Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar is one of the most important Egyptian artists and perhaps the most inventive. Although he died young, his astonishing diverse works of the 1950s and 1960s are amongst the most compelling images of twentieth century Middle Eastern art. El-Gazzar was one of the leading proponents of surrealism in the Contemporary Art Group, one of the most famous groups founded by the Third Generation of Egyptian artists after the Second World War. For them, contemporary art should invoke deep-rooted values and folk heritage, demonstrated through the relationship between iconography, style and message in their paintings. Moving away from pure realism, they also agreed that the purpose of art was to go beyond figurative representation and formalist abstraction, and instead, to express profound and universal concepts. The Contemporary Art Group's three main characteristics were first, to have a formalist approach which embraced new trends in modern art, some of them Western; secondly, to evoke metaphysical tendencies, depicted through figures in primitive settings and referring to a yearning to rediscover nature, stylistically tied to Surrealism; and thirdly, to focus on the expression of a more particular Egyptian identity and national character.
El-Gazzar's first metaphysical stage was between 1938 and 1946, when he produced his Shells series, based on the anthropological theme of man before civilization and his relationship with the wilderness. These works attracted the attention of international critics and thinkers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, an early admirer. The second period of El-Gazzar's career reflected the influence of Sayeda Zeinab where medieval traditions resisted all the winds of modern westernization and where he witnessed the moulids and the religious festivals that have been celebrated since the Fatmid period. He began to associate the intuitive aspect of art (its soul) with the essential element in the popular magical art (the hidden and the unknown). The subjects of El-Gazzar's later works were very different, influenced by the politics of contemporary Egypt and with a focus on technology and progress. A period of study in Italy saw major stylistic changes in his work, namely a marked tendency towards abstraction. He moved away from the irrationalism of folklore towards a surrealism that resembled ever more closely science fiction.
This present lot by Abdul Hadi Al Gazzar is unquestionably one of the finest to appear on the market. The artist's philosophy turned around the contradictions between values, ethics and the two sides of life, depression and hope, optimism and pessimism. His subjects often depict stories taken from popular legends, such as in the present lot, where we trace the journey of two Egyptian fishermen. Through his distribution of the figures, objects and their relationship to color and size, his manipulations of perspective and the importance he gives to meticulous details in a swarming painting, all contribute to the multi-dimensionality of the painting's flat surface.
At first glance, we see one fisherman coming back from a fishing trip with his friend. The one to the right graciously carries a big ornamented shell containing the big catch of the day, an imposing blue fish synonymous of good luck and wealth. The deep blue colour of the fish, is the same hue used on famous talismans and amulets produced by crafters and still sold today in the streets of Egypt, such as the hand of Fatima or the blue evil eye. This fisherman's face is cropped, so that the eyes of the viewer are directed instantly to the catch, the positive. His own expressions are no longer necessary, and only the happy and proud look in his eyes are there, as a strong witness to his good luck.
On a second dimension, the wall behind the figures displays a rich variety of elements of a few shots they have witnessed during their morning trip, or what they have dreamed of seeing. The contrast between traditional classical identity versus modernism and imported western values is embodied in the young bourgeois woman wearing a 'bathing suit' (upper left corner of the composition) as opposed to the humble woman carrying the 'mechanna', the traditional Egyptian basket woven with colourful straw (upper centre part of the composition). The only common ground they have is that they share the same light of the same sun. Around them, many ropes are intertwined, reflecting the confusion of each person's journey, thoughts and destiny, yet most of the fish hooks are empty. The black cat on the left side of the bamboo pole and the discrete white cat on the right suggest the dilemma between good and bad luck, heightened by the opposition between the fish and the spider's web.
Finally, the third layer of the painting lies in the other shore line, showing through an arched window at the right of the composition. There we see a bright sandy beach, with people who belong to a different type of life, hinting to the versatility of Egyptians' lives, ranging from working-class fishermen to people from all levels of society. El-Gazzar connects the imaginary with the reality, displaying feelings of emptiness and of hazard in flipping the luck. The red salmon box, distinctly inscribed with his signature in English, is randomly added to the composition referring to bad luck and the artist's pessimism that his only catch of the day is a can. In contrast, the playing 'Kotchina' card, thrown at the centre right of the composition, appears to bear one of El-Gazzar's lucky friends' name, yet the two faces and red cloves symbolize duality - the card can win a game, or lose it completely.
El-Gazzar believed that luck, destiny, fate, karma, free will, were only the outcome of one man's own creative thinking, whether good or bad, whilst the universe is mostly there to help realizing these thoughts. However, most human beings do not use their free will nor do they create their own thoughts; instead, they wait like El-Gazzar's fishermen and let the sea, the outer world or the randomness of nature decide for them.
In his painting Fishing, El-Gazzar reveals the hard truth: good luck is nowhere to be catched. Amulets are here to help and act as a channel through which the owners' thoughts are guided towards the goal. Through this masterpiece full of symbols and hints, El Gazzar subtly denounces that the laziness of the mind and the ignorance of the truth decide how lucky or unlucky one is.