Editor's note: The following essay for the exhibition Body of Grace: the Art of Kamal Youssef, on view June 27 through October 11, 2014 at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Loretto, was reprinted in Resource Library on June 14, 2014. The essay was reprinted with permission of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on June 13, 2014. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Body of Grace: the Art of Kamal Youssef
by V. Scott Dimond
To a certain extent, all artists mediate between the solid, "real" world and the ineffable realm of feeling and spirit. They call our attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary, and help us to realize that hierophanies may be drawn from even the most commonplace things. Painter Kamal Youssef understands this role of the artist better than most. For more than seventy-five years he has applied himself with singular devotion to his chosen subjects. From the fellaheen of his native Egypt to Mr. and Mrs. Everyman in the United States, Kamal has sought and discovered the inner grace of humankind. A bright light in a numinous cosmos, such grace is the central theme of Kamal's paintings.
Like most spiritual concepts, the idea of grace is an intangible thing, more easily felt than described. On one hand, it is the charm and elegance defined by most English dictionaries; on the other, it is a religious term encompassing the gifts of God: goodwill, patience, fortitude, and a host of other virtues. Simply put, grace is the divine element in humanity that makes all of us worthy. As an artist, Kamal gives it form through both content and style. The purpose of this essay, then, is to examine Kamal's approach to his subjects and the choices he makes with regard to how he depicts them. In this we may gain a deeper appreciation of his art and of the message behind it.
Kamal's focus on the human spirit was formed while he was still a small child. Raised in an affluent household in Cairo, he was exposed early on to contrasts of wealth and poverty. Taken in hand by his grandfather, the imam of the district mosque, Kamal was taught kindness and empathy. He learned that all human beings had value, regardless of their station in life. Readily absorbed, this lesson was reinforced on holiday trips to the country village where his father's family lived. There he came to admire the quiet strength of the working poor, and to understand that their joys and sorrows were much like his own.
As a young adult, Kamal endeavored to be an advocate of those whose voices went unheard. He joined the avant-garde group, Art et Liberté, linking up with other artists, literati, and intellectuals in order to champion the cause of Egypt's oppressed. Encouraged by the free atmosphere of Art et Liberté, Kamal was also finding his own voice as an artist. He turned away from the outmoded academicism of the local art establishment and embraced his own muse. From his first exhibition with Art et Liberté in 1940 to his artistic coming of age during the following decade, Kamal affirmed his passion for the nameless and lowly, creating novel images of peasant life that reflected not only his desire for social justice, but also his belief in the fundamental value of humanity.
Kamal's early paintings frequently invoke themes of hardship and graceful endurance. The artist's protests were never strident, however, and in many cases, it is only a barren setting or a downcast gaze that suggests anything is amiss. Looking to the distorted landscapes of Dalí, Kamal sometimes tapped into Surrealism in order to convey a subtle sense of alienation and wrongness. On other occasions, he used animal surrogates to call attention to deprivation and want of basic necessities. Such restraint was perhaps to be expected from an artist working under a relatively stern regime, yet it also points to Kamal's emphasis on people rather than causes, and on the universal reality of suffering as opposed to any particular political or social views. From the beginning, Kamal called for sympathy, rather than anger.
Memory (1950) is a good example of Kamal's art during this period. Surveying a cracked incubator and an empty bowl, a forlorn rooster keeps watch over a desolate farmyard. In the background, something like a rope boundary cordons off the scene. Or perhaps it is a telegraph line, carrying messages to and from faraway locations? Regardless of how it is interpreted, this detail reinforces the isolation of this spot: there is no connection here, and to all intents and purposes, life has literally passed this place by. The mood is melancholy, tinged with fatalism, yet one cannot hold back a sympathetic smile for Kamal's plucky rooster. In the midst of privation, he still stands tall, as proud and self-possessed as any king.
As a founding member (in 1946) of the Groupe de l'Art Contemporain, Kamal consciously placed himself in the forefront of Egypt's nascent modern art movement. Exchanging ideas and exhibiting together with other pioneers such as Hussein Amin and Hamed Nada, Kamal further refined his personal idiom. Although his subject matter remained fairly constant, he now strove to synthesize stylistic influences from both ancient Egyptian and contemporary European sources. French art assumed particular importance, and in 1952, Kamal moved to Paris to study it firsthand. At the same time, however, he stoutly maintained his Egyptian identity. Kamal was not another immigrant come to learn the French way of painting; instead he was an established Egyptian artist adapting to a French milieu. As such, he worked assiduously to forge a unique hybrid style.
By the mid-1950s, the basic elements of Kamal's mature work were largely in place. Alone or in groups of two or three, the common man (or woman) was his principle subject. Birds, fish, and other animals often appeared in attendant roles, inflecting the meaning and mood of the image. The hieratic quality and earthen colors of pharaonic wall painting gave a monumental cast to his figures, which was relieved by the sensitive line and lyrical tone of the modern French masters. Although Kamal's work recalled that of Picasso, it was quieter and more sober. It was subject-focused, and eschewed the self-referential panache of the latter. For Kamal, Picasso and the other French moderns showed the way to creating a certain mood: a psychological aura that emphasized the spiritual dimension of his subjects.
Paintings such as Mounira (1954) paved the way for much of Kamal's subsequent oeuvre. As would be the case in so many later compositions, a lone woman is the central focus here. Enclosed within a high-walled courtyard, she is like the rooster in Kamal's earlier painting -- effectively cut off from the outside world. Her pyramidal form and the schematic placement of her limbs and profile (inspired by ancient Egyptian art) seem to indicate a certain stasis and lack of freedom. Yet she nevertheless looms large: filling the picture plane, she appears as if about to burst out of the painting itself. Her glowing red-orange robe suggests inner fire, and from this contrast, one may conclude that while the physical body may be confined and folded in on itself, the spirit is warm, lively, and able to transcend limitation. The small figure of a bird in the lower left complements this idea, for like the human spirit, it can fly over any high wall, singing as it goes.
While living in Paris, Kamal met his Russian-American wife, Maria. At that time, relations between France and Egypt were deteriorating over rights to the Suez Canal, so in late 1956, the couple moved to the United States. Kamal's training as an engineer enabled him to land a secure position with a firm in Pittsburgh, and for the rest of his career, Kamal pursued his art in western Pennsylvania.
The move to the New World opened Kamal to new people and places. As a result, his paintings became more universal and less specifically Egyptian in character. Although Kamal still painted subjects from his homeland, he was now experimenting with the American scene as well. His figures begin to appear in dresses and suits, and in the background, we occasionally catch a glimpse of wooden farmhouses, old barns, and city skylines. New colors emerge, and in many instances, Kamal's brushwork grows freer and more painterly. Echoes of ancient Egypt and the School of Paris remain, but they are now fully integrated within Kamal's personal vision.
Most notably, Kamal's compositions become increasingly iconic in nature. External reference points dwindle to a bare minimum, and in many instances narrative elements fall away completely. Even the old theme of endurance in the face of adversity disappears, and in its place there is only a single figure, often female. She can be clothed or unclothed and may be accompanied by a bird, which perches on her knee or rests in her lap. While Kamal's titles can offer clues, the meaning of the painting now lies almost entirely within the human form. In effect, the artist has distilled his subject in an effort to create symbolic images of human grace and the innate nobility of Man (or Woman, as is more often the case with Kamal).
Although one might choose any number of works to examine, It Is Back (1990) demonstrates Kamal's approach as well as any. One of the artist's many articulations of the female form, it represents woman as lifegiver. For Kamal, the creation of life is perhaps the ultimate expression of grace, and thus to this theme he returns almost obsessively.
In this particular painting, the figure of a reclining woman occupies nearly all of the pictorial space, save for that claimed by a large bird at rest on her knee. The woman's proportions are squat and rough-hewn, suggesting the strength of native stone; significantly, she touches the ground with both hands, reinforcing her connection to the earth as supreme mother. Although she is clothed, her ample breasts and deep décolletage emphasize her calling as nurturer. In similar compositions, whether the subject is nude or otherwise, Kamal will often indicate navel and nipples, again underscoring the role of woman as originator and sustainer of life.
Yet Kamal does not intend merely to point out the biological realities of women; rather he is celebrating the spiritual excellence of bringing life into the world. Giving life invokes all of humanity's best traits, most notably love and self-sacrifice. As if in communion with the divine mystery of these things, Kamal's figure stares wide-eyed, looking right through the viewer to some unseen higher world. The bird points to spiritual realities as well, for it can leave the earth to commune with the sun and the open sky. And yet if Kamal's woman is of the earth, she too is also of the sky, as her blue eyes and the blue tones of her robe seem to indicate. As Kamal sees it, she is the purest embodiment of the divine in Man.
Kamal's art, then, reflects his search for that which is holy. As an artist, he strives to make spiritual things visible. In his work, one feels the certainty of his conviction, a sense that it is only a matter of the right colors, the right proportions that will make manifest the divine. As one who knows himself close to revelation, Kamal paints without ceasing. He progresses apace, and as he goes, he leaves behind him a magnificent body of work. The journey has been long, but ultimately joyful, for Kamal is indefatigable optimist. Indeed, he surely knows that heaven is real, and that divine grace exists within all of us.
About the author
V. Scott Dimond is the Curator for Visual Arts at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.
About the exhibition
When the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Loretto unveils its newest exhibition, patrons will be treated to the largest exhibition ever mounted by the Museum. On June 27, 2014, SAMA will offer Wall-to-Wall Kamal, a retrospective of Kamal Youssef featuring nearly 250 works spanning more than seventy years. Appropriately titled, Wall-to-Wall Kamal will fill the Museum's main gallery, upstairs gallery, stairwells and foyer. Youssef's paintings harken to the beautiful and bold designs of ancient Egyptian art and are steeped in the glorious traditions of Egyptian lore, yet are met with the artist's contemporary style of painting to create a truly inspiring body of work. The exhibition will remain on view through October 11, 2014. (right: Kamal Youssef (American, b. Egypt, 1923), Peace Offering, 1972, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Gift of the artist. Collection of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art)
Youssef was born in Cairo in 1923. As a youngster, he was greatly influenced by his maternal grandfather, Mohammed Swelem el-Bekri, who taught him to appreciate people of different backgrounds. The lessons he learned in those early years stayed with him, as Youssef's artwork clearly exhibits a sincere love for all people.
His artistic talent was evident early on. Youssef began painting with watercolors and paper given to him by his father. He was later selected for a new, progressive secondary school, at which time his art blossomed. Under the tutelage of artist Ratib Siddik and European instructors, the new school inspired Youssef to seek new heights in his art. Instead of pursuing art at university, however, his father encouraged him to obtain a degree in engineering. It would prove to be a wise decision, as his engineering career would in turn provide him more artistic and economic freedom. After immigrating to the United States in 1956, Youssef worked as an engineer for Swindell-Dressler in Pittsburgh, where he designed highway overpasses and steel mills. He and his family eventually settled in rural Indiana County, where they still live today.
Despite having lived in the United States for more than half a century, Youssef's paintings continue to be influenced by his native Egypt, evinced by the flattened figures, minimalist shapes and burning colors. His figures, primarily women, represent the creative forces that have shaped, influenced and nurtured his life. Youssef's work has been exhibited throughout the United States, Egypt, France, Italy and Brazil.
The Museum will celebrate Wall-to-Wall Kamal with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 15, 2104. Reservations are requested and can be made by calling the Museum at (814) 472-3920. Fee for attendance.
(above: Kamal Youssef (American, b. Egypt, 1923), Oracle, 1997, Oil on canvas, 26 x 19 inches)
(above: Kamal Youssef (American, b. Egypt, 1923), Illumination, 2010, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Gift of the artist in memory of Maria Youssef. Collection of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art)
(above: Kamal Youssef (American, b. Egypt, 1923), Connected, 2002, Dye on paper, 24 x 18 inches)
To view additional images of paintings in the exhibition:
Resource Library editor's note:
The above catalogue esssay by V. Scott Dimond was reprinted in Resource Library on June 14, 2014, with permission of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on June 13, 2014.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Travis Mearns of the Southern Alleghenies Museum
of Art for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
All images courtesy of Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.
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