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The Zahids, citing a desire for privacy, refused to speak to the press, thus fanning the controversy. After numerous requests, however, Amira Zahid, the museum's treasurer, agreed to speak to me for publication. "This is a family that has existed for hundreds of years," she told me heatedly -- implying that family members need not explain themselves to anyone. When she moved here, during the 1975-1976 Lebanese civil war, Zahid told me, she considered America to be the ultimate democracy, open to anything and anyone; after the museum opened, she said, she was appalled to learn that this tolerance did not extend to Dahesh's taste in art. She now terms the imbroglio a "cross-cultural misunderstanding."
In Zahid's description Dahesh comes across as an old-fashioned humanist with a New Age spin, who believed in reincarnation and ardently promoted the redemptive powers of literature and art, and held equal men and women and all races, prophets, and religions. In Beirut, however, Dahesh is best remembered for his mesmeric gaze, the sway he held over some highly placed Lebanese (especially women), and his propensity for performing Houdini-like "wonders" -- including transmuting strips of paper into banknotes, appearing and disappearing at will, removing his head before retiring, and summoning spirits.
Perhaps because of this vita, which curiously reprises some stock Orientalist fantasies, many Lebanese intellectuals disdain Dahesh. But his reputation probably has more to do with his running afoul of several of independent Lebanon's founders, including Bishara el-Khoury, its first President. One of Dahesh's earliest devotees, the painter Marie Hadad, was el-Khoury's sister-in-law, and he apparently deplored the guru's influence on the family. In 1944, after a trial that Daheshists are fond of comparing to the Dreyfus affair, Dahesh was expelled from the country. Lore has it that he was executed by a firing squad in Azerbaijan, rose from the dead, and returned to Beirut, where he remained in hiding at Marie Hadad's home until el-Khoury's government fell, in 1952.
However he got there, Dahesh did return to live in Beirut, and it was during this difficult period of hiding, Zahid says, that he began collecting art. By the 1960s, when her family met him, he was stockpiling everything that struck his fancy, including Meissen porcelain, illustrated books, Phoenician arts and crafts, African masks, and examples of taxidermy. Yet his real love seems to have been nineteenth-century academic painting, sculpture, and prints. In fact, his rooms at the Hadads', judging by photographs that Zahid showed me, recalled an overstuffed turn-of-the-century salon, decorated as they were with changing displays of ornately framed paintings and a profusion of sculptures, figurines, animal skins, and miscellaneous tchotchkes. When Zahid's mother shipped Dahesh's collection to America with the family's luggage, in 1976, it numbered more than 2,000 pieces. Many of the museum's shows have evoked these rooms; a few of the works I saw in the photographs turned up in its final show of last year, which displayed collection highlights.
According to Zahid, Dahesh was especially fond of the nineteenth century because of its associations with European democracy. It is still a touchy matter that anyone in the Middle East could have displayed such fondness for European culture, much less bought so much European art. Just how Dahesh financed his acquisitions remains unclear; some speculate that his devotees supplied the money. Zahid says he assembled most of his collection -- to which the museum has added substantially since it was founded -- on trips to the Parisian municipal auction house at l'Hotel Drouot, which Dahesh called "my Mecca."
But in Beirut, Dahesh's artistic tastes were probably the least remarkable thing about him. Nineteenth-century art in fact enjoyed something of a second life in the mid-century Middle East. Into the late 1950s, the Lebanese art writer Helen Khal recently explained to me, many Beirut collectors preferred academic realism even though it had long been outmoded in Europe. The Beirut art dealer Saleh Barakat made clear to me recently that this taste was not so behind the times as it might seem, because the concept of picturing everyday life on canvas -- Barakat called it "pagan painting" -- did not arrive in the Levant until the late nineteenth century. For some Middle Eastern collectors, Barakat explained, academic art -- especially Orientalism -- had the double virtue of advertising one's conversance with the West while depicting highly familiar subject matter. And many buyers doubtless appreciated the fact that academic art, owing to its poor regard in the West, was fantastically cheap: by the 1960s even Bouguereau's paintings, which in 1900 had been the most costly in the world, were relatively valueless. For the New York art world, the most improbable part of the story of Dahesh is that he began to pursue academic art when it had completely fallen from fashion. Even the most prescient postwar Western collectors of academic art, such as the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the financier Malcolm Forbes, did not start building their collections until the late 1970s.
To me, the most striking thing about the early-twentieth-century Levantine art world is that it seems to have viewed the different strands of nineteenth-century European art as all of a piece, putting academic art on a par with Impressionism. And now that the twentieth century has ended, cutting-edge art circles in the West are starting to see things the same way.
SOME contemporary theory about the nineteenth century holds that the division between academic art and Impressionism was largely a marketing construct, and this idea is gaining ground among curators and collectors. Next month the Guggenheim Museum, founded in 1929 to promote abstract art, will mount "1900: Art at the Crossroads," a survey that will include work by Pablo Picasso and Bouguereau and also a miniature re-creation of an art exhibition from that year's Parisian World's Fair. American art galleries have similarly seen a recent resurgence of long repressed forms and styles such as history scenes, portraiture, and super-realist painting. Among artists the growing interest in surrealism is provoking further curiosity about academic realism, which Surrealists delighted in subverting. In 1998, when the auction house Christie's revamped its sales categories in preparation for the twenty-first century, it shocked the art world by lumping academic work with Impressionism under the rubric "19th Century Pictures" -- a decision that signaled academic art's ascendance in the market.
Today, with work by the Impressionists and modern masters such as Picasso and Braque growing unreachably expensive and scarce, collectors and dealers are increasingly turning to lesser-known and less costly artists. A couple of years ago at academic-art auctions one saw mostly mink stoles and bad toupées; now one is likely to spot Armani suits and cell phones.
Perhaps the growing popularity of academic classicism is generational. "You don't want to buy the same thing your parents did," the dealer Gregory Hedberg, of New York's Hirschl & Adler Gallery, once told me. Celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Jack Nicholson, and Madonna have all been rumored to be buying academic art. In 1998, at Sotheby's, a large Bouguereau belonging to Sylvester Stallone sold for $2.6 million -- a record price for the artist. Last fall, at Christie's New York sale of nineteenth-century art, some of it Orientalism owned by the late Syrian arms dealer Akram Ojjeh, a painting of a barefoot Nubian guard by the Austrian Orientalist Ludwig Deutsch went for $3.2 million -- a record for Orientalist work. At about the same time, the controversy about the Dahesh Museum's origins began to evanesce, and its shows began to receive their first decent reviews.
The museum seems to be addressing some of the more fascinating art issues of today. In February the Dahesh sponsored a panel discussion about notions of quality and the importance of teaching technique -- both of which are fast becoming hot-button issues. This spring, for the third year in a row, the museum will give a prize to a student from the New York Academy of Art -- the only American art school whose graduate-student curriculum has remained exclusively devoted to figurative work. The museum's summer show, "In the Footsteps of Goethe," will focus on some remarkably Impressionist-like paintings and sketches of Italian landscapes made by early-nineteenth-century German artists while they traveled to Rome to study classical history painting.
"One of our goals is to broaden everybody's perceptions about what academic artists were doing," David Farmer, the museum's director, recently told me. "We want to show that the boundaries between academic art and what we might call progressive art are not as hard and fast as one might think." Before long, perhaps, Dahesh will be known for another wonder -- having given new life to academic art.