A painter's legacy
Samir Sobhi pays tribute to a long-forgotten Egyptian master painter whose work is now on show at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art
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Labib Tadros (top, far right) among other arists in his Darb al-Labbanah studio; paintings by Tadros including a self-portrait
Very little was known about the modern Egyptian painter Labib Tadros (1894-1943) until quite recently, his sudden death during the Second World War seeming almost to have obliterated his name from the annals of modern Egyptian art.
However, thanks to the efforts of Tadros's family, and especially to those of his nephew, Samir Tadros, as well as to a book by ambassador Youssry El-Qwedy on the painter's life and work that was published last year, Tadros has recently been receiving the recognition he deserves as a major figure of 20th-century Egyptian art.
Many of Tadros's works, scattered in the private collections of family and friends, have now been gathered together in a major exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art on Gezira, and this exhibition, running until 30 June, allows visitors to gain a better understanding of this painter's achievement.
Egyptian painters working during the early decades of the last century are often divided into two categories: those who received their academic training in the School of Fine Arts, which was founded in 1908, and those who did not receive such training, and, pursuing other careers, essentially painted in their spare time.
The first group includes such major names as Ahmed Sabry (b.1891), Mahmoud Moukhtar (b.1891) and Ragheb Ayyad (b.1892), while the latter includes Mahmoud Said (whose other career was as a judge), Mohamed Nagui (a diplomat) and Labib Tadros (a civil servant).
However, members of the latter group of "amateur" painters, though they did not attend the School of Fine Arts on a formal basis nevertheless did not go without training. Many of them either studied privately at the hands of foreign artists, or, as was the case with Labib Tadros, studied part time by enrolling in evening classes held at some of the foreign institutes in Egypt. Thus, Tadros was trained at the Italian Institute in Cairo, while at the same time working as a civil servant at the ministry of interior following his graduation from high school.
In an autobiographical note that Tadros wrote before his early death in 1943, he says that he enrolled in classes held at the Italian Institute in 1918, going on to obtain diplomas in lithography and painting. Following this early training, he then worked for a further two years with the Italian artist and teacher Camillo Innocenti (1871-1961) in the 1920s, the latter having first come to Egypt in 1925 and being appointed director of the Egyptian School of Fine Arts two years later.
It was probably his close association with Innocenti that led to several of Tadros's paintings being selected for international exhibitions. In 1937, Tadros exhibited works at the Exposition internationale des arts et des techniques in Paris, and in 1938 he exhibited works at the Venice Biennale in the Egyptian pavilion, the first time that Egypt had been represented at this international show.
Tadros's paintings were warmly received by the critics at the 1938 Venice Biennale, one Italian critic commenting that in his works "we can see the true colour of Egypt, her artists deftly combining oriental and Islamic art with modern techniques." Another critic wrote that Tadros's paintings "in their transparency and clarity echoed Renaissance art."
Youssry El-Qwedy's study of the artist, Labib Tadros: an Unfinished Song, published in Cairo last year, provides a record of the painter's career while also quoting some of the praise that Tadros received during his lifetime. The book has also been published on the centenary of the founding of Egypt's first academic arts school, the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, and El-Qwedy's comments on Tadros's works have a particular authority, since El-Qwedy is also an artist, though he has, like Tadros himself, also pursued a parallel career as a diplomat at the Egyptian foreign ministry. Also like Tadros, El-Qwedy studied art on a part- time basis, enrolling in the School of Fine Art's adult education programme in 1961.
When El-Qwedy's book on Tadros appeared many Egyptian critics were grateful to the author for his efforts to put the works of this major Egyptian painter back into circulation, and, in cooperation with members of the Tadros family, to remind the public of this important Egyptian artist. Ahmad Fouad Selim wrote of the book, for example, that it "brings the past back from the far recesses of memory," while painter Ezzeddin Naguib said that Tadros was "an artist who had been lost in the caves of history," but who had now been restored to the light.
From the book, the reader learns of the extraordinary journey undertaken by this young man, whose meagre financial means prevented him from dedicating himself completely to the arts, but who nevertheless dedicated all his spare time to pursuing his abiding passion for painting. Moreover, Tadros's ambitions did not stop there: when in 1927 he rented a studio in a mediaeval house in the Citadel district in Cairo it was with the intention of creating a whole artistic district in which artists could work and meet together to discuss their work.
Tadros's house at 4, Darb al-Labbanah became famous at the time and has since gone down as a famous address in the history of modern Egyptian art, the house attracting many Egyptian and foreign painters who took up residence there in an attempt to create a kind of "Egyptian Montmartre". The house itself became known as the "Maison des Artistes," and the internationally famous Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi owned a house in the same alley, which now houses the Cairo offices of the Aga Khan Foundation.
El-Qwedy's book contains many poignant details of Tadros's life, including the story of his love for a Catholic girl and his decision to marry her despite opposition from his Coptic family. The engagement was announced in May 1943, but tragically just ten days later Tadros died suddenly from a stomach haemorrhage. For the next four years, his grieving mother kept his room locked and did not allow anyone to disturb its contents.
Among the personal notes collected in the book is an article written for the magazine of the American College for Girls, where Tadros taught painting. This gives some insight into Tadros's views on painting, as well as into his pedagogy, and in the article he writes that, "I advise young painters to take their time before applying colour to the canvas. A painter has no obligation to put in every detail just because it comes from nature. For example, if there is a tree in view, one shouldn't waste time painting every single branch. It is much more rewarding to deal with the whole as an integral unit."
Following Tadros's death, the process of disposing of his paintings and papers began, and some of his work may have been lost for ever. The painter's nudes, for example, disapproved of by the family on moral grounds, were disposed of in a hurry and have not been much heard of since. His famous painting "Peasant Dwellings" was bought in the late 1930s by the Egyptian industrialist Talaat Harb, and it has also since been lost from view.
However, Tadros's nephew, the journalist Samir Tadros, has managed to collect many of the remaining paintings, and his collection is probably the largest collection left today of the painter's legacy.
Works from Samir Tadros's private collection are presently on display at the temporary exhibition of Labib Tadros's work at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art on Gezira. It is to be hoped that the ministry of culture will now be able to raise the funds necessary to purchase works from this collection and put them on permanent display.
Labib Tadros exhibition, Al-Bab Gallery, Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo Opera House Grounds, Gezira. Until 30 June.