Art Education and the Emergence of Radical Art Movements in Egypt: The Surrealists and the Contemporary Arts Group, 1938–1951
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Art Education and the Emergence of Radical Art Movements in Egypt:
The Surrealists and the Contemporary Arts Group, 1938–1951

So it wasn’t the aim of the artist to just toss out a work of art. A tradition of the exhibition of the natural, and its meaning was not that it fled from life, but that it had penetrated and plunged into reality. Its meaning was not a prescription or plain exercise in the taste of the sublime, or harmony of forms and charming scenes; and its meaning was not as a decoration of life; it was in its expression of what life inspires in us to give back.

—Henry Moore, as quoted by Ramses Yunan, in “The Aim of the Contemporary Artist”1

In these crucial days of difficulty, the artists in this country live in tall aristocratic towers. . . . For this peasant has an art of his own that sustains him, and it is not that art of the educated class.

—Kamil Al-Tilmisani (c. 1941–1942)

By 1938, as the agrarian crisis in Egypt deepened, the Depression, food shortages, low wages, expropriations of crops, and forced rents opened a polemic among Egyptian intellectuals over the role of the state and the looming threat of fascism. With the dismissal of the government of Mustafa Al-Nahas at the end of 1937, the political turbulence underscored the weakening of the Wafd Party. Opponents of the old Wafdists and supporters of the monarchy resorted to openly fascist tactics, including the establishment of youth organizations and the Blue Shirts, the fascist front of the young Wafdists who modeled themselves on Mussolini’s Black Shirts. The serial crises of agrarian struggles and parliamentary stalemates between [End Page 95] nationalists and monarchists led to increasingly militant stances by the paramilitary fascist organization Misr Al-Fattah (Young Egypt) as a counter to the Muslim Brothers. When Mahmud Khalil resigned from the Wafd and assumed the presidency of the Senate in 1938, his ascension opened a new phase of struggle in politics through culture and the arts.2 In this context, caricatures and satirical sculptures of Khalil appeared in 1939 that parodied him as the icon of a “dictatorship of art.”3 Leading intellectuals from all political stances addressed these issues directly. The cultural journals were peppered with articles on the problems of everyday life and the material crises with such representative titles as ‘Abbas al-Aqqad’s “Food for the Rich,” in which he raised the problem of food shortages and inequity as an issue for reform.4 Within the year, articles in Al-Risala and Al-Thaqafa drew comparisons with French and Italian nineteenth-century landscapes as a model for the recognition of the countryside as a subject. In journalism and the arts, suffering became a part of the recognition of the everyday, as articles appeared on Millet’s nineteenth-century paintings of French peasants.

As the war in Europe encroached into the cover pages of Egypt’s cultural journals, Zaki Muhammad Hasan wrote an essay for Al-Thaqafa entitled “The Angelus,” with a reproduction of the 1859 painting by Jean Francois Millet (1814–1874).5 Hasan wrote about Millet’s interest in the “the daily labors of the peasant” as a depiction of the conditions of French peasants. Hasan’s mention of Millet’s own peasant origins, and his listing of paintings of social conditions, including Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners), reflected a broadening interest in the artistic subject of the peasant and the rise of the peasant as artist. Although in Millet’s painting there is a prayer scene of a man and a woman in the fields that is generally regarded as the evening prayer with the sun setting, an Egyptian reader could link the prayer with the issue of workers taking breaks in the fields at a time when the issue of compensation of peasant farm workers was paramount.6 Hasan introduced “The Angelus” to his readers as a Catholic prayer in southern Europe offered at dawn, noon, and sunset and compared the origins of the prayer’s stanzas from the Gospel of Luke 1:28–31 with passages from the chapter on Maryam in the Quran...