Pablo Picasso never traveled to the Arab world, yet his work played a major role in the development of avant-garde Arab art.
The impact of the Spanish painter’s works is discernible in the strokes of many modern Arab artists. In Egypt, the Surrealist Arts collective Art et Liberté, in 1938 vocally supported European artists who were confronting totalitarian regimes by launching a pioneering manifesto titled “Long Live Degenerate Art!” The manifesto featured a replica of Guernica, intended to symbolize the resilience against subjugation and representing a form of “free art.” Ever since, many Arab artists employed Picasso’s Cubism to carry out similar ideological messages. For example, Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi was inspired by Guernica in his politically-motivated works in the late 70s and early 80s to draw attention to the Palestinian question. Also in Iraq, Hafidh Al-Droubi’s 1976 painting ‘The Couple’ showcases a strong resonance with Picasso’s unique style and embodies a symbiosis between Arab artistic narratives and Picasso’s modernist ethos. Similarly, Syrian artist Alwani Khozaima used figures from Picasso’s Guernica to draw attention to the tumult and violence in Syria during the late 80s.
Arab artists were also vocal about being inspired by Picasso. In fact, the Baghdad Modern Art Group established by Iraqi artists Jewad Selim (1919-1961) and Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925-2004), called Picasso “the artist of this age” in their 1951 manifesto.
How the Arab world influenced Picasso
The inspiration and interaction was reciprocal between Picasso and the Arab world. Moreover, Picasso was drawn to the Algerian war against the French colonial empire, evidenced by his series entitled “Les Femmes d’Alger”, a theme he began in 1954 when the war began. “He kept all his archives, and we have these exchanges of letters with all these women,” explains Françoise Cohen to Franceinfo. Notably , one of Picasso’s works portray Djamila Boupacha, an Algeria guerilla fighter during the war.
A perpetual influence
Contemporary Arab artists are also continuing this tradition of inspiration from Pablo Picasso. One notable example is Jeddah-based artist Faisal al Kheriji uses Picasso’s geometric abstractionism in his portraits, creating his own unique painting style, which mixes Saudi heritage, cubism, and surrealism. “I am most inspired by Pablo Picasso and George Condo, because of their very unique painting style that stands out from any other artists,” the Saudi artist explained to Bayt al Fann.