The words "Arab painting" immediately conjure up images of manuscript illustrations produced by the medieval artists of Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad. Whether the works were created to accompany scholarly scientific discourses like the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides and al-Jazari's The Book of Mechanical Devices, or to complement the lively tales of Kalila wa Dimna and the Maqamat of al-Hariri, their painters displayed a sophisticated knowledge of line and color, and conveyed the sensibility of medieval Islamic society and culture to the observer then and now.
But the recent exhibition "Tracce Arabe in Italia," held in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome presented the world of 20th century Arab painting, represented by works of modern Arab painters living in Italy. As one would expect, the difference between today's world and that of medieval Islamic society was reflected in these paintings. But the link across the centuries was there as well - to be found in the common love of, and fascination with, vibrant color and fluid line, so apparent both in medieval Arab miniature painting and in the large, canvases of Arab artists of the 1980's.
The immediate impression on walking into the exhibition was not, however, of the Islamic heritage passed on to these painters, but of the impact on them of Western art. The work of Mohanna Durra of Jordan, for example, is clearly inspired by the same qualities of clear light and resonant color which so affected Paul Klee and August Macke during their short visit to Tunis in 1914. There, faced with the profusion of light streaming in from all sides, Klee wrote excitedly, "That is the significance of this blessed moment. Color and I are one. I am a painter."
Durra chooses, as Klee did, to express these qualities by building up areas of color on the canvas with the palette knife. In a series of dramatic color and tonal counterchanges which create startling highlights, Durra hints at a skyline or suggests a water surface in his work entitled Imaginary Landscape.
This use of vigorous blues, greens and mauves is also found in the paintings of Fadhil Ukrifi of Iraq, who strives to trap that cool, glassy reflective luminosity seen in the evening light and the deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean. But for a method of translating into oils this mysterious factor, Ukrifi turns to the 19th-century French artist Monet, who, in his late work produced in Venice, explored the vibration of light on water.
The heat of the Middle Eastern day and the harsh and colorful life of Berber existence are recalled in the triptych of Mezred Abderrahmane of Algeria. He prefers the intense, glowing hues of reds, oranges and yellows set against pockets of browns and black of the same textural quality for, as the expressionist painter Emil Nolde stated, each color creates a sensation. "Yellow contains happiness and also pain. There is fire-red, blood-red and rose-red. There is silver-blue, sky-blue and thunder-blue. Every color conceals within itself its soul, making me happy, repelling me, or inspiring me."
But in case the observer should be seduced into thinking that to communicate an atmosphere of pulsating heat, the artist must employ reds and oranges, Ali al-Jabiri, an Iraqi painter, proves the contrary. Standing in front of his work, the shimmering heat and the dazzling light of the Middle Eastern desert are palpable, and yet this effect is achieved through the use of one color only - a creamy white. Al-Jabiri's desert is the silent, passive landscape which appealed to many east-Mediterranean mystics, who in their striving to realise spirituality, took to living in the desert, following a life of contemplation.
Vibrant colors are used confidently and emphatically, almost in the manner of the American artists Jim Dine and Cy Twombly, in the work of another Algerian artist, Ali Kichou. Delacroix, in his paintings of North Africa, transformed the traditional representation of light and dark, of chiaroscuro, into zones of luminosity by analyzing shadows and color, and applying this knowledge to the canvas. And, while Kichou's work cannot be said to be inspired by Delacroix, he has a similar understanding of color-intensifying light. But there is more than color and light in his work. Here the inclusion of "found" objects - a soft-drink can, a tape-reel, a plastic shoe sole, wire and tin foil - combined with a jumble of graffiti glyphs and pictographs worked in oils, poster and house paints, immediately communicates the noise and clutter of any village or small-town street in the Middle East. The romantic imagery of the desert and of tent life, so favored by such 19th-century European artists as James Tissot and John Frederick Lewis, finds no home here: Kichou's work is forceful and aggressive.
The painting of a third Algerian, Abdel Hakim Abbaci, is closely related to that of Kichou in the use of strong, bold brush-work which communicates a pent-up, almost explosive energy in contrast to his employment of cool, minimal color. Again, the graffiti element is powerfully evident and there is a clever manipulation of pictorial depth, creating a series of conflicting sensations and atmospheric vibrations by minimal means.
The patchwork of cultivated fields, as seen from the air, interests the Egyptian artist Shawki Ezzat, who originates from the rich silt-lands of the Nile Delta. Here, those fields, criss-crossed by irrigation channels, are transformed into the chessboard of life. The metaphor and imagery are continued with the anthropomorphic chess-pieces, which echo the family unit and its hierarchy of father, mother and children. Perhaps as a poignant reminder of the struggle for survival, the colors employed are sombre, ghostly-conveying a premonition of death.
There is a similar sensation when looking at the canvases of Hassan Badawi of Lebanon, where the composition and tonal shades serve to emphasize this distorted panorama of existence. Warm, pastel coloring is disturbingly offset by unemotional, cold shades of gray and blue. The vertical line of buildings with blind windows, containing an echo of George Grosz' work, dominates the composition, and where there are landscape elements in the form of ghostly gray, leafless trees, these too parallel the upward movement. The human element is subordinate. The human head, hand and torso are incorporated in an individual way but again the message of anonymity is present. The windows reveal nothing, the faces convey no emotion, and the hands are empty.
Two other painters showing at the Palazzo Venezia - Mahmoud Deadouch of Syria, and Mudhafar Shawkt of Iraq - choose to depict the human figures as anonymous, dismembered, characterless ciphers, devoid of emotion. There is yet another young artist in this exhibition also from Iraq, who employs such a device along with stereotype images of Islamica such as the crescent moon, mosque domes and minarets, and palm trees. However, Timimi Saied's talent lies in taking such well-known motifs and incorporating them in the composition to create highly arresting paintings which draw the visitor back again and again. His two works complement each other, but each stands in its own right. Medio Oriente powerfully communicates its message of incomprehension at the destruction and devastation present in so many parts of the Middle East, while Saied's other painting is concerned with those innermost crises which can threaten the very sanity of the individual. Instead of dark, melancholic tones, its background with earthly yellows, singing greens and ethereal pinks conjures up memories of home, reinforced with projected images of Arabness. Against this colorful field, the asexual figure with a super-imposed form wrestles with the crisis of identity. The figures in both works may be expressionless, but silent they are not.
Three artists from Egypt, Syria and Tunisia are linked by a common interest in the calligraphic mode of expression. Yehia Shafik, born in Cairo, shows the confident and masterly control of brush-work usually associated with Japanese calligraphers practiced in the Zen school. The elegant sweeps of the brush curve rhythmically in choreographic sequences across the canvas. But while Shafik uses a dark ground so that the brush strokes of jewel-like colors create a world of stained glass, Sami Burhan of Syria employs tones associated with heat and sand for the field. A sense of monumental mass is evoked by the use of the Kufic script which is contrasted by the intricate color shading within the letter forms.
The work of Nja Mahdaoui of Tunisia bridges the divide that can occur when employing a graphic image in an art context. It is not enough to work out the proportions of the letter forms and plot the inscription on the surface of the canvas, and expect the dynamics of the forms to take over magically. Similarly a sudden, spontaneous calligraphic stroke will often convey nothing but haste. Mahdaoui acknowledges this problem and subtly contrives to divide the surface laying the foundations of an exciting dynamism of plane and depth. She builds on this by her particular utilization of Islamic calligraphy, especially the Maghribi script, in a formal geometrical frame and in a contrasting central composition of organic growth. To intensify these elements she employs only two colors, gold and black, so complementing the two-dimensional quality of the letter forms.
It is probably these calligraphically-orientated works which the European visitor expects to see in an exhibition of modern Arab art; that and the portrayal of characteristic architectural designs or the patterned textiles of the Middle East. So the visitor experiences something like a pang of disappointment when confronted with work that so clearly uses Western art styles in order to convey its message.
After all, it was the 1912 Munich exhibition of l6th-century Persian manuscript painting which inspired Matisse to formulate his distinctive style uniting linear ornamentation and color surface constructions. And we know that Islamic painters dismissed the laws of perspective and chiaroscuro, so avidly studied in the West, some six centuries before European artists felt able to reject such conventions. With those facts in mind it is momentarily disquieting to see that in the 1980s Arab painters employ the grammar and vocabulary of Western art movements.
No doubt the responsibility for this state of affairs lies at the feet of Western art critics. During the mid-19th century the work of contemporary Arab, Persian and Turkish painters was continually criticized for the "unhappy" mixture of Western and Eastern artistic conventions. The recommended remedy was simple: those Eastern artists worthy of selection were dispatched to European schools where they could learn to be "real" painters, for in the academies and art schools of the northern hemisphere study of art meant the study of Western art. It is only recently that Middle Eastern artists have begun to assert their independence, working in a manner that is within and without the main-stream art scene, being a part of it and yet retaining a certain individuality.
This may not be a bad position to be in, since artistic communication, like any other kind, requires first a message and second a widely understood medium in which to express the message. At the exhibit in Rome, a number of Arab artists demonstrated their command of both content and clarity of expression.
Patricia Baker, an authority on Islamic art, lectures at universities and art schools in England and serves regularly as an international consultant in her field.