Christie’s presents two stunning nude works from Mahmoud Saïd. Painted the same year as Mahmoud Saïd’s Négresse aux bracelets (sold at Christie’s Dubai, October 2015; price realized: $665,000), Le nu au coussin bleu offered in this sale could not be more different, albeit just as striking and as representative of the great Alexandrian painter’s style. Indeed, the most obvious difference is that Saïd here opted to focus on the nude herself, her body and her pose, as opposed to the more narrative composition found in Négresse, posing in a specific setting. With a rich palette of ochre, brown and golden flesh colors, heightened in some places by a grey-blue pigment, Saïd attempts to define the sitter’s anatomy, perhaps exaggerating in some places the outlines of her muscles and breasts. Yet the reason for this was to give him more opportunities of playing with light – one of Saïd’s highly acclaimed and key characteristics – as the lines of the nude’s body catch light and reflect the blue cushion and bluish white sheet behind her.
That deep luminous blue color used for the cushion seems to infuse the entire composition with its reflections and Saïd uses it to emphasize the model’s body, by creating a strong contrast between the blue’s cold hues and the woman’s warm sun-kissed skin. As always in Saïd’s paintings, the artist accentuates the effects of light in Le nu au coussin bleu, by making his model wear some silver bangles and a tight choker, the metallic surfaces of which scintillate in the composition, glamorously animating the painting’s surface and giving it an almost cinematographic quality. Laid back on a cushion, her arms behind her head would usually suggest a certain ease, yet strangely, her muscles seem contracted and her arms are rigid, whilst her tense facial expression betrays the apparent relaxation and hint to a form of perhaps more conservative attitude.
Le nu au coussin bleu is one Saïd’s earliest nude paintings, although he had extensively studied female nude models - as witnessed by numerous sketchbooks – when he studied at the Académie Julian and the Grand Chaumière in Paris in the early 1920s, where he easily had access to female nude life drawing. Back in Egypt, given his aristocratic background, his functions as a highly respected judge and his social entourage, access to female nude models was mainly in the studio of fellow artist and Greek expatriate Aristomenis Angelopoulos.
Painted just seven years after Le nu coussin bleu, Saïd further explores the rich colour contrasts between the glowing blue background and the model’s gleaming bronze-like body in L’Endormie. Yet there is clearly in the latter, a sense that the great Alexandrian artist has freed himself from social expectations and come out of his legal ‘box’, delving into the painter’s realm. Against all expectations, Saïd’s production of female nude paintings represents almost a tenth – roughly fourty paintings - of his entire painted oeuvre. L’Endormie, painted at the pinnacle of the artist’s career in the 1930s is arguably one of his most impressive nudes. Impressive because of its size and viewpoint, because of the blinding stained-glass-window-like blue in the background emphasizing the presence, and moreover the sensuality of the woman’s body and finally, impressive because of the elegance of the painting’s eroticism.
The tense muscles and linear body present in Le nu au coussin bleu (1926) have been replaced with generous curves, bulbous breasts and a more relaxed pose, as the model seems to be lazily sinking in the plush cushions and draperies. Instead of peering out of the painting towards the right with a sharp gaze as in the 1926 work, L’Endormie appears to be indeed asleep: her eyelids are shut and her soft lips seem to be inanimate. Her right arm has slid next to her body, and her right hand is modestly placed so as to discretely cover the area in between her legs. As she dozes off, her head slightly falls towards the right and even her breasts seem to be relaxed, enabling Saïd to liberate the painting’s erotic overload and profound sensuality with such finesse. His play on shadow and light – the hearth of which glows within the model’s tummy, perhaps hinting to a possible pregnancy -, his contrasts of warm versus cold colour tones and of hatched velvety surfaces versus the woman’s polished bronze body, once again highlight Said’s unequalled mastery as an alchemist of light and colour.
Given the differences between L’Endormie and Le nu au coussin bleu, but even more so the contrast with another female nude painting executed by Saïd also in 1933, titled L’endormie (Le coussin), there is no doubt that Saïd mostly through fellow Greek artist Angelopoulos, had a wide range of models posing for them. Part of the Mahmoud Saïd Museum collection in Alexandria, L’endormie (Le coussin) is characterized by her almost porcelain white skin, contrasting with her jet-black hair and her bright crimson-red lips, hence almost the opposite in terms of physical appearance to the model posing for the present lot. The similar titles has often led to some confusion but L’Endormie, that Saïd specifically titled that way on the reverse, definitively stands out, as proven by its illustration in several early publications, its presence most likely at Saïd’s 1937 New York show and its inclusion at the Egyptian artist’s first major retrospective exhibition held at the Guezireh Museum in Cairo in 1951.
Text by Valérie Didier Hess.