This magnificent painting is the largest of Mahmoud Said's nudes to come to public auction. L'Endormie has remained in private hands since it was painted. First in the major collection of Hussein Sirri Pasha (1894-1960), the Prime Minister at three different points in Egypt's modern history - twice in the 1940s, and finally at the time of King Farouk I's abdication. In the early 1950s L'Endormie was acquired by the famous Egyptian architect and Professor of Beaux Art at Fouad (now Cairo) University, Antoine Nahas. On Nahas' death in 1966 the work passed on to a private collection and has been in Europe since. This is the first time the portrait has been on public display since the early 1950s.
Said's nudes are not immediately associated with power and politics, at first glance they are simply celebrations of the female form; their languorous bodies glowing with light, their Rubenesque curves both a testament to Said's European education and his own predilections. However, it should be noted that in Said's lifetime the nude was a fierce political statement. The figure in and of itself was considered to be in direct opposition to accepted religious dogma, a perception that was still held by many. Even more fiercely adhered to was the opinion that the nude figure was an absolute taboo, most especially the female form. Being a relative of the Queen, Said was able to circumvent these rules and push the boundaries of artistic practice in Egypt.
To appreciate the importance of this body of work, it is crucial to understand his political milieu. It was a time of enormous change in Egypt, on Tuesday the 28th of February in 1922, after forty years of British rule the occupying power announced a unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence. This momentous event in Egypt's modern history was heralded by a great nationalist movement largely driven by women and the lower classes.
The movement had begun four years prior to the declaration, when a group of prominent Egyptian politicians approached the British high commissioner to request complete independence. This delegation included Sa'ad Zaghul and Ali Sha'rawi, who were later imprisoned and deported to Malta prompting mass demonstrations and strikes by students, bureaucrats and the literati.
With the loss of Egyptian men from the political sphere, Egyptian women led by Safia Zaghul and Huda Sha'rawi, the wives of the imprisoned figure-heads, seized the reigns of the nationalist movement. In 1919 on the 16th of March, between 150 and 300 upper-class, veiled women staged a demonstration against the British occupation. From this point forwards, women began to demonstrate alongside men, and even in the countryside the fellahas (farmers) disrupted British communications and damaged infrastructure.
The revolution had a profound effect on the work of the Egyptian pioneers. Mahmoud Said considered women to be a source of existential power, as wife, as mother and as revolutionary, and he represented them as symbols of Egypt's national identity. His nudes are a testament to the radical zeitgeist of the period, and are important both as a historical record and artistic development.
L'Endormie is a magnificent example of Mahmoud Said's iconic nudes, published in the seminal work on the artist and with impeccable provenance, it is undeniably a collector's piece.
Oil on panel
104 by 76.4cm.; 40 7/8 by 30in.
Eswat Dawastashy, Mahmoud Said, Cairo 1997, p. 141, no. 84, illustrated
Collection of Former Egyptian Prime Minister Hussein Sirri Pasha
Collection of Mr Antoine Nahas, Egypt
Private Collection, Europe