An Aesthetic Desert

The disappearance of the Van Gogh painting — often referred to erroneously as Poppy Flower — from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum is not the first theft of its kind. Two years ago, in September 2008, two paintings by Hamed Nada were stolen from the Cairo Opera House, although they were later restored. In March 2009, nine works dating from the Mohamed Ali period were stolen from the Mohamed Ali Palace in Shubra Al-Kheima. They were recovered 10 days later.

Indeed, the painting that is currently the focus of the furore itself vanished mysteriously in 1978 only to be restored to the museum soon afterwards. Its temporary disappearance led some to suspect that the Van Gogh that was until very recently on display is not the original. In 1988 Youssef Idriss created a storm when he claimed the painting on display at the museum was a fake and that the original had been sold for $43 million.

Art theft in Egypt is not restricted to paintings. Because of their historical and monetary value Egyptian antiquities and artefacts from various historical periods have also disappeared. In some cases entire murals have been stripped from walls and sent abroad.

Thefts from art museums inevitably excite public interest. Perhaps some among our older generations will recall “How to Steal a Million, a film starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn, centred on the burglary of a Parisian gallery.

As exciting as the subject is we should not let it blind us to other issues raised by the theft. Of course, the mystery surrounding the break-in is thrilling, the volleying of accusations and documents between the Minister of Culture and the museum director at once dramatic and grim. Certainly, the incident threw a stone into the stagnant pond of the media, which has virtually exhausted discussion of the Ramadan serials even before they are halfway through. Indeed, the theft of the Van Gogh from the Mahmoud Khalil museum brought people back to politics, adding a touch of the detective thriller for good measure.

The incident also throws into relief the relationship between Egyptians and art in general, and painting in particular. I wonder how people have actually seen the painting that was stolen, and of these how many experienced the shiver that artists mention when speaking of Expressionist works, and of the works of Van Gogh in particular. I did sense something of a psychological and physical jolt when I saw one of Van Gogh’s paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art and, again, when I was in front of a major work by Matisse in the Hague. Not that my particular experience should be of concern to anyone. But I wonder whether others in Egypt have felt something similar. I also wonder whether many people are really interested in the subject at all.

As serious as the theft of the painting is, a more serious problem is the grand larceny of the Egyptian artistic spirit, a crime perpetrated by the steady erosion of the Egyptians’ aesthetic appreciation over the past decades. Consider, for example, that on the day when the Van Gogh disappeared the Mahmoud Khalil Museum had just 11 visitors. Not one of them was Egyptian.

The true magnitude of the tragedy sinks in when we contrast Egyptians today with their ancestors. Egyptians have always been builders and artists at one and the same time. The construction of temples, churches, mosques and palaces was not merely to fulfil practical functions. There were always those touches of spirit and elements of transcendence that connect the earth with the heavens.

In the mid-19th century Egypt began to accumulate an enormous storehouse of artistic wealth in both the aesthetic and economic senses of the word. It was at this time, too, that the house of Mohamed Ali and the European architects and artists attached to the royal court began to transmit the culture and aesthetics of modern art to the cultural and economic elites which emerged from the Ottoman fold at the turn of the 20th century. Along with this growing awareness came the desire to possess the finest works of art that Europe produced, and the custom developed of establishing private museums named after their owners. These were healthy phenomena; they reflected the idea that great works of art are an important part of human heritage, possessing the power to enlighten and inspire mankind and elevate human beings above their basic instincts.

Egypt, poor and colonised as it was, came to have some of the richest collections of rare works of art. The fate of this wealth probably requires a special study or investigation, starting from the first acquisitions of the Mohamed Ali dynasty to the Van Gogh. Part of this study should include the immense efforts that have been dedicated in recent years to the construction of museums and to assembling and displaying this artistic wealth to the public. Unfortunately, however, the Egyptian aesthetic eye has changed. Government buildings and facilities no longer reflect a coherent architectural aesthetic or the virtue of acquiring works of art, whether they are created by foreign or Egyptian artists. Sometimes it seems as though a secret agreement has been reached to bar statues and paintings from government edifices. As a result, aesthetic thought and creation have been replaced by various forms of Islamic art, which is neither art nor Islamic because instead of striving to render the sacred message in a powerful artistic expression, it parrots the now ubiquitous Arabesque ornamentations that are used to embellish the names of God, as though the point were to create a pedagogical tool, like a fancy blackboard, rather than to penetrate people’s minds and to refine their souls.

Public policy has served to aid this process of dulling aesthetic sense. Whole decades went by without a statue being erected in the public sphere. True, there has been some improvement in recent years, but it has been grudging, eliciting muted protests that vaguely hint at the taint of sin because of the inability to differentiate between commemorative monuments and idols.

The educational system has aided and abetted the erosion of any artistic appreciation. Aesthetics were once incorporated into arts and crafts classes. Sadly, if inevitably, the entire concept proved beyond the mental and physical capacities of schools operating on three shifts. The result is a school culture that looks on art as though it were a supplement to civilisation rather than its essence. If this culture sees any value in art at all it is restricted to portraying acts of heroism. When art is reduced to a propaganda instrument, there is little left to say about the role of art in life.

The attrition has not only affected the government and the general public. It has also afflicted the cultural and economic elites. These, too, have greatly reduced the space and attention dedicated to works of art and appreciation of the arts. The intelligentsia have kept a small reserve of artistic awareness on the side just in case some incident or other requires them to spout some artistic factoids in the press or on the talk shows. Economic elites, meanwhile, have stopped buying works of art. Apart from a handful of entrepreneurs in Egypt, the passion for collecting works of art has vanished. If there is anyone out there who has built up a collection, they have certainly not bothered to create a museum. In fact, the only business magnate I know who does have a collection large enough to make a respectable private museum and who, in fact, used his collection as the basis of a book on major works of art in Egypt and the Orient, is Shafiq Gabr.

Mahmoud Khalil and his colleagues of the first half of the 20th century have no peers at the outset of the 21st century. The theft of the Van Gogh is a disaster but the bigger disaster is the theft of the buds of aesthetic appreciation from the Egyptian mentality. If the restoration of the Van Gogh requires the services of several security agencies, the restoration of the latter will require the concerted efforts of society and government. Without a doubt, various forms of crude behaviour, clumsy speech and poor public taste, are in part due to the lack of the beauty and taste for the arts in our lives. The time has come for them to be replaced at the top of our agenda.

ABDEL-MONEIM SAID writes for Al-Ahram Weekly.