FROM ‘SAD MELODY’ TO THE ‘WOMEN OF LUXOR’:
SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE WORK OF THE ARAB PAINTER
The Egyptian critic Magdi Youssef once noted in an essay
on his friend Saad El-Girgawi that it is hardly surprising if an artist
like Saad who had spend almost four decades of his life in the Arab world
(and here, mainly, in Egypt) was responding, in his work, to the formative
force of his own, native socio-culture. And this even though during his
studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cairo, he was strongly exposed to
Western artistic norms.*
A work like The Sad Melody, done in Cairo in 1951
(oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm), exemplifies the divergent influences that
Saad, since his early years, struggled to convert creatively into something
Sad Melody, Cairo 1951 (oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm)
|The Western aesthetic paradigm that precedes this work
is apparent. The Sad Melody reveals this young Egyptian artist as
an early realist, in the tradition of Courbet.
The painting shows a street musician, fiddling on a small
violin. Such street musicians, even decades after the last World War, were
part of the street scene in many countries. They could still be seen, for
instance, in Taiwan in the 1970s, usually in groups. This work was acquired
by the Chinese government, undoubtedly because someone recognized an affinity
to an aspect of the pre-1949 Chinese past. The Egyptian artist had
provided his perspective of the poverty of an artist working as a street
musician to make ends meet and at the same time bringing art to the people
in the street by expressing the sorrows of their exploited lives. The quintessence
of Saad’s naturalistic “realism” is centered in the expressiveness of the
musician’s face. It mirrors a somberness, a sorrow beyond bounds. The colossal
sturdy figure of the man can remind us of René Schickele’s description
of Jean Jaures: a Rabelaisian character.
Reclining Nude With Nylon Stockings tells us of
the years when Saad started his painterly career in Egypt while the Nasserites
pushed back Conservative traditions and young painters, despite the nationalism
of the times, looked to Europe for paradigms.
Nude with Nylon Stockings, Alexandria 1954, oil on canvas
The diagonal lines of this work (those of the girl’s
body vs. those of the bed touching on the wall in the back) create an interesting
formal tension. The prominence of the girl on the wide bed cannot be overlooked.
In the foreground, the dish with knife and apple cut in half, of which
one half is gone already and thus eaten, alludes to the sexual act, the
temptation symbolized in another cultural context by Eve and her apple.
The girl is apparently giving in to it whether she is
being paid as a model or not. We do not see a trace of happiness, of fulfilled
love. Rather, the liberation from traditions has left her out in the cold,
exposed to the forces of the market place where money and wage labor are
“facts of life.”
The small chamber, almost entirely filled by the bed,
is her work place, it is also the studio of the painter. We have no reason
to assume the existence of any affluence in this neighborhood. Have the
nylon stockings been the reward for posing in the nude? They were expensive,
in the post-war years (in Egypt, too, I was told), and coveted, by the
Alexandria 1954 (oil on canvas)
reproduction, from a catalogue, is flawed.
There is a slight shadow on the left margin of this scan.)
|Saad’s Self-Portrait, done in Alexandria in 1954,
shows a young man with moustache, wearing the brown cap of a Basque
fisherman, a cigarette in his mouth, the eyes keen, watchful, and glowing.
The chest is partly visible as his dark red shirt opens wide.
It is a lean face we see, the face of a struggling, suffering
man, a romanticized, somewhat sceptical painter who is determined to go
on painting, against the odds, in spite of the circumstances of a life
that is all but easy.
But the sky, the light of the background is almost golden,
and the harmony of the colors revokes memories of a classicist age, of
French or Italian rather than Egyptian traditions of painting.
* * *
A large part of Saad’s later work consists of paintings
commissioned by customers, mostly portraits.
In addition, drawing of nudes abound, done mostly in
Nuremberg where he has lived now for so many years.
Nude, Nuremberg 1987, charcoal on paper, 30 x 40 cm
But again and again, Saad has come back to images of
his native country. It is here where his work is strongest.
In 1983, during one of his visits to Egypt, he painted
the Ship near Luxor.
What I see is a dark, visionary landscape. The work hints
at the dark blue greens of the Nile valley, at daybreak. The first light
of day is reflected by the hull of the ship. Its windows, black hollows.
The pier, partly covered by shadows, partly beginning to glow. Desert colors,
the sandy brown of the stones from the wasteland, awakened by the emerging
rays of the sun.
near Luxor, Luxor 1983, water-color, 36 x 49 cm
|It is like a somber awakening. A rite of passage, scarcely
begun. A cryptic token of modernity intruding into an ancient, eternal
landscape where Egyptian whippoorwills sound their call in the date trees.
As the darkness of night lifts, what does the appearing
light of day signal? A new horizon, a beginning? A thunderstorm,
a sandstorm of terrible consequences that will cover the remaining green
with a thick coat of dust?
|Ship near Luxor, this water-color painting done
by Saad el Girgawi in 1983, opens such wide spaces, between heaven and
earth, desert and fruitful lands, past and present, a harnessed river offering
new and fabulous journeys, and a quiet population, invisible and still
The painting is full of longing and apprehension. The
outcome of the story yet to unfold, the presence of which we are so aware
of, is more uncertain than ever.
Another, much earlier work by Saad el Girgawi has captured
the same indecision of a moment. Here, carrying the freshly baked loafs
of bread above his head, a bakery’s errant boy, in fact already a grown-up
man, steps out of the darkness of a house into the street filled with the
brightness of a Cairo morning.
Bread-Seller [Bread Delivery Man], Cairo 1956, water-color and ink,
31 x 41 cm
|Giving the visible impression of being still asleep,
the town’s appearance is deceptive. The alley, with its stepping stones
and corners, may be empty but life has awoken behind its walls.
|Invisible to us, there are children that went to bed
without a meal, families that will notbe able to afford enough bread in
the morning. The hands of the bread carrier, raised above his head, balancing
the tray with the loafs, rise in beauty like flowers, saying, Look, here
it is, the bread, baked by the living for the use of the living. Eat, eat!
You who are hungry.
The face of the bread carrier tells a different story,
that of a struggling, downtrodden soul, giving in to his plight, a hard
life of toil and abuse, a life of making do with too little, a life of
squalid streets, customers unable to pay, a hard-pressed, ill-mannered
The Bread Delivery Man, done in Cairo in 1956,
is close to everyday life, capturing its beauty and pain, its fears and
Mothers in Cairo, done in Cairo in 1983, speaks
of a city, a neighborhood that has turned almost anonymous. The houses
rise higher than they used to 50 or even 30 years ago. The washing
still dries in the open air, in the street. Seemingly unemployed males
linger at corners; they may be spies of the government or pimps with nothing
to do at this time of day, or sellers of small, non-consequential items.
One of them is looking , kind of bored, at a newspaper, as the sun is rising
slowly to its highest point.
Its glare fills the street, coloring its pavement with
its intense warmth.
The mothers we see are on their own, left to themselves,
having to cope with their kid, their fate, their anxieties.
Disillusioned, they face a hostile world where solidarity
With the wide-awake eyes of a street kid, a young boy
carried on the arms of his worried mother stares into the distance. So
young and so old already.
in Cairo, Cairo 1983, water-color and ink, 31 x 41 cm
An aspect of the life of the middle classes is captured
in another water color, Two Generations, done also in Cairo in 1983.
Two women confront each other, one young and seemingly
convinced of being emancipated, at least freed of the shadoor, the other
(obviously the older one) still carrying it, dressed in black from head
The void between them is filled with silence. Despite
the closeness there is nothing that can be said. Perhaps the older one
regrets her lack of courage that has always hindered her to resist what
is repressive in their traditions. Perhaps the younger one feels
something is as yet unachieved. Real liberation, a real purpose is lacking.
There is an emptiness made visible, in her life.
Generations, Cairo 1983, 31 x 41 cm
The tension, non-explicit yet present, is felt very clearly
between the two. It’s been made visible by the space “in-between”, the
confrontation of light and dark colors.
The older one, as she looks away from the younger women,
looks at a tree or a wall, in the inner court of the house.
All the time she is stared at, speechlessly, by the young
There is a depth achieved by the composition, the colors,
without ever relying on a ‘central perspective.’
I was reminded by the face of the young woman of a Pharaonic
princess, the way their silhouettes appear in the caves of the pyramids.
* * *
Cows in the Fields recaptures a motif that recurs
in Taiwanese paintings as well, at least those inspired by peasant life,
by folk traditions.
In Saad’s work, the expressive contrasts of darkness
and light underscore the movement, and the vitality of the animals.
They appear awake, full of curiosity if not apprehension,
taking in the sounds and the smells, the stirrings of the leaves in the
wind, perhaps, occasionally, some distant voices.
As one heads for the shade of a tree, the other watchfully
observes something through the opening in a fence.
the Fields, Cairo 1983, water-color, 35 x 47 cm
It is a story of a universe where peace may be a short
illusion while the expanses of the lands in the distance as much as the
stark presence of the tree and the animals in the foreground suggest something
almost perennial and recurrent, a fragile protected zone, a rural Eden
which may well be deceptive in a society where owners build fences.
The Dead One of Beirut, Nuremberg 1987 (Lithography, 19.5 x 29.5 cm)
No man is an island, no country, no artist of any place
in the world. And the events in Lebanon could not leave Saad el Girgawi
untouched. The form his commitment takes is quiet, and at the same
time disquieting. Death, even in its more massive, multiplied form, even
in genocide, comes always to concrete human beings. Each one of them suffers;
his or her own pain, in that sense, is always unique. But death, in some
historical situations, is also typical, a shared or collective experience.
In Saad’s work, The Dead One of Beirut , both the typical and the
individual are present; they converge in the same dead body in the foreground
of this lithography. The body is that of a nude young girl, or young woman
on an empty square. Stretched out, she is lying there, in – is it the sun,
or the moonlight? As if having given herself to a lover, tired, exhausted,
she rest there, in front of the invading darkness.
Her body raped, her lean arm still on her thigh, the
other as if grasping an amulet, she is separated from the distant houses,
a modern Antigone sacrificed by the civil war, a war instigated by the
rich of the city, those allied to outsiders, a bridgehead of globalization,
a class living on another planet, in another world.
This small lithography, done in 1987, gives a mute
answer to the events that devastated Beirut, an answer that is also a question,
asking us to look for, and identify the social forces responsible
for its suffering, its undoing.
Antigone was thrown to the wolves outside the town walls,
and so is this body, thrown to the voyeurs, a really disconcerting aspect
of this work. Silently, a pray for those without pity, she lies there on
the pavement as we stare at her. While the others, surviving victims as
well as perpetrators of such cruelty, know all to well how to remain
The J’accuse inscribed in this lithography cannot
be overlooked. The human shape, its suffering at the moment of death
seem universal. But the context is specific, and so is the formal approach
of this work. The wood-cuts done by Chinese artists denouncing cruelties
committed by Kuomintang forces during the civil war ending in 1949
have their own strength and cannot be compared to Saad’s work; neither
can the works of Kaethe Kollwitz that opposed the insanity of imperialist
war. In The Dead One of Beirut, the strength of the composition
depends on the preponderance of horizontal lines and basically horizontal
shapes: The outlines of the square, and of the Arab houses, made
of clay bricks, with their emphasis on the horizontal, underscore the tiredness,
the suffering, the final breath of this outstretched, naked body, so close
to the earth. As a lifeless body she is married to the earth, but also
standing out from it: From her left shoulder to her left knee we see almost
a long straight line, and this while the left knee is slightly raised,
the leg bending, with the left foot disappearing under the buttocks… Saad
himself has observed once that “perpendicularity,” a preponderance of horizontal
and vertical lines, is characteristic of much of his work, and that he
owes it to his perception of the Egyptian landscape, its trees and horizons,
but also its architecture. This may well be true. At least the works rings
with a special quality that may well be derived from the socio-culture
it was fed by and responded to.
Like other works of Saad, the one called Women Carrying
A Heavy Load in a Cairo Alley (done in 1983) has no need of a central
In fact is characterized by a multiple perspective (something
we might call, perhaps, “poly-perspectivistic”), the eyes of
the observer finding two focal points, one letting us intrude deeply into
the passageway on the left; the other sucking our eyes’ glance into the
dark hollow of a door scarcely visible on the right.
The scene shown in the painting is accentuated by a more
or less vertical rhythm of dark strokes of color, with few counterbalancing,
shorter, horizontal strokes, none of them quite as dark.
Carrying A Heavy Load in a Cairo Alley, Cairo 1983 (water-color
The woman is present as a dark silhouette in the foreground,
broad, rounded, and yet (small wonder) basically horizontal too. She carries
what is perhaps a bag full of vegetables or heating materials, on her massive
As a dark shadow, she will be gone soon, will have vanished
in the dark distance.
But her momentary presence cannot fail to impress us.
At the same moment, we wonder why there is a man walking almost next to
her, perhaps one or two steps ahead. A massive man, hurrying as she must
be hurrying. He is busy carrying his own weight, the voluminous body dressed
in sturdy clothes.
Cairo street scene
(Photo by the renowned photographer Khaled El-Fiqi,
from: Al Ahram Weekly, July 3, 2002, p. 21)
Landscape near Luxor, done in 1988, shows a symphony
of colors that is both earthen and dreamlike. Is this how Saad, the exile,
might imagine his country when far away? And upon returning, he discovers
it like this, seeing it through his eyes of a painter.
The sand colors give way to glowing reds and a warm orange
Bllues appear out of A Thousand and One Nights.
The white of the walls is silvery like the moonlight. The cupolas
are like the halves of apples or pears, they are like the breasts of a
woman in her sleep, stretched out on her bed, the nipples confronting the
Perhaps the desert has such colors.
Perhaps the intensity of the sun on cold winter mornings
can give such clear outlines to rocks and walls and cupolas. Perhaps, the
imagination has only to recollect and to intensify or guard the intensity
of the moment lived through, the sight seen, the beauty so suddenly perceived.
near Luxor, 1988, oil on canvas, 80 x 70 cm
|Not like those German painters (Macke and others) who
went to Morocco decades before the last World War, but still a strange
relative of them, a kindred spirit, Saad painted women and men clustered
in a village street near Luxor, in 1989.
For the expressionists from Europe, the cubes of the
Arab houses, the exotic colors, the possibility to abstract was what seems
to have counted most, while the populace was kept, largely, out of sight.
In another of Saad’s works, aptly entitled Village
Street Near Luxor, the whitewashed walls of some of the houses, their
windows protected carefully by iron grids, seem to be present almost in
a photo-realistic way.
The sky announces rain, a thunderstorm after the heat
of day. The tops of trees, the lush greens, are visible in the back of
In front of them, in the street, where the village population,
or part of it, has assembled, their slender figures throw the long shadows
The sand, or pavement glows reddish in the last light
of the sun.
Street near Luxor, Luxor 1989 (water-color, 29 x 39 cm)
We see that these people are not immobile statues; they
are moving, passing (though not hurriedly or purposefully) between the
The accentuated figures, some black, some greyish or
of a faded white (while two are even wearing a green or olive-colored tunica
with vertical black streaks), are for the most part not alone but relating
to each other.
Engaged in a conversation or at least looking at one
Some have come to a standstill, others approach a group.
The rhythm of their vertical distribution relates to
the counter-rhythm of their almost horizontal shadows.
It is as if the village population has discovered a common
ground for themselves, a togetherness which would not be possible if all
had stayed in their houses during this time of the setting sun when all
jobs should be finished.
After the Work Has Been Done is a water color done
in Komombo, Upper Egypt, in 1956.
The work, even though modestly, still relies on a central
It shows an old man, tiller of the land, returning from
his work with his oxen.
Both are lean. That peasant work is not done by the young
indicates that these have left whenever possible for the big town.
The square they cross is empty. They are not headed for
one of the nicer houses that line the village square, the village center.
Saad’s hypothesis that “perpendicularity” marks such
works as these, centered in the landscape of Upper Egypt, is well confirmed.
[the] Work Has Been Done, Komombo 1956, water-color, 36 x 51
An abstract icon is approached, a calligraphic effect
or something resembling it is produced by the distribution of the Women
of Luxor, within the pictorial space. They are clad in black, forming
a rhythmically subdivided cluster, in front of the light foreground that
is presented to us as almost an empty space, with only faint hints of grass
of Luxor, 1989 (oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm)
At the upper edge of the painting, the structure of a
building is indicated; we only see a tiny fraction of it while the
rest is cut off. (In fact, it could be a dwelling, a store, or the edge
of a prison.)
While the formal reductionism of the approach seems to
decrease Saad’s “realism,” the painting speaks strongly of the female experience
as a collective one, for better or worse.
* Magdi Youssef, “Die künstlerische Sicht des Saad el Girgawi:
Versuch einer Verdeutlichung”, in: R. Boutros / F. Metzger / M. Yousef
/ F. Aschour, Saad el Girgawi. Maler und Bildhauer. Nuremberg 1989,
below is the invitation to the 9th Cairo International Biennale.
Wilfredo Chen is a freelance art
critic living in London.