In 1924, Mayo was accepted by the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he was introduced to the pioneers of the new Surrealist movement. He became friends with the French Surrealist artists, René Crevel and André Breton. Mayo never officially joined the Surrealist group, in part because of his fierce sense of independence and his desire for artistic freedom. However, the cerebral and provocative nature of the Surrealist genre is a consistent theme in Mayo’s work and it heavily impacted the burgeoning Surrealist movement in Cairo.
Mayo straddled a trans-regional identity and was one of the leading artists to influence the Egyptian Surrealist movement in the late 1930s. The Egyptian cohort was a mixture of native Egyptian artists such as Georges Henein, Ramses Younan and Kamal El Telmissany and expatriated European Egyptian artists. The Egyptian Surrealists incorporated notions of political libertarianism and Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind. They founded the "Art and Liberty Group" which acted as a chapter of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art. The International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art was an assembly of global creatives bound by a pledge to criticise artistic limitations and champion nonconformist methods. Their revolutionary call-to-action was soon disrupted by the Egyptian police and British military officials. However, their legacy supercedes them, and most notable is the 2017 exhibition titled Art and Liberty: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948) held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Throughout the 1930s, Mayo solidified his personal style which emphasized his mastery of colour, form and composition. Parisian artists at this time, along with Mayo, sought to revitalize classical Greek figures in their work, locating them in motley of positions and contexts. This monumental painting, Ismailia, Le marché arabe (1934) is a stylized rendition of the traditional Arab marketplace which is very much inspired by Mayo's Parisian predecessors, most evidently, Paul Gauguin but also the Art Deco forms from the 1930s. Paul Gauguin’s We Shall not Go to Market Today (Ta Matete) from 1892 shares the same rich palette of vivid tones and classical statuary influences. Gauguin painted Ta Matete while traveling through the tropical island of Tahiti. In many ways, both Gauguin and Mayo depict the condition of the expatriated Parisian artist—the impartial observer, the flaneur. Ismailia is one of the earliest and most important works by Mayo to ever appear at auction.
By the 1940s, Mayo supplemented his art with costume and set design for theatrical and cinematic productions. His paintings at this time showcase a marriage between dramatic and cinematic conventions, and a distinctly expressionistic painterly approach. Mayo’s Homme de Profil (1940) and Le Beau Gilles (1943), two works which are offered at Sotheby's 20th Century Art/Middle East auction on 23 October 2017 act as a testament to his style in this period. Beyond its vibrant burst of warm colours, Homme de Profil showcases the complexity of the human mind, culminating in an enigmatic yet animated composition. This moment in Mayo’s oeuvre displays his elevated attention to gradation of light and luminosity of the colours.
The paintings of Mayo revolved around the common themes of sensuality and eroticism which took different forms within his oeuvre. In particular after the 1960s, Mayo would paint the hands, then the bird nests - which for him housed and protected the root of life - followed by the egg, as these common themes reached a pinnacle within his scope of work. The hands for Mayo represented the principle of sensuality and complexity at the same time. L' Illusioniste (1965) is painted in the later part of Mayo's artistic career and is another exceptional work weaving through this visual language created by Mayo incorporating the human expression, the hands.
During the latter part of his career, Mayo continued to exhibit his paintings and drawings throughout Europe and returned to France in 1984 where he was honoured as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture in 1986.
Antoine Malliarakis, “Mayo”, died in 1990 in Seine Port, France.
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