Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

The story behind the artwork hanging in Fairouz's home by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock

'There are two versions of the painting,' art collector Saeed Al Harmoodi says. 'The first one was completed in 1969. The one we saw during the Macron visit was done in 1980'

A photograph from the early 1990s shows Fairuz at home with the 1969 painting by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock behind her: Fairouz has two very similar paintings by the same artist. Courtesy: Saeed Al Harmoodi 
A photograph from the early 1990s shows Fairuz at home with the 1969 painting by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock behind her: Fairouz has two very similar paintings by the same artist. Courtesy: Saeed Al Harmoodi 

After French President Emmanuel Macron visited Fairouz at her home in the suburb of Rabieh on Monday, the legendary and famously reclusive singer shared pictures of the visit on her official Twitter account.

These weren’t the first photographs to show the eclectic interior of Fairouz’s home, but they were certainly among the clearest we've seen, showing family pictures, dazzling pillowcases and a collection of religious iconography.

But what caught most people’s attention was the artwork above the sofa. Painted with a gold-leaf background, the work shows three depictions of the Lebanese singer.

Fairouz shared this photo of herself and Emmanuel Macron on her official Twitter account after meeting the French president during his visit to Beirut this week.
Fairouz shared this photo of herself and Emmanuel Macron on her official Twitter account after meeting the French president during his visit to Beirut this week.

While two show Fairouz at varying points in her life and career, the third is perhaps the most eye-catching, with the singer in mythical blue.

The painting is the work of Croatian-Lebanese artist Cici Tommaseo-Sursock, who specialised in portraits as well as works of icons.

Tommaseo-Sursock's granddaughter, Frederique Sursock, says the artist – who died in 2015 – personally knew Fairouz and would meet with the singer while painting her.

"They met numerous times when my grandma was making the paintings," Sursock says. "She would go to Fairouz's house to make the paintings. Fairouz also came to Cici's house in Beirut one time."

There have been many interpretations of the painting seen in Fairouz's home, namely about what the blue iteration of the singer's face is meant to represent. One popular interpretation is that it is possibly a homage to the singer's legendary status. However, the artist's granddaughter says it is actually a symbolic representation of her voice.

"I realise there are some questions and interpretations about blue Fairouz," Sursock says. "My grandma told me herself about the three faces. They are like the three facets of Fairouz: the interior, the exterior and the voice."

There are actually two very similar paintings

Saeed Al Harmoodi, an Emirati art collector who has two works by Sursock in his collection, says he reached out to the artist in 2013, hoping that she’d paint him a replica of a portrait hanging in Fairouz’s house.

A 1971 cover of Fairuz's 'Sayyef Ya Sayf' shows the 1969 painting by Croatian-Lebanese artist Cici Tommaseo-Sursock behind the legendary singer. Courtesy: Saeed Al Harmoodi 
A 1971 cover of Fairouz's 'Sayyef Ya Sayf' shows the 1969 painting by Croatian-Lebanese artist Cici Tommaseo-Sursock. Courtesy: Saeed Al Harmoodi

“She said she was a friend of Fairouz’s,” Al Harmoodi recalls. “She said she was glad I liked the painting. At first she thought I wanted a portrait of myself done in that style. But what I wanted was a replica of the painting hanging in Fairouz’s house, which I’d seen in photographs.”

An undated photograph shows Fairuz with the 1969 painting by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock behind her. Courtesy: Saeed Al Harmoodi 
An undated photograph shows Fairouz with the 1969 painting by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock behind her. Courtesy Saeed Al Harmoodi

Ultimately, Al Harmoodi was not able to get his hands on a replica, but he did learn more about the portraits that Sursock painted of the singer. “There are two versions of the painting,” he says. “The first one was completed in 1969.”

The original painting, which has also been photographed in Fairouz’s house, is similar to the work seen during Macron’s visit. It also features three depictions of the singer but has a blue background instead.

“There was a rumour that the blue painting was damaged in the 1980s, but that doesn’t make much sense since it was last photographed in 1994,” Al Harmoodi says.

“The one we saw in the recent photographs [with Macron] is the 1980 version,” Al Harmoodi says. “It was painted with a gold-leaf background.”

Al Harmoodi was so taken by Tommaseo-Sursock's paintings of Fairouz that he began researching the Croatian-Lebanese painter's work. In 2018, he came across one of her paintings that shows a mother and her child in an iconographic aesthetic.

Saeed Al Harmoodi acquired this 1963 painting by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock in an online auction in 2019. Courtesy: Saeed Al Harmoodi 
Saeed Al Harmoodi acquired this 1963 painting by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock in an online auction in 2019. Courtesy Saeed Al Harmoodi

A year later, he managed to acquire another work of hers that shows a woman resting her head against a table with an arm stretched to cover her face. "I found both paintings in an online auction," he says. "I took my chance and won both."

Who was Cici Tommaseo-Sursock?

Born Cici Tommaseo in Croatia in 1923, she began painting at a very young age. “I used to paint mostly faces on my notebook,” she said in an interview with film and lifestyle blog SRSCK in 2012. “I’ve always been inspired by faces. I never painted landscapes. And even before I painted icons, I use to paint faces. I like to bring out the eyes especially."

I stopped painting when I got married in Egypt. My mother-in-law did not want me to paint in the palace because she was afraid I would stain the carpet

She travelled a lot during her lifetime, living in Italy, Austria, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.

“As soon as I would make friends and get used to a new language and to a new country, we had to leave. It affected me very much at the time. Especially when we left Turkey: it was heartbreaking for me,” she said. She went to a private school of fine arts in Turkey. “My Turkish teacher just had one student: me!" she said. "We would work together.”

The artist moved to Egypt with her parents in 1945. There she worked as an illustrator and met her husband, Habib Sursock, and moved in to the Gezirah Palace in Cairo, which is now the Cairo Marriott Hotel. The Sursocks are a famous Lebanese family who had a manufacturing and distribution empire that spanned the Mediterranean.

An undated photograph shows Cici Tommaseo-Sursock with a number of her works behind her. Courtesy: Saeed Al Harmoodi 
An undated photograph shows Cici Tommaseo-Sursock with a number of her works behind her. Courtesy Saeed Al Harmoodi

“I stopped painting when I got married in Egypt. My mother-in-law did not want me to paint in the palace because she was afraid I would stain the carpets,” she said.

In 1962, the family moved out of the palace after Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president at the time, nationalised the venue. “We lost everything,” she told SRSCK. “We were left with nothing. That’s when we moved to Lebanon and I started earning a living with my paintings. Painting became my work and we could live thanks to that.”

It was presumably around this time that Tommaseo-Sursock struck up a friendship with Fairouz and painted a portrait of her.

We may never find out what happened to the original 1969 painting that once hung in Fairouz’s home – it may even still be there. But, thanks to the images the singer shared herself, we can now admire the 1980 version, which is arguably more stunning thanks to its gold-leaf background.

Updated: September 5, 2020 05:04 PM

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