Shakir Hassan Al Said
Considered a key figure in Iraq’s modern art movement, Shakir Hassan Al Said was born in Samawa, a rural area in Iraq in 1925. He possessed a unique sense of observation, grasping what may appear simple and ordinary events and presenting them with amazing aptitude of description. “On my way from school, I used to see scores of faces, brown faces, painful and toiling faces. How close they were to my heart! They pressed me and I passed them again and again. They suffered and I felt their suffering. The peasants with their loose belts were pricked by thorns. They were so close to my heart!” He wrote about his daily trek to school.
In 1948, Al Said received a degree in social science from the Higher Institute of Teachers in Baghdad and after that he pursued painting at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he studied under another prominent artist Jewad Selim and with whom he co-founded Jama’et Baghdad lil Fann al-Hadith (The Baghdad Modern Art Group) in 1951. The objective of the movement was to achieve an artistic approach both modern and traditional with a specific approach called Istilham al-turath (Seeking inspiration from tradition). His work of the 1950s and 1960s, are the best examples of the ideals promoted by the group in their quest for a distinctive local style, synthesizing both indigenous and international trends and expressive of individuality and independence: “We wanted to clarify to Iraqi artists in general, and to ourselves as an art group in particular, that istilham al-turath, is the basic point of departure, to achieve through modern styles, a cultural vision.” Al-Said is often regarded as the theoretical dynamo of the movement; more vocal and prolific in his written output than Selim, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra comments that “no Iraqi artist has written about art in general, and about the artists reflections on his own work in particular, as much as Shaker Hassan Al Said”.
Al Said wrote the manifesto for the Baghdad Modern Art Group and read it at the group’s first exhibition in 1951. It is regarded as first art manifesto to be published in Iraq. Scholars often consider this event to the birth of the Iraqi modern art movement. The Baghdad Modern Art Group, through its manifesto, membership, and numerous exhibitions would come to signify a “golden age” in Iraqi modernism.
Al Said continued his studies at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris until 1959, and discovered Western modern art in galleries and Sumerian art at the Louvre. After his return to Baghdad, Al Said taught at the Institute of Fine Arts. He developed an interest in Sufism and studied the work of Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, Sufism and Mansur Al-Hallaj and gradually abandoned figurative expressions and centered his compositions on Arabic calligraphy. He later developed an art philosophy known as the One Dimension; and formed the Al Bu’d al Wahad (or the One Dimension Group)”, which was deeply infused with Al Said’s theories about the place of art in nationalism. The objectives of the One Dimension Group were multi-dimensional and complex. The group that was assemblage of all the artists Al-Said knew worked with Arabic Calligraphy, focusing on the exploration of different values of the Arabic script of graphic, plastic, linguistic, and symbolic works within modern art. In practice, a single inner dimension was difficult to manifest because most artworks are produced on two-dimensional surfaces. One Dimension referred to the realm between the visible world and that of God, where transcendence results in the disintegration of the self and as Al Said explained “one dimension” refers to “eternity”.
According to Al Said art is contemplation rather than creation. He has explained the concept of “art as contemplation” in his Contemplative Manifesto, published in 1966. Contemplation, he wrote, is the artist’s true vocation. Contemplative art accepts the world as a creation where humanity as a whole, artists included, can merely express opinions.
Al Said actively searched for relationships between time and space; and for a visual language that would connect Iraq’s deep art traditions with modern art methods and materials. The incorporation of callij (calligraphy) letters into modern artworks was an important aspect of this. The letter became part of Al Said’s transition from figurative art to abstract art. Arabic calligraphy was charged with intellectual and esoteric Sufi meaning, in that it was an explicit reference to a Medieval theology where letters were seen as primordial signifiers and manipulators of the cosmos.
Al Said, used his writing, lectures and his involvement in various art groups to shape the direction of the modern Iraqi art movement and bridged the gap between modernity and heritage. He published several books on modern art in Iraq and numerous articles in Arabic journals and newspapers. He is recognized as one of the fathers of modern art in Iraq.
His work is collected by major museums, such as Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, the Guggenheim in New York, and Sharjah Art Museum.
Artist and Artwork: Wassily Kandinsky
“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential”.
One of the pioneers of abstract modern art, Wassily Kandinsky was born in 1866 in Moscow. He spent most of his childhood in Odessa, a thriving, cosmopolitan city populated by Western Europeans, Mediterranean’s, and a variety of other ethnic groups. At an early age, Kandinsky exhibited an extraordinary sensitivity toward the stimuli of sounds, words, and colors. It was his father who recognized his precious gift and encouraged him for drawing classes, as well as piano and cello lessons. Despite his early exposure to arts, Kandinsky did not turn to painting until he reached the age of 30.
Kandinsky took a lot of time to recognize his inner voice and finally in 1896 he abandoned his teaching career to attend art school in Munich. For his first two years in Munich he studied at the art school of Anton Azbe, and in 1900 he studied under Franz von Stuck at the Academy of Fine Arts. It was at Azbe’s school that he was first time introduced to the artistic avant-garde in Munich as he met Alexei Jawlensky. In 1901, along with three other young artists, Kandinsky co-founded “Phalanx” -an artist’s association opposed to the conservative views of the traditional art institutions.
Kandinsky viewed non-objective, abstract art as the ideal visual mode to express the “inner necessity” of the artist and to convey universal human emotions and ideas. He viewed himself as a prophet whose mission was to share this ideal with the world for the betterment of society. And he viewed music as the most transcendent form of non-objective art – musicians could evoke images in listeners’ minds merely with sounds. He strove to produce similarly object-free, spiritually rich paintings that alluded to sounds and emotions through a unity of sensation.
Kandinsky exploited the evocative interrelation between color and form to create an aesthetic experience that engaged the sight, sound, and emotions of the public. He believed that total abstraction offered the possibility for profound, transcendental expression and that copying from nature only interfered with this process. Highly inspired to create art that communicated a universal sense of spirituality, he innovated a pictorial language that only loosely related to the outside world, but expressed volumes about the artist’s inner experience. His visual vocabulary developed through three phases, shifting from his early, representational canvases and their divine symbolism to his rapturous and operatic compositions, to his late, geometric and biomorphic flat planes of color. Kandinsky’s art and ideas inspired many generations of artists, from his students at the Bauhaus to the Abstract Expressionists after World War II.
Painting was, above all, deeply spiritual for Kandinsky. He sought to convey profound spirituality and the depth of human emotion through a universal visual language of abstract forms and colors that transcended cultural and physical boundaries.