Kahlil Gibran is of course best–known as the author ofThe Prophet, one of the best-selling books of all time and one of the few never to be out of print since it was first published.
What’s less well known is that Gibran was an accomplished visual artist as well.
What’s even less well–known is that our very own Telfair Museums own the single largest holding of Gibran’s artwork, on display through Jan. 23 at the Jepson Center.
Still, “Gibran’s a real Savannah icon,” says Tania June Sammons, director of the Telfair–administered Owens-Thomas House and co–author of a beautiful new companion volume to the collection, The Art of Kahlil Gibran.
“He’s up there with John Berendt, Paula Deen, and Bobby Zarem,” she says. “He brings people here.”
While the local community at large perhaps isn’t as aware of the Gibran collection as they should be, the rest of the world knows. Over the holidays an Australian film crew working on a documentary about Gibran–related sites all over the world stopped by the Jepson to shoot a segment.
Born into a Christian family in Lebanon, Gibran’s first love was visual art. When he emigrated to the United States early in life, his plan was to pursue that as a career.
But like one of his key influences, William Blake, Gibran would eventually be so consumed by a desire to communicate his spiritual philosophy that he determined to also set words to paper.
“He went to study in Paris, but he said ‘this is not for me,’” says Dr. Suheil Bushrui, co–author of The Art of Kahlil Gibran and one of the world’s foremost Gibran scholars. “He didn’t care for Cubism or Picasso — he wanted to follow the spiritual art of Blake.”
And like Blake, Gibran’s career would eventually be noted for a combination of spiritual poetry and simple yet evocative artwork.
“His art was inseparable from his poetry,” says Bushrui. “He was making a statement in both.”
Using what Bushrui calls “the eye of the heart as well as the eye of the mind,” Gibran was reaching for that melding of reason and spirituality that the great English poets called “Imagination,” with a capital “I.”
“It’s a formidable combination,” Bushrui says.
As a Christian in mostly Muslim Lebanon, Gibran had to learn “not the language of confrontation, but of identity,” Bushrui says.
That said, the Lebanon of the early 20th Century was quite different from the Lebanon of the early 21st Century, with Muslims, Christians and Jews largely living in peaceful coexistence.
Gibran’s Christianity was key to his future success, in that it gave him a link to the rich literary culture of the West.
“Ever since the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian, Christianity became the religion of Europe, and therefore the religion of the West,” Bushrui explains.
While Gibran always tried to find the common ground between the great world religions, Christianity was his core belief system, with its core tenet of forgiveness and the opportunity for personal transformation.
“What were Christ’s last words on the cross?” asks Bushrui. “‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ What is the main message of the Lord’s Prayer? ‘Forgive us our trespasses and forgive those who trespass against us.’”
So how did the Telfair end up with so much Gibran art? That’s an interesting story in and of itself.
From his first days in America, Gibran’s best friend and most energetic patron, both personally and financially, was Mary Haskell, who had a passionate connection to Gibran in many ways.
“Their relationship is very complicated,” laughs Sammons. “At some points they’re like lovers and at some points they’re like mother and son. But they always had a great friendship, and like most friendships it evolved.”
While at one point there was a discussion of marriage, Haskell ended up marrying Jacob Minis, member of the influential Savannah/Lowcountry Minis family. The real Savannah connection, however, is through Haskell’s mother, from the local Alexander family.
Gibran willed all his letters and art to Haskell upon his death, which came in 1931. While Haskell donated her personal correspondence with Gibran to the University of North Carolina, she chose the Telfair as recipient of his visual work, saying “There when I was a visiting child, form burst upon my astonished little soul.”
Sammons says the reason the Gibran collection isn’t often displayed at the museum is because of the fragility of the paper. However, next summer the exhibit will come out again because of the visiting conferences of two important Lebanese heritage groups who are sponsors of the book.
Sammons suggests that people, especially Telfair members, contact the museum to suggest the work be displayed more often.
“It would be in the best interest of Savannah if more Savannahians wanted to see this art displayed more frequently,” she says.
The Art of Kahlil Gibran exhibit is at the Jepson Center through Jan. 23. The book The Art of Kahlil Gibran is available at the gift shops of the Jepson Center, the Telfair Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Owens–Thomas House, and online.