm, 1948

Rather than show Durra’s work in chronological order, as one might expect from a retrospective, the curatorial team at the Jordanian National Gallery of Fine Arts (JNGFA) have opted for division by subject matter, thus resulting in each section featuring works from Durra’s earliest years to 2018. This unconventional decision is instantly justified by even the most cursory of visits. While Durra has experimented with many artistic styles and subject matters throughout his career he is by no means a linear artist, and one repeatedly witnesses a reversion to specific colour palettes and styles at different stages of Durra’s artistic journey. For this reason, the most reliable constant for Durra’s opus is indeed subject matter over execution, and it is this division that enables us to best understand Durra’s work. As he explains:

My work depends on my mood. Style is not a political party; it is not a dogma. Style is how you feel one morning. One morning you may feel like you want make an abstract painting, and it’s important to be honest with what you’re doing, to be spontaneous.
Mohanna Durra, Untitled, Oil on Wood, 81×119cm, 1967
Mohanna Durra, Three Faces, Oil on Wood, 47×53.5cm, 1959

    This being said, the JNGFA has respected major thematic events in Durra’s career. While a European trained artist, Durra remains Jordanian by nature, and his depiction of the Bedouin and local Jordanian were key subjects in his early years (and they continue to be addressed to this day). It is thus fitting that some of the first works we see upon entering the exhibition are portraits of Jordanians in traditional scenes (such as Untitled, 1966) executed in a realist style (albeit with a hint of abstraction in his liberated brush strokes), highlighting before all else that Durra is a Jordanian artist. And yet, these naturalist portraits are adjacent to abstract works such as ‘3 Faces’ (1959) and ‘Dance and Movement’ (1971) (seen later below) whose brushstrokes are wild and loose, rejecting the naturalistic tendencies of their neighbours, despite sometimes occurring earlier in his career. In the first room in the exhibition, therefore, we are introduced to Durra’s wide ranging stylistic abilities. Nestled between these works a small, simple scene of a Dervish can be spotted, innocent in its subject matter and execution. Dated to 1948, it is one of two works in the exhibition dating from when Durra was just 10 years old, and serves as a gentle reminder of the natural gift that Durra possesses.  Whatever we see from this moment on, it seems to tell us, remember the talent that is required to create effective, expressive abstraction.

Mohanna Durra, Circassian Dance, China Ink on Paper, 49×63, 1982

The insistence on classical training in the fine arts before embarking on the journey of abstraction is something Durra feels strongly about. He says “I believe you have to be able to know how to draw [before you can attempt to be abstract], you have to be able to know the form and the shape in order to develop it or destroy it.” On the first floor, therefore, the viewer is introduced to Durra’s drawings, portraits and clowns. The effortless confidence in the free-flowing lines renders Durra’s sketches breath-taking, with their economy of line reminiscent of Matisse and Schiele’s sketches, while the knowledge of their existence aids the viewer in understanding the traditional artistic skill necessary to successfully execute an abstract work (eg. ‘Circassian Dance’, 1982).

Mohanna Durra, My First Teacher George Aleef, Acrylic on Canvas, 75×50cm, 1960

Among the portraits, the viewer is drawn towards a depiction of George Aleef, Durra’s first teacher while still a child in Jordan. Durra shared the story behind this portrait with artmejo:

When I returned home from Rome, George Aleef, who was my teacher before my departure and who had taught me the scholastic method, the classic lessons about art, he was afraid that I had become so modern in throwing colours on the canvas that he came to my studio and he was almost angry! But then he sat on a chair and I painted him while he was talking, and after he saw [the portrait I had done of him] he forgave me and pardoned me and he said to me “in spite of the fact that you betrayed my teaching, you still have something, a gift.”
Mohanna Durra, Self Portrait, Oil on Wood, 56×45cm, undated

Also on this floor, we are introduced to one of Durra’s favourite subject matters: Faces and Clowns. For Durra, his “fascination with portraits results from the powerful impact of the different facial expressions and the story told by each face.Durra has the rare of skill of being able to express the personality of his sitter while simultaneously transmitting his own artistic character through the canvas. He claims that “for me, the resemblance is not important. Rather it is what she conveys to me, it is the feeling that is important. Everybody emanates some sort of energy, and it is my job to capture that.”  By employing looser brush strokes than used on conventional portraits and forgoing a detailed background in a favour of block colour, Durra focuses the viewer’s attention entirely on the face and breaks the barrier between sitter and spectator, thus creating a portrait that is informal, intimate and warm.  

Mohanna Durra, Clown, Oil on Canvas, 57×43cm, 2004 and  Mohanna Durra, Clown, Oil on Paper, 51×40cm, 1982

While the portrait is important for Durra, the recurring subject matter of clowns suggests that his fascination is primarily with the face itself and in the unlocking of its secrets. While externally exhibiting the attributes of happiness, for Durra a clown can “hide behind [his] mask; putting a smile on other people’s faces in spite of his sadness.”  The works featuring Clowns in Durra’s work date from 1982-2010, once again showing Durra’s long-enduring fascination in recurring subject matters. However, it was in fact as early as 1952, when Durra was only 14 years old, that the fascination manifested itself.

When I was a boy, I went to a movie (The Greatest Show on Earth) featuring James Stewart and in this movie he played a nice, very human character who was accused of something and had to run away and hide, thus joining the circus as a clown. He was filled with sadness, and yet he was making people laugh. I was struck by someone so, so sad still making people laugh. I was so impressed by this story that it keeps on coming back to me.
Mohanna Durra, Clown, Mixed Media on Paper, 14×9cm, 2002 and Clown section at JNGFA with Clown (2002) seen on the far left end

It is with this Clowns series that we are best able to observe the wide range of media used by Durra, ranging from charcoal on paper to watercolour on paper to oil on canvas. Durra is not limited in his artistic talents.

     It is at this point worth noting that an exhibition can only be so good as its curation. JNGFA has found a perfect balance between spacious viewing opportunities and the occasional, intimate space where one can interact with the work on a personal level. Miniature canvases (such as ‘Clown’, 2002) placed in a broader context of larger works serve as a reminder to the viewer to approach the canvas and interact with the painting, encouraging dialogue between the individual and the art.

Mohanna Durra, Abstraction, Acrylic on Canvas, 102×151cm, 2012

Having been introduced to Durra’s more traditional subject matters and styles, the exhibition next introduces us to Durra’s more famous larger-scale abstract works. Throughout the exhibition the viewer is given hints of the textural experimentation that occurs in Durra’s works in the latter half of his career, however it is not until Floor 2 that this is shown explicitly. This writer is tempted to coin Durra’s larger abstract works ‘The Sheet Series’, so explicit is his application of texture in his works. Layering canvas on top of the base canvas layer, Durra creates an almost topographical aspect in his works with creases emerging from the canvasses surface, reminiscent of a crumpled bed sheet. While the shades of blue that are constantly recurring in Durra’s palette of choice feature in his Abstract scenes, there is also the introduction of an emphasis on red and orange. By placing a primarily blue canvas ‘Abstraction’ (2016) opposite its counterpoint ‘Abstraction’ (2012), whose palette is entirely in shades of red, the exhibition succeeds once again in highlighting for the viewer the variety and progression in Durra’s paintings.

Mohanna Durra, Abstraction, Oil on Canvas, 100×100cm, 2016 (not mentioned painting above)

Throughout our conversation with Durra at his home, he repeatedly referenced artists, psychological theories, literature and music. Here is an artist, indeed, but more than that he is an intellectual. When describing his process for creating abstraction, Durra explains that:

I don’t draw [or use underdrawings], I just use the brush, a thick brush at that, because a thick brush will not give details, and through these clouds of whatever colour I throw on the canvas, one can see things. You know, it’s like the Rorschach Test…we may all see movement in a stroke, but how we interpret that movement, it’s different for all of us.  It’s important that you [the artist] give the interpretation of movement as you yourself feel it/want.
Mohanna Durra, Composition 2, Oil on Canvas, 74×96.5cm, 1977

Painting is an art form, but it should not be limited to itself. Durra fondly recalls the Arabic proverb that says that “‘the Arts, when they develop and become refined, meet.”عندما ترتقي الفنون, تلتقي” Poetry meets music, and music meets art. So” explains Durra when you paint you think about these tonalities… you have to listen to what you are doing. It may take a while until you feel comfortable with what you’ve done but it is necessary.”

Mohanna Durra, Dance and Movement, Oil on Canvas, 58×45cm, 1971

The coalescing of music and art is something that Durra, a classical music enthusiast, is passionate about. Whenever he paints, music plays. It was during his 10 years spent in Moscow, where he lived while working as a member of the Jordanian Foreign Office, that the works of Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Wagner caught his attention. In our private audience, artmejo was shown the painter’s sketches of conductors created while watching live orchestras playing at venues such as the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. They reveal an intimate insight into the painter’s attempts to convey musical direction, be it piano or fortissimo, via pen stroke and highlight his recurrent interest in the dialogue between motion and drawing, as can be seen in the “Line and Movement” sketches on the first floor.

Mohanna Durra, Silver Abstraction, Oil on Canvas, 101×181, 2018

On the final floor, Durra’s largest and most ‘modern’ abstract works are displayed. In later works from the 1990s and 2000s Durra appears to leave behind the mixing of paints before application, instead favouring the application of block colours directly from the tube. While by no means pop-art, the resulting canvases most certainly pop, expressing a vibrancy and strength different from any of his earlier abstract works. The confidence in line conveys the genius of the painter. Durra struggled with the confines of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma as a young student. While he sought to express himself with abstraction, his professors sought to mould him into a conventional artist. Durra told us that:

We tend to think that in order to distort a form or to develop a certain form you have to know it first. The trouble with people who have a solid academic background is that they become prisoners of the Academy, let’s call this ‘Academism’. The artist himself should take a certain proportion of what he learns but not be governed by it
Mohanna Durra, Abstraction, Oil on Paper, 49×74cm, undated

In this final floor it is made that clear that Durra has succeeded in his mission to respect his traditional artistic education while not being governed by it. These works, as with all those in the exhibition, are unique in their execution and capture the energy of the artist, an energy that emanates from every canvas we lay our eyes on.

Durra estate door, and the artist in conversation (images by artmejo team)

As our interview with Durra came to its conclusion artmejo was invited into the artist’s studio, a most intimate of sanctuaries. While ironically devoid of paintings (many of the paintings you see at the exhibition have come directly from the artist’s house), the space retained its charismatic aura. Perched on the easel, a half-completed canvas rested. While unfinished, the work hinted at the direction in which Durra’s art is headed, revealing muted pastels and pared down tones. As we made our exit from Durra’s house, a final surprise awaited us. While Durra was recovering from cancer, he told us, he was unable to descend to his studio to paint and as such resorted to new, unconventional surfaces on which to express his emotions. This is how the unassuming front door, appearing as a simple blue from the exterior of the house, came to be covered in an unmistakable Durra Abstraction of soft pinks on its interior. Despite having had a career spanning over 70 years, Durra is still continuing to surprise and develop. A veritable Great.

Click image for artwork details

Image courtesy of The National Gallery of Fine Arts except where indicated