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Volume 29, Number 4July/August 1978

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Through a Glass Brightly

Written and photographed by Penny Williams-Yaqub

In the noisy suqs, local tea-houses and comfortable homes of many Middle Eastern cities, fortunate visitors can still find examples of a centuries-old folk art that may now be undergoing a revival: painting on glass.

In these fragile and little-known works of art, well-loved legends and tales - of, for example, Harun al-Rashid, a caliph of the Golden Age, Antar, a Syrian warrior, and others - come alive in vivid colors and vigorous naive renderings painted in reverse on the backs of panes of glass. They testify clearly to the hold these stories from the romantic past still have on the imaginations of all who know them.

The technique of reverse glass painting was developed at least 600 years ago in Europe. The Murano glassmakers of Venice, for example, turned out inexpensive copies of great-master paintings in the 15th century, and the glassmakers of Bohemia later simplified the designs, brightened the colors and turned glass paintings into an art form of unsophisticated appeal that spread through Bavaria and the Balkans. From there, the technique passed to the Turks and then to the Arab East.

As the name suggests, reverse glass painting reverses the artist's normal procedure. Instead of applying paint to the front surface the artist works on the back of the glass and, since every stroke is seen from the front, must adjust himself to a looking-glass world. The final details of the picture, for example, are painted first, so that such elements as shading and highlights - normally painted over the central colors - will not be obscured when the completed work is seen through the pane.

There are three basic kinds of glass painting. One includes purely decorative panels, sometimes set into cupboards or other furniture, showing, for example, a pair of birds, a garland, butterflies, or a vase of flowers. They are usually done in fresh, gay colors, and in other days were often used to decorate a bridal chamber. The second type is calligraphic, and was once in great demand for mosques as well as for homes and shops. These glass panels are more sophisticated in their execution and more sober in color - usually dark red, black, ocher, silver and gold. They frequently show a single verse from the Koran, or a phrase such as the bismillah -sometimes woven into the shape of a crescent moon, a bird or a flower (see Aramco World, July-August 1977).

But these religious quotations are much more than instructive or decorative. Whether hung high at a tilt over the proprietor's desk in a sweet shop or set into rondels in a Damascus home, they suggest the power and presence of God.

The third kind of glass painting - and today the most popular - is figurative and naive, a folk art depicting heroes and heroines, battles and events both legendary and historical, all made larger than life by popular imagination and affection. As befits such stories, the painters use bright colors - filling in the black outlines flatly, as a child does in his coloring book - and the subject matter is very graphic, allowing the viewer to see his hero at the height of his heroic and usually bloody battles.

In the Arab world, these glass paintings originally developed as spontaneous illustrations of the tales told by the professional story tellers or hakawatis. Each evening the men would gather in their local coffee house to sip coffee, or tea, smoke and listen to the installments of a story which would continue for as long as six months. As time progressed, both the hakawati and the listeners would become very involved with the stories - sometimes to the extent of taking sides in the battles and occasionally even coming to blows. And when at last the hero won his battle and married the heroine, a glass painting, it is said, would be commissioned to commemorate the event. It would usually hang in the coffee house where the story had been told. Or according to another version a well-to-do client would invite the entire group of habitues to his home, where he would underwrite a celebration of the story's conclusion and then order a glass painting made to hang in his salon.

Thus arose a new craft - in answer to a demand from people who loved the legendary heroes it pictured. Most of the painters were involved in some form of popular entertainment - the itinerant' puppeteers, or the shadow-puppetmen - and occasionally the story tellers themselves would do the paintings. But the craft, nevertheless, flourished for centuries, particularly in Syria.

There the most popular of these stories was that of Antar ibn Shaddad, a slave who, through courage and prowess as a warrior, won emancipation and the hand of his cousin, Abla. Historically, Antar was a renowned pre-Islamic poet and warrior, but during the age of the Crusaders his legend was so expanded that today's version of this epic is 32 volumes long and the hakawatis who specialized in relating his exploits came to have a title of their own: anatirah, roughly "the tellers of Antar stories."

Antar has come to personify the most courageous of Arab warriors, whose most precious conquest was Abla. Before allowing this marriage, Abla's father set Antar many dangerous tasks - ten volumes' worth. One of the tasks was to secure for his bride-to-be a gift of Asafir camels, bred only by Mundhir, King of Hira, in Iraq, and a glass painting of this event shows Antar in triumph, herding the Asafir camels before him.

Other characters commemorated in Damascus glass paintings include Harun al-Rashid and his prime minister Jafar; Nasreddin Hoja - sometimes Goha or Juha - the wise simpleton of international fame (see Aramco World, May-June 1971); Sultan Baybars, the Mamluk ruler who finished off the last of the Crusaders and drove back the Mongols; and many others.

As the centuries passed, the popularity of glass paintings both waxed and waned, but at one point they were shown at a successful art show in Paris. This occurred after the curator of the Azem Palace Museum in Damascus commissioned a few examples of popular glass painting, and, recognizing their importance as a folk tradition, collected and displayed a representative sampling. Among them were some works by a man named Abu Subhi Tanawi who ran a small housewares shop in Damascus and did a few glass paintings as a not very important sideline.

As the Museum's exhibit attracted some attention, however, Abu Subhi began to turn out a steady stream of glass paintings and gradually won a reputation in Syria and abroad. Eventually, in fact, art dealers from Beirut began to buy large numbers of them - one bought 50 at one time - and one Swedish woman regularly sold 20 or so glass paintings a year in her Stockholm art gallery, thereby earning herself an annual vacation on the Lebanese beaches. Finally, Abu Subhi himself had a successful show in Paris.

Unfortunately, not many of the older glass paintings survive today. Although the artists used durable natural colors - colored earths, plant dyes, ground malachite and lapis lazuli in an eggwhite or gum arabic medium - the glass broke easily. And Abu Subhi's works, although done more recently, were painted in cheap household enamel kept in open cans and continually thinned with turpentine; as a result the paint tended to flake off and eventually adhere to the cardboard backing. There are some private collections and examples do hang in museums in North Africa and Iran. But they are far from numerous.

The future, however, may be as bright as the paintings themselves. Although some glass paintings sell cheaply in tourist shops, the prices for good antique paintings are rising and young painters, interested in the possibilities of the medium, are consciously experimenting with glass-painting techniques. This in turn has led amateurs who want cheap decorations for their shops or cafés to try their hand. If the trend continues glass painting at least in a limited area - North Africa, Lebanon and Syria - might revive.

Indeed, in Damascus, one can already talk of the "school" of Abu Subhi. Since the old man's death, his sons and daughters - some of them in their 50's - have continued to paint, always signing their father's name. Their painting style appears much more controlled and their colors more vivid than his, but to some observers those changes are just one more step in the evolution of a folk art still popular after centuries.

Penny Williams, an artist herself, has long loved and studied the folk art of the Arab world, particularly Bedouin jewelry and glass painting.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the July/August 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: ART

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1978 images.