Sotheby’s is honoured to present Adam and Eve (1937), one of Said’s most outstanding paintings. In Adam and Eve, Said depicts two central figures from the Qur'an, Adam and Eve. The two figures are pictured as tall, imposing, almost surreal figures in a lovers' embrace within a lush desert oasis featuring ripened palm trees, pooling blue canals of the Nile and rolling far-off sand dunes - an idyllic yet familiar Egyptian landscape. Said’s technique reveals a true mastery of oil painting: his gradating warm pigments are in harmony with his cooler colours in a balanced compositional flow, a convention inspired by Flemish artists Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. By introducing a universal Biblical subject juxtaposed with a traditional Egyptian landscape, Said encourages the viewer, whether they be an ordinary Egyptian or from the aristocracy, to imagine themselves as worthy and equal.
Said’s work highlights the natural sumptuousness of the human body and the sanctity of physical companionship. According to the Qur'an, Adam, the first man was created by God from just mud and soil. Eve (Hawa in Islam), Adam’s wife, is notorious for disobeying God’s orders by eating from the forbidden tree. Eve here is innocent, maternal and celestial, not as in the more common Christian depiction in which she is shown as ashamed, scorned or even more extreme, trecherous. For example, in Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving, Adam and Eve, Dürer depicts an alluring woman in the throes of deceiving her unassuming male companion. Unlike the intertwined couple in Said’s Adam and Eve, Dürer’s rendition shows a physical and emotional schism—lovers divided.
Said’s stunning Adam and Eve looks at works by his contemporaries in Europe as well, most strikingly, the romantic fantasies of Paul Cézanne's Abduction (1866-71) which features two figures from Greek mythology, Hercules and Alcestis, a Thessalian princess whom he has rescued from the Underworld. Similarly in Said’s composition, the sweeping impasto strokes enhance the otherworldly feeling of the piece. Nevertheless, Cézanne chooses to highlight the masculine power of Hercules as he bravely lifts the weakened Alcestis. Comparable to Cézanne's painting with the hot red of Hercules’ body and the pale blue of Alcestis’, Adam and Eve are portrayed as two-halves of humanity, denoted by their contrasting hues. Adam’s deep skin tone contrasts against Eve’s soft and fair complexion illuminating their gendered differences while implying more than merely a visual reliance on each other. Said's reference to modernists such as Cézanne but also Old Masters painters such as Lucas Cranach the Elder or Peter Paul Rubens is clear in Adam and Eve, a painting that symbolises the evolution and relationship between men, women and their environment.
Said’s painting may even invert this relationship further, showing not the conventional dominant male figure but emphasising the feminine grace of Eve, placing Adam in a supportive role. Said’s Eve represents purity, insinuated by the way she points to the head of the white dove, a symbol of innocence, while she uses her other arm to cover her genitalia. Said was one of the first Egyptian artists to capture the splendour of the female body, positioning many of his female characters in locations of centrality and authority. Said’s Adam gently touches Eve’s abdomen, signifying fertility and new beginnings, an empowering yet ironic message knowing the couple’s looming fate.
By the late 1930s, there was an increasing discontent in Egypt for the British-backed kingdom and a rising tide in the populous for a state of its own. This nationalist desire only became actualised twenty years later in the coup of 1952. This painting as an allegory of the nascent Arab nationalist sentiment in Egypt suggests the heightened sense of anticipation for an Egyptian nation-state--a dream, albeit not one without risk.
Art’s transcends dimension defined by emotions and instincts: “In reality art in general does not have a nationality, nor does it recognise borders or restrictions. It is futile to restrain it to limited origins or measure it with special standards .. for each developing nation must have an art that expresses its feeling and its inherent instincts.” (Art in Egypt, 1948, Memorial Book on the Occasion of the Golden Jubilee, translated by Suzy Beltagy).
Recasting the eponymous figures of the biblical story of creation, Adam and Eve (1937) is an exceptional painting by the master of modern Egyptian art, Mahmoud Said (1897–1964). Together with La Famille (1935–1936) and L’Exode (1941), Adam and Eve is one of only three pieces that explore a couple’s relationship in the entire oeuvre of Said. While it is also one of his rare pieces referencing traditional religious iconography, typically depicted by the Old Masters in Europe, what strikes us here is Said’s confident adaptation of the Biblical story, transported to the Egyptian countryside. In fact, by contending with a strong lineage of classical artistic traditions, spanning from Albrecht Dürer, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Michelangelo, Lucas Cranach the Elder to Corot, Renoir, Cézanne, Fernand Léger, Picasso and others, Said claims his place among the masters of modern art. Painted in 1937, the same year the artist executed some of his most important works–such as the monumental painting La Ville, exhibited at the Egyptian Pavilion of the 1937 Exposition Universelle de Paris and standing in the hall of the Egyptian Modern Art Museum in Cairo today–Adam and Eve shows Said at the height of his artistic maturity. Indeed, his deft fusion of Western artistic traditions spanning Italian and Flemish Primitivism, Renaissance art, Impressionism and modern art, together with Ancient Egyptian art and other local subject matter produces a transcendental work, typical of his style.
Set by the Nile River, as the birthplace of civilization, here the Garden of Eden is transformed into a lush Egyptian oasis. Tall palm trees bearing ripe red dates border an undulating water stream of the Nile river–a ubiquitous trope in Said’s paintings standing as a symbol of life for Egyptians. Paralleling each other and casting their shadow onto the deep turquoise water running through the scene, the palm trees provide rhythm to the geometric composition, reminiscent of early Renaissance paintings which Said would have seen during his travels in Europe. Sand dunes roll into the horizon of a gradated violet-blue sky, bathing the view in a radiant yet artificial light magnifies the lyricism of the scene. We are transported to a mystical garden, where perceptions of time and space are temporarily suspended. This stillness, reigning over the lovers’ embrace, sets the scene for a prelapsarian moment, before the Fall of Man or the moment of temptation. Predictably the black serpent coils around the forbidden tree, recast now as a palm tree behind the couple. Although the concept of original sin does not exist in Islam, Said’s composition undoubtedly points to this moment of grace in Christianity, before they are expelled from the garden of Eden.
The eponymous figures stand tall at the centre of the painting, they seem to have grown too large for the space they inhabit. The skewed sense of scale of these statuesque figures, with angular builds and well-rooted feet are the artist’s node to Ancient Egyptian sculpture. Their angular facial features, thick eyebrows and eyes shadowed in kohl recall the Amarna style of the Akhenaten reign which Said repeatedly drew inspiration from, notably in L’Invitation au voyage. Set in a quintessentially Egyptian countryside, this biblical representation is also a eulogy to the Egyptian peasantry, as rightful heirs to the Egyptian land. The two figures stand in a recognisable contraposto position, where the weight is carried on one leg and the other leg is bent. Considered the perfect pose for the human figure and the quintessential resting one, the latter was revived during the Italian Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and others to create harmonious and balanced bodies. Said’s skilful combination of Ancient Egyptian art with this classical pose bestows on the protagonists a certain divine quality.
Gently interlacing his arms around her, Adam embraces Eve from behind and places his hand on her stomach, a recurrent motif of fertility also echoed in the ripe red date trees touring above them. Their linking arms echo the coiling serpent on the forbidden tree. His gaze is cast downward and his chin is placed on Eve’s cocked head. In fact, we do not meet their gaze at all, as they are both looking downward, locked and seemingly entranced in their eternal bond. A sense of tranquillity and calmness reigns over them. Pushed to the foreground, Eve obscures the equally nude body of her counter-part. While it is not surprising that Eve is the main figure of the composition since representations of the female nude cover a large part of Said’s oeuvre, it is worth mentioning that the artist’s daring experiments with the female nude and exploration of human consciousness and desire was not commonly accepted in Egyptian society at the time, even less so among Said’s aristocratic milieu. Eve’s bodily contortions and exposed breasts are consistent with Said’s sensuous approach to the female nude–for example of L’endormie (1933), depicting a reclining Rubenesque body bathed in glowing light. Yet her pale porcelain complexion, highly contrasted with Adam’s darker skin tone, sets her apart. She is at the centre of this bright magical light that bathes the Egyptian oasis. The striking contrast in skin colour between Adam and Eve is not peculiar to Said; indeed, we discern a visual interaction with Gustav Klimt’s unfinished Adam and Eve (1917). Further, Eve’s body language using her hand to cover her pubis, which ostensibly draws attention to the very part being covered, pays homage to the Knidian Aphrodite, the first statue of a nude goddess created in 350 BCE. The Venus Pudica pose is indeed the archetypal Western pose from which originates the terms of passivity, vulnerability and shame that continue to define feminine sexuality. But in Said’s depiction of Eve, though her gaze is downcast, her physical radiance and tactile body counterbalance this passivity and shows her as a powerful character with agency. Hence Eve’s other arm, which would traditionally cover her breasts, hangs to her side and her finger points firmly to a dove, a standard symbol of peace, resting on the ground. In his free adaptation of the Biblical story, Said also included two white goats in the background; typically connected with Venus and symbols of burning lust and sexuality. A fox also creeps into the scene, hiding behind the fallen palm trees. While the garden of Eden was not inhabited by animals, it is worth mentioning that, as early as 1505, Dürer departed from the garden evoked in the book of Genesis, and included an elk, ox, cat, rabbit, mouse and goat in his engraving of Adam and Eve.
The internal light that emanates from Eve and simultaneously illuminates the entire composition lends the latter a surreal, nostalgic and even mystical air. Heavily influenced by Rembrandt’s ‘magical light’ and techniques of chiaroscuro, Said’s quest for this internal light was at the centre of his artistic practice. In a letter to fellow artist Pierre Beppi-Martin, the artist explains: “what I am looking for is radiance rather than light. What I want is internal light, not surface light, that blazing and deep light of some of the Limoges enamel works that can be found in the Cluny museum, or in the stained–glass windows of the Chartres cathedral or the one in Barcelona. Surface light pleases for an hour while internal light captivates slowly, but once it appears, it imprisons us, it possesses us.” (Letter dated 1927, translated from French by Elizabeth Miller, Nationalism and the Birth of Modern Art in Egypt, unpublished dissertation, University of Oxford, 2012).
In its deft command of artistic technique, solid architectural composition and wide aesthetic repertoire fusing Western visual language with Ancient Egyptian art and local Egyptian subjects, Adam and Eve is without a doubt a collector’s piece, en par with Said’s renowned works such as Invitation au Voyage, La Femme aux boucles d’Or, La Ville among others.
Born into an aristocratic Alexandrian family, Mahmoud Said was not predestined to become an artist. Said was the son of Mohammed Pasha Said, Egypt’s Prime Minister during the reign of King Fuad I. Trained in law to his father’s wishes, Said worked in the Mixed Courts in Alexandria until 1947, when he decided to resign from his post and dedicate himself fully to his true passion for art. During his frequent travels to Europe, mainly Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands, Said was exposed to the works of the Old Masters and a wide repertoire of Western aesthetics from which he freely drew throughout his artistic career. Alongside his travels, he also attended courses at the prestigious Académie Julien and the Grande Chaumière in Paris and frequented the studios of foreign artists living in Alexandria. Said soon established himself as a pioneer of Egyptian art. He organised exhibitions in Cairo, Alexandria, New York, Paris and Rome and participated in international exhibitions in Alexandria, Venice and Madrid. In 1951, he was admitted to the French Legion d'honneur, winning a medal for Honorary Merit and in 1960, he was the first artist to be awarded the State Merit Award for Arts by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser.
We are grateful to Ms. Amina Diab for her assistance in preparing the catalogue entry for this lot.
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