1927 - 2012
A FAMILY OF FARMERS
oil on canvas
90 by 120 cm.; 35⅜ by 47¼ in.
Executed in the early 1960s.
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Gifted directly by the artist in the early 1960s
Thence by descent to the present owner
Dr. Hamdi Touqmachi, Ed., MAHMOUD SABRI: His Life, Art & Thoughts, Jordan 2013, p. 75, illustrated / in colour
Like many artists of his generation, Mahmoud Sabri came of age during far-reaching social and economic changes in Iraq that were manifested in the growing disparities between tradition and modernity, local and global influences. Interest in different facets of Sabri's life has significantly increased in recent decades. His ideas were certainly debated and discussed before that but were too unconventional for the artistic circle in Iraq and were never applied artistically. In some respects his artistic practice and ideology ostracized him from Iraq's artistic circle, often leaving him sadly overlooked. The collection of brothers Hafez and Hamdi Touqmachi, Sabri's true and close friends throughout his life from graduate school right up to his death, charts the artist's extraordinary life and work and gives us a rare opportunity to look into the formation, development and legacy of his art. Behind the collection is a dramatic personal history narrated by the artist from his early years in Iraq, to his years of study in Moscow and his later years of forced exile. Sabri's personal story takes us through his passion for forms, shapes, figures and storylines, elements that all serve as players in a complex visual drama, embedded with references to social and political regimes and cross-cultural conflicts.
Mahmoud Sabri received his school education in Baghdad. There he met with Hafez Touqmachi, with whom they were sitting at the same desk, and soon became true friends. In 1946 Sabri left for the United Kingdom to complete his studies in the Social Sciences. Inspired to start painting, he returned to Baghdad in 1949. During that time he met with the group of artists led by Faik Hassan, that was to eventually form the Société Primitive, later renamed the Iraqi Pioneers group (Jama'at al-Ruwwad), and also with the Baghdad Group for Modern Art (Jama'at Baghdad Ii'l-Fann al-Hadith) centered around Jewad Selim. The 1950s were a very active time in Iraq with many opportunities for artists to create works, exhibit, find collectors and patrons, and simply to express themselves through artworks, publications and debates. The debates were centered around the problematic issues of defining a national art discourse and establishing a definitive style and tradition. Sabri's early drawing Builders (Lot 40) addresses many of these topics and explores subject matter that was to recur often later in his life - persistent poverty and social injustice, which reflected the socio-political realities of the day. The builders in Sabri's drawing communicate his conviction that a better world could be built through skill, ingenuity, hard work, and collaboration. Overall, the builders came to symbolize some of his larger ideas about Iraq and the Iraqi people - hope, persistence, and shared responsibility for transforming society. These ideals are also about Sabri's commitment to Modernism. Black and white colours and solid, unmodulated shapes dominate his compositions. Foregrounds and backgrounds merge into the flatness of the picture plane. It seems that Sabri injected a deliberate ambiguity into the picture about whether the subjects are ancient or contemporary builders - but this is his homage to Assyrian and Babylonian art and architecture. The main point of the image remains the relation of the builder to his culture, emphasizing the intellectual character of architecture and avoiding the impression that builders are mere physical labourers.
Among very rare portraits in Sabri's oeuvre is a magnificent image of Basima al Bahrani (Lot 44), the wife of Dr. Hamdi Touqmachi, which can be said to conform to the new style of national art in every way. Sabri created an image out of the many possibilities presented by the young model. Only three hues - blue, red and orange - are present in the colour scheme and are without gradation or combination: each colour is isolated and local. The curving lines of the contours are traced directly onto the canvas, so that the spatial environment is not designed by colour, compositional arrangement or perspective. In doing so Sabri sought to combine the abstract with the real. The model seems not to be seated but sprawled out, pressed to the canvas. The sharp silhouette and refined spicy tones intensify the psychological characteristics. Basma al-Bahrani is a profound expression of 1950s Iraq with her boundless energy, hopes and aspirations, pride and joy - an era that can be characterized by the emergence of intellectual debate on women's status, the rise of women's organizations, evolution of a women's press, women's participation in the national struggle, and the development of feminism in Iraq.
The year 1960, when he left for the USSR, marked a turning point in Mahmoud Sabri's life. It had been in the UK during his study years in the late 1940s that he became passionate about the ideas of communism and universal equality, becoming a faithful Marxist until the end of his life. His rebellious spirit and thirst for knowledge brought him to the Soviet Union, where in 1960 he was admit-ted to the Vasily Surikov Moscow State Academic Art Institute for two years post-graduate study in art. Improved political relations between the USSR and Iraq at the end of the 1950s were followed by dynamic cultural growth. Collaboration began immediately after the 14 July Revolution, also known as the Iraqi coup d’état of 1958, which resulted in the overthrow of the pro-British Hashemite monarchy and establishment of the Iraqi Republic.
As the Republic emerged under the leadership of Abd al Karim Qasim, it gained enthusiastic support in the USSR The pattern of governmentsponsored international exchanges that ultimately brought Iraqi students to the Soviet Union was a key component of an increasingly global post-war art world, in which the geostrategic significance of the Arab world markedly increased. The Soviet government allowed students from Arab countries to apply for university scholarships and thousands of Iraqi students were trained in diverse specialties. Among them were Dr. Hamdi Touqmachi and Basima al Bahrani, who in 1961 were accepted at Moscow State University. Dr. Hamdi joined the Faculty of Agriculture and al Bahrani the Faculty of Russian Language and Literature. Their friendship with Sabri continued in Russia and was characterized by the same "rebellious" spirit and much debate around the subjects of social injustice and inequality.
During his years in the USSR there was a development and shift in Sabri's style. Although he remained true to his subjects and to the theme of martyrdom and misery, his artistic language became more expressive and symbolic, paying homage to inspiration from Assyrian and Babylonian traditions, but maintaining a link between this ancient artistic heritage and contemporaneity. As it can be seen in his painting of the early 1960s, A Family of Farmers (Lot 38), as well as in other works created in Moscow such as Grief, Funeral, The Hero, Sabri's multifaceted art during this period served as a vehicle to create allegories revealing the darker side of human nature. These pictorial narratives were drawn from the artist's personal experience and boldly took on themes of the lives and hardships of the poor and dispossessed.
Upon completion of his studies at the end of 1962 Sabri had intended to come home, but returning to Iraq was no longer an option. On February 8, 1963 the Ba'ath party overthrew Iraqi Qasim's procommunist regime in a bloody coup d’état. Sabri's close friend and ally Husain ar-Radi (also known as Salam Adil), the leader of the Iraqi Communist Party, was brutally tortured and murdered. Sabri's struggle against the Ba'ath party and its ideology led him to reject any compromise with the new regime in Iraq. In April 1963 he left for Czechoslovakia.
In Prague he continued painting. His familiarity with Arab, Russian and European Renaissance visual imagery injected his works with a power that bewitches us with its mysterious understatement, inviting the viewer to a dialogue with the artist. Sabri possessed a unique ability to discern the main revolutionary ideas of different schools and epochs for their compositional harmony, complex drama and pure color, from which he borrowed a visual vocabulary and technique. He was certainly dazzled by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch in his work Cross Bearer (Lot 43), which combined a sense of the divine with a material objectivity and created a painting that was tangible but still imbued with magic.
Sabri's personal experience of war and political upheaval greatly influenced the conceptual and formal trajectory of his works of the late 1960s. His anguish and anger permeate the paintings, intensified by his awareness of the suffering of people in Latin America, as expressed through the broken figures in his painting Chile (Lot 39). Political discourse and subversive narratives were stitched together in the artist's mind as well as in his works. What we see encapsulates incisive images of trauma and suffering woven together in a total aesthetic imagery. Like many artists who have directly or indirectly experienced stress and anxiety caused by the political realities in their region, Sabri's artistic language reflects a common subject matter related to the political and social problems that people experience from the loss of part of their land, which has often been the site of harrowing violence for decades, and their forced exile.
From the late 1960s Sabri became increasingly interested in the relationship between Art and Science, focusing on greater abstraction and the colour, form and structure of an art work. His production from that period (for example, Lots 38, 39, 41 & 43) amaze us with their visual originality of colours. From afar these frameless paintings lend themselves to an elusive feeling of an "unreal" enriched with constant fluidity - fluidity of forms, shapes, figures, and narratives - from one figure to another, from one structure to another, from one world to another. The works are soft, playful, alluring and colourful, but each is absorbed in an ephemeral vastness of a distant dream. In these paintings Sabri's clear-thinking mind is seeking rational explanations of the workings of the art world. In his theory, realism and abstract are not alternatives to, but a path toward, reality's core:
Why is it at the beginning of the 20th century when humanity was so advanced and the great artists of the Renaissance established a certain mode of painting, why is it humans changed from very realistic art to abstract art ... I found it in production. The way human produce themselves. What kind of art they create when they change from one kind of production to another form of production, which is completely different from the past. And it seems that it made it necessary to them to change their mode of understanding and also of artistic creation”
As a result, his experiments with colour and abstraction led to his theory of Quantum Realism, published in Prague as a manifesto in 1971. As a severe critic of abstract art, Sabri rejected any connection with the fashionable abstract mainstream, stating, that "this new scientific realism will, in form only, resemble abstract art, because the fundamental elements, in which they are based, are the pure surfaces of colour. In other words, this new realism is upsetting abstract art and making it stand on its feet." He called his understanding of abstract art a "movement from a level of reality to a new level of reality:' Sabri's Quantum Realism theory represents the artist's search for a cosmic harmony of Art and Science, reflected in abstract forms - the artistic language to which he remained faithful until the end of his life.
Hafez and Hamdi Touqmachi's collection brings together works from throughout the artist’s career that explore Sabri's distinctive themes, seen through the lenses of revolution, death, migration and religion, to reveal how the artist's career characterized a period of cultural and social transformation in Iraq. Central to the collection is an exploration of human relations and the sincere friendship that these men shared over many decades. In 2013 Dr. Touqmachi published the first and the only survey of Mahmoud Sabri's career, Mahmoud Sabri: His Life, Art and Thoughts, offering significant new insights into the artist's early life and challenging the existing myths and paradigms about him. Sabri was an innovator: his artistic career was unique among contemporary Iraqi painters. He simultaneously explored Arab and European cultures, studied the history of painting, and created his own unique language and style.