Arab art in the 20th century is referred to in three acts, explains Hala Khayat, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s Dubai. The three acts in question are pioneer art, encompassing art from the early part of the century; modern art, which refers to mid-century work depicting primarily Arab subjects and scenes; and contemporary art.
‘Until the late 19th century, the visual arts in Palestine were confined to religious iconography and handcrafted ornamental arts,’ continues Khayat. In the early 20th century, however, as the region faced rapid socio-political changes and welcomed an influx of Western pilgrims and travellers, a new visual language emerged.
At the vanguard of this new artistic movement was a group of experimental Palestinian artists, later referred to as ‘pioneer artists’, who were attempting ‘to understand and respond to their changing environment, independently exploring new materials, painting techniques and genres’, says Khayat.
By exploring new means of representation, ‘pioneer artists’ influenced and transformed ‘the aesthetics and practices of visual arts in Palestine’. Idealised landscapes, mythological subjects and copies of European paintings emerged on the market as artists practised and developed new skills. This pivotal shift in the way artists saw, appreciated and produced images signified a landmark moment in the history of Palestinian art.
Unfortunately, much of the documentation referencing the early history of Palestinian art was lost in the 1947-49 Palestinian War of Independence. The diverse genres and styles explored by the ‘pioneer artists’, however, are evidence of a new visual language that has greatly influenced subsequent generations of artists in Palestine.
Among the key pioneers were Jerusalem-based artists Nicola Saig (1863-1942), Khalil Halaby (1889-1964) and Nahil Bishara (1919-1997). Works by each of these groundbreaking figures will be offered for sale for the first time in the Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art sale at Christie’s Dubai on 23 March.
Nicola Saig was a notable iconographer trained in the Byzantine tradition in the Greek Orthodox church. By the turn of the 20th century, however, Saig had begun to experiment with new materials, techniques and pictorial images. In response to the growing influence of Westernisation and modernity, Saig embraced studio practice and began to introduce secular genres in his paintings, including landscapes, still life, portraiture and historic scenes.
Offered for sale in its original frame, the untitled landscape shown above, painted by Saig in 1920, depicts the Monastery of Our Lady of Saidnaya in Syria, a venerated pilgrimage site housing an icon of the Virgin Mary, traditionally believed to bestow miracles. ‘The gentle brushstrokes and use of radiant light and deep shades in the landscape are attributed to his style,’ says Khayat.
The natural and realistic rendering of this scene suggests that Saig may have attempted easel painting in nature while on a visit to Saidnaya, a mountainous city not far from Damascus. Coming to auction for the first time, the painting was found among 11 other signed and unsigned paintings in the home of a friend of the late artist in Bethlehem.
Khalil Halaby was trained in the same Jerusalem school of Christian icon painting as Nicola Saig. Like his contemporaries, Halaby experimented with ‘new genres, primarily influenced by postcards and photographs made available to him with the influx of Western missions and tourists’, explains Khayat. ‘He combined his skills of icon painting with new methods of easel painting to create his own distinct style, evident in this untitled forest landscape.’
Depicting a fox and a leopard amid cliffs and woodland, this composition, dating to the 1930s, illustrates Halaby’s tendency to copy motifs from reproduced images. ‘His attempts at realism, depth and perspective reveal a change from the flat iconographic style he was trained in, and a desire to explore new pictorial means,’ observes the specialist.
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'Nahil Bishara was skilled in many areas including sculpture, design and craftwork,’ says Khayat of an often overlooked artist. ‘Her notable commissions included a bust of Pope Paul VI, which was gifted on behalf of the Hashemite Kingdom on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem in 1964.’
Bishara is best known today, however, for her Impressionist-style paintings with bold colours and experimental brushstrokes that depict Palestinian folklore, landscapes and flower arrangements.
Unlike many of her early 20th-century pioneer peers, Bishara received a formal arts education, attending multiple courses at Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem between 1942 and 1944. Her knowledge of the arts, explains Khayat, is evident in her abstracted and expressionist paintings that stand in striking contrast to the realist paintings of her Palestinian contemporaries. The untitled flower study pictured above, executed by the artist in the 1950s, exemplifies Bishara’s experimentation with ‘dabs of colour that evoke feelings and memories of Palestinian flora’.