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Late, Great, But Never Forgotten

To commemorate his anniversary, Safarkhan puts on a retrospective of Mahmoud Said’s works

By Farah el-Akkad

Remembering Mahmoud Said, showing at Safarkhan Gallery through April 10, is a tribute to an artist Egypt has never really forgotten. Despite passing away more than 50 years ago, the passionate son of Alexandria continues to be one of the greatest artists Egypt has ever known.

Born on April 8, 1897, Said, who started painting at the age of 50, lives on through his legendary works that continue to enchant people from all over the world. The law school graduate left behind a 20-year career in law and the coveted position of assistant magistrate at the Mixed Court of Mansoura when in 1947 he decided to break the rules and follow his lifetime dream of becoming a painter.

“The artist who is vibrant with life is either awakened in his senses to a basic instinct or enlightened in his spirit to the extent of Sufism, and Mahmoud Said combined the awakening of senses and the enlightenment of spirit,” novelist Tawfik El Hakim wrote of him in his book Flower of Life. “He is the first Egyptian artist with the pure properties that originated from the traditions of his country.”

Born to an affluent Pasha father, the young Said was brought up in a lavish home and graduated from French schools in Cairo. As a child, Said was not very familiar with the local community and the life of other Egyptians belonging to lower classes. Later, as a university student in Paris, his culture was mostly European. However, Said always had a passion for art which continued to flourish along with his studies. His interest in art grew stronger every year and he would attend classes in Europe and Alexandria to learn from other artists. The latter made him keen to learn about a different kind of Egypt besides the one he knew, and this he beautifully portrayed in his paintings about Egypt and Egyptian women in particular. Women were one of the most important elements in Said’s paintings, and he often presented female peasants each with their own unique facial complexion that usually told a thousand words.

“Mahmoud Said’s paintings can actually talk, who sang the beauty of the chadoufs which is the most beautiful symbol of the toil of the peasant and his struggle to live,” journalist Hussein Fawzi wrote in Al-Ahram newspaper in 1964. “This modest echo of this original melody comes from another lover to our kind land.”

Perhaps the most unique element of Said’s work was his use of light, which can be seen in most of his popular paintings such as Na’ima and The Girls of Bahary. These paintings are known for their intense character composition, portraying innocence and complex emotions which Said pulls off brilliantly by playing with light and the color blue.

Along with his signature portraits of women, Said produced self-portraits in 1919 and later in 1924. In the first one, Said presents himself as a young boy whose face is full of light and hope. In the second, he depicts himself as bearded man with a young peasant girl carrying a coffin in the background. Most of the artist’s works remain in his villa in Alexandria and others are on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art at the Cairo Opera House.

The works of the iconic Egyptian artist continue to be a school of their own. As author Hussein Sobhi describes him, Said was “the philosopher who observes his people and draws from them his philosophy and records it in images where he mixes color with moral and spiritual values.”

Remembering Mahmoud Said is showing at Safarkhan Gallery through April 10 • 6 Brazil St., Zamalek • Open Monday to Saturday from 10am-2pm and 5-9pm • Tel: (012) 2312-7002

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