An Image of Impressionism: Downtown Beirut

Walking through Downtown Beirut on a Sunday afternoon, seeing all the people walking and sitting in the cafes all dressed up, looking at and being looked at by passers by, a CS 251 student can’t help but remember what he had learned about Impressionism and the bourgeois lifestyle of Paris during the late 1800s.

Downtown Beirut 2004

Downtown Beirut, 8:00pm. 

Not only is the image a glimpse of a typical Beirut Downtown moment, but it is also reminiscent of several Impressionist paintings that we learned about, which is why I chose to compare it to  Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte (1886), Caillebotte’s Paris on a Rainy Day (1877), and Manet’s The Balcony (1868).

To begin with, let us consider the historical context and background we have at hand. Lebanon was at a state of war in the 80’s, and Beirut was destroyed, specially the downtown area; it was completely destroyed. The war was over around 1990, and Beirut started to be rebuilt and expanded. The Beirut Downtown area was completely rebuilt and renovated by the late 90’s, and the people, or bourgeoisie if we may call them, started reappearing and going out to places and socializing because it was safe again. Beginning year 2000, the Beirut downtown area became a leisure place where middle class and upper class people would hang out, promenade and dine at.

The context here is similar to that of the chosen paintings. At the time of the paintings, the late 1800s, Paris had just finished being rebuilt, renovated and expanded after the war. Paris became a modern social and cultural center, and “its streets became the dwelling place of flaneurs”; the bourgeois class became the eminent class.

Sunday Afternoon at the Island of the Grande Jatte, Seurat.

Similar to The Grande Jatte, the Downtown images portray bourgeois people at leisure time. In The Grande Jatte, one can see people laying down relaxing or just walking around and socializing. They are all fancily dressed. The socializing part consists of talking with each other or just looking at others and being seen by them. The painting captures a typical moment of such a situation.

Similarly, the downtown image also represents a typical moment or impression of bourgeois people at leisure. It also shows people walking around looking at and being seen by others, or just sitting down in cafes, also looking and being looked at, or even sitting down on the pavement, looking at people pass by. These people are also fancily dressed, which shows something of what class they belong to. Their fancy parked cars, which don’t show in the picture, also tell about their class.

 balcony b          Downtown Beirut balcony
           The Balcony, Manet.                          A balcony in Downtown Beirut. 

Another image than one sees in the downtown is the image of the classic balconies. Personally, before taking the CS course, these balconies meant nothing to me except decorative architecture. Now, these balconies constantly remind us of the balconies of Paris during the late 1800s, like the ones in Manet’s The Balcony (1868) and Caillebotte’s Man on a Balcony (1880). The one in this picture is a renovated balcony, and has no one in it. Its modern purpose might just be decorative, but back in the old days, such a balcony would have served as a social practice, like the one in Manet’s painting. In the painting, the people, dressed up and all, are sitting on the balcony looking at people and being seen. This was an alternative to going for a walk and socializing.

 paris on a rainy day
Paris on a Rainy Day, Caillebotte.

Finally, another painting one might remember after taking a walk in Downtown Beirut is Caillebotte’s Paris on a Rainy Day. This painting captures a typical Parisian moment. We see people walking by holding umbrellas, but still, the couple in the front seems to be looking at something at the other side, perhaps at other passers by. The streets are also embedded and paved, and the lamp-post and buildings seems to give the effect of a modern urban city. If we forget about the fact that it’s raining and that people are holding umbrellas in the painting, the exact same image can be seen in the streets of Downtown Beirut. The painting would capture an exact moment in the Beirut downtown streets, with all the people walking by, and all the tall urban buildings representing a metropolitan modern Beirut. Referring back to the first Downtown image at the beginning, one can also draw a similarity between the clock tower in the background of the image, and the great triangular building in Paris on a Rainy Day. Both structures could be looked at as urban culture symbols or symbols of modernization and modern urban life.

In conclusion, though not a painting, the Downtown Beirut scene could be looked at as a reminder of Impressionism and the Parisian bourgeois life.

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