22 years after his death, Fateh al Moudarres survives the war

I felt chills in my back when I entered the long corridor leading to the large hall in Fateh Moudarres studio to find an outsized mural on the right wall, which was preserved as Moudarres had left it, forming painted layers of croquis, studies, sketch, and ideas on an extra-large fresco. I gently touched the wall, with a sense of gratitude.

As one of Syria’s most celebrated painters, Fateh Moudarres is internationally renowned as the pioneer of modernism in Syria, creating a unique style influenced by Syrian heritage, the plight of the rural population and regional upheavals.


The consensus upon Moudarres’ iconic role in avant-gardism is far from being restricted to the Syrian artistic community with all its spectrum. Abd al-Rahman Munif, the Saudi novelist; wrote an elegiac article in the wake of Moudarres death: “ he left like a child treading the path of Golgotha, and in his death, as in his life, he appeared like Jesus the Redeemer, who never grew tired from giving counsel and setting examples.”

His scholar, friend, and partner in his studio, Issam Darwich, a famous Syrian artist born in 1952 in Damascus, persevered holding an annual exhibition of Fateh Moudarres artistic works in his studio since the first annual commemoration of Moudarres on the 28th of June, 2000. The exhibition is made of Issam Darwich personal collection of Moudarres works and the collection of Moudarres late wife Shoukran Elemam. However, this annual manifestation was interrupted by the war from 2012 to 2019.

Yet, for the last two years, the expo reopened in Moudarres Gallery at his studio that resembles a nest, located on Ahmad al-Marioud Street in Damascus, with windows not very high off the ground. Glimpsing the dim lights coming out of them, inside the studio, like an old ship with its corridor leading to the large hall, Sufi music by groups from Azerbaijan was played everywhere.

Issam Darwich, expressed the big influence Moudarres has left on a whole generation of Syrian artists, describing him as a phenomenon who made a revolution on the world of shape to the non-shape; which defied allies of classical artistic schools like Realism and Impressionism. ,but at the same time having  gained respect among them all.

Darwich clearly conveyed his appreciation of Moudarres, “he was the only professor who would make exhibitions with his scholars. He was both loving and generous.”

It is noteworthy to mention that Issam Darwich, is a well-established name in the Syrian artistic scene, who worked for thirty years as an artistic critic at Teshreen newspaper, and has his own gallery in Al- Adawy neighborhood named “Gallery Eshtar”.

The most one can do is to reflect briefly on some of the stages in the life of this distinguished artist, hoping his influence on the Arts movements in Syria and the Arab world will be written about in the future, in detail and with objectivity.

The hammer first struck the chisel into the heart of Fateh when he lost his father at the age of two; who was killed by a gang in his mid-20s after a conflict over land ownership and political differences. This

event left a deep impact upon the child and his mother, and this influence lingered with Fateh to the end.

Childhood experience, then death and its consequences, are some of the elements that stamp the artistic life of Moudarres. Martyrdom, crucifixion, and “Jesus Returning to Nazareth”–the name given to one of Fateh’s paintings–are expressions that acquire new meaning closely linked to his environment. Jesus, been portrayed with European features for centuries in Western paintings, appears with oriental Syriac features in Fateh’s painting, “which have restored to Jesus his real features, language, and place in which he lived” according to Antoine Makdissi.

Besides his fine art career, Fateh was involved in literature, particularly short stories and poems, in the form of life lessons marked by black sarcasm. “The Mint Tree,” his only published collection, constitutes a good example of the short story in terms of structure, language and meaning.

Fateh’s short stories provide an important key to his world. Some similarity is found between Fateh and Kafka, where both focus on the dark side of life, portraying human transformation to deformed creatures. However, Moudarres does not reach the state of absurdity or nihilism Kafka represents, due to differences in geography, concerns, and time. Furthermore, Fateh’s commitment lies in the concerns, principles and positions, which made him a rejectionist closer to rebellion. Those who know him say nothing preoccupied him more than politics, or rather, the indictment of violence, betrayal, hypocrisy and wickedness that dominates the political world of gimmicks and maneuvers, for which people, particularly the poor, pay a high price.

To discover and recognize Fateh Moudarres, it is necessary to treat him as a whole. His life is as important as his art, his writings equal his paintings, and his dialogues reveal much of what the paintings cannot say directly.

He is a school, as his name reflects “Moudarres” (mentor in Arabic), because of the richness and the diversity of his experience, and the multiple means of expressions he adopted to present his thoughts and dreams. Since his personality was a mixture of the artist and the bohemian philosopher, often marked by some sarcasm, art in its many forms become one of the many aspects of this personality. Hence the imbalance in his expressions, particularly in painting, which may be explained by Fateh’s feeling that he had not yet reached or accomplished what truly satisfied and expressed him. Therefore, he turned to the piano to “say” something additional, something nor colors neither written words could express; since music is one of the most abstract means of expression, he found at some point melodies the best means of fulfillment to express his aspirations.

I lately realized that when talking about Moudarres, we need to emphasize present and future tenses more than past, for the importance of this exceptional artist cannot be measured by the years, or by physical proximity, but rather in terms of presence and influence. This is why his death becomes unique when compared with others’ death. Fateh will always remain present and capable of life and renewal, while the others’ death becomes the beginning of absence and forgetfulness.

Report & Interview: Lama Alhassanieh