Selim is one of the best known sculptor-painters in modern Iraq, recognized as being a leading figure for the Iraqi art scene in the second half of the 20th century. Benefitting from an eclectic education, having studied in both Paris and Rome (1938-1940) and later studying at the Slade School of Art in London (1946-1949), Selim was very much aware of the various pre-war and post-war modern art movements developing in Europe. Some of his favorite icons whilst travelling in Europe were Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henry Moore. In his mature work, Selim seems to give his own interpretation of modernity, in response to what his fellow artists in the West were producing.
During the Second World War, he returned to Baghdad, where he was first appointed teacher, then head, of the sculpture department of the newly established School of Fine Arts. He was also employed part-time by the Iraqi Archeological Museum in Baghdad, participating to the restoration of Assyrian artefacts. Following this experience, Selim had acquired a thorough knowledge of Mesopotamian Art and was fascinated by the similarities in terms of aesthetic rules and basics between the ancient art of his country with what he had learned in Rome and Paris. Selim both painted and sculpted, and contributed to establishing the Baghdad Group for Modern Art in 1951. Many key figures of the modern Iraqi art and literature scene were followers of this newly founded group, such as the artists Shakir Hassan Al-Said and Dia Al-Azzawi, as well as one of the Arab world's foremost art critic and writer, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. This Palestinian novelist wrote several times on Jewad Selim's modernist view and published the artist's biography in 1974, in Baghdad.
Christie's is delighted to include in this sale the present wooden sculpture by Jewad Selim of a young woman, suggested to be carrying some dates. The artist gave this work as a wedding gift to one of his close artist friends and his young bride in the early 1940s in Baghdad when he had returned from Paris. The smoothness of the surface, the purity of the lines and curves and yet the liveliness of this sculpture hint to what Julio Gonzalez, Alexander Calder and particularly Henry Moore were doing. Yet Selim's sculpture is very much infused with his native cultural heritage, recalling Babylonian and Egyptian art. Selim seems to have transformed one of the figures of a Mesopotamian frieze into a three-dimensional 20th century sculpture, where the rigidity, characteristic of ancient art, gives way to graceful curves, softened by the polished surface of the wood and its warm hues. He had realized through his years of studying art history that very often the medium of an artwork dictated the way in which impressions of human views of life were portrayed, whether it be in Eastern or Western Ancient Art. Hence in the present example, Selim uses wood to not only express himself and convey this beautiful female figure, but also focuses on the wood's properties and his respect for this medium. As several of his predecessors and forerunners of Primitivism such as Paul Gauguin, Selim's wood carvings seem to reveal the artist's concern for digging into his country's roots from which he extracts elements to re-assert a distinctive Iraqi identity in his works.
Although Jewad Selim passed away prematurely in his early forties, he remains one of the fathers of modern Iraqi art, in that he was one of the first artists in Iraq to acquire such a wide knowledge of modern Western Art, to react and respond to it in his own way as well as to encourage his fellow Iraqi artists to do the same, yet always making sure that their artworks also showcased their own cultural identity.
Jabra Ibrahim Jabra wrote about the adherents of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, saying that "However much they may subscribe to the view of 'internationalism' or 'cosmopolitism' in modern art, they will not give up the notion that their identity can only be shaped by rooting themselves in a tradition of their own, which helps to give a distinction to their work, marking them off as the creators and extenders of a national culture" (Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, quoted in Reading Iraq: Culture and Power and Conflict, by Muhsin Jasim Musawi).