Avant-garde art between Egypt and the Soviet Union: Visual comparisons

This article is part of the Mada Encounters seminars series on history and cultural memory, and reflects on the first seminar, titled Art and the Totalitarian State.

One of the clearest manifestations of Egypt’s visual arts crisis is the absence of historical context to refer to or link to our historical, social and human reality. The idea for the seminar series stems from this lack of sources or serious literature dealing with them. In its first session, we discussed the Soviet avant-garde that attempted to put forward new ideas through an art connected with broader movements and ideas before and during Stalin’s reign. We posed questions about parallels between that art and its possible counterpart in Egypt. The Soviet avant-garde was used as an introduction to Egypt’s, through Boris Groys’s The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (1992).

This book tackles Soviet avant-garde movements and their new ideas; for example, art as a means for change rather than for representation. Groys discusses how the 1917 Bolshevik revolution evolved to actualize the aspirations of avant-garde artists to create a new world, a perfect and complete regime. Initially the Bolsheviks had a vague, neutral stance toward avant-garde artists. Referring to Lenin’s statement “I do not know much about art,” Groys explains that there was room for artists to put forward their vision for the new society under Lenin, from 1917 until his death in1924, and during Stalin’s rule until he dissolved art movements and institutions in 1932. Stalin then became a manifestation of avant-garde artists’ aspirations, “man as creator,” while insisting on socialist realism as the only art representative of the Soviet Union.

In Egypt, avant-garde art movements, such as Art and Freedom, emerged in the late 1930s. They attempted to integrate artistic experience in Egypt in the late nineteenth century into a larger context, that of modernity. They tried to transcend the framework of a bourgeois avant-garde movement constrained by the limits of its class. Later, such movements also refused to limit their scope to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vision of a new regime and his ideas for a state achieving national independence and decolonizing society in the first phase of his rule (1954-1961) – a phase similar to the Soviet Union’s formative years. The totalitarian state encompassing all society began when Nasser established the Supreme Council of Culture and Arts in 1957 and the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance in 1960. Then socialism was recognized as state doctrine, even for art, and artists were recruited to build the perfect Arab socialist society.

We presented works from the period to reflect these ideas and compare the Egyptian and Soviet totalitarian models for utopian societies, and their catastrophic implications.



One starting point for Soviet avant-garde art was the suprematism art movement founded by Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935). He announced it in 1913 at his The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 in St. Petersburg. It was arguably the first exhibition of art focused not on the visual depiction of objects or reality as it is but on an artistic idea of these objects, which took basic forms such as circles, squares and lines. One of the most famous works is The Black Square, which Malevich described as a true expression of suprematist ideas about creating a visual code unconnected to historical or social content, and specifically non-representational.

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Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), Black Square (c. 1915), oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

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Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918), oil on canvas, 79.4 cm × 79.4 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

In parallel to suprematism, constructivism was influenced by Malevich’s geometric abstraction but was also interested in the particular material properties of an object and its spatial presence in relation to “constructing” rather than the “forming” of classical artistic creation. Constructivists, such as Aleksander Mikhailovich Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930), worked the most with the Bolshevik revolution in the beginning, designing propaganda posters and plaques for the new regime. They were center stage in the Soviet art scene from the early 1920s until 1934 when socialist realism became the official ideology for art.

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Aleksander Mikhailovich Rodchenko, poster for state airline Dobrolet (1923), lithograph, 37.5 x 45.7 cm, A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow.


Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, agitprop poster (1930s), Mayakovsky worked for the Russian State Telegraph Agency (ROSTA).

The avant-garde idea of modernism as a new experience to redefine our relationship with matter and thus transcend traditional ideas about form, with the idealism and utopianism this embodied, created artistic models that were considered shocking or provocative in Russian society, which was mostly rural, conservative and illiterate at the time.

Stalin’s decision to eliminate the avant-garde was meant to foil art’s mobilizing effect. Socialist realism was enforced as state ideology and attempts to restore classical Russian art heritage were underway. That heritage was marginalized by avant-garde artists, who claimed it was bourgeoisie in nature. They strived for an art that was not only for the bourgeois, and felt that the regime’s role was to present appropriate art works to the proletariat to inspire ideas that would help advance society.

Works by pre-Bolshovik classical Russian artists such as Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), Ilya Repin (1844-1930) and Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904) were redisplayed. They were considered progressive Soviet art though they did not reflect the struggles of the proletariat, nor any Marxist or communist ideals. The ideologues of Stalin’s regime contended that their works captured the people’s true struggle and aspirations, highlighting the values of socialist realism despite being classical in style and nature.


Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, Boyarina Morozova (1887), oil on canvas, 304 cm x 587.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

In socialist realism, art was a means to know the truth, so it was directly linked to the representation of reality.


Ilya Yefimovich Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873), oil on canvas, 131.5 cm × 281 cm, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

Hence classical artworks were imposed on Soviet artists as models for inspiration under Stalin’s rule. People were to see reality according to Stalin’s view. The work of Ilya Repin (1844-1930) is a perfect example, showing the struggle of the Russian people against the atrocity of the capitalist bourgeoisie, whose oppression strips away their humanity. His famous painting Barge Haulers on the Volga or Burlaki (1870-1873) depicts 11 laborers dragging a barge. They seem to be suffering a tremendous amount of misery.


Boris Vladimirovich Ioganson, Interrogation of Communists (1933), oil on canvas, 211 х 270, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Egypt’s fine arts production started near the end of the nineteenth century when a group of artists displayed interest in learning drawing from Europeans living in Egypt. Eventually the School of Fine Arts was established in 1908. Questions arose about how European styles and mediums differed from their Egyptian counterparts, how the art forms in Egypt evolved historically, how this evolution can be linked to classical European or other art forms, and how Egyptian audiences react to various forms and styles – questions we’re still pondering. Limited to the educated and urban, and in many cases the western and the westernized, fine arts in Egypt remained the domain of the bourgeois, unlike other art forms that were Egyptianized on a much larger scale, like cinema and theater.

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Ahmed Sabry, Meditation or The Nun (c. 1929)

Since most people involved in the fine arts were from this milieu, that of immigrants and the like, they were not far from the broader historical context, especially Europe’s. The founder of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), was born in Alexandria and lived in Egypt for a while, and there were a lot of groups influenced by the avant-garde in Europe. So it’s no surprise that an Egyptian avant-garde movement appeared in the late 1930s, pioneered by Art and Freedom, the group founded by Georges Henein (1914-1973) and Ramses Younan (1913-1966) in 1939. It was very much connected to its European counterparts, but also involved in the historical and social reality in Egypt. It was accused of being elitist, westernized or out of touch with reality, but it published a magazine in Arabic, Al Tatwur, to present its vision of a utopian society in a totally different form. Some issues discussed at length include education reform, expanding the labor movement and legalizing sex work. Psychological research and surrealism were on the rise and Art and Freedom’s preoccupation with the subconscious shaped its approach. It claimed that contemporary fine art was out of touch with the Egyptian subconscious and was burdened with interests forced upon it from the outside.


Mahmoud Said, Femme aux boucles d’or (Woman with Golden Curls, 1933), oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, May Zeid & Adel Youssry Khedr Collection, Cairo.

In its first exhibition the group showed works by its own members, like Younan, Fouad Kamel (1919-1973), Kamel al-Telmissany (1915-1972) and Aristide Papageorge (1899-1983), but also surprisingly Girl with Golden Curls by Mahmoud Said (1897-1964). Said, an aristocrat whose father was prime minister, was chosen because he was considered the first Egyptian artist to develop a visual language inspired by the Egyptian subconscious and express the psychology of this society.

Thus the avant-garde in Egypt, unlike its Russian counterpart, did not reject all previous art or label all its predecessors as “classical” or “regressively bourgeois.”


Ramses Younan, Figure (c. 1939) The Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo.

The movement was active until 1945. Younan then moved to Paris with Georges Henein, returning only after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1957. (Henein was exiled back to France in 1962 for criticizing the Nasser regime).


Fouad Kamel, Exhausting Dream, The Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo.

After 1952 and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s (1918-1970) rise to power in 1954, there was a period of neutrality with regards the state’s role in cultural production. Nasser did not force the socialist, nationalist and post-colonial state model at the beginning, opting for a balance between reform and preserving the interests of the old elite. A drastic change occurred with the establishment of the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance in 1960, when a controlled media and all-encompassing state finally emerged.


Abdel Hady al-Gazzar, High Dam (1964), oil on celotex.

Fine artists were part of that totalitarian model, and all aspects of cultural production were contained within the Ministry of Culture. The state became producer and the sole sponsor of the arts. Even the avant-garde were not immune; upon his return to Egypt Younan became a state intellectual. He received a stipend from the Ministry of Culture until he died, and the state has his paintings in its museums and institutions collections such as Al-Ahram.

Though the state did not impose a specific artistic style, all media outlets worked single-mindedly to spread the idea of a utopian socialist society that builds and manufactures, drawing its legitimacy from continual battle against dark imperial forcesand establishing a broad post-colonial state beyond pan-Arabism. The state’s projects and programs became artists’ raison d’etre. They were to inform people of how significant all these plans were, in exchange for better living conditions, awards and significant positions in the state’s intellectual elite.

The High Dam by Abdel Hady El-Gazzar (1925-1966) is a good example of how the state not only controlled art’s subject matter but also which art should be acknowledged. It received the Medal of Arts & Science of the First Order and the State Merit Prize in 1964. Rather than using socialist realism, Gazzar went for a sort of abstracted popular surrealism.


Hamed Owais, The Leader and the Nationalization of the Suez Canal (1957), oil on canvas, 110 cm x 135 cm.

Ideological propaganda, whether socialist or nationalist, is evident in The Leader and the Nationalization of the Canal by Hamed Owais (1919-2011). The painting bluntly expresses the centrality of Nasser as leader, above and removed from his submissive people, authoritarian and patriarchal.


Tahia Halim, Bread of Stone (c. 1965).

The High Dam may be one of the most obvious manifestations of the theme of the state as literal creator of a new society. The consequence of the High Dam project was the relocation of Nubians living south of the dam. Before construction, a state-sponsored envoy of artists were sent, including Tahia Halim (1919-2003), Adham and Seif Wanly and Hamed Owais, to document Nubian society before the flood. The relocation tragedy was portrayed as Nubians’ huge sacrifice for a national accomplishment, which they too would benefit from. In his famous speech to the Nubians in 1960, Nasser declared that the state would do everything possible to compensate Nubians through the creation of a new Nubian society integrated into the wider Egyptian society and the industrial renaissance the dam would create.

The state paid close attention to the artworks produced by the envoy artists. Halim received the State Medal of Science and Art of the First Order for Bread from Stone in 1966, to mark the state’s appreciation of the importance of the documentation project.


Adham Wanly, Reciting Quran in the Region of Nubia (1959), oil on celotex, 80 x 71 cm.

But the project posed concerns that persist to this day. It left us with works reflecting an orientalist attitude to Nubians and their history. Adham Wanly’s (1908-1959) Reciting Quran in the Region of Nubia portrays Nubians in a caricature that resembles a typically racist representation (blackface) of African people everywhere, despite their diversity.

The naïve way the project “celebrated” Nubians, mostly in a racist form, and the way it sank into oblivion in the history of the fine arts movement and the narrative of the High Dam goes to show how in the ideology of the totalitarian regime, any value is solely defined by one thing: its ability to ensure the continuity of that regime.

Sarah Fayed 

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