Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Marvellous marble

A whole world will be revealed if you only take a deeper look at a piece of marble. Rania Khallaf visited an exhibition that traced the marvels of marble

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Clockwise from top: La Boheme; Othello; Clowns;Under Water Marble; Botanic; Spiritual White

When I first heard about Mohamed Bartash's second solo exhibition "Opera and the Surface of Marble", my immediate reaction was indifference. First of all -- and I am probably on common ground here with most Egyptians -- opera is not my favourite music genre; and second I did not realise that there could be a link between the cold surface of marble and the warm tones of opera. However, after looking on Bartash's website for information on his first solo exhibition, "Reflections on Pablo Neruda's poems", my curiosity was sufficiently aroused to make me want to find out more about marble.

The ten-day exhibition, which ended last week, was held at the Opera House Gallery and comprised 47 oil paintings on canvas. At first glance I felt, almost unexpectedly, that the paintings hung so elegantly in the two-floor gallery were a warm celebration of marble, this amazingly cool surface.

The tour into the world of marble is divided into three stages or sections: Marble Figurative, which includes some symbolic as well as figurative representations of famous operas such as Salome, Don Giovanni and La Boheme; Marble Impression, which includes impressionistic representations of other operas such as Madame Butterfly and Samson and Delilah; and Marble Perception, which rejoices in as many hidden, magical figures as the artist could have imagined in pieces of marble.

As I viewed the huge paintings, which use the thin, intertwined veins of marble as a main theme or a background, I felt as if I were lost in a huge marble palace.

The third section, however, was my favourite. I stood for several minutes in front of three paintings in this section: Autumn Leaves Marble, Underwater Marble and Botanic Marble. They literally took my mind away from the speeded-up rhythm of life and into a web of intermingled veins. Yes, it could be now a more complicated world, but it is you alone who can enter this beautiful web of connected and hazy lines. It is good to hide in silence and escape from the noise outside, even for couple of minutes.

Each of these three fantastic paintings entailed the viewer in a space beyond imagination and on a dive into the depths of the cold surface.

Bartash is obsessed with the beauty of marble; he sees in it a complete world of living things: faces, birds, plants, rainbows, waves of deep sea and, amazingly, scenes from his favourite operas. A keen opera goer, Bartash opted for merging his two favoured elements, opera and marble, in one artistic project.

"The story began when I first visited the historical building of the National Museum of Prague in 2010, where I discovered some new and marvellous shapes of marble that infused and enriched my mind with a whole new world of living species," Bartash told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Later on, on one of his visits to Paris, he find out more about such historical palaces as the royal Ch│■teau de Chambord at Chamord, Loir-et-Cher in France, which is one of the most significant ch│■teaux in the world because of its very distinct French Renaissance architecture which blends traditional French mediaeval forms with classical Renaissance structures, and which contains a number of marvellous and distinct marble pieces.

The paradox here is that marble is a cold material, and yet the artist has managed to draw sensational warmth from it.

"The idea of the exhibition was challenging; it is like mixing hot chocolate with ice cream," he smiled.

For Bartash, marble is not "still nature". "On the contrary, it is a natural material full of life, as it consists of several accumulated layers formed by time," he says. "Still nature, I believe, is an excellent representation of life. It could be turned into a living thing. The surface of marble is like the palm of your hand; it entails a discovery in an imaginary world of letters, figures or faces, where the chart of intertwined lines changes as you get older," he explained.

That opera as a traditional western art is not popular among the mainstream of cultured elite in Egypt did not scare Bartash off.

"Well, opera is an intimate and integral part of my own culture, and so it was normal to reflect my favourite subject in my second solo exhibition," he said in plea of his case.

"I believe that opera is an exclusive art; it is where the audience can enjoy music, dance, singing, choreography, and much more all in one place. It is true that opera is a western art, but it was originally a form of pop art since it tells popular stories and it should not be limited to the elite. People in Europe go to the opera wearing jeans," he added.

Bartash considers himself as an amateur; however, his works are undeniably professional. Born in 1969, he graduated with a degree in economics and political science from Cairo University and obtained an MA in business administration.

As the first Egyptian to hold the post of General Manager of Carrefour in Egypt, he is creeping slowly but surely along the path of a professional career in plastic arts. He started his art studies some 15 years ago under the pioneering Egyptian painter Sabri Ragheb (1921 Ďê" 2000). He was also an attendant student of the Mexican painter Hector Cardenas, who was living in Egypt at the time.

Back to the paintings: In some works like Norma, the artist resorts to quasi classical figures, while in others, like Aida, he opted for abstract lines with hot colours. "It is the subject of the opera and my own interpretation of it that controls the style of painting," he explained. "I only use oil colours in all my paintings, because I consider oil to be a noble medium; it allows you to draw deeper layers, and never resists if you want to change the whole scene in a certain moment."

It took Bartash, as an amateur, two years to finish his project. The paintings are very diverse and they show the artist's deep interest in the subject. "I studied marble profoundly, and my visits to museums and palaces in France helped me a great deal," he told the Weekly. "I also visited the area in Cairo called Sha'a Al-Teaban, near Maadi, which is a famous market for all kinds of marble. It is very interesting to see different kinds and colours of marble, hot and cold ones, coexisting amazingly together in one piece and forming abstract shapes like storm clouds, birds, trees or ghosts."

One of the pieces that grabbed my attention was White Spiritual Marble. It mingled white with blue, forming distorted human figures. It looked to me like good spirits running from Hell to Paradise, or from Earth to Heaven.

Another painting has a funny story to tell: Opera Pagliacci, famous in English as Clowns, is depicted as moving spots of cheerful colours. "The idea jumped into my mind when my eldest son and I were visiting the National Zoo in Frankfurt, where there was an educational poster showing the figure of the nervous system of a chimpanzee. The picture of the nerve cells reminded me at once of this opera."

As a successful administrator and an active participant in voluntary activities, Bartash considers administration an art. "I deal with each member of my staff as a source of energy that needs to be well utilised and upgraded," he said, adding, "I believe there is an artist inside each and every one of us. The trick, however, is how to enjoy and coordinate between different roles one can play in life," he said, his face beaming in a broad smile.

"Religions" is the title of his upcoming exhibition. "I believe in the diversity of faiths, and I believe in the coexistence of religions. There is nothing called abstract truth or the right religion. All religions call for peace, love and understanding. The main message of religion is for you to be a happy and a good human."

As I finished my viewing of the exhibition, I was careful to avoid stepping on the marble of the Opera House staircase. I realise now that life is hidden, or disguised, in deeper and deeper layers.

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