Remembering Paul Guiragossian: 'My father, the greatest storyteller I know'

Manuella Guiragossian, the daughter of late Armenian-Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian, tells writer Myrna Ayad about her memories of her father. This first-person account is based on their interview

Paul Guiragossian with Manuella, his youngest child, in 1973. Courtesy Paul Guiragossian Foundation
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I am the youngest of five children, with a 19-year difference between myself and my eldest sibling. My father would always say that I am the best accident that ever happened to him and my mother.

In 1974, when I was a little over a year old, he was in an elevator that got stuck midway between floors due to a power cut. A ­pregnant woman in the lift had a panic attack, and to relieve her, my father broke the glass door for some air. In that moment, the power came back on and the lift started to move. Unfortunately, in all that commotion, his leg got jammed, and then severed. He lost his leg and had to wear a prosthetic.

He tried to hide it from me, and ensured I wasn't in the room when he needed to wear his prosthetic leg, until one day, I walked in and saw the artificial limb by his side. He then told me that he had three legs, with the third being a bionic one. He always had inventive answers, and I was convinced that this new powerful limb allowed him to run faster and jump higher, just like Lee Majors' character Steve Austin, the bionic man, in the infamous 1970s ­American science fiction television show, The Six Million Dollar Man. Dad refused to appear incapable. I never felt I had a disabled father, and to this day I view disabled people as strong.

My father wasn't depressed after he lost his leg. Everyone else was, but he wasn't. He ­related more to people who were disabled. Incidentally, 20 years before his accident, he painted men with amputated legs and this recurring ­character appeared in his works from 1956 to the 1970s. Who knows, that could have been a premonition.

The late 1970s were probably the happiest days of my life, even though there was war in Lebanon. My siblings were living between Germany and Canada, and I was alone in Beirut with my parents. We spent time playing with puppets, drawing, singing, watching Hollywood classics with a projector and creating flip books – this is where my love for animation comes from.

Dad would always advise me to love what I do and to stay modest, warning me that arrogance and pride can ruin a person. All I knew was him; everyone else was a background extra, a secondary character; my Mum included. She would say that when he lost his leg and almost died, he prayed to God to live to see his youngest old enough. He died in 1993, a week after I turned 21.

In the 1970s, Manuella lived in Beirut with her parents, where she spent time playing with puppets, drawing and creating flip books. Courtesy Paul Guiragossian Foundation

It was very natural for me to watch him paint. There was a spontaneity about his approach, there was no "waiting" for inspiration. I remember once walking out of the bathroom with a towel around my head and wearing a colourful kaftan. He immediately walked me up to his studio on the tenth floor that had a view of the sea and mountains, and within seconds, painted my portrait. In the studio, he was a different person altogether. It was like he was in a trance, entering another dimension that took control of his body. No matter what you said, he couldn't hear you. You had to just sit down and watch.

Now that I am archiving his work, I see that everything has a power. Looking at something that has been masterfully made is so different from looking at something beautiful, and one cannot deny my father's mastery. What baffles me is how the strokes were thrown on there and how he mixed colours. There was no method, it was all innate. This is why the fakers can't really fake. It's about what comes out of dad's hand or heart. No one can replicate that and anything done spontaneously cannot be remade.

 Manuella Guiragossian is now on a mission to archive her father’s work. Courtesy Sueraya Shaheen

He worked prolifically and believed that he was a member of the working class. Self-­educated, he loved Bach and Baudelaire and was a voracious reader, too. He had a large collection of books in multiple languages: Arabic, English and French, he also had Italian publications as he was fluent in the language, and of course, ­Armenian, his origin. He was also particularly fond of literature, poetry and philosophy from the Arab world; my father was an Arab patriot through and through. He despised ­colonialism and knew that there were agendas.

Journalists were his friends. He was a great orator and storyteller, and always pulled a crowd, he even gave a lecture at the UN in 1987. However, despite how much money and fame he gained, he always considered the working class and identified with them. My father was pleased with simple and little pleasures and deplored excess. He was a great philanthropist and enjoyed helping the less privileged. He just wanted to do as much good as he could. In his 50-year career, he did a lot on his own without the support of galleries and made sure his art was seen by many around the world.

Portrait of Manuella (circa 1983) - Oil on canvas - 73 x 60 cm (Manuella Guiragossian collection, Lebanon)

I was devastated when he died and started archiving his work in an attempt to be closer to him. I studied in the US from 1996-2002, and while there, interviewed his students and collectors and took pictures. I wanted to know who my father was before I was born and I got to know him better through archiving his work. I needed to get more involved and held a show for him at Dubai's Green Art Gallery in 2003. We met a lot of people through that exhibition and I realised that a large portion of his collectors are European and American, meaning that my father had reached many beyond the Arab world and is a truly international artist. In 2011, we established the Paul Guiragossian Foundation and in 2018, we launched his monograph in Dubai (Displacing Modernity) that was edited by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath and published by Silvana Editoriale. I realise now more than ever that my father is not just mine, he is for the world.

More information is available at Remembering The Artist is a new monthly series that will feature artists from the region