Revolution and the arts: how Picasso inspired the Arab world

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What were the connections between the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and contemporary artists across the Middle East and north Africa? That is the question raised by the Institut du Monde Arabe in the French city of Tourcoing, with an exhibition reuniting 70 works by artists from Algeria to Syria – some never seen before in Europe.

The exhibition "Picasso and the Arab Avant Garde", in Tourcoing, near Lille, embarks on a mission to portray the mutual fascination between the Spanish painter and his Arab world contemporaries.

Born in Malaga in 1881, Picasso spent most of his adult life in France, going on to become one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, credited with co-founding the Cubist movement.

Picasso did not travel widely, and never visited the Middle East, but he was undeniably influenced by art from around the world, notably the African continent.

"He described himself an oriental," curator Mario Choueiry told RFI, explaining that through his Andalusian origins in southern Spain, Picasso had a connection to Arabic culture.

In this exhibition, the viewer is exposed to a mirror effect, the likenesses between some of the paintings is startling in style and in spirit. It was an opportunity, Choueiry says, to highlight artists they felt had been unjustly overshadowed.

Beyond the recognisable influence of cubism and abstraction, the exhibition explores the themes of emancipation, anti-colonialism, and aspirations for a better, fairer world.

"Picasso was the promise of universal artworks, without the hierarchy of place, geography or style," says Choueiry. He looked to archaeology, Mesopotamia, ancient arts, Egypt, just as the local artists themselves did.

The 32 artists in the exhibition hail from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Tunisia.

Many spent time studying art in France and Europe and took home more than just techniques. Some of them even crossed paths with Picasso and exchanged views.

They saw in Picasso's works a model of creating "a new world" with a new way of expressing national identity, breaking away from tradition, and making a political statement.

Picasso and politics

Although he had not openly taken sides during the world wars, and did not join the military, Picasso was close to artists in the surrealist movement, such as Paul Eluard, who from the 1920s were actively protesting against French colonialism. He ended up joining the French Communist party in 1944.

However, it was his art that spoke louder than any words, providing artists in the Middle East with a creative template for political expression.

One of the key focal points of this artistic dialogue is Picasso’s epic painting Guernica (1937) depicting the bombing of civilians by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War.

The black and white cubist work, measuring seven metres in length, is on display at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. A close-up photograph of the work in progress taken by Dora Maar appears in the exhibition.

In 1938, the group Art and Liberty, in Egypt published its "Long Live Degenerate Art" an artistic manifesto featuring Picasso’s Guernica on its coverpage.

Another similar manifesto appeared in Iraq in 1951 written by the Baghdad group, citing Picasso as one of the "fundamental figures of modern art", while in 1962, another manifesto appeared in Syria.

"With Guernica, Picasso created a turning point in my art and indeed for the entire history of art. He managed to invent simple and expressive symbols, both historical and universal, a style that conforms to our humanist values and morals, in refusing all forms of violence against civilians, that no ideology nor regime can justify," wrote Dia Al Azzawi, an Iraqi painter represented in the exhibition.

Some of Al-Azzawi's prints depict the horrors of Palestinians massacred in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s.

The symbols used in Picasso’s Guernica – the horse with the pointed tongue, the minotaur – appear in Syrian painter Alwani Khozaima’s triptych "Sans Titre", a scathing condemnation of the massacres perpetrated by the Baas regime in Feb 1982 under Hafez al-Assad.

Hundreds of civilians were summarily executed during an operation intended to weed out the opposition in the form of Muslim brotherhood in Hama.

Many of the artists shown here saw Picasso’s expression as a moral one, and they borrowed symbols that could express the anger and disgust at atrocities carried out by different regimes through the ages.

Egyptian artist Samir Rafi, who met Picasso in Paris, also painted scenes of uprising against war and tyranny. As a youth he had joined up with other surrealist painters in rejecting authoritarian rule, using art as weapons. He later went to Algeria and joined the FLN (National Liberation Front) before coming back to France.

Picasso’s connection to Algeria can be seen in his studies for "Les Femmes d’Alger", a theme he began in 1954, at the start of the Algerian war. Once again, art and political events of the day were reunited.

Picasso’s artwork crops again in relation to revolutionary causes by way of a portrait of Algerian FLN activist Djamila Boupacha. She had been imprisoned in 1960 for terrorist activities against French colonial rule and was defended by lawyer Gisèle Halimi.

Halimi didn’t hesitate to write to Picasso asking him for the portrait to help pay legal fees. It appears in the inside cover of a book written by Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir in 1962.

Like Boupacha, women feature prominently throughout the exhibition as sources of endless inspiration, and as a counterpoint to the war and destruction they represent life and abundance.

Four women artists are featured, and as Françoise Cohen the director of the IMA Tourcoing museum told RFI, "they were artists in their own right, not just muses".

"This was a positive period for women artists."

For Cohen, women models, and nudes in particular, were the cornerstone of Picasso's avant garde style, representing both tradition, the human being in its most simple form, while also representing the evolution towards Cubism.

"It's completely astounding. It shows that Arab art has for too long been under represented," former culture minister Jack Lang told RFI at the opening.

"That's one of the reasons why the Arab Institute has such a large collection, one that is full of talented artists who were often avant garde in their own countries and elsewhere in the world.

This comparison with Picasso shows to what extent the links between him and the Arab artists were strong, practically fraternal, he said.

The "Picasso and the Arab Avant Garde" exhibition will be on display at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Tourcoing, until 10 July 2022, and at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 2024.

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