Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar
- Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar
- Untitled (Nude)
- signed and dated El Gazzar 1960
- oil on celotex
- 50 by 100cm.; 19 3/4 by 39 1/2 in.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2013
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Looking back on the Greek archetypal female sculptures, the odalisque motif derived its name from the concubines of the Islamic harem. Popularized by the famed painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Grand Odalisque, the odalisque became synonymous with Orientalist views in imperial Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although not widely known, Ingres’ Grand Odalisque (1814) was actually painted twice and both were commissions. One was made for the Queen of Naples, (who was also Napoleon’s sister) and the other, known as Fatima, was commissioned by a wealthy patron during the heyday of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Egypt.
Absorbing the visual tropes of the past, both European and Arab, Egyptian artists decisively incorporated the odalisque form into their expansive repertoire. However, in the odalisque depictions of modern Egypt, she is not passively aloof; she is striking, she is powerful, she is authoritative. In other words, what differentiates her from her European counterparts is that she is not solely cherished for her sensual capacities but also as suggested by Abdullah Al Ghothamy, for her “tremendous symbolic power.”
Mahmoud Said prescribed the female body to be the incarnation of the human soul. As described in his Catalogue Raisonné, “his women are queens” within his fictitious utopian Egyptian kingdom, locating them as the nucleus of his poetic oeuvre (Valerie Didier Hess and Hussam Rashwan, Ed., Mahmoud Said Catalogue Raisonné: Volume 1. Paintings, Milan 2016). By depicting a range of women from the highest echelons of society to the lowest socioeconomic rungs, his female figures symbolize the diverse abundance of the motherland. In this way, these nude women are both figuratively and literally “women of the people.” Just as in Said’s Nu couche au divan bleu (c.1937-1947), the young woman places her polished elongated finger tips gently atop her womb, alluding to her fertile potential. This serene painting is naturally lyrical in its composition: like the bashful waves of the Mediterranean against Alexandria’s shores, the turquoise blue divan caresses the nude woman’s warm olive tone.
Contrary to Said, for Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar’s relationship with the nude form was one imbued with internal controversy. In dialogue with the resurgence of the odalisque form in French art, as in the Henri Matisse’s exquisite nude forms during his Nice period, El-Gazzar questioned the sustainability of this hollow, decorative trope in Egypt, beyond its superficial beauty. In a treatise, while a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, El-Gazzar states, “we need modern Arabic art that suits our society and is supported by our spiritual and moral values… It is a shame to live on the crumbs of what the academies of fine arts abroad offers.” Therefore, this exceptionally rare painting presented in auction is truly an anomaly for the artist. El-Gazzar's odalisque is shrouded in mystery—she is familiar yet indecipherable, seductive yet callous. Maybe for El-Gazzar, she is the likeness of the ancient Egyptian goddess, Hathour, the goddess of love and beauty, or Anat, the goddess of heaven, or Isis, the goddess of life, or perhaps she is the semblance of a beloved—the most divine secret of them all.
Mahmoud Said (1897-1964) and Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar (1925-1966) lived on the polar ends of 20th century Egyptian society: while Mahmoud Said was born into a westernised aristocratic family in Alexandria, Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar was the son of a local religious scholar (sheikh) in Cairo. Although in many ways their unique experiences growing up in divergent social environments informed their respective artistic practices, both artists living in postcolonial Egypt had dared to reposition old Orientalists tropes by translating them into new empowering visages of Egypt.