Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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The Prayer Divine illuminations

By Anna Boghiguian

Mahmoud Said (1897-1964) was born on 8 April, in Alexandria. The son of Said Pasha, he received the typical upbringing of his class, attending both Victoria and the Jesuit college. He continued his studies in Paris, where he was a student of law. In 1922 he was appointed assistant magistrate at the Mixed Court of Mansoura -- fulfilling the desires of his father, who was vehemently opposed to him pursuing an artistic career. Even after his father died, he continued to abide by his wishes, and continued to work within the law until 1947. He was, then, 50 years of age before he devoted himself full time to painting, though by the time he made that change his identity as an artist had already been established in a large and consistent body of work.

As a student in Paris Mahmoud had visited the Arts Academy and joined La Grande Hutte where he received directions from Bourdel. And on his return to Alexandria he quickly joined the Zananiri studio and began classes with Di Farino, an Italian artist based in Alexandria. During his summer holidays, like the majority of those who shared his background, he would travel to Europe, where he spent a great deal of time in galleries and museums.

Typical of his class, his life was far removed from that of the majority of Egyptians and his cultural affinities were essentially European. Yet though his own existence hardly overlapped with that of the peasantry his work displays an increasing empathy with his fellow countrymen who come to embody all that is Egyptian. And as with the poorer members of society, so too with Said's treatment of light: it assumes a metaphysical dimension, an essential quality. What makes Egypt Egypt, in Said's painting, is the sun. And on a more quotidian, formal level, it is Said's treatment of light that prevents his paintings becoming merely academic, that focuses definition in terms of colour rather than form.

In The Prayer (1927, Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in Alexandria) and Na'ima (1927, private collection), light assumes the same dimensions as the divine and infinite quality. Prayer, constructed with a specifically Egyptian palette -- ochre, brown, blue, and rich green -- is lit from the exterior. It is an otherworldly light that illuminates those who are bent in prayer to the extent that it is the triangular shaft of light itself that becomes a benediction. This ray of sunshine, throwing the architectural arrangements into relief, intimates the eternal, exposing the infinite, self fulfilling qualities of the arc.

Mahmoud Said's blues are equally rich and complex. In Na'ima the blues vibrate. The light creates an innocence on the character's face, for just as the Ancient Egyptian masters knew how to align sculpture and wall paintings to the sun, Mahmoud Said knows how to defer to the same kind of light. In Na'ima, it is the light that turns the subject into a Madonna. In the background is the city of the dead, completed mostly in earth tones. But the sky is blue, and it is this that allows the painting to vibrate with innocence and light.

In The City (or The Girls) of Bahari (1937, Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in Alexandria), the direct illumination of the water seller's gaze conveys a mystical ecstasy, the ecstasy of the dervish. Similar looks can be found in the work of Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar, though in Said's painting the effects are intensified by the composition. The direction of the light reinforces the upward movement of the three girls, the colours of their clothes vibrant, while the feluccas on the sea and the citadel in the background are treated as a single architectural unit.
typical portrait
House
From top: Mahmoud Said's The Prayer (1927); a typical portrait; and his villa on Bacchus St, Alexandria, soon to be re-opened as the Mahmoud Said Museum

The Bahari girls, typically Egyptian in feature, are taking a stroll, their clothes rendered luminous by the sun. This quality of illumination they share with the donkey -- a democracy of light that singles out and elevates those it makes visible, marking them as quintessentially Egyptian. The lace of the girl's clothing, the metal and glass of the water seller with his white, metallic galabiya, are painted with an equally intense emphasis on light.

Despite the archetypal subjects, this painting is far removed from the Orientalist approach, and illustrates just how far Said had travelled on the road that would allow him to identify with common Egyptians.

In Suez Canal (1946-7), Said chooses to depict the opening of the canal. We see the procession, headed by the Khedive and next to him Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie. This column of dignitaries is framed by crimson curtains, seeming to demand the suspension of disbelief that is demanded by the proscenium.

The procession heads slowly towards the seats from which they will enjoy a vantage of the canal and its flotilla of passing boats. The spectator, then, observes the slow march of the procession, and though the picture is essentially static, by a clever sleight of hand the artist triggers the imagination of the spectator. Once the procession is seated the foreground becomes the background and vice versa -- movement, then, is suggested by the intimation of a logical narrative which serves, in part at least, to counteract the official, static dimensions of the work.

Mahmoud Said's nudes constitute an important part of his production. They are at once voluptuous, erotic and unreal, the sense of unreality being once again a function of the handling of light. The Girl with The Scarf, most probably painted sometime in the mid-1930s, contains echoes of Renaissance Marian iconography. But by exposing a single breast, and keeping the rest of the body clothed, the artist undermines the religious connotations by implying an erotic element. And once again the lighting of the face intimates a mystical ecstasy.

In The Bathers, Said shows an entire nude, reclining with her feet in the Nile, surrounded by a water jug and doves. And once again it appears that she is about to receive that enigmatic blessing of the sun. The blues of the Nile and the sky are possessed of an extraordinary quality, while the fecund earth is wet.

Said produced self-portraits in 1919 and later in 1924. In the first he depicts himself as a young artist, in the latter as an apostle, bearded and wan, largely, one must assume, due to his encounters with an altogether unexpected reality. In the background is a brown city, the city of the dead. A young peasant girl climbs the stairs and a small crowd carries a coffin. An intimation of mortality, perhaps?

Said's, undoubtedly, was a pioneering role. He opened up new vistas for younger artists, helping them towards an authentic vision of Egypt. He had great understanding of the light and the sun, and further accentuated the real essence of light and its effect on colour and form. He took the oriental and academic and imbued it with sensuality and metaphysics, creating an aesthetic and sensual experience that is immediately identifiable as his own.

Many of the works discussed here can be viewed, temporarily, at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in the Opera House grounds. But their removal to Alexandria, from whence they came, is imminent. For the past several years, the Mahmoud Said Villa on Bacchus Street has been undergoing renovations. This month it is due to be reopened, housing a permanent collection of the work of Mahmoud Said, alongside paintings by several other Egyptian artists.

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