Although grounded in French method and theory, the École des beaux-arts was essentially Egyptian in philosophy. Over its history, it has nurtured many generations of talented artists who have succeeded in blending international training with Egyptian tradition and heritage.
Il faisait à peine jour, que Mouktar était devant la porte de l’Ecole de Darb-El-Gamamiz. Que de fois, passant devant cette porte, il ne s’était même pas arrêté. Mais aujourd’hui c’etait bien different. Elle représentait pour lui la Porte du Paradis.
It was scarcely light when Mokhtar arrived at the door of the Ecole in Darb el-Gamamiz. How often he had passed this door without even stopping. But today, it was very different. Today, it represented the Gate of Paradise.
Badr el-Din Abu Ghazi and Gabriel Boctor, Mouktar ou le Réveil de L’Egypte. (Cairo: H.Urwand et fils, 1949)
The Ecole des beaux-arts was established in Cairo in 1908 to educate young Egyptian artists in the French curriculum of painting, sculpture, design and architecture. Crossing the school’s threshold represented access to a whole new world of knowledge. Abu Ghazi’s claim that this intermediate, liminal space also represented a path to ‘paradise’ infers both the significance of the school’s origins and its legacies. The school originated in nationalist educational reform, and represented Egypt’s modern history. Over the following century, arts education remained central to the development of modern Egyptian art, and the school’s legacy informed the artists who did (or did not) attend. The knowledge behind those doors thus offered the students more than just technical training; crossing the threshold could also lead to fame, fortune, and a place in the (art) history books. So, how exactly did an unassuming school door came to represent a ‘Gate to Paradise.’
Youssef Kamal, the Patron Prince
Today’s Faculty of Fine Arts is the product of a long history of institutional reforms that date back to the nineteenth century. The modern nation of Egypt coalesced when Ottoman viceroy Muhammad Ali Pasha seized the Cairo Citadel in 1805 and founded a dynasty that lasted until 1952. For centuries Egypt had been a provincial region of the Ottoman Empire, but under Muhammad Ali, it became a nation state. Alongside military advances, this new leader overhauled the region’s fundamental institutions—military, infrastructure, health and education. The institutions established by Muhammad Ali formed the bedrock for modern Egyptian culture and society. In the nineteenth century, state-sponsored schools began educating youth locally and also sent elite young men abroad to receive advanced training in medicine, law and military strategy. During the reign of Khedive Ismail these modernization processes culminated in a cultural renaissance, al-nahda. The leaders of this philosophical reawakening called for education to include not only medicine and law, but also philosophy and art. These calls for reform paved the path for the establishment of institutions of higher learning in the early twentieth century.
The leaders of this philosophical reawakening called for education to include not only medicine and law, but also philosophy and art.
Though state modernization projects provided the basis for arts education, a single patron, Prince Youssef Kamal, was responsible for the establishment of the Ecole des beaux-arts. Born in 1882, Kamal came from an extraordinarily rich, landowning branch of the royal family. He not only provided the financing for the school, he was also instrumental in establishing scholarships for artists to study abroad and he continued to support the modern art movement in Egypt throughout his life.
Amid much fanfare, the Ecole des beaux-arts opened in the neighbourhood of Darb el-Gamamiz in 1908. Tuition was free and students of any nationality could attend, as long as they were below the age of twenty-six. Areas of study included sculpture, painting, architecture, design and calligraphy. All areas of study except calligraphy were directed by European teachers. The primary model for education was French. Though Egypt was under British occupation at the time, French cultural influence dominated and the school Kamal established would attempt to synthesize elite Francophile taste in art with nascent Egyptian nationalist sentiment. The structure of the curriculum closely mirrored the French system, except for the addition of calligraphy. In the inaugural pamphlet, however, the emphasis was on the Egyptian character of the school and on the importance of staying true to the Egyptian and Arab identity.
In 1911, the school had around 125 students, but the professors recognized four as exceptional: Mahmoud Mokhtar, Ragheb Ayad, Youssef Kamel, and Mohamed Hassan. Their dedication and talent earned them the opportunity to study abroad. Mokhtar travelled to Paris in the 1910s, and Ayad, Kamel and Hassan studied in Rome in the 1920s. These artists’ paintings and sculptures expressed nationalist Egyptian identity—depicting peasants and ancient Egyptian motifs—while using European techniques. Mokhtar’s iconic statue Nahdet Masr is a perfect example. It is sculpted in the ancient material of pink granite, simultaneously evoking Egypt’s past and European art’s ‘return to order’ through classicist revivalism following World War I. This blending thus gave tangible form to the education these men received at home and abroad. Ultimately, these pioneers themselves became educators, passing on their knowledge to a new generation of Egyptian artists. After installing Nahdet Masr, Mokhtar fiercely advocated for expanding art education in Egypt and endeavoured to lift the Ecole des beaux-arts from a secondary school to a college-level institution, as it is today. Kamel and Ayad both taught at the Ecole des beaux-arts and also held positions at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art. These artists and their careers showcase the central role of education in the Egyptian modern art movement.
In the coastal city of Alexandria during the early twentieth century, arts institutions were more informal than in Cairo. Instead of state-run schools, artists like Mahmoud Saїd and the brothers Seif and Adham Wanly learned to paint at local studios. Italian-Alexandrian artists like Arturo Zanieri, Ottorino Bicchi and Amelia da Forno Casonato taught elite youth the fundamentals of oil painting. Unlike the formal, state-run Ecole des beaux-arts in Cairo, these informal spaces were subtler in encouraging students to incorporate Egyptian-ness in their artwork. While Saїd painted large, powerfully nationalist paintings like al-Madina (1937), many of his works simply represent the Alexandrian elite in their Western-style finery. Likewise, the Wanly brothers adopted an angular painting style to mirror the cosmopolitan tastes of Alexandria. Though these three artists clearly reflect their Egyptian origins, the lack of state-sponsored institutional education in Alexandria led to a more nuanced incorporation of nationalist symbols in their work.
Art Education Today
Since its founding in 1908, the Ecole des beaux-arts progressed through a series of manifestations. It evolved from being an imported European entity into a truly Egyptian one and its name changed several times in line with its changing identity. In 1937, the school acquired its first Egyptian director, renowned painter Mohamed Naghi. As the politics of Egypt changed, so did the school. From 1950 to 1953, it was briefly called the Royal College of Fine Arts, before becoming the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1953 and being annexed to Helwan University in 1975, where it remains today.
Prince Youssef Kamal established the Ecole des beaux-arts to train local artists in European methods, but insisted that they remain true to their identity while doing so. The first generation of artists reflected the aims of the school and blended Egyptian concepts with French forms, speaking to local communities as well as to those in Paris, Rome and London. By speaking both languages, Egyptian modern artists have always been able to circulate in multiple locations, showcasing their Egyptian identity as well as their international training through their art. This quality remains true today for the students who graduate every year from the Faculty of Fine Arts.
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Alexandra Seggerman is a postdoctoral fellow at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She received her PhD from Yale University in 2014 and teaches courses on art from the Middle East and the Islamic world. She is currently working on her book, Reawakening Modernism: Art in Egypt 1879–1967, which traces the development of the modern art movement in Egypt.