Al-Said was the most versatile Iraqi artist of his generation – a curious, emancipated and adventurous explorer who relentlessly pushed the boundaries of Iraqi modernism throughout his lifetime. Towards the beginning of his career in the early 1950s, he sought to question notions of Iraqi national identity. Alongside Jewad Selim, the pair challenged prescribed norms with the vigour, naïveté and idealism that youth inspires. The result was the establishment of one of the greatest and most influential art movements in the Arab world: The Baghdad Group of Modern Art. The group embarked upon the challenging task of "reforming" and rethinking the prevailing artistic canon and modes of discourse surrounding modern art of the time, which was largely defined by opulence and classical markers of heritage.
The group, alongside the Art and Liberty Movement in Egypt, was one of the few to have published a manifesto expressing their vision and concerns: "At a time when the Western Civilisation is using the most modern approach to express artistically its aspirations for freedom, our people do not realise the importance of painting as a stand of judgement when a country is in the process of awakening to real freedom. [...] The convention that the creative idea is separate from the style is a relic of early 19th century Romanticism, and we feel under no obligation to adhere to it if it damages the coherency of the work of art. On the other hand, our efforts will be in vain unless they show evidence of innovation and creativity. What we are exhibiting today, is an example of many different trends of modern art – impressionist, expressionist, surrealist, cubist and abstract art – and is the first kind to take place here since the Second World War. It is striving to define a creative identity for our country. [...] We, standing at the crossroads, have to decide what are the elements of our civilisation which we should integrate in our current work. In other words, we have to combine our experience of Western art with our local 'genius loci'." Deciphering the essence of this ground-breaking manifesto is crucial to understanding the importance of this work as a stepping stone into a new artistic era.
In this iconic depiction of abundant, colourful foliage flourishing around a central tree, the artist embraces a subject matter that was dear to him in the early 1950s; the glorification of the Creator and his creatures. The Orchard of Knowledge is a spiritual depiction of a form of paradise through a variety of brightly coloured birds, each mid-flight, communicating with one another. The organic, loose geometric lines suggest a more naïve period for the artist which instantly brings to mind works by Henri Rousseau with his rich depiction of the animal kingdom. This development captured in the present composition reflects the evolution of Al-Said’s body of work during the early 1950s; drawing on ancient folkloric iconography from quasi-Sufi imagery, but also on his fertile homeland - a metaphorical representation of Mesopotamian civilization. This harmonious intertwining was the driving force behind the artistic impulses of Shakir Hassan Al-Said. Experimentation is also important in this work; it mirrors the artist’s evolution of thought and exploration towards highly complex philosophical and mystical notions derived from Islam and Sufism.
Al-Said’s works from the late 1940s up until 1954, when he left for Paris, were characterized by a palette that drew from the same tribal colours used in Iraqi ancient carpets. It reflected a very naïve approach to art, largely inspired by religious mythology, Arabian stories and folkloric primitive pictures.
In The Orchard of Knowledge, Shakir Hassan Al-Said once again proves that his imagination, historical interpretation and vernacular memory, are able to merge past and present in beautiful, perfect harmony. It is this plethora of unique characteristics that make him one of the most important figures of Arab artistic heritage.
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