The first generation of modern artists blended European fine arts with Egyptian themes and traditional techniques. Currently enjoying revived interest, they succeeded in reflecting the cultural renaissance of their time and created a fertile environment for successive generations of artists.
Until recently, artistic output in Egypt was mainly studied through the lens of its Pharaonic, Islamic or Coptic cultural heritage. The multiple modernities that emerged in the field of visual arts at the beginning of the twentieth century were largely neglected. Lately, however, an increasing interest for modern and contemporary Egyptian art has emerged in academia and in the curatorial world. This has been stimulated, to a large extent, by the nascent interest of the international art market in Middle Eastern art, as well as by the emerging field of world art history that aims to re-evaluate non-Western artistic expression from a global perspective.
European Influence, Egyptian Themes
The work of the generation of Egyptian artists referred to as al-ruwwad (the pioneers) reflects a moment of tremendous cultural change in Egyptian society. Their work not only embodies the nahda (renaissance) in intellectual thought at the dawn of the twentieth century but also underlines cross-cultural interactions between Egypt and Europe at the time. It is precisely because of this interaction, however, and because of the influence of the European fine arts on their work, that the pioneers have often been regarded as ‘imitators’ rather than ‘innovators’. This is a considerable misjudgement considering the significant contributions made by al-ruwwad to the advancement of modern Egyptian art. Their rich and varied production is much more complex and cannot simply be dismissed as imitation of European models.
In 1908, the Ecole des beaux-arts was founded in Cairo by Prince Youssef Kamal. To begin with, the school—which is today located in Zamalek and part of Helwan University—was housed in a villa in the Darb el-Gamamiz neighbourhood and administered by a French sculptor named Guillaume Laplagne. The overall mission of the school was to participate in the modernization of Egypt through exposure to European culture and the practice of European fine arts. The school’s programme was modelled on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and dominated by French and Italian professors, such as Nicola Forcella, Camillo Innocenti and Gabriel Biessy. The young students were expected to learn techniques and genres embedded in European tradition, such as oil-painted landscapes, portraits and nudes. Their challenge was to use these techniques to reflect Egypt’s visual identity through experimentation with different subjects and new methods of expression.
Mahmoud Mokhtar, Ragheb Ayad, Youssef Kamel, Mohamed Hassan and Ahmed Sabry were among the first graduates of the Ecole des beaux-arts in Cairo. Once they obtained their diplomas, they received grants to pursue their studies in Paris, Florence or Rome. They would then start a long journey, leaving Alexandria by boat to remain several years in a foreign country where they had to learn a new language and start a new life. The sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, for instance, was one of the first non-European students to pass the exam of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1912. It was also in the French capital that he sculpted the first models for what was to become one of Egypt’s major public monuments. Entitled Nahdet Masr (Egypt’s Renaissance) and supported by Saad Zaghloul and the Wafd Party, the monument (located today in front of Cairo University) was unveiled in 1928 in Bab al-Hadeed Square in front of Cairo’s main railway station. Other artists such as Ragheb Ayad, Mohamed Hassan and Youssef Kamel studied together at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Many of these artists maintained strong ties with Europe and spent their lives shuttling between either side of the Mediterranean. Georges Sabbagh, for instance, was considered an artist of the Ecole de Paris and regularly exhibited his works in the Salon d’automne.
When they returned to their homeland, the pioneers worked tirelessly to promote modern art in Egypt. They taught and exhibited their works forming the nucleus of a flourishing art scene stimulated by the establishment of numerous galleries, cosmopolitan art hubs and exhibitions. Among these was the annual Salon du Caire founded by the Société des amis de l’art headed by the politician and art collector Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Bek. Prominent intellectuals such as feminist icons Hoda Shaarawi and Ceza Nabarawi also played a major role in promoting the arts by sponsoring artistic events and providing patronage for aspiring Egyptian artists.
The fellah (peasant) and Ancient Egypt were the two main subjects addressed by the pioneers in their works and would remain intimately intertwined with Egyptian art for a long time. These themes echoed the nationalist discourse and soon became the leitmotifs of Egyptian artistic output. One can see this aspect, for example, in the folklorist works of Ragheb Ayad, who was very much inspired by Egyptian rural life but also referenced the formal pictorial canons of the Pharaohs. Traditional crafts and local traditions were another source of inspiration. Starting in the 1920s, an important movement emerged to revive traditional arts and crafts. In 1924, Hoda Shaarawi founded a ceramics school in the poor neighbourhood of Rud el-Farag to encourage young people to earn a living by learning the art of traditional pottery. Following that initiative, several pedagogues, such as Habib Gorgui, the father in-law of the architect Ramsis Wissa Wassef, established schools to revive traditional techniques. The Ramsis Wissa Wassef weaving school still exists to this day in Harraniyya close to the Pyramids of Giza.
Legacy and Revival
The legacy of the pioneers was particularly prominent in the field of art education. After almost thirty years of domination by European professors, the painter and diplomat Mohamed Naghi became the first Egyptian to be appointed at the head of the Ecole des beaux-arts in Cairo in 1937. Naghi had travelled to France and studied under the impressionist Claude Monet in Giverny. He strongly encouraged the study of Ancient Egyptian heritage, which had been neglected in favour of art from Ancient Greece and the European Renaissance. In order to introduce young Egyptian art students to the sculptures and reliefs of the Theban Valley, he founded al-Marssam in Luxor in 1942. This tradition continues to this day with the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium established by the renowned contemporary Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein.
The pioneers created a fertile environment for the emergence of a second and third generation of artists. They introduced the concept that art had a role to play in all layers of Egyptian society even though they themselves were regarded as belonging to a ‘westernized’ elite. From the end of the 1930s up to the 1950s, artists such as Amy Nimr, who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and Seif and Adham Wanly, who were trained in Alexandria by the Italian painter Ottorino Bicchi were an extension of the pioneers’ transcultural model. They were followed by the Egyptian Surrealists, led by the writer Georges Henein, and the Contemporary Art Group, founded by the painter and art educator Hussein Youssef Amin, who would progressively break away from the academic manner of their predecessors and express social issues and political concerns. Members of these generations—Hamed Nada, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Inji Efflatoun or Hamed Ewais, just to name a few—owed much to the pioneers who had established a vibrant art scene and initiated new ways of engaging with art.
Today, the pioneers are being re-evaluated by academia as an embodiment of transcultural exchange and a reflection of the values of the nahda project. Artists such as Mahmoud Mokhtar or Mahmoud Saїd are considered giants of modern art in the Middle East and their works can be found in international museums, auctions and art fairs, particularly in the Arab Gulf. People from around the world come to visit the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art—built by the architect Mostafa Fahmi—in Cairo to discover new facets to Egypt’s modern history. Many other museums in Egypt also deserve to be valued not only for their outstanding collections but also for the history of the buildings that house them. Not far from the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art is the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum conceived by the architect Ramsis Wissa Wassef, whose father had supported the sculptor throughout his career.
Among the less well-known collections is the villa of Princess Fatma Ismaïl, which belongs to the complex of the Agricultural Museum in Cairo and maintains an outstanding collection of modern Egyptian art produced on the theme of rural life. The Mohamed Naghi Museum, situated in his former studio built in the modern style close to the Giza Pyramids, displays an exceptional collection of paintings including the artist’s works from his journey to Ethiopia. Finally, the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, located in his former villa in Giza does not only constitute one of the most important collections of nineteenth-century French art in the Middle East, but also represents a testimony to the history of patronage and art collecting in the region.
While these museums house exceptional collections, much remains to be done to catalogue, preserve and value these public collections. Educative programmes and activities, publications, and curatorial events are critical to reigniting interest in these artists. Today, other countries are acquiring and prizing the works of the Egyptian pioneers. It is now more crucial than ever to value and promote this outstanding heritage within Egypt as well.
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Nadia Radwan Nadia Radwan is an art historian specializing in modern art and architecture in the Middle East. She obtained her PhD at the University of Geneva and later worked at the American University in Dubai. At present, she is assistant professor of world art history at the University of Bern and is working on the publication of her PhD thesis on the pioneers of Egyptian modern art.