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troublemag | November 15, 2019

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The Prophet from Lebanon

The Prophet from Lebanon

Kahlil Gibran: The Garden of the Prophet, until 17 March, 2019

Immigration Museum, Melbourne

by Inga Walton

One of my dearest dreams is this – somewhere, a body of work, say fifty or seventy-five pictures will be hung together in a large city, where the people would see and perhaps love them. Kahlil Gibran (1913)

The town of Bsharri is located in the north of present-day Lebanon, and renowned for its stunning mountainous landscape. The inhabitants are proud of the town’s reputation as the guardian of the forest of the Holy Cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), the lumber from which King Solomon built his temple in Jerusalem. Owing to the remoteness of the region, from the 7th Century the area became a Maronite Christian stronghold and is sometimes called the ‘city of churches’. Of the thirty-seven churches Bsharri hosts, the largest is the Cathedral of Saint Saba founded by Anthony II Peter Arida, Patriarch of Antioch (1863-1955).

It is also the site of the former Carmelite Monastery of Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius) overlooking the Kadisha Valley on the slopes of Cedar Mountain. The Hermitage, which also dates from the 7th century, was hewn into the limestone and originally intended as a grotto for monks seeking shelter. By the 15th century, a small building was erected east of the Hermitage as a residence for the Papal Nuncio. Cordial relations between France and the Maronite community had developed to such an extent by the middle of the 16th century that the small building was converted into a summer residence for the French Consul. It was in 1633, towards the end of the patriarchal reign of Youhanna IX Makhlouf, that a group of Carmelite Monks came to the region, and earned the respect of the citizens through their work in the areas of health care and religious education. The notables of Bsharri offered the Carmelites the extant buildings and the surrounding oak forest as a mortmain property for their social and spiritual works.

In 1701, the Monks demolished the existing building to the east of the Hermitage and replaced it with the Monastery that still stands today. Lebanon’s most famous son, Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), was born on the edge of Wadi Qadisha in Bsharri, and used to sketch in the grounds of Mar Sarkis as a child. He retained a deep affinity for the place and for a certain Friar Michael who excavated the galleries and carved the steps in the rock that lead to the Hermitage. In 1926, Gibran resolved on a plan to acquire the old Monastery from the Discalced Carmelites for his retirement, with the intention that the Hermitage serve as his final resting place. At the time of his death in New York, Gibran had not achieved his stated wish, and the Monastery was by then abandoned and derelict.

Kahlil Gibran, Nude Figures Lying at the Foot of a Mountain by a Lake (1923-1931), watercolour, 28 x 21.5 cm © Gibran Museum

As far back as 1913, Gibran had discussed his wish to be buried in Lebanon with his devoted friend, editor and patron Mary Haskell.1 Over four months after his death, Gibran’s body was exhumed from the church of Our Lady of the Cedars in Boston and finally repatriated under the supervision of his surviving sibling Marianna. The funeral party arrived in Beirut in August, 1931 to be met by an official delegation headed by the Ministers of the Interior and Education. The casket processed to St. George Maronite Cathedral where it received the blessing of Archbishop Ignatius Mobarek (1876-1958), and lay in state watched over by an honour guard of 300 young men. In the evening, the (pre-Independence) Lebanese President Charles Debbas (1885-1935) hosted an official reception to honour Gibran before the bier made its long progress to Bsharri. 

Marianna Gibran was determined to fulfil her brother’s wishes to acquire Mar Sarkis, so the coffin was deposited at the church of Mar Yuhanna (St. John) in Bsharri until negotiations could commence with church authorities. The superior of the Carmelite Mission in Syria, Father Giuseppe Maria Fraschetti, was amenable to the sale, bluntly advising his superiors in Rome,

Excellent opportunity to sell in Bisharri a small, uninhabited monastery with barren land which causes us continuous trouble and is useless to us, destined for a famous personality’s entombment desired by the entire community of Bisharri. I advise the Mission to sell.

By October, 1931 the sale of Mar Sarkis for 6600 Syrian liras had been concluded, with Assaf George Rahmeh (Gibran’s maternal cousin) acting for the family.2 At the foot of Cedar Mountain, east of the existing building and amidst the Caverns of the Hermits, lies the cave that Gibran chose to be his tomb, and in which he was finally interred (room XII). The Arabic Manuscript (c.1923), in Gibran’s hand, contains the words that he directed should be on his tomb, “I am Alive like you and I am standing beside you. Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you”. 

In his will of 1930 Gibran had bequeathed his literary royalties to Bsharri, a move so problematic that it has been cited in a textbook on copyright law in the United States.3 The non-profit Gibran National Committee was established in 1934 to administer the funds, protect Gibran’s artefacts and promote his work internationally. Gibran left all the works, belongings and furniture in his New York studio to Mary Haskell, with instructions that she send to Bsharri anything she did not want to keep. She determined that many of the items should return to his homeland to be displayed near Gibran’s tomb, including his Writing Desk (n.d). However, the transformation of Mar Sarkis into a formal venue for commemorating Gibran did not take shape until 1971, with the Gibran Museum finally opening in 1975. 

Writing Desk, installation view. Photo by Inga Walton.

The exhibition Kahlil Gibran: The Garden of the Prophet (until 17 March, 2019) at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, presents a selection of works and personal items on loan from the Gibran Museum’s holdings. Since his death, Gibran has been widely acknowledged as the foremost Arab writer in the West, achieving lasting renown across two disparate cultures. His artistic output, therefore, has been somewhat overshadowed by his literary fame, which this exhibition seeks to redress by including over forty of Gibran’s artworks. Gibran was a committed visual artist, not a dilettante who dabbled, and he viewed all his work, literary and artistic, as being in service to the same goal of reconciliation and wholeness between East and West. Like the two artists who strongly influenced his practice, William Blake (1757-1827) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), Gibran saw little distinction between the written word and visual media. 

Kahlil Gibran, The Divine World (1923), Illustration for The Prophet, charcoal, 28 x 21.6 cm. © Gibran Museum

Twelve paintings created by Gibran to accompany his landmark work The Prophet (1923), which went on to become a worldwide publishing sensation, demonstrate how Gibran’s “visual creations developed in synchrony with his writings and philosophical musings”.The charcoal drawings The Divine World (1923), also called the Creative Hand, and The Face of Almustafa (1923), reflect his mystical bent, and the stylistic influence of the Symbolists. The Divine World clearly references the Hand of God (Manus Dei), the type of religious imagery Gibran may have seen as a child in various Bsharri churches. Gibran’s friend and biographer Mikhail Naimy suggested that Gibran was inspired by Rodin’s The Hand of God (c.1896), which he asserts Gibran saw in Rodin’s Paris studio.5 Of Gibran’s work, Naimy commented, “It sees as it touches, and imagines as it sees. It imagines forms before it creates them, then touches chaos and out of it makes all forms to issue as by magic.”6 

Kahlil Gibran, The Face of Almustafa (1923), Frontispiece for The Prophet, charcoal, 41.2 x 33.5 cm. © Gibran Museum

The Face would be chosen as the frontispiece for The Prophet, with Gibran describing to Haskell how the work came about, “I was reading one night in bed late and I stopped, weary, and closed my eyes for a moment. When I closed my eyes, I saw quite plainly That Face. I saw it for one or two minutes, perfectly clearly – and then it disappeared …”7 Naimy contended that, “the large dreamy eyes seem to look away beyond the present moment and immediate circumstance. Sorrowful and penetrating, they speak eloquently of a most sympathetic heart and a soul suffused with loving understanding.”8 The other ten wash drawings in the series, like The Gift (1923), and The Archer (1923), depict figures who seem to float on the page, reflecting the struggles of humanity’s inner worlds, where thought and feeling might be equally blended. In her journal, Haskell noted that of all the illustrations produced for the work, “…Kahlil liked Pain [1923] best – the woman form with hands outstretched as if crucified against the breast of two men”. 

Kahlil Gibran, The Archer (1923), Illustration for The Prophet, watercolour, 28 x 21.5 cm. 
© Gibran Museum

Gibran would illustrate several of his subsequent works using pencil and watercolour, The Madman (1918), al-Mawakib (The Processions) (1919), The Forerunner (1920), and the last commercially successful work prior to his death, Jesus, the Son of Man (1928). The exhibition contains several of the plate proofs and galley proofs for The Prophet with Gibran’s corrections, although Haskell also played a hand in refining the text for publication. On display is a copy of the book once owned by the ‘King of Rock and Roll’, Elvis Presley (1935-77), who was so enamoured with Gibran’s work he used to keep copies to give to friends. This edition (1955), is inscribed, “To Charlie, this one is the first one I ever owned. Read it ALL”, and opened at Almustafa’s homily on work, “Work is love made visible…”. The lines “And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle mans ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night” have been underlined in pencil with Presley’s annotation underneath, “God loves you best when you sing”.

Gibran’s mother, Kamileh, was the daughter of Father Estephan Rahmeh, a Maronite Catholic priest (who are permitted to marry), and Gibran was brought up in that ancient faith. He was also heavily influenced by Sufism 

(Taşawwuf), and had a deep respect for the Qur’an; Gibran once remarked that he “kept Jesus in one half of his bosom and Muhammad in the other”.9 This posture reflects not only Gibran’s personal convictions regarding the unity of religion and his desire to reconcile Christianity with Islam, but the complex geo-political situation in the region at the time of his birth. Lebanon was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire and, along with Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, was collectively referred to as ‘Greater Syria’. Britain had invaded Egypt and the Sudan, and France was expanding its territorial ambition by taking control of Tunisia, next door to their neighbouring colony of Algeria. 

Following Arab convention, Gibran received his father’s first name as his middle name, and the writer always signed his full name in his Arabic works. In his English writings, however, Gibran dropped his first name and retained the altered spelling of ‘Khalil’ as ‘Kahlil’, an administrative mistake that occurred at the Quincy School for Boys, the Boston school he attended between 1895 and 1897. Gibran’s father, a former apothecary and local tax collector in Bsharri, had frittered away the family’s income on heavy drinking and gambling that came to a head when he was charged with embezzlement. Found guilty, the few chattels the Gibran family retained were confiscated by authorities, and the deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon led to their increasingly impoverished status. 

Perhaps acknowledging the ancient tradition of al-mahjar (travelling to the city) in search of a better life, the decision was reached that the family would undertake the “arduous and epochal journey” to America.10 In 1895, along with Kamileh (d.1903), half-brother Boutros (Peter) Rahmeh (1878-1903), and sisters Marianna (1885-1968), and Sultanah (1887-1902), Gibran arrived in America. Gibran’s embittered and authoritarian father, with whom he had a troubled relationship, remained in Lebanon where he died in 1909. The family settled in Oliver Place in the South End neighbourhood of Boston, which hosted the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese community outside New York at that time. The circumstances for the new immigrant family in the tenements of Boston were confronting for the young Gibran; grinding work as a seamstress for his mother and sisters (who did not attend school) until they had enough capital to open a small dry goods store.

Kamileh Rahmeh always encouraged her younger son’s artistic leanings, and strove to nurture within him a desire to develop outside the family’s limiting existence, whereas his father displayed open contempt for Gibran’s developing talent.11 When he was six, Gibran had been entranced by some old reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci works his mother had given him.12 His nascent passion for drawing became all-consuming after this encounter: “that was a moment I shall never forget as long as I live; and during that period of my life it acted for me like a compass needle for a ship lost in the mists of the sea”.13 Stimulated by his solitary ramblings among the picturesque villages, holy places, and natural wonders of Bsharri with his pencils and charcoal, Gibran sketched incessantly. Gibran’s homesickness and nostalgia for the landscape of his childhood permeated his life’s work. Writing to his cousin, Nakhli Gibran in 1908, Gibran observed, “The things which the child loves remain in the domain of the heart until old age. The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remain hovering over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves. I am one of those that remembers such places regardless of distance or time”.14 

Gibran’s teachers at the Quincy School recommended that he attend one of the drawing classes offered at Denison House, a charity outreach endeavour to assist immigrant families, staffed by student volunteers from Wellesley College. At this class, Gibran’s artistic talent was noticed by the art teacher Florence Pierce, who brought him to the attention of a social worker called Jessie Fremont Beale. Beale had connections in the artistic and literary establishment of Boston, and made the decision to recommend the “street fakir”15 to the man who would become a pivotal figure in shaping Gibran’s artistic and cultural development, Fred Holland Day (1864-1933). Day, recognised as being the first in America to argue that photography should be considered an art form, also co-owned the publishing firm Copeland & Day.

Socially conscious and known for his support of local artists, Gibran met Day in 1896 and became his protégé. Day encouraged the teenager to improve his range and technique by studying and copying the work of other artists, both from Day’s own book collection, and at the new Copley Square Library (Boston Public Library). Gibran probably served as Day’s part-time studio assistant, and both he, and the rest of the family, posed as models for some of Day’s ‘exotic’ photographic works, exhibited at the Boston Camera Club in 1898.16 

Well-connected and wealthy, Day introduced Gibran to bohemian Boston’s social and cultural élite of writers, artists, and intellectuals, including the painter Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) who had studied with Pissarro and Monet. Perry painted Gibran around 1898, dressed in a Bedouin-style robe and headdress, and gifted him what was probably his first set of paints.17 As Gibran’s command of English and artistic output improved, Day gave him small commissions for covers and illustrations for Copeland & Day’s publications, which brought him to the attention of other publishers such as L. C. Page and Scribner’s.18 Gibran’s precocious appearance within Boston’s art milieu, “foreshadowed the man Gibran’s lifelong ability to enter successfully American intellectual and artistic circles, and reveals also the indefinable charisma that was beginning to surround him. He had the talent, good looks, verbal glibness, modest manners, and an indomitable will to succeed”.19 

Although Gibran’s growing recognition, and fees for his modeling and drawings supplemented the family income, Kamileh and Boutros felt he was perhaps becoming too worldly.20 Kamileh wanted Gibran to attend the Maronite college Madrasat-al-Hikmah, founded in 1875 by the priest Yusuf al-Dibs, and regarded as the foremost Christian secondary school in the Arab world. Gibran duly departed Boston for Beirut in August, 1898, but not before he was farewelled by his earliest sponsors who also contributed funds to his journey.21 Gibran declined to attend standard classes at the Madrasat and concentrated on improving his Arabic and French, also winning the college’s poetry prize. An unhappy reunion with his father in Bsharri led Gibran to stay with an aunt and his cousin N’oula Gibran for a time. During the summer of 1899, Gibran revisited the forest around Mar Sarkis where he would secretly meet a local girl whose wealthy family forbade her to see him. 

Gibran would visit Lebanon only once more, but his departure in 1902 effectively marked the beginning of his life-long exile and the feelings of alienation and estrangement it provoked. Gibran never actually met his confidant, the feminist Arabic writer May Ziadah (1886-1941), as she was based in Egypt. Nonetheless, he poured out his thoughts to her in the course of their correspondence (c.1912-31), confessing in one letter, 

My studio is my temple, my friend, my museum, my heaven and my hell. It is a forest in which life calls out to life, and a desert with me standing in its midst and seeing nothing but a sea of sand and a sea of ether… As for your statement, ‘How happy you are, you who find contentment in your art’ – this made me ponder for a long time. No, May, I am neither happy nor content. In me there is something which can never be content, but does not resemble covetousness; something which can never know happiness but does not resemble misery…

The day will come when I shall escape to the East. My longing for my homeland almost destroys me, and were it not for the cage around me, the bars of which I forged with my own hands, I would board the first ship bound for the East.22 

In April, 1902 Gibran returned to Boston where the family had been overtaken by the death of his youngest sibling Sultanah from consumption two weeks before. Gibran would paint the sombre posthumous work The Sad Mona Lisa Sultana Gibran (1910) to commemorate the young girl he never saw alive again. Years later he would ponder,

And what might the poet say of a woman’s smile? Hasn’t Leonardo da Vinci had the last word on that subject with his Mona Lisa? Nevertheless, is there not in the smile of a Lebanese maiden a secret which no one but a Lebanese is able to discern and describe? Or is it that a woman, be she Lebanese or Italian, smiles to hide the secrets of eternity behind that delicate veil formed by the lips? 23

Kahlil Gibran, The Sad Mona Lisa Sultana Gibran (1910), oil on canvas, 73.2 x 51 cm. 
© Gibran Museum

Boutros had been particularly affected by Sultanah’s death, and the long hours spent running the family store had taken their toll on his health as well. He was advised to spend time in a warmer climate, so he travelled to Cuba in December to recuperate. Two days after Boutros’ departure, Kamileh was hospitalised with a stomach tumour, but an operation some weeks later proved unsuccessful. Faced with this grim prognosis Gibran and Marianna awaited the return of Boutros whose sojourn in Cuba had done little to improve his condition; he died of consumption four weeks later in March. 

Devastated by the deaths of her first and last born children, Kamileh nonetheless lingered until late June, 1903 when she finally succumbed to cancer. Gibran, now twenty and mired in tragedy, needed to get the family’s affairs in order; it took him a year to clear the debt on the store, whereupon he left the business. Despite the disapproval of the close-knit Lebanese community, Marianna became the sibling’s chief breadwinner, returning to sewing as a livelihood, and keeping their house.24 Faced with such an appalling onslaught of grief and regret, it is not difficult to see how the poet-philosopher, whose works would go on to comfort and inspire millions, developed his capacity for empathy, and an unfailing compassion for the sufferings of his fellow man. Gibran cleaved to his work, burnishing both his literary style, and his drawings. He reintegrated himself into the rarefied atmosphere of Boston’s artistic salons, and started contributing to the New York-based al-Mohajer (The Emigrant) newspaper.

Some of Gibran’s drawings were exhibited at a showing at Tau Zeta Epsilon, an arts-oriented Society House at Wellesley College in 1903, but it was Fred Holland Day who came to Gibran’s aid and organised a larger exhibition for him in late April, 1904 at Day’s Harcourt Building studio.25 The most important outcome of the exhibition was that Gibran met Mary Haskell (later Minis), who would remain arguably the most important figure in both his professional and personal life until his death. Originally from South Carolina, the daughter of a distinguished confederate officer, Haskell was the principal at the élite Miss Haskell’s School for Girls in Boston, having taken over from her sister when she married. Haskell was later employed at the Cambridge School (which became Radcliffe College). In November that same year, Day’s studio, along with some thirty other businesses in the building, was destroyed by a fire that started in the offices of lithographer George H. Walker & Co.26 Day lost virtually his life’s work, and Gibran’s portfolio of drawings that were stored there was also destroyed.27 

In July, 1908, Haskell’s philanthropy enabled Gibran to travel to Paris in order to study painting; firstly at the Académie Julian for three months, and then under the tutelage of the Symbolist painter Pierre-Amédée Marcel-Béronneau (1869-1937), himself the protégé of Gustave Moreau (1826-98). Gibran’s admiration for the Symbolist painters Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Eugène Carrière (1849-1906) and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98), is obvious in his subsequent work. He was particularly taken with de Chavannes whom he considered, “without exception, the greatest painter of the nineteenth century, because, of all those painters, he had the simplest heart, the simplest thought, the simplest form of expression, and the purest of intentions. I would even go as far as to say that among painters he resembles [Baruch] Spinoza [1632-77] among philosophers”.28 

Gibran also met sculptor (François) Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), at least once at his studio,29 although the circumstances of the meeting(s), have perhaps become embellished over time.30 All sources agree that Rodin is credited with introducing Gibran to the works of Blake. The publication flyer and the dust-cover for The Madman (1918) carried a possibly apocryphal quote from Rodin saying, “I know of no one else in whom drawing and poetry are so linked together as to make him [Gibran] a new Blake”. This attribution was challenged by Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, who had also met Rodin. She surmised that if the great artist had, in fact, said this of Gibran, Rodin was likely referring to Gibran’s art, not his poetry.31 Undeterred, Alfred A. Knopf repeated the quote for the pre-press notice for Gibran’s only visual art title to appear in his lifetime, Twenty Drawings (1919), which focussed on his pencil and watercolour works, and included an essay by art critic Alice Raphael Eckstein (1887-1975).32 Other sources ascribe the Blake remark to Rodin’s associate Henri de Beaufort,33 but the affinity between Gibran’s artistic output and Blake’s is unmistakable.

Gibran’s painting Autumn was accepted in a Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts exhibition in the Spring of 1910, and he took on his own art students to supplement the stipend he received from Haskell.34 Also during Gibran’s time in Paris, the American sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett (1865-1925) sat for him. This gave Gibran the idea of creating a ‘Temple of Art’ series featuring prominent people from the world of art, letters and culture. He pursued this goal in subsequent years with some success, writing excitedly to Haskell in May, 1913, 

At last the divine Sarah Bernhardt [1844-1923] is caught… The drawing I made of her… though it does not show her real age, is a great success. But if I am to go through the same process with the rest of the great men and women, I might as well give up art and become a diplomat! She wanted me to sit at a distance so that I may not see the details of her face. But I did see them. She made me take off some of the wrinkles. She even asked me to change the shape of her huge mouth! Sarah Bernhardt is very hard to please, very hard to understand and very hard to be with. She has a temper. She must be treated as a queen… I think I understood her yesterday… for when I wanted to leave she gave me her left hand to kiss. This honour, I am told, is only given to people she likes! 35

Contrary to Gibran’s boast, the finished drawing of the actress, who was also a painter and sculptor, is not a success. It was executed during Bernhardt’s third and last ‘farewell’ tour of America when she was sixty-nine. Bernhardt had suffered a serious injury to her right leg in 1906, and Gibran captures her stiff pose and compressed lips in such a way as to not even hint at the vigor and magnetism for which she was renowned.   

Next to Gibran’s portrait of Bernhardt in the exhibition is a more evocative one of the Bengali polymath, poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, and whom Gibran admired immensely. Above that, is the face of Gibran’s countryman Ameen Rihani (1876-1940), considered to be the founder of Arab American literature after the publication of his first major novel in English, The Book of Khalid (1911), which he chose Gibran to illustrate.36 Gibran considered this portrait his best work since he had returned from Paris, and it reflected the happy period during which he travelled to London in June, 1910 with Rihani and his classmate from Madrasat-al-Hikmah, Yusuf Sa’dallah Huwayyik (1883-1962).37 Two portraits from Paris in 1910 on the same page depict the poet and dramatist Edmund Rostand (1868-1918), with the politician and critic (Victor) Henri Rochefort, Marquis de Rochefort-Luçay (1831-1913), known as le Prince des polémistes.

Gibran returned to Boston in October, 1910, but by the Spring of 1911 Haskell had funded his move to Greenwich Village in New York, where he was to stay for the rest of his life. Gibran held a solo exhibition at the Montross Gallery on Fifth Avenue (14-30 December, 1914) of twenty-five paintings and nineteen portraits.38 He also abandoned oil painting around this time, having never felt entirely comfortable with the medium. Gibran was surprised to learn, via an article in the Sun, by the art critic Henry McBride, that the reclusive American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) had attended the show. The previous April, Gibran had expressed his desire to produce a portrait of the older man, and was deeply touched to learn Ryder had seen his paintings. This occasioned Gibran’s first published work in English, a prose poem, “To Albert Pinkham Ryder” (1915). Haskell corrected the poem and made seven pages of notes and suggestions before Gibran had it privately printed by Cosmos & Washburn.39  

When Gibran finally tracked Ryder down to his rooms on Sixteenth street, he found the painter in reduced circumstances. When Gibran presented him with the text, Ryder received this tribute tearfully, and remarked that he was not worthy of such a “great poem”.40 By March, 1915, Gibran had produced two portraits of Ryder, and the two had struck up a rapport. Gibran remarked that, owing to infirmity, Ryder could no longer use his hands well enough to paint, so he painted “pictures in his mind”.41 By August that year Ryder was admitted to hospital, and Gibran visited him frequently until his death. Gibran’s other solo exhibitions were at Knoedler Gallery, Fifth Avenue and at Doll & Richards, Boston in 1917, at the Women’s City Club, Boston in 1922, and at his own New York studio in 1930. Gradually, he seems to have given up on this mode of acquiring artistic recognition, with his literary star in ascendant.42 

Throughout his career, women were integral to facilitating Gibran’s success, from his mother Kamileh and sister Marianna, to the subsequent mentors and patrons who recognised and fostered his talent. Curator and author Tania June Sammons observed, “in addition to mythology, Gibran’s interest in the feminine divine may have stemmed from the powerful influence women had exerted in his life… Mary Haskell obviously gave life to his career, but other women significantly influenced Gibran”.43 This is also reflected in his artworks, whether it be his depiction of Mother Earth, or other female figures, as powerful and transcendent, expressive of the life-cycle and the interconnectedness of nature.

Poet Josephine Peabody (1874-1922), painter Juliet Thompson (1873-1956), socialist campaigner Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), and poet, writer and lecturer Corinne Robinson (1861-1933), the younger sister of President Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, were all prominent supporters of Gibran’s career. Henrietta Breckenridge (1878/79-1961), a minor writer who used the pseudonym Barbara Young, became Gibran’s secretary in 1925. Breckenridge’s obsessive devotion to Gibran resulted in her clumsy attempts to ‘complete’ his unfinished work The Garden of the Prophet (1933), adding her own words and extracts from unrelated Arabic writings of Gibran’s.44 She then authored the hagiographic work This Man From Lebanon (1945), that presented an unrealistic and disputed view of Gibran, which held sway for decades.45 

Aside from the Gibran Museum, two other institutions hold a substantial collection of his artworks. In 1950, Mary Haskell Minis donated ninety-two works on paper and five works in oils by Gibran still in her possession to the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, making it the largest holding of Gibran’s work in North America. Some of the oil paintings are usually on public display at the Telfair Academy site, the first public art museum in the South that opened in 1886. The largest archive of Gibran’s works in the world is housed in Mexico City at Museo Soumaya, a private museum founded by the billionaire Carlos Slim Helú. The Gibran Kahlil Collection, which includes the rights over Gibran’s work, was acquired by the Fundación Carlos Slim in 2007. Kahlil George Gibran (the nephew and godson of Gibran), contacted the Fundación to offer the collection ‘in order to disseminate the works in a cultural site’. 

As well as paintings and photographs, the collection includes more than 100 personal objects such as the manuscripts for The Madman and The Prophet, unpublished texts, correspondence, and keepsakes, under the supervision of a dedicated team of curators. The fourth floor of Museo Soumaya houses an exhibit dedicated to Gibran, designed to emphasise the positive contribution made by immigrants to the countries in which they settle. Gibran’s works have particular meaning for Helú, who espouses the view that museums should be active agents of social transformation. Helú is also of Lebanese extraction; his father Khalil Salim Haddad Aglamaz emigrated from Lebanon to Mexico in 1902 to avoid being conscripted into the Ottoman Army, only seven years after the Gibran family arrived in America.46 

Kahlil Gibran’s turbulent and dramatic life-story continues to fascinate an audience for whom the ongoing tragedy of his homeland, and neighbouring Syria, repeatedly rumbles through the news feed. The political positions Gibran espoused, both in his polemical works criticising social issues in Lebanon and the wider Arab world, such as al-’Arwah al-Mutamarridah (Spirits Rebellious) (1906) and al-’Ajnihah al-Mutakassirah (The Broken Wings) (1912), and more subtly in his philosophical verse works in English, still resonate with contemporary audiences. Indeed, it is as though Gibran’s writings are as timeless as the numerous issues they address seem intractable. As he was beginning to be recognised for his Arabic literary works, Gibran wrote to his friend Ameen Guraieb (editor of al-Mohajer), “I feel, within me, a hidden power that wishes to dress its nakedness with a beautiful garment of great deeds. This makes me feel that I came to this world to write my name upon the face of life with big letters. Such emotion accompanies me day and night”.47 

(With thanks to Beth Moore, Assistant Curator, Telfair Museums, Georgia).

Immigration Museum, East Wing Gallery, 3rd Floor, 400-424 Flinders St, Melbourne (VIC), until 17 March 2019 – museumsvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum

Gibran National Committee (GNC), Lebanon – gibrankhalilgibran.org

The Kahlil Gibran Collective (KGC) – kahlilgibran.com

ENDNOTES: 1 Robin Waterfield, Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran, Penguin Press, London, 1988, p.279. | 2 Francesco Medici & Charles Malouf Samaha, “The Untold History of the Gibran Museum’s Origins: When the Italian Monks Sold the Monastery of Mar Sarkis”, (trans. Maya El Hage), The Kahlil Gibran Collective, 25 January, 2019. [online] | 3 Robin Waterfield, op cit, p.276. | 4 Steven High in, Suheil Bushrui & Tania June Sammons, The Art of Kahlil Gibran at Telfair Museums, Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, 2010, p.6. | 5 Mikhail Naimy, Kahlil Gibran: A Biography, Philosophical Society, New York, 1950, p.87. | 6 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet, A New Biography, Oneworld, Oxford, (1998) 2008, p.332. | 7 Ibid, p.234. | 8 Ibid. | 9 Ibid p.6. | 10 Ibid, p.38. | 11 Ibid, p.44 & 57. | 12 Ibid, p.30. | 13 Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah, 6 February, 1925 in, Suheil Bushrui & Salma H. al-Kuzbari (ed/trans), Gibran Love Letters: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran To May Ziadah, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, (1983) 1996, p.88. | 14 Kahlil Gibran to Nakhli Gibran, 15 March, 1908 in, Kahlil Gibran, The Treasured Writings of Kahlil Gibran, Castle Books, Edison, 1999, p.655. | 15 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.45. | 16 Tania June Sammons, “Kahlil Gibran: The Artist” in Suheil Bushrui & Tania June Sammons, op cit, p.10 & Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.48. | 17 Tania June Sammons, op cit, p.10 & Kahlil Gibran & Jean Gibran, Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World, New York Graphic Society, New York, 1974, p.62. | 18 Kahlil Gibran & Jean Gibran, op cit, p.61. | 19 Ibid, p.65-66. | 20 Ibid, p.66. | 21 Ibid, p.67. | 22 Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah, 11 June, 1919 in, Suheil Bushrui & Salma H. al-Kuzbari, op cit, p.11-12. | 23 Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah, 7 February, 1919 in Ibid, p.7. | 24 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.63. | 25 Patricia J. Fanning, Through An Uncommon Lens: The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2008, p.138. | 26 Ibid, p.140. | 27 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p,69. | 28 Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah, 17 January, 1924 in, Suheil Bushrui & Salma H. al-Kuzbari, op cit, p.76. | 29 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p,88-89. | 30 Robin Waterfield, op cit, p.116-17. | 31 Harriet Monroe, Poetry, 14 August, 1919, p.278-79 in, Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.175. | 32 Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah, 26 July, 1919 in, Suheil Bushrui & Salma H. al-Kuzbari, op cit, p.19. | 33 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.306-07. | 34 Tania June Sammons, op cit, p.13. | 35 Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, 27 May, 1913 in, Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.134. | 36 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.99. | 37 Ibid, p.119. | 38 Robin Waterfield, op cit, p.199. | 39 Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.149. | 40 Ibid. | 41 Ibid, p.149-50 & Tania June Sammons, op cit, p.15. | 42 Robin Waterfield, op cit, p.200-02. | 43 Tania June Sammons, op cit, p.23. | 44 Suheil Bushrui, “Kahlil Gibran: The Poet” in, Suheil Bushrui & Tania June Sammons, op cit, p.51. | 45 Robin Waterfield, op cit, p.274-76 & Suheil Bushrui & Joe Jenkins, op cit, p.245, 288. | 46 Dolia Estevez, “Art Meets the Politics of the Trump Era at Mexican Billionaire Carlos Slim’s Museum”, Forbes, 26 October, 2016. [online] | 47 Kahlil Gibran to Ameen Guraieb, 28 March, 1908 in, Kahlil Gibran, op cit, p.660.