Khalil Gibran (1922-2008)
Khalil Gibran (1922-2008). Study of a Friend, 1958. Welded sheet bronze, 10.00″ x 6.25″ x 18.50″ on original wood veneer base. Head measures 10″ in height. Excellent condition with no damage or restoration. Signed on neck, below ear. Provenance: collection of Dr. and Mrs. Victor Auerbach, Ambler PA.
Kahlil Gibran (`ka-lil j-‘brän) 1922-2008 (sometimes known as Kahlil George Gibran – note the artist’s preferred Americanized spelling of his first name) was a painter and sculptor born in Boston, Massachusetts; he lived in that city all his life. A student of the painter Karl Zerbe at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gibran first received acclaim as a magic realist painter in the late 1940s when he exhibited with other emerging artists later known as the “Boston Expressionists.”
Called a “master of materials,” as both artist and restorer, Gibran turned to sculpture in the mid-fifties. In 1972, in an effort to separate his identity from his famous relative and namesake, the author of The Prophet, Gibran Kahlil Gibran, who was cousin both to his father Nicholas Gibran and his mother Rose Gibran, the sculptor co-authored with his wife, Jean, a biography of the poet entitled Kahlil Gibran His Life And World.
Recognized for multiple skills as painter; carver of wood, wax, and stone; welder; and instrument maker, Gibran’s insatiable curiosity and technical prowess combined to make him truly an original, standing alone and defying labels that associated him with one specific school.
Kahlil Gibran knew he would be an artist when he was seven. The third of five children, he was inspired by his namesake cousin and godfather, the poet Gibran Kahlil Gibran. Related to the author on both sides of his family he was nurtured by his Lebanese immigrant family in Boston, growing up in a poor but proud home that valued art and music. Young Kahlil spent hours in his father’s woodworking workshop where he developed a love affair with tools and materials that would eventually lead to his reputation of a Renaissance man with golden hands.
From his cabinet-maker father, the youngster learned the art of instrument making and helped fashion stringed instruments, including a miniature violin that he treasured all his life.
Gibran lived in Boston’s South Cove neighborhood, soon to become Boston’s Chinatown, and attended local public schools. As a boy, he frequented the Denison House where he occasionally would see social worker Amelia Earhart drive up in her famous yellow roadster. He regularly visited the local public library and enjoyed crafting exotic objects like the scimitar in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum or the guillotine from Tale of Two Cities. At eleven, he received Honorable Mention in a national soap-carving contest, and during his senior year at English High School, was awarded the Lawrence Prize for Art.
Gibran entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1940. He was offered a full scholarship if he concentrated on sculpture. However, he chose a partial scholarship given by the painting department where he studied with Karl Zerbe. The experience shaped his career. “It was an atelier,” he recalled. “They let us develop our own vision while grounding us in the fundamentals – drawing, anatomy, techniques, and materials.”
Winner of The Boit Summer Competition in 1942, the young artist soon was recognized as a master of diverse materials. He was known as ‘ittery Gibran’ for prodigious production fueled by an abundance of nervous energy and for his deep concern that he not be a burden to his family. In 1943, shortly after his study for a mural Entrée á Paradis was awarded the Karl Zerbe prize, he left school in order to apprentice at several craft-related organizations.
For a period during WWII, he served as draftsman at Harvard’s Underwater Sound Laboratory. Later his carving skills led him to work for Martin Heiligmann, a gilder of fine objects and frames. Finding a Joy Street studio on Beacon Hill, he also started to work for Boris Mirski whose Charles Street Gallery was attracting Boston artists and collectors. Word of the young artist’s talent spread, and Gibran briefly honed his skills at the Conservation Laboratory of Harvard University’s Fogg Museum. He finally located a studio at 15 Fayette Street in Boston’s Bay Village, where he settled in as a freelancer, restoring and repairing fine art objects during the day, and painting at night. Shortly after moving, he met sculptor and conservator Morton C. Bradley. The two would maintain a lifelong friendship.
Gibran first displayed original creative work at Boris Mirski’s Charles Street Gallery in 1944. A January 1946 review of his pictures at the Stuart Art Gallery, introduced him to Boston’s art world: “Mr. Gibran is in his early twenties. … He is a mystic and seeks a symbolism which can convey transcendent ideas… a romantic of the artistic clan of Redon. In another Stuart Art Gallery exhibit, Study of a Head by Kahlil Gibran was described as “the tenuous enterprise of another young Boston mystic.”
Soon his paintings appeared at Symphony Hall, along with panels by his mentor Karl Zerbe in a selection of work by contemporary artists titled “Fantasy in Art”. One reviewer wrote: “There are also among these fantasts, visionary artists who perceive images in tenuous dreamlike mists… The portrait for example by Kahlil Gibran.”
By June 1947, a New York Times review of paintings he exhibited at Jacques Seligmann’s gallery in the group show, “Artists Under 25”, acknowledged his efforts with the brief but laudatory comment, “Kahlil Gibran works subtly and effectively in encaustic.” Five months later, Boston’s Institute of Modern Art (now Institute of Contemporary Art) featured works “carefully chosen from the recent production of notable artists in Massachusetts.” Exhibitors included Karl Knaths, Edward Hopper and Edwin Dickinson along with younger Boston artists. ARTnews published a John Brook portrait of eleven Boston painters including Karl Zerbe, Maude Morgan, Panos Ghikas, Lawrence Kupferman, Ture Bengtz and Giglio Dante. The photograph shows a serious and pensive Gibran in profile seated on a ladder near the painter Esther Geller.
In her review of this seminal show, Dorothy Adlow wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “Kahlil Gibran, who like Mr. David Aronson is 24 years old, paints a Pietà in oil with remarkable technical adaptation of pigment.” And later, when the Pietà was exhibited in a March, 1948 Artists’ Equity show, this critic heralded it as “one of the more distinguished pictures painted in Boston in recent years.”
Within a year, his identity as a “visionary” with great technique was spreading. Reviewing contemporary New England painters at the Fitchburg Art Center, Ms. Adlow reinforced this image: ” ‘The Old Fashioned Bouquet’ by Kahlil Gibran sets forth once again the sensitive gift of that young visionary. Mr. Gibran employs his wax technique most effectively. He works with consistency, grace, and poetry.”
Gibran continued to exhibit in group shows at the Niveau Gallery, and made his New York solo debut at the Mortimer Levitt Gallery, April 1948. In The Artists Speaks, Adlow again introduced him: “Gibran is one of the exceptional group of talented artists who have come to the fore in Boston in the last few years. He has a rare capacity of envisioning intangibles, for conjuring the immaterial in tenuousness and exiguousness of concrete image… the most recent painting Joseph’s Cloak discards the subdued chromatic scheme for a rich palette of colors that sing out movingly.”
By June 1949, then married to Eleanor “Elly” Mott, a fellow student at Museum School, Gibran began working for the sculptor Ken Campbell during a summer in Provincetown. With his growing reputation as a Magic Realist, he formed close friendships with several Provincetown artists, including Varujan Boghosian, Mischa Richter , Giglio Dante, poet Cecil Hemley, and painter/poet Weldon Kees.
For editor Hemley’s The Noonday Press, he designed that publishing house’s first colophon. He also became involved with Forum 49, founded by Hemley and Kees and a pivotal event in American twentieth century culture. Jules Aarons, brilliant physicist and photographer of Provincetown’s artistic community, documented Gibran, his wife, and colleagues during that fecund period. Notable is a portrait of the artist with his fish skeleton painting On the Beach, shown at Gallery 200 during the original exhibit of “Forum 49 “, and then again, at the Provincetown Art Association’s fiftieth anniversary memorial show in 1999.
Spending summers in Provincetown, Gibran and his wife opened a boutique called Paraphernalia. It became known for its fanciful signs, innovative displays and handsome mannequins, all crafted by Gibran. But soon, railing at life as shopkeeper, he explored other avenues professionally and personally. The couple agreed to separate, Gibran returning to Boston and Elly taking over the shop.
During the early fifties, Gibran, with the young Boston painter William Georgenes, spent two summers in Nantucket, working on new paintings and exploring new techniques. Always experimenting with the latest in materials, he and artist Alfred Duca, also living at the 15 Fayette Street studio, made major media breakthroughs. New Plastic Medium Used by Painter was Dorothy Adlow’s response to Gibran’s innovative technique shown at the Margaret Brown Gallery, during the winter of 1952: She wrote: “Gibran is a Bostonian who has had several solo exhibitions in this city and in New York. Educated hereabouts, he has worked in a style that is personal and distinguished. Nearly all his paintings are executed in the medium called “Hypalon P4-duPont Plastic”. During this season, Bostonians have seen paintings that two other distinguished artists, Alfred Duca and Karl Zerbe, have also produced in newly invented plastic media. The Gibran paintings show an adaptation of medium to style, as well as style to medium…Included in this exhibition is a group of pictures of fossil subjects exiguously impatterned… Bodhi Tree is a fancifully contrived tree form in blue and magenta hues. Seeded Ground carries the tenuousness and ephemerality of technique to the extreme.”
Also mentioning the new medium was the Boston Herald-Traveler critic Lawrence Dame: “Kahlil Gibran, a talented artist who has climbed to new heights as a stirring individualist since I last saw his work…One of the handsomest works done in a new plastic medium which has the wax look of encaustic is a restrained study of egrets swinging their plumes in a covert. Gibran’s rooster is a gorgeous bird of paradise in its lustrous reds and mauves. …I cannot praise Kahlil Gibran too highly for a remarkable showing. He has placed himself in the top rank of young Boston painters – and it hasn’t been by luck.”
And then, at the height of a promising career, the emerging painter, thirty years of age, precipitously turned to a completely new art form. “My marriage was breaking up…,” he told the Globe in 1967. “I had too much energy. …After my divorce, psychiatry made me understand I had to sculpt.” Crediting Dr. Clemens Benda, with pointing his way to sculpture and, in some ways, transforming his entire persona, even his approach to art, Gibran developed a strong bond with that Jungian psychiatrist. He had learned of him from Hyman Bloom who, like many Boston artists of the period, were searching for spirituality in non-traditional ways.
Throughout the forties, Gibran’s friendship with Bloom was, in part, due to their mutual devotion to the music of what was then called “the Orient.” The young Gibran had always searched for recordings of early twentieth century Arabic singers and instrumentalists, and soon joined a group of devotees of Middle Eastern and Indian music that included Bloom, composer Alan Hovhannes, painter Hermon Di Giovanni, sculptors Frank and Jean Teddy Tock, Dr. Betty Gregory, and, later on, James Rubin, founder of Boston’s Pan Orient Arts Foundation.
As Gibran’s reputation for building instruments grew, he also repaired instruments for players from local nightclubs as well as creating and restoring instruments for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and folk musicians. Self-taught luthier, he began constructing ouds, sazes, Renaissance-type lutes, and even bows. His vihuela, a 15th-16th century Spanish forerunner of today’s guitar, was admired and played by many classical guitarists, and featured in a 1954 concert, Court Music Of The Spanish Renaissance at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Throughout his life, he continued to indulge his passion for building violins as well as other exotic instruments. In the early 90s he took time to self-publish his deeply researched theory illuminating the mystery of the brilliant tonal quality of Stradivarius and other Cremonese fiddle-makers. Observations On The Reasons For The Cremona Tone appeared in the January 1994 ”Bulletin“ of the Southern California Violin Makers, with the convincing and tested argument that burnishing the wood face of instruments prior to varnishing created a compressed, non-spongy, and more resonant soundboard, and consequent tonal brilliance and richness.
For the next six decades, Gibran mostly concentrated on sculpture. Experimenting with metal, he constructed his initial figures from wire found while beachcombing in Nantucket; soon he was combining this technique with thermal metal spraying. By the mid-fifties, Gibran enrolled in Boston’s Wentworth Institute of Technology where he learned the Oxy-Acetylene welding process. Within months, he had begun work on his first major welded figure, John the Baptist, voted ‘Most Popular’ in the 1956 Boston Arts Festival and named “a show stopper and crowd-collector” by the Boston Globe’s Edgar Driscoll.
Gibran explained the process of creating John the Baptist years later in National Sculpture Review in a paragraph reminiscent of Michelangelo’s statement that a sculpture was simply waiting to be released from within the block of marble: “John the Baptist, my first welded figure grew out of a fascination for a jumble of baling wire discovered on a Boston wharf. [n.b.: The same wharf where today’s Institute of Contemporary Art is located]. His staff – a tie rod for piers – was eroded by the sea into a most beautifully organic and tactile iron length. The figure was already there. All that was required was order. It was all there, the conceptual and the technical – the raw and primal qualities of John in the desert reflected through nature’s brutalization of man’s objects.”
Voice in the Wilderness, a welded iron rod 7-foot figure received the George D. Widener Gold medal at the Pennsylvania Academy Annual in 1958. A year later, Pieta exhibited at the eighth Boston Arts Festival received acclaim as articulated by The New York Times critic Stuart Preston: “This year’s Grand Prize in art was awarded to … Gilbert Franklins’ Beach Figure… but it must have been a close thing deciding between it and Kahlil Gibran’s noble and expressive Pieta.”
Concurrent with his welded figures, Gibran was accepting commissions for decorative works that at times were combinations of wood carving or of metal abstract extruded welded metal wall hangings. For one Chestnut Hill mansion designed by Walter Bogner and its adjacent pool house designed by Saltonstall and Morton, now included in a list of National Historic Buildings, Gibran executed a 100 foot welded Corten steel fence surrounding the swimming pool, doorknobs and other hand wrought architectural features throughout the home, culminating with his sculpture Javelier.
Prizes and Recognition
Recipient of two John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959 and 1960, along with a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1961, Gibran began exhibiting his growing body of sculpture in museums and galleries throughout the nation. By 1962, Brian O’Doherty of The New York Times described his one-man sculpture show at New York’s Lee Nordness Gallery and suggested that “every sculptor should see this “tour de force”. Two years later his Young Trunk received the Grand Prize at the Boston Arts Festival, followed by the John Gregory Award for Sculpture from the National Sculpture Society and the gold medal for Excellence at the International Show of Religious Art in Trieste, Italy. The Boston Globe magazine featured him in 1967 when author Gregory McDonald concluded: “Removing the confusion, the mysticism from the name Kahlil Gibran, leaves in this generation, a sculptor of extraordinary poetic power, utterly concerned with his art, with the double nature that is utterly human, as paradoxical as himself, and, a man with a singular future.”
Once more, Gibran, turned to a completely different art form. With his second wife, Jean English Gibran, he spent three years co-authoring the definitive biography of his relative, Gibran Kahlil Gibran, the author of The Prophet. Kahlil Gibran His Life and World, published first by New York Graphic Society in 1974, and by Interlink in 1991, was an effort not only to separate his and the poet’s identities, but also to present a well researched, accurate story of the adolescent’s immersion in Boston’s cultural life shortly after his arrival in 1895, and his meteoric rise in the world of arts and letters.
Commissions and Monuments
A long time admirer and collector of medals, by 1977, Gibran’s first significant effort relating to that medium was a bas relief portrait of his cousin for a monument sited in Copley Square across from the main branch of the Boston Public Library. Sculping in wax led to several commissions, including bas reliefs Cardinal Richard Cushing, Amy Beach, Elliot Norton medal and portrait heads Karon, Najwa, Nureyev, Self Portrait. Finally he had the time and, as always, the passion to fulfill a childhood promise to honor his parents Rose Gibran (her maiden name) and Nicholas Gibran. In 1981, Gibran’s monumental sculpture the 12 foot bronze Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon was placed on a high Jamaica Plain hill on a Roxbury pudding stone ledge, at the site of the Maronite Church to which the family belonged.
Although he neglected to mention Gibran as jewelry maker and furniture designer, Wilson did describe the Gibran Tripod that he and Chris Casgrande began to manufacture and distribute to institutions, including The Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Like the pool cues he made, the leather belts he fashioned, Gibran’s design for this object was sleek and described as “one brilliant new American product” that during its display at the German Photokina exhibit “had the French, the Germans, and the Italians slavering.”
It was also during the late nineties, that Gibran more or less left the competitive art world. Just steps away from his South End studio, West Canton Street Child presided over Hayes Park. For the first time in his life, he deliberately avoided publicity, explaining to one neighbor who successfully interviewed him: “I live in a world here that’s very different. When we bought this house I created sort of a haven, I equipped it with all the tools that I need, and it takes up all my time.”
Within the vibrant South End art world, Gibran formed close ties with local artists including his Museum School classmate and member of the Boston art group Direct Vision Francesco Carbone, painter Steven Trefonides, and photographers Morton Bartlett, Marie Cosindas and David Robinson.
Along with his studio, Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery had symbolized escape for Gibran ever since he was a boy roaming its rural paths. In Susan Wilson’s Garden of Memories, he recalled how meaningful the space was: “Forest Hills had a quiet solitude and magic…I walked through the gates, and it was MINE, all mine.” At the turn of the twenty-first century shortly after the creation of his double-figure, “Into the Millennium“, Gibran became involved in the Forest Hills Educational Trust. His Seated Ceres joined other contemporary art on its Sculpture Path.
In Ceres, the “Artist celebrates life though sculpture“ wrote Rebecca Reynolds, then Forest Hills Keeper of Historic Collections, further summarizing Gibran’s lifetime dedication:
“In essence Gibran’s art mirrors his personal search for truth, what the artist characterizes as an almost medieval predilection for humanity’s great dramas dealing with life and death. While Gibran’s sculpture at Forest hills suggests a playful, joyous view of the world, another body of his work has a dark side reflecting inhumanity and the sobering surety of death. It is as if one must know sorrow to experience bliss.”
Gibran gave Seated Ceres to the cemetery. It was featured in a New York Times slide show in January 2008, and its presence, seated on the shore of Lake Hibiscus, became a beloved icon.
Gibran’s last four years were spent giving back to the community. The `Jean and Kahlil Gibran Collection` was shown at Framingham’s Danforth Museum of Art in 2002. The exhibit included Gibran’s many Boston colleagues – often under-represented painters, photographers, and sculptors – whom he and his wife had collected throughout the decades.
The donation of these works to Danforth, a local museum that respects and continues to show neglected Boston artists, was soon followed by the couple’s quest to find a eventual permanent home for their Gibran Kahlil Gibran archive of paintings, correspondence, and documents that they had carefully collected and nurtured. Helping and supporting this plan were long time friends, art historians, dealers, and writers Stuart and Beverly Denenberg. Publishing a confidential digital catalog of the Gibran Kahlil Gibran Collection, the Gibrans and Denenbergs determined that among the several institutions interested in acquiring the collection was Mexico City’s Museo Soumaya. This institute provided the space, security, curatorial staff, scholars, and passion to care for the works and possessions of the poet. On October 21, 2007, the archive was placed in that museum’s care.
Shortly after, Jean and Kahlil Gibran made another special donation when their vast collection of European and American medals was accepted by the Los Angeles County Museum.
A major exhibition of Gibran’s work was shown at Boston’s St. Botolph Club during September and October, 2007. The curators of this retrospective “As a Man/ Kahlil Gibran“, selected forty-five examples, including paintings, musical instruments, sculpture, drawings, inventions, and books. With a stunning catalog, champagne toasts, and the violinist Joo-Mee Lee playing Gibran’s violins, the opening reception resounded with applause. Stuart Denenberg read “This Kahlil Gibran“, a praise poem honoring his friend of more than forty years.
On April 13, 2008, at the age of 85, Gibran died suddenly of congestive heart failure at Massachusetts General Hospital. Obituaries also paid tribute. His final resting place at Forest Hills Cemetery was marked by Boy with a Dove, the young figure from Into the Millennium.
Exactly three months after his death, Seated Ceres was stolen from her Forest Hills site. Though stunned and horrified by this act of vandalism, Gibran’s family and Forest Hills Educational Trust administrators collaborated to replace this figure with a Standing Ceres that was installed and dedicated on August 15, 2008 at a spot in the cemetery park that Gibran loved best.
Collections and Shows (1953-2007)