Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Patriotic landscapes

Rania Khallaf enjoys watching peerless landscape paintings

Patriotic landscapes
Patriotic landscapes
Al-Ahram Weekly

Anew exhibition by veteran painter Samir Fouad will always be a challenge to even the trained, art-loving eye. This year’s show, inaugurated two weeks ago at the Picasso Gallery in Zamalek, is a complete surprise. Entitled “Ramifications”, a reference to “the free-association of thoughts”, the show presents both the artist’s latest concerns and themes with which he has worked for the last 35 years. They transform the gallery almost into a museum dedicated to the artist and showcasing the phases of his development. 

This exhibition’s new theme is the Egyptian landscape. In around ten paintings of various sizes, the artist reflects his vision of Egypt’s landscape in an abstract style, with green and blue prevailing. The title becomes more meaningful as each painting leads to another. “It is like a tree branching out from a solid trunk; it might happen that a branch departs some distance from another. This is what the creative process is all about,” Fouad explains. It was in 2009 that the artist painted a small oil landscape, with no specific vision; that is how the present fascination started. Still, classic landscape painting had been a stage in his early career. Back in the eighties, Fouad used to paint landscapes in Marsa Matrouh, the beautiful coastal city, where sand, mountains and sea beautifully coexist. Later still life, especially withering flowers, replaced these sights – only for them to return so much later.

“I have always loved flight. My elder brother Sami was a violinist and an amateur painter, but he worked as a pilot at the Air Force. When I was 16, I thought I wanted to try being on a plane. So I flew to Alexandria, which was not common at the time. I was fascinated by looking from above to different sites, and I loved those random geometric divisions of the land. But it wasn’t until 2009 that I started thinking of the landscape from a bird’s eye perspective.  And it spurred my mind more powerfully early last year, so I started this collection. I believe this series of landscape paintings was spontaneous because I felt I needed tranquility in the middle of all the dramatic events and political tension that swept Egypt and the Middle East. This is why I opted to paint landscape from above, it was partly a trick to stay away from tension, and also because it looks magnificent.” 

All the paintings reveal Egypt’s exuberant nature: the desert, the Nile and the two seas. Then there are the divisions of agricultural land, whether horizontally or as chaotic geometric forms, with canals crisscrossing the green. All is reflected beautifully in the paintings. Rhythm, variety, repetition, unity and balance are the guiding principles. With some paintings, it took me a few minutes to recognise and reconstruct this unique amalgam of geometrical shapes in my mind. In almost all there is water in the form of a channel dividing the surface into two unequal parts. According to Fouad, this is an expression of a concept. 

“It’s as if I want to reach to a certain destination or goal.” On the map the irrigation canals branching out of the Nile determine the shape of the space, giving the whole scene a sense of beauty and liveliness. “What intrigued me the most were the various degrees of the colour in the fields, the green varying according to what crops are planted.” But in the process of depicting this Fouad resorted to his imagination, almost reinventing the landscape all together. In one painting, he redirects the Nile into a serpentine passageway. “It took a long time to settle on this shape. It required deleting and repainting many times over, though I suppose this is how it goes in all my oil paintings anyway.” 

Born to an art-loving family in Heliopolis in 1944, Fouad knew he wanted to be a painter from an early age, but under pressure from his family  – who were concerned for his economic future – he studied communication engineering and went on to have a successful career, practising art along a parallel track. In 1971, he exhibited for the first time – in England, where he had worked and spent time studying the art on display, developing a fascination with J M W Turner (1775-1851). As of 1980, he worked closely with veteran artist Hassan Soliman, which was a major influence on the development of his career. A leading figure in watercolour painting, Fouad himself is amazed at his use of watercolour in early landscape painting, which by denying him the opportunity to delete and repaint restricted his freedom and limited the development of his themes.

For the present exhibition Fouad also reviewed various air photographs, assimilating the geography of his subject. None of his abstract paintings is a faithful depiction of real life, however. “Egypt’s unique land is under my skin,” he says, so he felt free to reinvent and modulate. Without figures or any human or architectural elements, he says, “The paintings look plain, as the scene is too distant. However, you can feel the existence of people in certain spots, especially in desert locations. It is also the thick texture of the canvas surface that denotes their presence.” A deeper look at the paintings reveals the truth of this. In certain spots the knife strokes are very strong, indicating the presence of human activity. It’s as if there are symbols embedded in the paintings, and the longer you gaze at them the more of them you can make out. Most of the tableaux depicted are daytime scenes except for two nocturnal paintings, a reference to Egypt’s sunny climate. “It also spreads optimism,” he said, “which I needed.” 

Landscape painting dates back to ancient Egyptian mural art featuring birds, flowers and other elements of the environment. It was later developed by Roman artists, reaching successive apogees in such works as Good Government in the Countryside by the Italian Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348) and The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569). Techniques are equally rich and varied, with pointillism developed by the French post-impressionist painter Gorges Seurat and pure abstraction by the German artist Gerhard Richter. Fouad’s approach is the same one he uses in portrait painting, depending on the movement of the knife and the accumulation of layers of paint. His palette combines hot and cold, “Egypt as I imagine it”, as he puts it, from ochre to emerald. It is a technique I found to be more suited to the larger paintings, even though size varies from 40 by 50 to 120 by 160 cm, since the more space the more the mind can roam.

The exhibition includes work representing various phases of the artist’s development, however, with such themes as musicians and the swing, as well as a small collection executed alongside the landscapes which show a chair, a woman sitting and then getting up. It reflects the early desire to “feel free and rid oneself of all tensions and negative influences”. Notably, the exhibition is accompanied by the release of a 203-page catalogue featuring works from 1980 on and written by critic Fatma Ali, to be published by Dar El Sherouk and offered for sale at the Picasso Gallery as well as bookshops around Egypt. The catalogue is a thoughtful study of Fouad’s development representing various collections. As Fatma Ali puts it, it shows how he has stored and accumulated musical visions. It is also a comprehensive study of the concepts informing his work: time, transformation, the absurd and the (distorted) human body. The biography it includes casts light on the artist’s personal life: his time in England, his close friends, his family.

At 72, Fouad is content with his oeuvre. But, he says, “I still have more themes to work on, actually more than I can do in this lifetime. The next project might deal with relationships, but it is still too early to say...”


The show is on until 4 April

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