Mokhtar was one of the first students to enroll at the Egyptian School of Fine Arts that opened in 1908 in Cairo. Staffed mostly by European artists living in Egypt, the school taught the standard curriculum of the French beaux-arts, including drawing, painting, architecture, and sculpture. Mokhtar soon demonstrated talent beyond his peers and excelled in the techniques taught to him by the school’s sculptor instructor and director, Guillaume Laplagne. Though these early works from his school years are mostly lost, a few photographs of small sculptures like Khawla bint al-Azwar, a medieval Syrian female warrior, and Ibn al-Balad, a caricature of a local Cairo boy, exhibit how he used this classical training to depict local figures from Egyptian culture and Islamic history.
Upon graduating, Mokhtar was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris. Just twenty-one-years-old and never having left Egypt before, he arrived in Paris in October 1912. His name is inscribed in the ledger of the studio of Jules-Felix Coutan at the École des Beaux-Arts. Coutan is perhaps most famous today for his sculptures that adorn the façade of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. While most of Coutan’s students were French, the register attests that occasionally foreign students enrolled as auditors. From the archival evidence of raucous costume parties at the school, it is clear that Mokhtar socialized with the other classmates. In addition, his biographies retell the story of his hazing – a normal occurrence for new enrollees – where his classmates stripped him naked, painted his body, and called him Ramses as they paraded him to the nearest pub.
During his time in Paris, his practice began to blend references to ancient sculpture with his academic training and modern aesthetic. This seems to have stemmed from a variety of stimuli. The curriculum of the École des Beaux-Arts relied heavily on the study of ancient Greco-Roman sculpture. While his classmates identified with a Greek or Roman past, Mokhtar turned towards ancient Egyptian Pharaonic imagery. As an artist working between Paris and Cairo for two audiences, and thus two markets, the Pharaonic was a clearly legible sign of Egypt internationally as well as an increasingly nationalist symbol at home. At the end of World War I, protests broke out in Egypt against the British occupation, and Mokhtar created his most famous work, Nahdat Misr (Egypt’s Reawakening), which was eventually monumentalized in a public square in Cairo in 1928.
Egypt’s Reawakening propelled Mokhtar to fame, and he received commissions for other monumental, public sculptures. He made two bronze sculptures of the nationalist leader, Saad Zaghloul, which now stand in Cairo and Alexandria. As there were no bronze foundries in Egypt at the time, he maintained a studio in Paris and traveled there often to produce both these larger commissions, as well as smaller artworks. The foundries he used included Susse Frères, Fonderie des Artistes, and Alexis Rudier. While the monumental pieces were public works, commissioned by nationalist groups, the smaller artworks were crafted for individual buyers, and many were eventually exhibited at the Parisian Bernheim Jeune Gallery in 1930, including a copy of The Three Beggars. These smaller works in bronze, marble, cast stone, and basalt are compact, portable, and pleasing rather that overtly nationalistic. Instead of the monumental pharaonic images of the larger works, these small pieces often depict local Egyptian peasants. By the 1920s, the image of the peasant had become a potent nationalist symbol in the Egyptian’s struggle for self-rule.
The Three Beggars depicts three Egyptian men wearing long galabia cloaks and tight turbans – a style of dress still prevalent in Egypt today. The monumental references to ancient Egypt are not present in this image of distinctly un-monumental men. The central man seems the youngest, with high cheekbones, a strong jaw, and a long muscular neck. To his left, an older man rests his head on the younger man’s shoulder, and locks his hand around the man’s bent arm. The younger man’s arm reaches out to a man with a walking stick, who appears to be leading the other two. This man brings his hand to his face as if he is calling out to the road ahead. Unlike the exceedingly smooth surfaces of Mokhtar’s small marble sculptures of peasant women, the bronze here is choppy and gestural, evoking the work of Auguste Rodin.
The composition of three bronze men, each of whom appears vulnerable in a different way, echoes Rodin’s Three Shades and The Burghers of Calais, of which Mokhtar likely would have known. Instead of blindly copying the French master, he re-works and re-purposes the composition to express his own identity through the recognizable Egyptian clothing of the figures. Many of Mokhtar’s works are symbolic – they are not portraits of specific people, but representations of larger ideas. The fact that this work eventually ended up with Coutan, Mokhtar’s teacher, frames this work perhaps as an allegory of the transmission of knowledge. The bearded man with the walking stick knows the path and calls out, and the younger men follow his lead. In their vulnerable state, they lean on each other for guidance and support.
Today, Mokhtar remains Egypt’s most significant modern sculptor. Cairo, with its millennia-old Al-Azhar University for Islamic learning, had been a center of the medieval Islamic world. Because of Islam’s avoidance of figural sculpture, the existence and public support of Parisian-trained sculptor marked the new nation of Egypt as secular and modern. As such, Mokhtar is a leading example of the global diffusion of modern art practice, maintaining connections to colonial capitals while simultaneously responding to local nationalist pressure and transnational markets.
Dr. Alex Dika Seggerman
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