Movement Introductions

The Baghdad Modern Art Group

The Birth of Arabian Modernism

For this miniseries, I have been scouring the internet to look for non-European art movements. It’s important to offer a non-Western narrative, but it’s also surprisingly difficult: this is because grouping artists and artworks into movements is an very westernised process.

This ‘movements’ miniseries will still include European art (like the Macchiaioli), but I wanted to include lesser-known, equally fascinating movements from further afield. So after some extensive research, today I will be introducing: The Baghdad Modern Art Group.

A number of different art movements emerged in Iraq following the colonial period. ‘The Pioneers’ founded the first twentieth-century movement, closely followed by the ‘Primitive Group’. By 1951, two prominent Iraqi artists had come together to form one of the country’s most well-known movements, The Baghdad Modern Art Group. Founded by Jawad Saleem and Shakir Hassan Al Said, their aim was to reinterpret Western Modern Art to incorporate Iraqi heritage, culture, and tradition.

The movement promoted the concept of stilham al-turath, meaning “seeking inspiration from tradition”.

Jawad Saleem, 'Woman Selling Material', 1953 © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain
Visitor looking at artworks by The Baghdad Modern Art Group at the Misk Art Institute ©

“His work is an excellent visual reference of how art can transcend and entwine cultures”

Jawad Saleem (or Jewad Selim)

Born in Turkey to Iraqi parents, and returning to the country as a young child, Saleem is regarded as one of Iraq’s greatest artists, specialising in both painting and sculpture. In 1938, he was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris where he was inspired by themes of western Modern Art, in particular, Henry Moore  and Pablo Picasso. The Nazi invasion of Paris forced Saleem to return to Iraq, where he was inspired to combine western Modern Art techniques with his Iraqi heritage. Towards the end of his life, he specialised in sculpture and produced a number of national monuments in Baghdad, including ‘Mother’ and the Freedom Monument.  

Even if you have never seen Saleem’s work before, his paintings feel somehow familiar. His Cubist forms are a blend of western Modernism and Arab influence. Arabian-inspired subjects sit in abstracted tiled rooms that contain expressive palm trees and traditional ceramics. It is undoubtedly inspired by Modern Art, yet it is original, unique, and intriguing. His work is an excellent demonstration of combined movements, and the perfect visual reference of how art can transcend and entwine cultures.

Jawad Saleem, 'Siesta', c.1950 © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain
Jawad Saleem, 'Untitled', 1957 © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain

“The movement was pivotal to future Modernist movements across the Arab world. ”

Shakir Hassan Al Said

Born in rural Iraq in 1925, Al Said was an artist, teacher, philosopher, art critic, and art historian, whose name is synonymous with Iraqi post-colonial art. The majority of his work is inspired by traditional, thirteenth-century calligraphy and the illustrations of Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, who was active in the 1230s. Like Saleem, his work can also be considered a fusion of movements such as Cubism and Expressionism with Iraqi culture and heritage. 

Al Said was responsible for writing The Baghdad Modern Art Group manifesto which was read at the group’s first public exhibition in 1951 – some scholars consider this the start of the first Iraqi Modern Art movement. By the early 1960s, and following the untimely death of Jawad Saleem, the movement came to a gradual end after almost a decade. The Baghdad Modern Art Group paved the way for later Iraqi movements including ‘The Impressionists’, ‘The New Vision’, and ‘The One Dimension Group’, and was pivotal to future Modernist movements across the Arab world. 

Shakir Hassan Al Said, 'The Articulate Cockerel', 1954 © Barjeel Art Foundation
Shakir Hassan Al Said, 'Evacuation, We Will Return', 1983 © Barjeel Art Foundation

The impact and innovation that can be seen in Iraqi Modernism is clear. It’s a shame that The Baghdad Modern Art Group, which is a perfect example of how art movements react to one another to progress and evolve throughout time, is so little-known outside the Arab world.

Nonetheless, Arabian Modern Art is widely celebrated in Arabian countries; in 2018, the Misk Art Institute in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, held the exhibition ‘That Feverish Leap into the Fierceness of Life‘, which explored Modernism in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, and Sudan from 1940 – 1980, and included many works by Saleem and Al Said.

It would be wonderful to see exhibitions like this held in Europe and North America, to share this fascinating fusionist movement with a Western audience that has been denied an education in non-Western art for so long.

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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