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THE ESSENCE OF MODERNITY IN EGYPT
In conjunction with the launch of the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné, partly sponsored by Christie’s, and alongside a small loan exhibition of seminal Mahmoud Saïd works to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the artist’s birth, Christie’s is proud to offer six works by the Alexandrian master for sale this March. Six come from three private collections that are all from Mahmoud Saïd’s extended family: Mohamed Saïd Zulficar, the artist’s nephew and one of Queen Farida of Egypt’s brothers; Ismaïl Mazloum, the artist’s cousin on his mother’s side, and Dr Hassan Elkhadem and Nadia Mahmoud Saïd, the artist’s only child.
This group of six works spans over four decades of Saïd’s artistic production, with Eid Al Adha (circa 1917), Les tombes de Bacos, Alexandrie (esquisse) (circa 1927), Portrait of Mohamed Pacha Saïd (late 1920s), Introspection (1930), and the large painting of Assouan – îles et dunes sold together with its preparatory oil sketch both executed in 1949, a first in the Middle Eastern art market and a rare opportunity for any artist, as preparatory works and their corresponding final compositions have been separated from one another in most cases. From religious popular rituals to family portraits and to Nile landscapes, from Impressionistic touches to Saïd’s signature vibrant colours, from charcoal drawing to small or large paintings, this ensemble offers a concise and unprecedented overview of Mahmoud Saïd’s eclectic oeuvre.
PORTRAIT DE MOHAMED PASHA SAÏD (lot 19)
Mahmoud Saïd was born on 8th April 1897 in Alexandria, and died on the same day in 1964 in his family home in the neighbourhood of Ginaclis, which is today’s Mahmoud Saïd Museum complex. He was the son of Mohamed Pasha Saïd (1863-1928), Egypt’s Prime Minister from 1910-1914 and again from May to November 1919, at a critical time that eventually paved the road for Egypt’s independence. A native from Alexandria, Mohamed Pasha Saïd’s family was of Turkish origins. He married Adila Mazloum with whom he had five children: Mahmoud, Hussein, Nahed, Zeinab and Badiha, who died at a very young age. Due to social expectations and under his father’s pressure, Mahmoud Saïd studied law to become a judge at the Mixed Tribunals of Mansourah and Alexandria. Yet he had developed a passion for painting, having learned the technique with his tutor Ms. Amelia Daforno Casonato (1878-1969) and later in the studio of Italian academic painted Arturo Zanieri (1870-1955) from 1916 to 1918. It is believed that Saïd had a strenuous relationship with his father, due to his exertion over his true passion for art, which nurtured an inner conflict that tormented Saïd until he resigned from his legal functions at the age of fifty in 1947. Nevertheless Saïd painted two or three known portraits of his father, one of which is the present work being offered by Christie’s, the first discovery after the publication of the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné, which precedes the almost life-size caricature portrayal of his father that took him 25 years to finish, painted between 1924 and 1949, on display at the Mahmoud Saïd Museum in Alexandria. In contrast to the latter, which appears polished, rigid and almost cartoon-like, the small portrait from the Ismaïl Mazloum collection was executed as a ‘modello’, in which Saïd transcribed his impressions of his father into brushstrokes. Yet both present Mohamed Pasha Saïd as an authoritative figure, identifiable by his stylish thick moustache seen in photographs of him: seated upright in a pompous chair in the oil sketch and an office chair in the museum piece, the father looks out straight to his son who paints him, challenging his passion and reminding him of his duties, as suggested by the rows of books aligned in the background of the 1924-1949 portrait.
EID AL ADHA (lot 21)
During his early artistic training with Daforno Casonato and Zanieri, Saïd was hence exposed to Western art tendencies, dominated by Impressionism and Naturalism. Although this training and these trends proved very quickly to be stepping stones for Saïd’s artistic development, very few works have survived from this early period, of which Eid Al Adha is probably one of the earliest. Characterised by expressionistic brushstrokes and thick impastos, Saïd already demonstrates his fascination with colours and how they emanate light through contrasts, using for example a lime green colour to highlight the dark green clothes of the figures on the left, or a bright blue to sculpt the seated man in the foreground who wears a deep blue gallabiyah. This work bears witness to Saïd’s experiments in capturing a fleeting moment of daily life, and in this particular case he depicts the holy Muslim ritual of the sheep’s sacrifice on the occasion of Eid Al Adha. Despite Saïd’s quick dismissal of Impressionism, the use of spontaneous brushstrokes and highlights would become his key means to realise larger and more ambitious compositions, which allowed him to produce preparatory oil sketches possibly in situ of the scene or that enabled him to visually formulate his concept, to then take his time to paint the final work in his studio.
LES TOMBES DE BACOS (ESQUISSE) (lot 22)
An example of this approach is Les tombes de Bacos, Alexandrie (esquisse), which like Eid Al Adha, comes from the collection of Mohamed Saïd Zulficar (1926-2016). This preparatory oil sketch, otherwise known as ‘modello’, follows a common practice used by the Old Masters, such as Titian or Rubens. Saïd used it to produce one of the masterpieces today housed in the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in Cairo, Les tombes de Bacos painted in 1927. Following Mahmoud Saïd’s sickness in 1924 when he was struck by typhoid fever, he painted a self-portrait that same year after his recovery that he entitled L’apôtre (‘The apostle’). The five following years, his awareness of death seems to have permeated a series of several paintings that depict burial or mourning scenes in cemeteries, of which Les tombes de Bacos is part. The solemnity of these scenes seems to freeze the moment of realization that a loved one has passed away, capturing the figures’ emotions. Having travelled around Europe in the early 1920s, to visit museums and churches in France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, Saïd encountered 14th and 15th century Italian and Flemish Primitives, praised for their talents in expressing the sitters’ ‘penetrating humanity’ in Saïd’s own words (in an interview with Jean Moscatelli, published in La Semaine Egyptienne, January 1936). He recognised the impact of Umbrian painters, but even more so that of Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, admiring their capacity at ‘eliminating, sacrificing, harmonising’, in other words, the simplification of a given composition to focus on the scene’s emotions and harmony. The transition from the oil sketch to the final composition for Les tombes de Bacos is a testimony to Saïd’s concern in omitting any superfluous element that might disturb the composition’s balance. The ‘modello’ features more than a dozen dark figures, the number of which has been reduced by half in the final painting. He also added more white pillars to counter-balance the sculptural women wearing the black abaya, which enhance the verticality of the scene in response to the horizontality of the hills. The diagonals of the composition avec also been accentuated in the museum piece as they frame the architectural block of the city in the middle ground, which contributes to the scene’s perspective skilfully deepened by the row of mourners disappearing in the distance on the right. Although the dominant palette is that of ochre, brown and blue hues, reminiscent of that of the Primitives’ and characteristic for his 1920s works, Saïd uses a translucent royal blue in the final work that brings a mystical illumination to the mourning scene.
INTROSPECTION (lot 18)
Without doubt, the unique self-portrait or ‘introspection’ offered by Christie’s in this sale is one of Saïd’s most striking and intimate self-representations amidst his eight or nine known self-portraits, four or five of which are drawings. Echoing his features of l’Apôtre of 1924, it displays the torment of his Rembrandt-like self-portrait of the early 1920s, due to the expressive medium used, charcoal, and it answers back to his 1919 self-portrait in his studio in Ramleh. As indicated by its title, Saïd reflects on himself, aged thirty-three in 1930, and unleashes his inner soul in this self-confident and self-assertive portrait. He draws all the attention to his facial expression, particularly with his dark eyes framed by bushy eyebrows that mesmerise. Simply wearing a shirt and with his untamed dark hair, his face stands out against the black hatching lines of the background. Omitting all references to his social status, legal position or artistic hobby, he presents himself as a tormented man, driven by passion but restrained by profession.
PROPERTY FROM THE NADIA MAHMOUD SAÏD & DR HASSAN ELKHADEM COLLECTION
Post Lot Text
Christie’s Dubai is proud to offer this unique pair comprising of the preparatory oil sketch or ‘modello’ together with its corresponding final composition of Assouan – îles et dunes, both executed in 1949. These two breath-taking warm sun-lit Nile scenes once again exemplify Saïd’s practice of following the steps of Old Masters, for whom producing a small scale ‘modello’ to decide on composition, colours and shading of a given subject matter and to then reproduce it on a larger format to finalise the details was a standard process. Saïd adhered to this technique for many of his more ambitious compositions – last October 2016, Christie’s Dubai sold the preparatory oil sketch for one of Saïd’s most impressive Lebanese landscapes, Vue de la montagne à Douhour El Choueir (1951-1954) (price realized: $125,000), whilst the ‘modello’ for Saïd’s most monumental work measuring four metres wide, L’inauguration du Canal de Suez (1946-1947) now in the Mahmoud Saïd Museum, Alexandria, was sold at Christie’s Dubai in October 2010 (price realized: $68,500) as was the preparatory oil sketch for one of Saïd’s last challenging compositions The Suradek painted in 1960 (price realized: $206,500). Unfortunately, preparatory oil sketch and associated final work are generally always separated from one another. It therefore comes with no surprise to find the ‘modelli’ for Le port de Beyrouth (1954) and for Après la pluie au Liban (1954), the final compositions of which were sold by Christie’s Dubai, in the Mahmoud Saïd Museum, far away from their larger and more complete versions. Therefore, presenting at auction both the ‘modello’ and the final painting of Assouan – îles et dunes is a first in the Middle Eastern art market and an opportunity rarely seen on the global art scene, especially since they have never been separated from one another, having found their place from the artist’s studio and premises to the collection of Mahmoud Saïd’s only child, Nadia, and her husband Dr. Hassan Elkhadem, and then passed on to their heirs. In addition, having both ‘modello’ and final composition side by side offers an unprecedented insight into the Alexandrian master’s approach to painting by comparing these two intrinsically Egyptian works depicting a traditional Nile scene in Aswan.
Mahmoud Saïd most likely first travelled to Aswan in 1918-1919 when he made a tour of Upper Egypt, during which he may have painted an unidentified landscape recorded in the artist’s archives. His first known landscape depicting Aswan dates only from 1947, following which he produced several more over the years 1948-1949 and later in 1953. Assouan – îles et dunes is the only painting from the Aswan series that is known to have a preparatory oil sketch for its composition, which may suggest it was Saïd’s most challenging Aswan landscape. Aswan was previously the city on Ancient Egypt’s southern border, opening up towards the Nile River, which was traditionally associated as the origin of life-giving. Aswan also sits north of the First Cataract of the Nile River, an area that used to be regularly affected by floods until the controversial constructions of dams, first in 1898-1902 and later in 1960-1976. Furthermore, many Ancient Egyptian building and statues sourced their material from the legendary Aswan stone quarries, making Aswan and its surroundings an ideal subject matter for Saïd’s paintings, as it offered him a visual platform to extract the essence of these landscapes’ Egyptian-ness and to celebrate the glory of Ancient Egypt and of its people.
The common thread running through these Aswan paintings emanating with a warm light is the artist’s daring approach to abstraction, in his simplification of forms and his flat areas of colour, using his characteristic palette of complementary colours, comprising of vibrant blue hues contrasting with bright yellow and ochre pigments. The comparison between the Assouan – îles et dunes oil sketch and its final work visually embodies the process of Saïd’s transition from naturalism to abstraction, that culminated in his 1959 painting of Bergère à Alamein sold in October 2014 by Christie’s Dubai (price realized: $869,000). Although Saïd has not changed much of the composition in itself when he enlarged the ‘modello’’s scene, apart from removing a felucca and a rock, to add a surprisingly big bird in the final painting’s lower left quadrant, it is more in his simplified painterly approach that his final work appears more abstract. Indeed, the polished flat surfaces of vibrant colours combined with the clean-cut shapes of the final work’s compositional elements contrast with the softer and more Impressionistic brushstrokes used in the ‘modello’. The colour palette is overall the same in both small and large versions of Assouan – îles et dunes yet the luminous yellow tone of the mountains and the pure cerulean blue of the sky are much more crude in the final work than the ‘modello’’s more subtle palette. Saïd further opts to shift the largest felucca manoeuvred by two men more to the centre of the composition, by moving it from the middle ground (as seen in the ‘modello’) to the foreground in the final work. The vibrant blue touches of the men’s gallabiyah echo the colours of the sky and its reflection in the water but also on the scattered rocks, that typify the Cataract’s topography of the Nile’s shallow waters around Aswan.
The transition from ‘modello’ to large format enabled Saïd to find the perfect balance, in terms of colours and composition, as the main felucca is beautifully framed by a lower and upper horizontal band of cerulean blue, standing out against the central band of bright yellow-orange colour of the middle-ground. This abstract colour compartmentalisation, absent in the ‘modello’, emphasizes the horizontality of the final composition, which is harmoniously complemented, as always in Saïd’s works, by the verticality of the rocks sticking out of the water and the diagonals of the feluccas’ white sails. When comparing Assouan – îles et dunes with a work similar in composition and painted more than 15 years earlier, Le Nil à El Derr (Nubie) of 1933 (sold at Christie’s Dubai in March 2016; price realized: $701,000), the transition from naturalism to abstraction, and from soft poetry to dynamic lyricism is obvious. Saïd’s structural lines are much more pronounced in the 1949 Aswan painting and he has radically simplified his colour palette and composition as opposed to the rich pigment variations and complex composition in the 1933 Nubia painting. Looking back at the ‘modello’, it seems that Saïd highlighted the roundness of the shore on the left of the final painting, strangely adding a bird, and accentuated the pyramidal shape of the mountains in the background, bringing more drama and dynamism to the peaceful scene. Traditionally a symbol of innocence and freedom, that appears throughout Saïd’s oeuvre in various paintings, the disproportionally large bird watches the central felucca, as if bearing witness to this almost surreal, lyrical and authentic Nile scene, untouched by man, unharmed by history and unaffected by foreign influences.