Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013

Ahram Weekly

Twin sensibilities

Youssef Kamel Mustafa remembers his father and grandfather

Al-Ahram Weekly

This Sunday (26 May) is the 122nd anniversary of painter Youssef Kamel; it is also the 96th anniversary of painter Kamel Mustafa. They were born on the same day. Can it be said that having the same birthday resulted in the two painters having similar characters and life paths as well as art careers. They were certainly of the same personality type, with similar humours. They were quiet and contemplative yet gregarious within the art circles making up their colleagues and students. They had unlimited love for their work, whether in creativity or education. They were also equally sensitive to social and political developments. That said, they have something much more basic in common: they both belonged to the Egyptian school of impressionism, of which Kamel was the uncontested founding father. And if Kamel was the prophet, Mustafa became the principle apostle whose work carried the message into the homes of Egyptian families who appreciate painting.


Kamel belongs with the generation of the Seven Pioneers – Mahmoud Moukhtar, Mahmoud Said, Ragheb Ayyad, Mohammed Hassan, Mohammed Nagui, Ahmed Sabri – who founded the modern art scene in Egypt. He graduated in 1908 from the Art Academy patronised by Prince Youssef Kamal. He studied under Paulo Fuccila, who instilled in him the love of working from nature and taught him to appreciate, with his subtle sensitivity to sights, the Cairo sun shining on the city’s Islamic monuments: in the alleyways, on the walls of Fatimid mosques, in the countryside and in the suburbs of Cairo. Encouraged by the prince and the great feminist Hoda Shaarawi as well as the art lover Paul Alfred Faisse, a French engineer who fell in love with and lived in Cairo till the end of his life, Kamel’s work began to spread among the rising bourgeoisie. Together with Ragheb Ayyad, he determined to complete their artistic formation at their own expense by spending a year in Italy one at a time, while the other took on the teaching responsibilities of both.

In an unprecedented step, in response to such initiative, and propelled by the great statesman Saad Zaghloul, the Egyptian parliament approved a budget for sending Egyptians to learn art in Europe, and the first official scholarship was given to Kamel and Ayyad, who spent the years 1924-1929 in Europe. Kamel returned to assume the post of a teacher at the Fine Art College, and it was then that he presided over the art scene, ranging far and wide to convey nature with an impressionistic technique. He painted the formations of fellahin in their work and rest and celebrations, and to whom he was close while he lived in the Cairo suburb of Matariyya. Kamel also made portraits of family and friends as well as various Egyptians. This goes on uninterrupted until Kamel’s death in 1971, yet it can also be looked at in stages.

In this first stage of his career (until 1929), Kamel was careful to apply the rules of drawing with light and shade and to bring out the detail in a way that linked his impressionism with the romanticism of the neoclassical style then prevalent. Kamel’s works in Rome are the only testimony to this stage of his career. The second stage (1930-1960) is the peak of Kamel’s maturity and facility. At this time he presided over the art scene, practically displacing many foreign painters who lived in Egypt. During this stage Kamel developed his own unique style of impressionism, one that was extremely attached to the Egyptian environment. And it was then that he created his masterpieces depicting Islamic (and especially Fatimid) Cairo, also creating images of the countryside, Nile- and green field-dominated landscapes. In the third stage (1961-1971), during which time he suffered from diabetes and weak sight and hearing while living alone in his house in Matariyya, his impressionism became increasingly expressionist as a result of these factors: bright colours and strong brush strokes, repeatedly emphasised, with intensive use of the knife and little attention to detail and facial features. This was nonetheless a remarkably productive time.


Kamel Mustafa carried a letter of recommendation from Mahmoud Said, the artist of Alexandria, to his teacher-to-be, Youssef Kamel. Said wrote, “I sensed in Kamel a promising artistic project, so will you please extend to him your care?” Within days of joining the Fine Art College Mustafa became the talk of his colleagues due to his obviously outstanding achievement. The young man from Alexandria studied under Ragheb Ayyad and Mohammed Nagui as well as Youssef Kamel but it was Kamel who influenced him the most. Mustafa loved Kamel’s impressionist style, his mild manners and frankness and his thoughtful and subtle direction. As the dean of the Arts Faculty of Alexandria, Mustafa writes mourning his teacher at the start of 1992 that Kamel’s invitations to his – Kamel’s – studio were akin to a scholarship in art, one that facilitated thinking and contemplation. No doubt their similar characters played a major role in such closeness.

On graduating from the painting department of the Art College in 1941 and being appointed a teacher, Mustafa went on a government scholarship to Rome (1946-1950). There he studied under Dante Ricci, earning qualifications in the decorative arts and art preservation. On his return Mustafa taught at the same school, where for three years (1950-1953), he was Kamel’s colleague. In the period 1941-1946, Mustafa had the chance to paint Cairo and its rural suburbs in a distinct impressionist style. During the scholarship Rome was the subject of his many work: its street formations, monuments and landscapes. He also painted portraits. In 1958 Mustafa received an offer to head the painting department of the nascent Art Faculty in Alexandria, which he accepted after some hesitation. The return to Alexandria turned out to be a new trigger for his creativity, however. He painted the coastal environment: the sea, fishing, ship building and Alexandria’s countryside. He was also absorbed in rebuilding an art scene following the departure of the foreign artists who used to live there.

Mustafa stood out for his warm colours and strong brush strokes, managing to develop a unique style through which he transcended the influence of all his teachers. His works in portraiture and landscape became favourites among collectors. Mustafa’s work on national museums – the Mustafa Kamel Museum, the Port Said Museum, Dar Ibn Luqman in Mansoura, the Maritime Museum in Alexandria – is a major landmark in his career, testifying to his remarkable ability to depict historical topics. His career too might be looked at in three stages. The first stage in Cairo (1936-1946) was an impressionistic stage; the second (1947-1957), during which he tried to transcend impressionism to a mode of simplified line and colour that no longer details features and gives up many rules of drawing, unifying colour across many stretches of the canvas. In this he was influenced by Marquet and perhaps Duran as well as Matisse, all of whom were preceded by Picasso. This stage did not last long, for in 1957 Mustafa returned to his nature. In the third stage (1958-1982) he returned to Alexandria with the full weight of his experience and a style more appealing than ever to viewers: a special impressionism with neoclassical influences that makes up the peak of his achievement. On a stormy winter day in January 1982, Mustafa died in his house in Alexandria.


No doubt there is much in common between Kamel and Mustafa, but it would be unfair to overlook their differences: Kamel, for example, never painted nudes; despite his brilliance at portraiture, he never painted a portrait upon a private request by a politician or an aristocrat. He also never painted on commission, remaining such a free spirit he almost failed one of his exams at the Rome Academy when his teacher asked him to paint a Foro Romano scene and, failing to respond to the scene, he did nothing. Yet no sooner had his feet taken him to a place he found inspiring than he produced a brilliant piece on which his teacher congratulated him. Kamel remained a Cairo painter, he did not produce images of the sea or the sea shore and made no paintings outside of Greater Cairo. And this is indeed an aspect of his work. Mustafa, on the other hand, was far more flexible than his teacher. He approached all subjects, including the nude, and he accepted commissions, which he saw as an opportunity for study and self-development, hence his unique ability to work on museums and produce portraits of public figures and aristocrats. He painted directly from nature. He also made many paintings in Aswan in addition to his creative work on Alexandria and the Mediterranean as well as Cairo.

Yet the two painters agree again on their sensitivity to national subjects be they social or political. Kamel was among the revolutionaries of 1919, and one of the earliest signatories in the Bank Misr project and among the most important promoters of Egyptian products – a message he spread among his students and disciples. Kamel was extremely proud of his national identity, so much so that he challenged a Russian colleague in Rome to a duel when he sensed the Russian looked down on him for being Egyptian; the Russian apologised and withdrew, and thank God that happened, for Kamel knew nothing about fighting. His friendship with Ayyad and their initiative to study abroad together – itself an icon of national unity – bears testimony to Kamel’s belief in the unity of Muslims and Christians; he never accepted any differentiation. Likewise Mustafa’s graduation from the St Mark School in Alexandria resulted in him adopting the same orientation very early on. In 1956, as he saw British and Frech bombs hitting Port Said, Mustafa expressed his emotion in a painting entitled Port Said’s Resistance, a reproduction of which was distributed as an appendix to the following issue of Al-Massaa newspaper. There are many such works by Mustafa, celebrating the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and documenting Scenes of Egyptian Patriotism. Two generations of enlightened artists who took it upon themselves to build a modern civil state in Egypt are represented in the life and work of these twin painters, who should provide indispensable inspiration for the present moment.

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