Henry Jabbour: This Life to Me, Union Gallery, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.  
March 2017


Henry Jabbour: This Life to Me
Union Gallery

Until 1 April


Henry Jabbour, who was born in Beirut, worked as an eminent scientist in the field of animal physiology – latterly he was Honorary Professor in Veterinary Medicine at The University of Edinburgh

In 2005 he began evening classes at Leith School of Art, as a creative foil to a high pressure professional environment. Soon, he was gripped by the passion of painting and printmaking, and the study of art history, underpinned by the strong practical, academic but supportive ethos of the Leith school. In 2013 he completed a diploma there and went on to gain an MFA in New York, giving up his scientific career in what can only be described as a leap of faith, and began working as a full time painter.

The current body of work takes is name from the work of Jalal El-Din Rumi (1207 -1273) who wrote,’Who lifteth up the spirit, Say, who is he?’ ‘Who gave in the beginning This life to me.’ The Persian mystic, theologian and poet is a guiding light to Jabbour; he also cites the Russian painter Chaïm Soutine, as a major influence.

Here Jabbour’s paintings and prints bear all the hallmarks of deep academic study. But for all the attention to technique, composition and the use of colour, they are far from clinical exercises of rote learning. These are intensely felt, compassionate works, which speak of the human condition. Although based on actual persons, they are not portraiture but are, rather, both intimate and universal.

The oil, Morning Ritual (2016), painted in rich blues and greens, is typical. It shows a central, solitary unidentifiable, figure. Despite, or even because of, the subject’s apparent anonymity the painting conveys an understanding of the small acts that collectively make up our lives, giving them meaning – in this case, breakfast, pouring coffee. The fact that Jabbour has used language borrowed from religion is no co-incidence.

At some level, these paintings are spiritual, representing contemporary sacraments. As if to underline this, Jabbour has created a series depicting choir boys, in direct homage to Soutine. Again, these are compositional works, where the subject remains just out identifiable reach, so that the work dwells on the combination of paint and colour.

Jabbour’s work  shows that in the right hands painting is not a static medium, but something alive and vibrant, with something new to say despite contemporary art’s pursuit of the novel and the technological.