Egypt is the focal point of modern Arab art
During the 20th century, modern art came mainly from Europe to Egypt and spread from there to other Arab countries. Particularly the ruling classes imported the European works of art and started collections. In his thesis in art history which he wrote at the University of Bonn, Sheikh Hassan Bin Mohammed Al Thani, founder of the Arab Museum of Modern Art in the State of Qatar, explained how an own modern style by Egyptian artists was slow to emerge during the previous century. The thesis, which received the grade “valde laudabilis / very good”, will be published in the near future.
As far as the spread of modern art in the Arab world was concerned, Egypt was a focal point: Egypt’s connections to Europe began in the late 18th century, with the first academics teaching in the country on the Nile as early as 1908. An artistic movement institutionalized itself there before other countries in the Arab world. “During the twentieth century, Egypt was the Arab country with the most Western-style artists”, says Sheikh Hassan Bin Mohammed Al Thani. “Compared to other countries, the spectrum of artistic production was extremely diverse here.” For this reason it made sense for Al Thani to examine the development of modern Arab art using the example of Egypt in his thesis in art history at the University of Bonn.
According to Al Thani, the 20th century can generally be divided into three sections: Until the 1950s, modern art in Egypt was shaped by the European-influenced generation of pioneers. The following generation of artists however placed more emphasis on the national moment. In turn, the third generation renounced its predecessors, but incorporated the traditions of the pioneers. Additionally, Mediterranean artists influenced each other, resulting in a particular diversity.
While artists in Europe experimented, Egypt displayed remarkable stability. In the 1950s, Egyptian society underwent a transformation with many political and social changes. The June Revolution of nationalist Egyptian officers ensured that the rich class of aristocrats who collected works of art, supported artists and felt connected to Europe, retreated. Further, a large number of foreign artists left the country during the 1960s. “The direct contact between foreign and Egyptian artists was weakened”, explains Al Thani.
Abstract painting as a countermovement
This was followed by the socialist orientation of Egypt with connections to the Soviet Union. Abstract painting came to the fore as a countermovement, starting with Mounir Canaan and Ramses Yunan 1962. Several artists followed this trend. They abandoned surrealistic representation and arrived at partial abstractions. “But this abstract ‚Hurufism‘ also led to a return to calligraphy, incorporating a different tradition”, says Al Thani. The Egyptian Minister of Culture Tharwat Okasha founded several museums and placed emphasis on ensuring that the artists exhibited in state museums in order to promote a national identity. The 1970s are marked by the death of Nasser and Egypt’s subsequent Western orientation. With Farouk Hosni, an artist became Minister of Culture. He had the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art renovated and reopened in 1991. In 1989 he objected to the removal of nude drawings by Inji Aflatoun in the Salon Al Nil.
“For Egypt, the first country in the Middle East to be embracing modernism, Hassan Bin Mohammed Al Thani has tracked down and analyzed a wealth of sources that are mostly hidden from Europeans, and presented these together with the complex interrelations of the manifold associations of artists and institutions and the defining personalities”, says Prof. Dr. Heinrich-Josef Klein, who supervised the thesis.
Sheikh Hassan Al Thani: Collector and museum founder
Sheik Hassan Bin Mohammed Al Thani, born 1960 in Doha (Qatar), is an artist, collector and scientist. In 1987 Bachelor in History at Qatar University, 1997 Master Degree in Arts (History) at Zakaziq University (Cairo, Egypt) and 2005 Ph.D. in Arts (History) about Historical evolution of Modern Qatar 1811-1871 at the Ain Shams University (Cairo, Egypt). He began collecting works of art from the Arab world in 1986. In 1994 he opened his private museum. In the mid-nineties, Al Thani founded the “Arab Museum of Modern Art”, whose exhibits now also include the works of art collected by him.
Sheikh Hassan Bin Mohammed Al Thani