Kahlil Gibran.

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University of California, University of North Carolina at
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Transcriber’s Notes:

Underscores “_” before and after a word or phrase indicate _italics_
in the original text.
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Towards the Infinite, _Frontispiece_
The Greater Self
The Blind
The Mountain
Centaur and Child
The Rock
The Waterfall
The Burden
The Great Longing
Veiled Face
The Triangle
The Struggle
The Great Aloneness
Woman With Garment
Mother and Child


“The lives of former generations are a lesson to posterity.” This
quotation from the volume which is currently accepted as the
masterpiece of ancient Arabic literature, The Thousand and One Nights,
serves in a slightly paraphrased form as a fitting introduction to the
work of the most authoritative artist and poet of modern Arabia—Kahlil

In the near East there are over a hundred million whose native language
is Arabic and the poetry of Gibran has become so incorporated with the
national traditions of these people that one is not quoting lightly
in saying that “the works of the present generation are a lesson to
posterity.” But Gibran the poet, who has been known to the Arabian
world of letters as poet, critic and historian for twenty-four years,
has already been introduced to the English reading public by his book
“The Madman,” a collection of poems and parables, some translated by
him for his own works in Arabic and others written directly in English
with an admirable fluency and command of the Western tongue.

It is Gibran the painter whose drawings are now being brought to the
attention of his American audience and the following interpretation of
his art will perhaps serve as a clue to the ever entrancing mystery of
the harmonies and dissonances which exist between the East and the West.

Kahlil Gibran was born in Mt. Lebanon and although he has deliberately
chosen to identify himself with the new world and its surging problems,
his affiliations with Syria form such a vital part of his life that
in this instance it seems as if the links between the old world and
the new were admirably forged and adequately tempered. Despite the
fact that he feels himself to be essentially a Syrian and that he is
acclaimed as the authoritative spokesman for the Arabic people in the
allied arts, Gibran belongs to the world outside of nationalistic
interests and his art is a product of a deep sympathy with the problems
which constitute the moving current of life in all nations and
throughout all ages. His poetry is a blend of ancient imagery coupled
with the poignant irony of modern introspection, and his painting is
also a product of the abundant phantasies of the Orient set forth with
as scrupulous a perfection of technique as the West has ever produced.

It is this blend of the poet and the painter which makes his work
stand apart from the modern poetry of the East which we have come
to know in the work of Tagore for instance, and which separates his
painting from the traditional conception of Oriental art. For Gibran,
in spite of his filial allegiance to Syria, is a citizen of the land
of Cosmopolis—that ever moving realm, somewhat like the fabled island
of Atlantis, which belongs to all times and to no particular place; so
that Gibran, besides being the most widely read poet of modern Arabia,
is also closely affiliated with Paris. There he worked with Rodin
and he exhibited at the Salon a series of portraits, which included
Debussy, Rostand, Sarah Bernhardt, and Rodin himself, who said: “I know
of no one else in whom drawing and poetry are so linked together as to
make him a new Blake.”

His sensitive appreciation of the interrelation of the arts enables him
to be the spokesman for the genius of the Arabic people to whom the
Western world owes a debt which it is only beginning now to appreciate,
and no poet of former generations has done more to bring about a closer
understanding between the East and the West than Kahlil Gibran.

Tagore, for instance, belongs exclusively to India. Whether we read
him or not—whether we incorporate his work with that of other modern
schools, nevertheless this does not affect the value of Tagore to
India. For he has not lived in the land of Cosmopolis nor does he lend
his interests to the new era in western literature. But Gibran has
chosen to co-operate with Western arts and letters and his faith in the
development of our “static culture” is indeed a lesson to posterity.

He has surrendered his position as a leader in the world of the near
East in order to bring the traditions and genius of the Arabic people
to the attention of the Western world. And although commentators have
long since acknowledged our debt in literature to the Arabs, who
introduced rhyme into Europe over a thousand years ago, and historians
have admitted the impetus which was given to the sciences by Arabic
philosophers, yet it remains the task of a modern to introduce us in
painting to the vast poetical conceptions which constitute a part of
the heritage of the Arabian race mind.

Kahlil Gibran is one of the artists who are engaged in the struggle
between the old and the new, or as in other times, the conflict was
termed, the oscillation between the classic and the romantic tendencies
in art. As a poet, he is a Romanticist, moving abreast the times and
incorporating the keenly analytic spirit of our age into the ancient
parable or the simple form of rhythmic prose. But in painting he is a
Classicist and his work owes more to the findings of da Vinci than it
does to any of our modern insurgents. Thus Gibran is also caught in
the struggle which is the besetting problem of the world today, the
reconstruction of an era which will adjust the imperishable legacy
of the old world, the classic traditions, with the ever evolving,
fluctuating tendencies in art which constitute the essence of true

For the cataclysm which has overwhelmed our world and is causing us
to reconstruct our geographical boundaries and political tenets, also
demands us to reconstruct our moral valuations and our standards
in the life of the soul, of which art is one of the most profound
manifestations. And as we think back upon the destruction which has
separated the world with which we were familiar from the world in which
we move today, we become more and more aware of the cataclysm which has
so completely shattered our philosophies, dogmas and artistic beliefs.

A sombre burden has descended upon the shoulders of the coming
generation, whose task it is to create a world as yet in embryo—and,
if our arts are not to go down before such inspirations as the
camouflage, and if science is not to be prostituted to such creations
as the tank,—if a nobler expression of energy is yet to redeem man
from the pit into which his destructive power has plunged him, then in
the period of reconstruction he must insensibly turn to new and more
vital forms of self-expression. Religion in the traditional meaning can
no longer lift him out of the rut of his suffering and only in another
form of expression which will portray the realities of the soul
devoutly, either in terms of art, science or social creeds, will he be
able to effect a transition between the death agony of the old world
and the travail of the new.

But even in this dark traverse through which we are passing in an
effort to win a newer life as our own, we are aware of certain
germinating influences which already foreshadow the art of the future,
so that the productions of an artist can never be evaluated in terms
of self-expression alone but must be measured by their relation to the
organic processes of which they are an integral part.

To the interpretive mind, for instance, the destruction of Carthage
cannot be judged as a pyrotechnical display of military prowess, for
that which is significant was the impetus of change which that act
gave to civilization. With the importation of the cult of Cybele, the
great Mother, Rome was placed in direct communication with the East
and a contact between the modern and the ancient world was firmly
established. Eventually, the religion and the art of the East not
only acquired a foothold, but became an integral part of later Roman
culture, so that Rome was conquered by that which centuries before
it had set out to subdue. The Romans set out to conquer a rival and
brought back the religion and thereby much of their rival’s system of
power. In this way a process which on the surface was nationalistic
became fundamentally a part of the organic evolution of civilization,
which redirected the cultural processes of a nation and eventually of
what was, then, the modern world.

Thus the term modern loses its coin value when we see how lightly
it can be shifted from era to era, denoting certain types of ideas
rather than periods of time. For the life of the inner world is
without boundaries other than personal limitations, without national
or particularistic interests other than those we voluntarily adopt.
We shift our emotional contents upon a word like “Spartacide” and it
becomes a modern equivalent; it is at once cut adrift from its original
connotation and it becomes vitally related to our own interests and
feelings. In short the word, the symbol flashes the past to life and
passes on to meaning into the present in order to stimulate the mind to
seek out new intellectual pastures.

For the soul is occupied with but a few problems and these are
singularly few. Life in its elemental functioning is but a
transformation of the processes of Birth, Love and Death. The hunger of
the appetites and the hunger of possession; the desire for adventure
and the fear of the unknown; to love and to be loved; out of these
essential simplicities, man has erected the vast complexities of life
and to these essential simplicities the artist must return who seeks
a new means of expression amidst the clutter of religions, arts and

Those who have witnessed the disintegration of a world can no longer
find satisfaction in objective painting. What has the art of Messonier
to say to a man who has lived in a trench? What has the art of Watteau
to offer to men who have experienced shrapnel or the submarine? We
know that Veronese worked amidst the voluptuous realities which he
depicted; we know that Watteau phantasied the shepherd and shepherdess
exquisitely, but to us this type of painting is merely interesting
because of its historic value. Intrinsically, it has no message to
offer us.

It is at this point in art that symbolism reveals itself as the
interrelating principle between the life of the soul and objective
life; that is to say that just as the symbol of the word is the
interchanging coin between ancient and modern concepts, so in art, the
symbolic meaning is the interchanging medium between the modern and the
antique. Yet before we apply the word “symbolic” to an artist we must
first come to a clear conception of its value, for it is a word which
one approaches with hesitancy as its meaning has become so clouded by
misusage that our mind flashes instantly to that group who were thus
classified and then to the satirical lyric of the man “walking down
Piccadilly with a lily in his mediaeval hand.”

We can get no clearer picture of symbolism in Art than by recalling
that period and school which gave every appearance of it and yet never
possessed its essence. The pre-Raphaelites for instance, attempted
to recreate in their mode and manner, that which was for ever past
just as certain modernists attempt a crude simplicity which was only
characteristic of primitive humanity. The true symbolist is concerned
with the life of the inner world. To his eyes the changing cultures of
man are merely transformations upon which he focusses his attention.
Whereas, to the ideationist—the objective artist—each epoch, each
strata in the history of man is a separate and distinct reality and
he occupies himself depicting the surfaces and planes of the outer
expression of life. He is in constant relation to the present; he has
no personal affiliation with the vast spiritual life of the past and
possesses no embryonic conception of the future.

But to the true symbolist life is a perpetual recreation and he moves
in a world freed from traditions and confines. He need not attempt to
escape from the limitations of the present by seeking the mannerisms of
an enigmatical past. He is in direct contact with that past and hence
the future is an ever fluid and ever luminous atmosphere; he is at one
with fundamentals.

If we examine the work of the early Primitives we see at once how
deeply imbued they were with the essence of symbolism. In fact, they
cared so deeply for the spirit of the idea that the manner of its
presentation caused them little concern. They covered the walls of
Assisi because they wished to tell the story of Jesus that others
might know and profit by it. To them, Jesus was a reality, not a story
about which to make a painting, and consequently it was a matter of
indifference to Ghirlandaio whether the women attending the Virgin
wore the dresses of his own age or those of antiquity. They _were_ the
women attending the Virgin and that which has given the Santa Maria
Novella its lustre, is the power of a feeling, visioned, experienced,
grasped—and then put forth again.

However, in the minds of the pre-Raphaelites, the vision was most
assiduously cultivated. Their very pre-occupation proves them to have
been objective artists diverted from their proper functioning. They
did not seek the vision of England, which would have been their true
expression, the sentimental Victorian England of their day, but they
turned their eyes towards the Italy of the past and became blinded
by the dust of the centuries which lay upon it. The result was
narrative art, a beautiful and ingenious affectation of the source
of inspiration, but the symbols of love and sorrow, of joy and pain
became involved in confused mysticism. For the pre-Raphaelites sought
not their own spirit but that of another, not the meaning within but
that lying as far away as possible—in fact the more remote it was,
the more they sought it. They reproduced instead of creating, and
they have given us beautiful stories, beautiful pictures, beautiful
ideas—everything except that which can never be reproduced, and that
is the spirit of their own age.

In the separation of the symbolist from the ideationist, the art of the
East is most concisely divided from the art of the West. To the East
the lotus is a flower, but also a symbol of divinity; to the West it is
a flower developing into the acanthus design and completing the circle,
it becomes a decoration, and so again only a flower. Again the earth,
the sun, the sea, that which is above, and that which lies beneath, are
to the Western mind, materials of study to be touched, represented,
understood and grasped. But to the East, it suffices that these things
are and will be eternally, and that behind these realities which we
visualize and know, lie other and again other forces and experiences,
other suns, other seas, melting mysteriously into one another as the
leaves of the lotus.

It is at this dividing line of East and West, of the symbolist and
the ideationist, that the work of Kahlil Gibran presents itself as an
arresting type in our conception of painting. He has accepted both the
traditions of form and the inner meaning of the idea, and he exhibits
both a new type of work and another method of approach to fundamental

The qualities of the East and the West are blended in him with a
singular felicity of expression, so that while he is the symbolist
in the true sense of the word, he is not affixed to traditional
expression, as he would be if he were creating in the manner of
the East, and though he narrates a story as definitely as any
pre-Raphaelite, it is without any fan-fare of historical circumstances
or any of the accompaniment of symbolic accessories. In his art there
is no conflict whether the idea shall prevail over the emotion, or
whether emotion shall sway the thought, because both are so equally
established that we are not conscious of one or the other as dominant.
They co-exist in harmony and the result is an expression of sheer
beauty in which thought and feeling are equally blended. In this fusion
of two opposing tendencies the art of Gibran transcends the conflicts
of schools and is beyond the fixed conceptions of the classic or
romantic traditions.

An illuminating beauty informs his work; to him the idea becomes
beautiful if it is true; the emotion becomes truth if it is real. He
possesses a singular power of dividing what is essential from what is
extraneous in the presentation of beauty and truth. And he keeps to
a simplicity of manner in the portrayal of an idea which is closely
akin to the spirit of the Primitives, albeit the art of the centuries
has gone into the moulding of his powers; but in his statements he is
simple, almost instinctively simple. In fact, he may be described as an
intuitive artist—as that type of artist whose feeling is like the
divining rod which leads down to shafts of golden values and who does
not obfuscate his mind with intellectual conceptions of what or how he
should create. And having followed his instinctive flair for truth, he
now applies his conscious powers to perfect his finding and to create
his embryonic expressions into paintings of beauty and value.

He needs only a small sheet of paper to give us the meaning of the
“Erdgeist”; we see a body of a woman who rises out of the vast form of
the All-Mother, carrying in her arms man and woman. Only the head of
the unfolding mother with its mysterious smile is drawn in what we are
accustomed to think of as drawing. There is the story, interpret it
as you will; Erda—Amida—Ceres—Mary—the choice is a matter of time
and temperament. The meaning is the same and Gibran is dealing with

But in the portrayal of the idea he is scrupulously faithful to the
perfection of his technique. Thus beauty is the final arbiter upon
the destiny of his production. He creates with intuitive feeling then
shapes his work into unity with the power of thought, but both these
impulses are guided and guarded by a profound love and appreciation
of the beautiful which enables him to portray that which he has to
say as simply and as sincerely as it is possible for him to do so. It
is this quality of instinctive simplicity which makes his painting so
clearly akin to the art of the sculpture, for the sculptor, unless in
relief, cannot deal with anything other than the essential idea and the
beauty of form. In sculpture there are no accessories of background,
no gradations of colour values to attract the eye and deflect the mind
from thought. Very few painters have been able to express the
essentials of life in painting. Da Vinci attempted it but he was lured
away from the quest by his love of subtleties, and pupils like Luini or
Sodoma expressed the subtleties but failed to grasp the inner meaning
which held Da Vinci to his perpetual quest.

The art of Gibran is symbolic in the deepest meaning of the word
because its roots spring from those basic truths which are fundamental
for all ages and all experiences. He senses the meaning of the earth
and her productions; of man, the final and the consummate flower, and
throughout his work he expresses the interrelating unity of man with
nature. He shows us Man evolving out of the beast in a struggle with
another centaur; he portrays the recumbent Mother crouched against a
centaur who holds the child in his arms—the child who is already one
step beyond, a conception closely parallel to that of Nietzsche. In yet
another picture he shows us Man driving or being driven by a horse,
divinely frenzied.

His centaurs and horses have a charm beyond their natures so that
they are never wholly animal in character. They have a grace which is
reminiscent of the Chinese statuettes of horses, with their square
nostrils and delicate hoofs, hoofs that paw the air rather than the
ground and stamp upon the mind the finest qualities of a horse, its
fleetness, swiftness and strength. So that in regarding these centaurs
we sense the beast that is yet man and again that man which is and
must be animal; we become conscious of that evolution upwards which is
in itself a miracle, although there is a barrier which will for ever
prevent man from clutching the stars.

The picture of the flying figure suggests the sweeping onrush of the
winged victory, man’s supreme aspiration; it is symbol of the divine
force which impels man for ever onward to higher levels of evolution.
The study of the human body in flight has been a source of inspiration
to almost every artist; in the Palazzo Ducale at Venice for instance,
Tintoretto has introduced a multitude of flying figures into his great
ceiling painting of “Venice as the Queen of the Adriatic.” But in
all these studies there are certain distortions of the human body.
These forms are either too aspirant or too convulsive so that one is
unpleasantly reminded of the muscular sensations of cramped arms and
benumbed legs.

In the Sistine Chapel however, the great patriarchal paintings of
the Jehovah creating the world, dividing the waters of the earth or
sweeping through space to touch the finger of the recumbent Adam, are
all so balanced and so benignly reposeful that they convey not only a
sense of flight through space but the impression of the very weight of
space which is able to sustain these moving bodies.

Gibran’s studies of movement are akin to those of Michelangelo because
he has arrived at a unity of thought and representation. Not only is he
the master of the symbolic idea which he expresses but he has attained
the technical grasp upon his material. Hence we are not disconcerted by
false conceptions of the human body or erroneous perspectives.

His paintings are mostly wash drawings and only here and there does his
pencil co-operate with his brush to suggest and complete the theme. The
level of his painting is very delicate—plane suggesting another plane
in the most subtle gradation so that at first there seems to be but
little colour and then comes a swift realization that it is all
colour—only imperceptibly diffused. In one or two of the studies
like the sombre picture of the man with the cap, more vivid reds and
blues are introduced and a certain greenish blue, wholly of the East,
reappears constantly in his studies of definite types. But in his more
profound interpretative work, the gradation of colour is delicate in
the extreme. He uses colour to reveal his form unlike many painters
who lose their sense of form in the pursuit of colour; that is another
reason why his paintings are so suggestive of the art of the sculptor.

This impression is conveyed most powerfully in the study of a woman’s
head, the frontispiece to this volume, a painting which is the most
complete exposition of the art of Gibran. The head is thrown back and
seems to rest upon a white background that is yet not exactly white;
it is the colour of the sea at an infinite distance when colour is no
longer colour but merely light. The head, lying upon this luminous
ground is so delicately delineated that the throat veins almost
quiver and the pale lips are about to move. And as we look upon the
fine profile, the sensitive, highly arched nose and the tender,
compassionate mouth, it seems as if this woman’s head had arisen out of


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