Tuesday and Wednesday, 23 and 24 October 2012 holds new hopes for yet another record as two masterpieces by Egyptian iconic painter, Mahmoud Saïd are set to lead the Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art sales at Christie’s in Dubai.
These two works, namely El Zar (circa 1939) and Pêcheurs à Rosette (1941), are among his most impressive works, both depicting scenes from the traditional culture in Egypt. A visit to Mahmoud Said Museum in Alexandria is indispensible to understand the influences that molded his style and made him a founding father of modern Egyptian art.
Shadoofs, servishes and art world records
Mahmoud Said (1897-1964), our artist who left his law studies in France and dedicated himself to art, eventually became "Alexandria’s paintbrush" and one of Egypt’s most iconic modern painters. He painted dancers and dervishes, aristocrats and nudes. The best appreciation he ever received during his lifetime was – as he himself said - a spit on the face from a man that was moved by the painter's sensual depiction of nude figures.
In 2010, Said's name made the news headlines as one of his masterpieces: The Whirling Dervishes (1929), sold for a record $2.546 million through Christie’s Dubai. The estimated price prior to the sale was no higher than $400,000. The sale sent shockwaves through the art market, setting the world auction record for the artist and the world record price for any Arab painting sold at auction. Earlier that year, another painting of his, Les Chadoufs (1935), had sold for $2.43 million.
Christie's upcoming October auction might set new records.
At the capital of memory
Said grew up in Alexandria; a very different Alexandria than today's. Alexandria was cosmopolitan: Egyptians, Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Jews lived side by side along with French and Maltese communities. Alexandria inspired Cavafy and E.M. Forster (both Said's contemporaries) and where Italian artists like Arturo Zanieri and Amelia Da Forno opened their workshops and art studios for Egyptian talents like Saïd. The "great winepress of love" - as Alexander Durrell once put it - is where Said’s passion for art first blossomed. Later, this passion would be in France.
At the heart of the classy Gianaclis neighbourhood, the audience comes face to face with a generous collection of Said’s works in the museum carrying his name, once the family’s villa. Of particular interest are his nudes, almost all of them featuring Egyptian olive and dark-skinned women. Mermaid stands out for it's hypnotic quality. Interpreted as a symbol of Alexandria, her body seems to glow in a bronze light against the profound blue backdrop where the sea meets the sky.
Heba El-Cheikh, MA in Arts Management, co-founder and director of Mahatat for Contemporary Art, an initiative for art in the public space based in Cairo, thinks that Said "somehow has a foreigner's view on his own culture."
She goes on to say that "for this same reason he makes me appreciate the world that he belonged to: He represents the paradox of being between different cultures. A man of the universe."
Said managed to capture the extremes of Alexandria in his paintings masterfully: from its ballroom nights and dance halls to the girls in traditional attire from poorer neighbourhoods. Notably, Said was definitely a prisoner of his elite social class.
A pure Egyptian identity with an unmistakable European touch is something that any trained eye can spot in Said’s works. Genre painting, landscapes and portraits are among the most common themes in his works; all deeply rooted in the Egyptian natural and cultural heritage. His was not a quest for the exotic and the bizarre, but rather a humanistic search for a deeper meaning in the mundane.
His renaissance-like figures are of a sculptural quality, with bodies of mass and volume arranged harmoniously in space, many of them stylised and reduced to some sort of an archetype. Shape is not the only element that distinguishes his works: the lines are sensual, he prefers warm, vivid golden light and the texture is as soft as the essence of the fleeting moments he depicts.
Said’s fascination with the popular culture of the time, social practices and religious rituals transcended the superficial curiosity to an authentic interest in the essence of Egyptian identity. He searched for an aesthetic language that draws on all these sources.
The outcome was fabulous: scenes of fishermen celebrating their catch, farmers tilling the land just like their ancestors thousands of years ago, women in trance during a zar (posession ritual), others in black at the cemetery, dervishes whirling in ecstasy at a sufi semakhana, to top off the list.
The years he spent in Europe studying and visiting art museums left their imprint on his work. Nevertheless, it would not take much effort to spot the influence of ancient Egyptian art, exemplified by the Fayoum portraits and Coptic icons in many of his paintings.
Said to lead Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art sales at Christie’s in October
Whether Said’s Pêcheurs à Rosette fetches a new record price in Christie’s auction this October is a matter of speculation.
The painting has all the characteristic elements of a Said arranged in several planes. At the forefront, we see the muscular bodies of Rashid’s fishermen as they haul in their daily catch. A woman in a traditional dress and shawl carries a basket full of silver fish, and not far from her is a palm tree laden with fruit.
At the furthest plane, we see the other side of the Nile with palm trees dominating the horizon and confirms to the viewer that the setting is the lush, green Nile Delta.
In between the two planes, a reduced plane becomes a pictorial icon bearer of the Delta: in addition to the palm trees we see two country women carrying water jars (zal’a) upon their heads, a buffalo drinking from the Nile and traditional felucca (sailboats) slowly drifting by. The Nile is the Delta’s raison d’être and is treated as such in this painting. The whole scene is bathed in warm light that seems to filter through the palm leaves, creating a succession of light and shadow that lends a dramatic quality to the scene.
The painting is estimated at $400,000 - $600,000 according to Christie’s, and it should come as no surprise that it would fetch a much higher amount - maybe even breaking the current record.
Hala Khayat, Specialist on Middle Eastern Art at Christie’s, attests to Mahmoud Said's importance: "His works have everything that it takes for them to sell at much higher prices than the ones they fetch. There could have been even more international interest for his paintings if the works of Arab artists like him were appreciated, celebrated and traded in their own countries of course."
Regarding the demand for Said’s works, she holds that "the Middle East is an emerging art market and there is international interest in both modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art. In the case of Mahmoud Said, the demand is there, but you can rarely find his paintings for sale. Supply is very limited and eventually it will dry up."
Mohammed Elrazzaz holds an MA in Cultural Management (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Barcelona) and is currently a PhD candidate and a professor of Tools for Managing Culture at the same university. He also collaborates with the Andalusi Legacy Foundation (Granada) as a writer/researcher on history and culture.