DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A rare exhibition of Arab and Italian art in an old caravanserai in the heart of Damascus is challenging taboos about European influences behind a late 20th-century renaissance in Arab art.
The exhibition, in the domed 18th-century Khan Asaad Basha, shows the work of Arab artists hanging alongside ones by Italian artists who had either inspired or taught them.
The result is a powerful demonstration of how modern Arab artists adopted European styles and then transformed them to reflect the political turbulence of their countries.
"We're in difficult times and it is important for art to resist culture wars. One can see how Italian schools ... influenced leading Arab artists," said researcher Martina Corgnati.
Many Arab painters and sculptors left for Europe, mainly Italy and France, after World War Two as authoritarian rulers cemented their grip on power across the Middle East.
Those who returned from exile brought back European 20th- century styles which underpinned a modern Arab artistic tradition now gaining new recognition and popularity.
"They adopted the Italian school in their own way," Corgnati told Reuters.
Corgnati spent two years collecting works of Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian artists as well those of their Italian mentors for the exhibition, which opened in the Syrian capital last month and will also travel to Beirut and Cairo.
The idea is to present the works in what the organizers call "couples" or "duos" to try to show scholars, art lovers and the general public the similarities between the two.
Organized a part of a series of events celebrating Damascus as this year's Arab Capital of Culture, the exhibition is also well-timed to cash in on a boom in demand for modern Arab art.
Gulf buyers, flush with cash thanks to soaring oil prices, are investing heavily in art from around the world and are willing to pay sizeable sums for original works by fellow Arabs.
For example an untitled work by the late Syrian master Fateh al Moudarres sold for 26,000 pounds ($52,000) at London auction house Sotheby's in October, double the estimate.
Two works by the late Syrian artist Louai Kayyali, who died in 1978 aged 44, were sold for a total of 59,000 pounds.
Touting Western influence publicly is rare in Syria, which has been ruled by the nationalist Baath Party since it took power in a coup 45 years ago and banned all opposition.
The Baath Party considers itself a bastion of "Arabism," a secular creed with undertones of perceived cultural superiority.
It is therefore highly unusual to argue -- as did Syrian painter Fadi Yazigi -- that Arab art might have remained confined to "icons, calligraphy and simplistic realism" were it not for the influences of western art.
The exhibition, however, aims to show how the artistic influences between Arabs and Europeans on either side of the Mediterranean were mutual, with both the richer for it.
Sculptor Mustafa Ali, for example, said he was influenced by Etruscan art, and later discovered that Etruscan works had traces of the Middle East's Phoenicians.
"Syria produced Roman emperors and popes. We were not that separate culturally from the West," Ali said.
The exhibition is at its most powerful in showing how the Arab painters, when they returned from exile in Europe, were affected by the culture in which they found themselves.
Facing repressive governments which restricted public criticism, they turned to expressionism to depict ideas which people feared to declare openly.
These included despair about successive military defeats -- Israel defeated combined Arab armies in 1948 and 1967 and foiled an offensive to regain Arab land in 1973 -- and frustration that Arab rulers remained in power despite these failures.
Moudarres, for example, using his trademark surreal faces, depicted refugees fleeing the Golan Heights after it was captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
According to art experts, the repression of public criticism drove art so deeply into abstraction that it produced a powerful renaissance in Arab painting that would become quite different from the European styles which inspired it.
Looking at a 1969 untitled work by Moudarres hanging in the exhibition alongside an oil painting by his teacher Massimo Campigli, it is hard to see the resemblance.
A painting by the late Palestinian artist Paul Guiragossian hangs alongside one by Italian painter Remo Bianco.
Yet while both share the same pale colors, the similarity stops there. Guiragossian's painting, like much of his work, is full of tormented elongated figures, reflecting his own family's difficult life.
His parents were Armenians who had survived the massacre of Armenians by Turks in the closing days of the Ottoman empire, and fled first to Palestine and then to Lebanon. He died in 1993.
The exhibition, called "Arab artists between Italy and the Mediterranean" and supported by the Italian foreign ministry and the Arab League, moves to Beirut in April and Cairo in May.
Editing by Myra MacDonald