Though Mahmoud Said never worked as a professional artist, his paintings of the cosmopolitan community of his northern port city are central to the history of modern art in Egypt. His vibrant canvases continue to allure viewers with their perplexing range of images from nude Egyptian women to stylized Lebanese landscapes to glamorous Alexandrian aristocrats.
Said was born in 1897 in Alexandria to a prominent landowning family. His father, Mohammed Said Pasha, served as prime minister of Egypt from 1910 to 1914, and again briefly in 1919. His niece Safinaz Zulficar (1921 - 1988) became Queen Farida of Egypt, reigning from 1938 until 1948. His family lived in a luxurious villa (which today houses the Mahmoud Said Museum) in the affluent Gianaclis neighborhood. Said became interested in art in his teens and studied with a local Italian artist, Amelia Casonato da Forno, from whom he learned to paint in an impressionist style. He also studied with another Italian artist, Arturo Zanieri, between 1915 and 1918. Said's very early works portray simple images of the countryside and his friends and family in a painterly style with heavy, visible brushstrokes. He graduated from the Cairo School of Law in 1918, and in 1920 travelled to Paris, studying drawing at the private Académie Julian. Unlike other Egyptian ar-ruwwād (pioneer) artists, such as Mahmoud Mokhtar and Ragheb Ayad, who traveled to Europe on official scholarships, Said attended classes at his own expense, embodying the role of elite amateur artist.
Upon returning to Alexandria, Said became a lawyer at the Tribunaux Mixtes (Mixed Courts), a vanguard institution of international law that provided a single legal system for the many different nationalities inhabiting the cosmopolitan city. In addition to landscapes and nudes, he painted portraits of his colleagues, and thus represented his larger multi-national Mediterranean community in both his legal and artistic work. He adopted a painterly style which he would maintain throughout his career. His style is distinguished by simplified, almost decorative compositions in rich colors depicting the people and places of an elite Alexandrian community as well as more "traditional" Egyptians in front of imagined landscapes.
The stark difference between Said's portraits and nudes presents a perplexing dichotomy in his oeuvre. On the roof of the family villa, Said painted multinational Alexandrian elites dressed in luxurious western clothing with refined gestures. Meanwhile, in a studio shared with the Greek-Alexandrian painter, Aristomenis Angelopoulos in the downtown Ramleh neighborhood, he painted voluptuous nudes on bed sheets or in front of invented Egyptian landscapes. These erotic nudes portray darker skinned women more similar to the fellaha (peasant), a symbolic figure ubiquitous in contemporary Egyptian visual culture. Thus, Said by turns both asserts and represses his nationality, enacting a complex response to the competing forces of colonialism and nationalism. His sensual use of color, brushwork, and female bodies draw the viewer in, but also argue for a shared Mediterranean visual culture that incorporates, but ultimately extends beyond the geographic borders of Egypt.
Though Said painted primarily for his own edification, the pubic grew to appreciate his work in his later years. Artists belonging to the Egyptian Surrealist movement adopted Said as an honorary member and included his work in a few exhibits, selecting his famous painting, La Femme aux boucles d'or "The Woman with Golden Locks" for the cover of their first exhibition catalogue in 1940. Said became an increasingly respected member of the Egyptian art community, especially after he retired from his legal career in 1949. In the later 1950s and 1960s, he held many retrospectives and served on organizing committees for museums and exhibitions, including the Biennale de la Méditerranée of 1955, 1959, and 1961. Said served as member of the Jury Committee of both the third Alexandria Biennial (1959 - 1960) and the fourth (1961 - 1962).
Said is still respected as one of the fathers of modern Egyptian art. He also represents a particular Alexandrian attitude towards painting that depicted a cosmopolitan Mediterranean community and eschewed the more overt nationalist imagery of its Cairene peers. The strangeness in his works continues to allure and mystify viewers to this day.
|1960||Retrospective, Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria, Egypt|
|1951 ||Retrospective, Society of Art Lovers, Cairo, Egypt|
|1942 ||Alexandria Atelier, Alexandria, Egypt|
|1937||Studio Guild, New York, United States of America|
|1940||Art and Freedom Group, First Exhibit, Cairo, Egypt|
|1958||Egyptian Art Exhibition, Moscow, Russia|
|1953||Egyptian Art Exhibition, Khartoum, Sudan|
|1950, 1952||Venice Biennial, Italy|
|1949||"Egypt" Exhibit, Louvre, Paris, France|
|1938, 1948||Venice Biennial, Italy|
|1937||International Exhibit, Paris, France|
Awards and Honors
|1960||State Prize, Merit of Arts, Egypt|
|1937 ||Gold Medal, International Exhibit, France|
Alexandria, Egyptian modern art, Egyptian surrealist movement, nudes, portraiture.
Boctor, Gabriel, and Mahmoud Said. Mahmoud Said. Cairo: Editions Aladin, 1952.
Dāwistāshī, ʻIṣmat. Maḥmūd Saʻīd: Kitāb Tathkārī Li-Rāʾid Fann at-Taṣwīr al-Miṣrī al-Muʻāṣir, Maḥmūd Saʻīd: 8 Abrīl 1897 - 8 Abrīl 1964: ath-Thikrá al-Miʾawīyyah al-Ūlá li-Mīlādih. at-Ṭabʻah 1. Cairo: Ṣundūq at-Tanmiyyah ath-Thaqāfīyyah, Wizārat at-Thaqāfah, 1999.
Rāsim, Aḥmad. Ath-Thilāl: ṣafḥah min al-fann bi-Miṣr. Cairo: 1934.
Azar, Aimé. La Peinture Moderne En Egypte. 1. éd. Cairo: Les Éditions Nouvelles, 1961.
Abū Ghāzī, Badr al-Dīn. Maḥmūd Saʻīd. al-Qāhirah: al-Hayʾah al-Miṣrīyyah al-ʻĀmmah lil-Kitāb, 1972.
Abaza, Mona. Twentieth –Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011.
Boghiguian, Anna. Divine Illuminations, Al-Ahram Weekly, 9-15 September 1999, Issue No. 446, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/446/cu2.htm.
Hess, Valerie. "Mahmoud Saïd: A Brief Overview." Contemporary Practices: Visual Arts from the Middle East, issue 2, 2013.
Miller, Elizabeth. "Nationalism and the Birth of Modern Egyptian Art." Ph.D. Thesis, Oxford University, June 2012.
Seggerman, Alexandra Dika. "Revolution and Renaissance in Modern Egyptian Art." Ph.D. Thesis, Yale University, May 2014.