BEIRUT: It’s not unusual for art to provide an element of social commentary. Amid the prevailing atmosphere of Arab nationalism and widespread optimism in the run-up to the 1967 war, a number of Arab artists worked to bring the struggles of the region’s underprivileged – farmers, laborers and urban poor – into the galleries and living rooms of the bourgeoisie.
In Syria, modernist painter Fateh Moudarres captured scenes from the daily lives of Syria’s agricultural laborers. In Lebanon, Paul Guiragossian’s subject matter centered on the everyday lives of his family, friends and neighbors, who are often captured at market or in the streets. In Egypt, modernist artist Hamed Abdalla concerned himself above all with the plight of farmers and Cairo’s poor, capturing patrons at neighborhood coffee houses and toiling in the fields.
The artist’s sizable output, recently reintroduced to the public thanks to simultaneous exhibitions in Cairo and Beirut, has received a second boost courtesy of a monograph by Roula El Zein. The book, which includes contributions from the artist’s friends and family and extracts from his own essays, provides a comprehensive overview not only of his biographical information but of his views on art in general, and his own work in particular.
“The Eye of the Spirit: The Life and Work of the Artist-Painter Hamed Abdalla” opens with a poem penned about the artist by late Lebanese poet and novelist Andreé Chedid.
“His universe was there, mixed with that of Egypt. The Egypt which, once experienced, remains within the intense pulsing of the blood,” she writes.
As the monograph reveals, Egypt was always at the center of Abdalla’s work, even after the artist left the country in 1956, disillusioned with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s post-revolution regime. Abdalla spent 10 years living in Denmark, before moving to Paris, where he died in 1985. Throughout his career, however, his homeland remained at the heart of the work he produced.
The monograph, which includes Arabic, English and French versions of El Zein’s text, is packed with color photographs of Abdalla’s work, which reveal the breadth and versatility of his output.
Beginning with his early sketches and paintings, which capture Egypt’s rural and urban poor at work, with titles like “Exhausted,” “Where are you going?,” “Hope,” “Water Carriers” and “Peasant Couple,” the book moves on to chart his evolution as an artist. In parallel, the text provides the background needed to contextualize Abdalla’s increasingly politically-infused work.
El Zein’s biography is illuminating. She begins by emphasizing Abdalla’s key role in Egyptian cultural history, with a quote from art critic Badr-Din Abu Ghazi, in which he hails the artist as having created “a new school of Egyptian painting with its own personality, laws and philosophy.”
From here, she takes readers back to Abdalla’s childhood. Born in 1917, the artist was raised on the outskirts of Cairo by his family, illiterate peasants who survived by working the land. She charts his early talent for calligraphy, which he studied at Quranic school, and his burgeoning passion for drawing as an adolescent.
Expelled from art school for his rebellion against his teacher’s staid and unimaginative approach to education, Abdalla continued to produce work, regularly sketching the patrons in the Manial El Rodah coffeehouse.
El Zein charts Abdalla’s evolution from youthful rebel to established artist, punctuating the text with extracts from exhibition catalogues, reviews, essays and the artist’s own writing, in which he provides a full account of his time at art school, his frustrations with the mode of teaching and his subsequent self-led education.
“I read anything written by anybody: history and art history, philosophy, literature and poetry,” he wrote in 1949, recalling the extreme lengths he went to in order to further his artistic career. His father, angry at his dismissal from art school, cut him off financially and even deprived him of food, he writes. The artist survived off scraps slipped to him by his mother, and even shaved his head in an effort to render himself unattractive and avoid being distracted from his work by women.
Abdalla’s work soon began to evolve away from realist depictions of the country’s rural and urban poor, as the photos in the book demonstrate, becoming increasingly experimental and abstract. Egypt and the Egyptian people remained at the heart of his work, however.
Initially influenced by the works of El Greco, Abdalla began to develop his own style. “I don’t think you can find a trace of imitation of Greco’s influence in my work,” El Zein quotes him saying in 1950. “My great master at the moment is Egypt, its nature, sun, peasants, its sky, its Nile. The colors and light of my country have tortured me with their unattainable beauty.”
El Zein includes sections dealing with Abdalla’s innovative use of materials and his “word-forms” or calligraphic improvisations, in which the artist cleverly manipulated the shape of Arabic letters, forming a figurative image from a single word. These works became increasingly political in the wake of the 1967 war and the book includes examples of works with titles such as “The Defeat,” “Victims of the Bourgeoisie,” “Zionism,” “Capitulation” and “The Plundered People.”
Most fascinating for fans of Abdalla’s work, perhaps, is the reproduction of an essay written by the artist himself in 1955 and entitled “Europe and the Oriental Lesson.” In this short text, the artist explores the history and evolution of Eastern and Western art, demonstrating his extensive self-taught knowledge.
He classifies the aim of Eastern painters as “to paint nature as seen by the eye of the mind” while Western artists aimed “to paint nature as it looked to the naked eye.” From the mid-19th century, he argues, Western artists, among them Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, began to look to the “flat painting” of Eastern artists for inspiration.
“The Eye of the Spirit: The life and work of the artist-painter Hamed Abdalla” provides a comprehensive and timely overview of an artist whose work played a seminal role in Egypt’s modern art history. El Zein’s text is balanced and informative, but for fans of Abdalla’s work the beautifully produced reproductions of his artwork may prove draw enough alone.
“The Eye of the Spirit: The Life and Work of the Artist-Painter Hamed Abdalla” is published by Editions Bachari and is available from Librairie Antoine.