The stunning new exhibition Kahlil Gibran: The Prophet, The Artist, The Man at currently on display at the State Library of NSW is the first time the paintings and philosophies of the Lebanese-born, New York-raised and universally mythologised poet have been exhibited outside the northern hemisphere.
But the work of Kahlil Gibran is well known here in the great southern lands. In fact, at weddings and funerals it’s nigh on inescapable. Critics may have cussed the young dreamer during his 46 years on the planet but Gibran gave the world some of the most poignant and popular verse in literary history.
And the free exhibition at the State Library shows why, unveiling Gibran as a slum child war refugee who rose above terrible misfortune to become the voice of the ‘flower children’ in the ‘60s and an author who, at last count, had sold 100 million copies of The Prophet (which ranks him third in sales behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu) … despite a critic at Time deriding it as “a philosophy for the immature, a creed for the vaguely well-meaning”.
But politicians bowed to his wisdom (John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address referenced Gibran’s The New Frontier: “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country”) and artists recognised his lyricism (John Lennon’s heartfelt pen to his mother, Julia on The White Album pinched Gibran’s quote: “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you”).
And despite 17 books and countless dewy sound-bytes carved in stone, Gibran’s art is the most revelatory of the treasures on show at the State Library. Drawings, oils and watercolours feature, among them Gibran’s 12 illustrations from the first edition of The Prophet, his now-legendary collection of 26 prose poems, in 1923.
Gibran loved art more than poetry… until publishing turned him a profit first. Yet he continued drawing to clarify the ideas that poured forth from his pen, evolving from pre-Raphaelite paintings to French impressionism, into oil painting portraiture of his famous intellectual pals of the period until peaking with The Prophet’s watercolours, clearly inspired by the work of William Blake, another poet-painter-philosopher to whom Gibran closely related.
Other highlights of the exhibition include notebooks written in Arabic and English, postcards to friends, the manuscript of Gibran’s final book, Jesus the Son of Man and, above all, the small stories of the epic life behind the man.