The Egyptian modern art movement was accompanied by a small but influential circle of art critics and journalists who attempted not only to discuss but occasionally to define the parameters of Egyptian art.
In the early nineteenth century, Mohamed Ali Pasha sent a young man called Rifaʿa al-Tahtawy to Paris to study. Upon his return, al-Tahtawy wrote a book that is considered the first modern Arabic description of a European country. His portrayals of the museums of Paris introduced Egyptian society to fine art and were perhaps the first Arabic texts published in Egypt in that field. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, however, and the proliferation of art exhibitions, that a more formal art criticism discipline started to take shape.
The first art exhibition was held in 1891 at the Khedivial Opera House and was organized by the Cercle artistique, the first art society to be established in Egypt. The Cercle continued to hold annual exhibitions until the first decade of the twentieth century. Al-Moqtataf and al-Hilal were the first magazines to take an interest in art criticism. Selim Effendi Haddad participated as an artist in the 1897 Cercle exhibition and also wrote an article in al-Moqtataf critiquing it in March of the same year. Their Highnesses Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfiq and Prince Saїd Halim were among the exhibitors together with a number of foreign artists such as Nicola Forcella, Franz Xaver Kosler and others. In 1899, the Armenian artist Ervand Demirdjian gave an important lecture on art which was covered in both Journal du Caire and Le Progrès Egyptien, two French newspapers published in Egypt at the time.
Writers and Intellectuals
By the start of the twentieth century, Egyptian society had a deeper understanding of art through exposure to scholarly writings on Western art. Qassem Amin, for example, wrote of his fascination with the collection of masterpieces at the Louvre, and Ahmed Lotfy el-Sayed criticized the reluctance of Egyptians to take an interest in fine art.
After the 1919 revolution, fine arts, their descriptions and critiques appeared more prominently in literary expression with a number of intellectuals taking an interest in art criticism. They included prominent literary figures such as Ibrahim al-Mazny, Abbas el-Aqqad, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, May Ziyada, Mahmoud Azmy, Salama Moussa and Abdel Rahman Sidqy, among others.
In Hassad al-Hasheem, al-Mazny demonstrated vision and understanding of the essence of art when he commented on an exhibition, saying:
‘The proof of the picture is not in it being a work of art, but its proof comes from how it projects the essence of the subject and highlights its features and breathes spirit into it, in other words, a drawing is not artistic unless it is sound in aesthetics, organization and composition.’
Heikal adopted the call for Egyptian art in his criticism. He discussed this in an article written on the occasion of an exhibition held by La chimère, the society established by Mahmoud Mokhtar and Roger Brèval in 1927. Starting in the 1920s, May Ziyada also attempted to express her personal vision on fine art and its role in society in her regular articles. Al-Aqqad combined art theory with practical criticism of exhibitions and artworks in his writings. His perspective on art was based on a highly defined philosophic and aesthetic background and he always gave practical examples to support his opinion. Many of al-Aqqad’s articles and books from the 1920s demonstrated this critical perspective, including al-Motalaʿat (Readings) and Moragaʿat fil-Fan wal-Adab (Reviews on Art and Literature).
There were two writers who devoted themselves exclusively to the field of art criticism and were consequently highly influential in artistic circles. Ahmed Rassem first began writing on philosophy in 1921, and then switched to literature before writing his book al-Zhelal (The Shadows) which presented pioneering Egyptian and foreign artists working in Egypt. This book was followed by texts on Mahmoud Saїd, Amy Nimr and Georges Sabbagh, as well as the book Nahw Fan Misr (Towards Egyptian Art). He also attempted to define various modern art movements, making him a pioneer of art criticism in Egypt.
The second writer was Bishr Faress who wrote his art critiques in distinctive literary language and played an important role in Arabizing the terminology of modern fine arts. He also thoroughly studied the Arab schools of illustration and oversaw the national chapter of the International Art Critics Society which fell apart after his death.
Newspapers such as al-Ahram, al-Moqattam, al-Siyasa, al-Balagh and al-Shabab also slowly began to take an interest in the modern Egyptian fine art movement. In 1924, al-Fonoun was issued as a bi-monthly publication but only ran for a few months. In October 1925, the first issue of the weekly magazine Rose el-Youssef included a section on fine art.
The annual Salon du Caire was established in 1924 by the Société des amis de l’art and soon became a catalyst for the development of art criticism in Egypt. Prominent Egyptian writers, intellectuals and journalists such as Habib Gamaty and Ahmed al-Sawy Mohamed avidly followed the exhibits of the salon and developed an interest in art criticism. Tewfiq Habib, known as the ‘old journalist’, was a pioneer among those who wrote about the early art exhibitions. He wrote about the Salon du Caire in al-Moqtataf in 1928 and occasionally in al-Ahram in a column titled ‘Alla Hamesh al-Hamesh (On the Margin of the Margin).
Foreign art critics residing in Egypt also took an interest in writing about the Egyptian art scene during the first half of the twentieth century. The most prominent was Jean Moscatelli who started writing in French in 1929 in publications such as al-Sharq, La Semaine Egyptienne and Le Progrès Egyptien. Etienne Mériel also wrote about the Salon du Caire in French in La Semaine Egyptienne, and after World War II, regularly in Le Progrès Egyptien. Meanwhile, Robert Blum, Charles Boeglin, Morik Brin, Comte Philippe d’Arschot, Dimitri Diacomidis and Juan Sintes all wrote in Le Journal d’Egypte. They were joined by Egyptian art critics who wrote in French such as Gabriel Boctor, art editor at La Bourse Egyptienne and later art critic in Images magazine.
In most cases, art writing was limited to describing exhibitions and the subject and composition of paintings. Occasionally, however, heated battles between art critics would erupt on the pages of magazines and newspapers.
It was at this time that intellectuals and writers began to take an interest in writing about art history in Arabic. Mahmoud Fouad Morabet was a pioneer in this area and introduced art history as a subject taught in Egypt’s art institutes. He also printed his books in the form of a series of pamphlets to decrease costs and increase accessibility. Morabet experimented with using Arabic art terminology in place of foreign terms and was perhaps the first to use the term ‘graphic art’ in place of ‘fine art’. Many other art professors and connoisseurs also took an interest in art history such as Mohamed Youssef Hammam, Ahmed Ahmed Youssef, Mohamed Ezzat Mostafa and Hamed Said who began to write his contemplations on art and its relation to heritage in the early 1940s. In 1939, Sayed Karim issued the architectural al-Emara magazine with regular pieces on art criticism as well as special issues devoted to fine arts edited by Roushdy Iskander, Mohamed Hammad and Ahmed Rassem.
Soon, other artists began writing art critiques, including Ibrahim Gaber, Shaaban Zaki, Ahmed Moussa, Abdel Salam el-Sherif and Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Rahman. In 1933, Sidqy el-Gabakhangy started writing regularly in several newspapers including al-Hilal, al-Gehad, Kawkab al-Sharq and al-Balagh. He also published Sout al-Fann, the first Arabic language monthly magazine dedicated to fine arts, from 1950 until 1953.
The Art Societies
Art societies played a central role in the development of art criticism in Egypt. La chimère counted many members of the literary elite of the time among its members including al-Aqqad, al-Mazny, Heikal and Ziyada. A group called Les essayistes followed in the 1930s and published their own magazine, Un Effort, in French, but their activities ended with the start of World War II. The Art and Liberty Group also played an important role in the development of art criticism. The surrealist-leaning society issued al-Tatawwur magazine, which combined literary writings with texts on fine art and featured pieces by its members Kamel el-Telmissany, Fouad Kamel, Ramsès Younan and Georges Henein. Comte Philippe d’Arschot, Aimé Azar and Etienne Mériel, later wrote about the Contemporary Art Group.
In the 1940s, a new group of critics emerged. They belonged to a different generation and came to the forefront when a number of newspapers and magazines started to allocate set space for art criticism. Kamal el-Mallakh was the most prominent and was renowned for many years as the man responsible for the back page of the national daily al-Ahram. Ramsès Younan who wrote for al-Tatawwur also became one of the main writers at al-Hilal until his death in the mid-1960s. Another famous critic was Badr el-Din Abu Ghazi who started writing at al-Fossoul, a magazine issued by Mohamed Zaki Abdel Kader. In the early 1950s, Abu Ghazi moved to Rose el-Youssef and al-Akhbar, then to al-Hilal and finally to al-Majala which was edited by Yehia Haqy in the 1960s. These writers were joined in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by Hussein Bicar when he became a journalist, Hassan Othman who supervised the arts page at al-Misaa for many years, Sobhy el-Sharouny, Mohamed Shafiq, Mostafa Ibrahim Mostafa, Farouq Bassiouny, Naeem Attia, Gamal Kotb, Kamal el-Goweily, Mokhtar el-Attar, Ezzeldin Naguib and Mahmoud Baksheesh, among others.
In most cases, art writing was limited to describing exhibitions and the subject and composition of paintings. Occasionally, however, heated battles between art critics would erupt on the pages of magazines and newspapers. The first skirmish took place on the pages of al-Siyasa magazine in the 1920s. Al-Mazny angrily attacked the fellaha standing next to Nahdet Masr’s sphinx, advising the sculptor Mokhtar to make do with the sphinx alone as a symbol of the nationalist renaissance. Al-Mazny did not like the pose of the female figure and believed that the message would be more powerful if the girl appeared less prominent than the sphinx. Mokhtar duly replied,
‘The sphinx (Abul Houl) is a symbol of the noble Pharaonic past while the girl symbolizes the nascent future at a time when Egypt is putting aside the heavy curtain that has masked it from the world for thousands of years; her hands lightly placed on the sphinx symbolize the strong bond and continuity from the past to the present of the Egyptian nation with its noble, revived civilization.’
The friendship between al-Mazny and Mokhtar remained strong in spite of this argument and they later collaborated on various artistic endeavours. Al-Aqqad also came into conflict with Mokhtar over Nahdet Masr as well as over the two statues of Saad Zaghloul. Throughout his career, al-Aqqad was vocal in his opposition to new art movements and continued to use his writing to express his disapproval for many years.
Al-Aqqad was vocal in his opposition to new art movements and continued to express his disapproval through his writing for many years.
A more bitter battle was fought on the pages of al-Rissala Magazine in 1939 between the members of the Art and Liberty Group and their detractors. The writer Nasry Attallah Sous attacked the group saying, ‘The so-called Art and Liberty Group perceives liberty only as chaos that fits in with neither norm nor law. Moreover, complying with Western art and its latest blunders is not considered liberty at all—it is, in fact, a blind enslavement’. The group had issued a statement titled Long Live Degenerate Art! in response to Hitler’s destruction of ‘decadent’ contemporary art. In reference to the statement and addressing himself to Fouad Kamel, Sous wrote, ‘the art he [Kamel] is preaching and propagating is a degenerate art no matter what is said about it’ which prompted Kamel’s colleagues to rush to his defence. In issue 321 of al-Rissala, Kamel el-Telmissany responded to the accusations and to the implied attack on André Breton, the founder of surrealism and the inspiration behind Art and Liberty, saying,
‘Surrealism is not exclusive to the French, as implied, but it is a movement whose first and foremost merit is its universality of thought and implementation, and it does not, to any extent, have local tendencies … there are similar movements in England, Mexico, Belgium, the United States, Holland, etc. Do you think that it is wrong, sir, for Egyptian paintings to be based on or influenced by the ideas of such a school? We want a culture that is in concert with the rest of the world.’
Despite the fact that there was limited readership for art criticism, critics could still make or break an artist. In his book on Bernard Rice, the founder of the printmaking department at the Ecole des beaux-arts, Yasser Mongy tells the tragic story of Nahmeya Saad. A member of the second generation of artists, Saad joined the Ecole des beaux-arts in 1928 and graduated in 1933, making a name for himself when he was sent to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1937. He was chosen to paint the panels adorning the entrance of the Egyptian pavilion—eighteen paintings depicting life in Egypt and extending over thirty metres. Saad became the darling of the French critics and received the gold medal at the exhibition. At home, however, he was completely ignored by the Egyptian press, who only had praise for the influential Mohamed Naghi, the head of the Ecole des beaux-arts at the time. Bicar wrote of Nahmeya Saad,
‘He was deprived of praise, not because of any shortcomings in imagination or output but as a result of the envy suffered by every good artist. He was also unlucky, because one of those who envied him was in control of his destiny. If we wanted to prove that destroying this artist was a planned strategy, we would not want for proof … how many times have we seen the glimmer of hope in Nahmeya’s eyes, promised to be sent on missions to Paris and Rome, waiting for his papers for long endless months, seeing them passed from hand to hand—all nothing but a deceptive illusion’.
In spite of his talent, or perhaps because of it, Nahmeya Saad lived in extreme poverty, to the point of hunger, finally dying of consumption in a humble hospice in Helwan in April 1945.
Art writing in Egypt has tackled many important questions since its modest beginnings in the nineteenth century, but to this day, it lacks the popular interest it needs to flourish. The recent increase in the number of art galleries and the resurgent art scene has not been accompanied by a surge in interest in art criticism or writing. There is a disconnect between appreciating or owning art and taking the time to analyse and understand it. Does the reason lie with the artists? The audience? With the art produced? Or does it lie with the critics and writers who own the pens and pages?
A selection of some of our favourite paintings.
With a landmark new museum planned for Beirut, Lebanese-Palestinian art collector and patron Ramzi Dalloul has ambitious plans to expand the global reach of modern and contemporary Arab art.
Al-Ahram Foundation boasts one of the most important Egyptian art collections outside the boundaries of public museums. A rich amalgam of paintings, sculptures, wall art and photography, the collection chronicles the Egyptian fine art movement and captures the spirit of contemporary reality.
Egyptian modern art has been breaking records at auctions for several years now. How can novice collectors make sure they’re getting their money’s worth? We look at what makes a good investment.
From major collections to intimate, private museums, we discover the best places to explore Egypt’s hidden treasure trove of modern art.
Magda Saadedin is a painter and professor at the Egyptian Higher Institute of the Arts where she has been the head of the Art Criticism Department since 2009. Saadedin has exhibited her artwork extensively in both Cairo and Paris and has published numerous books on art and on her own reflections and frequent travels.