Born in Aleppo, Muhammad Ghaleb Salem (1910) is one of the first Syrian artists to study in Italy. With the encouragement of local leaders, he travelled to Rome from the port of Iskenderun in 1932. At a time when the arts were inappropriate at a religious and social level in Syria, the shy young artist was able to acclimate and graduate from the Royal Academy of Rome in 1936.
After returning to Syria, Salem began teaching and writing about art. He was appointed professor of drawing to the Faculty of Engineering in Aleppo and the Teachers House. In 1945, he wrote his first book entitled, A Brief History of the Arts, and worked on developing the university curriculum for the Faculty of Fine Arts. In 1949 he held an exhibition for his students, the first of its kind in Syria and in 1958 was appointed Director of Art Education for the Governorate of Aleppo.
Using a modern writing style, Salem was also considered the first person to implement contemporary artistic terminology to Syrian art criticism, and is therefore also considered the first true art critic in the history of contemporary Syrian art. He went on to publish many articles on the subject, both locally and regionally, explaining his views and the importance of art in civilization in addition to introducing the public to Syrian visual arts.
In his lifetime, Salem painted mostly on special occasions, with only around 30 paintings accredited to him. Engaged with how the Syrian arts scene was evolving, this influence is evident in Salem’s breaking away from detailed realism: he painted landscapes and portraits with a slight expressionism in brushwork using warm earthy colours that emphasised the country’s hot climate.
Inspiring generations of artists from Syria through his mentorship, publications and artistic oeuvre, Salem retired from art education in 1973, but continued reading and writing about art until his death in 1983.