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A monumental 1966 composition from Kadhim Hayder's Epic of the Martyr series formerly in the collection of the Iraqi Ambassador to Lebanon H.E Nathir Umari
"The Hour has drawn near, and the moon was split in two." Surah Al-Qamar
"The horse represents the knight, keeping with the popular belief that the horse carries the spirit of the knight after his martyrdom"
- Kadhim Hayder
"The exhibition of The Epic of the Martyr took place in circumstances that were politically and culturally complicated; it turned the idea of martyrdom into a modern symbol that cried out in tragedy apart from any religious interpretation."
- Dia al-Azzawi
Property from the collection of H.E Nathir Umari, Iraqi Ambassador to Lebanon (1963-1966), acquired directly from the artist, circa 1966, thence by descent
Kadhim Hayder, Gallery One, Beirut, 1966
This monumental painting from Kadhim Hayder's Martyrs Epic series is a powerful depiction of the climax of the cycle, the moment of Imam Hussein's death. Painted in 1966, "Al Qamar" (The Moon) is a poignant and emotionally charged work that showcases the artist's masterful use of religious allegory and cultural mythology.
The painting comes to market with an impressive provenance, having belonged to Nathir Umari, a prominent Iraqi diplomat who served amongst other postings as ambassador to Lebanon, the United States, and France throughout the 1960's. Umari was also a senior representative for Iraq at the United Nations. The painting was acquired by Umari in Beirut during his ambassadorship
The title of the painting, "Al Qamar" (The Moon), has significant symbolic meaning in Islamic culture and literature. The moon is mentioned numerous times in the Quran, and is often used as a metaphor for the light of God, purity, and guidance. In this painting, the red moon serves as a symbol both of mourning and of the light that Imam Hussein brought to the world through his sacrifice.
What makes this painting particularly special is that it was not originally part of the Martyrs Epic series, but was painted a year after the exhibition. It shows the artist's fondness for this particular scene, and his desire to explore it further. In this respect "Al Qamar" shares a striking similarity ot the painting from the series that is now in the Barjeel Art Foundation, which adds to its significance and rarity.
This remarkable painting is a testament to Kadhim Hayder's importance in the history of Iraqi art, and his enduring legacy as an artist who captured the essence of one of the most important events in Islamic history..
Saleem Al Bahloly: The Epic of the Martyr:
"Haidar began working on the series in 1963 shortly after returning from London where he had studied printmaking and stage-design at the Royal College of Art. On the one hand, the paintings were a continuation of the interests of artists in the 1950s: in the inspiration Haidar found in popular culture and in his adoption of certain pictorial devices from ancient Assyrian sculpture to modern art (associated with the Baghdad Group for Modern Art) as well as in his concern with political struggles for justice (associated with the Pioneers art group). On the other hand, however, Haidar opened a new horizon for the practice of art by structuring the paintings around an act of symbolism.
The paintings are composed of horses and warriors, wielding spears and swords and bearing banners and shields, that are positioned on a flat, mythical landscape. This imagery was drawn from the annual taʿziya celebrations that mourn the martyrdom of al-Husayn and other members of the Prophet's family in a stand-off with the Umayyad army in 680 AD; in particular, the imagery is taken from the processions in which a pageant of costumed figures representing characters from the battle fought on the "plain" west of the Euphrates parade through the street accompanying poets who narrate in a vernacular tradition of verse the injustice suffered by the Prophet's family.
In the paintings, this imagery has been reconstructed according to a variety of devices inspired by a range of sources: the bodies of the horses and figures are turned toward the viewer, as if they are appearing on a stage or in an ancient frieze depicting a historic battle; a sense of performance is carried into the image by the intense expressivity of their gestures which seem to dissolve anatomical features and the outline of shapes in a fervour of emotion; the limbs of human and animal bodies alike are often multiplied (an influence of Assyrian sculptural reliefs that Haider almost certainly saw at the British Museum in London) and tapered (a form of modelling inspired by the sculpture of Henry Moore).
The reconstructed imagery is arranged in the paintings not to narrate a historical event but to elaborate a concept of the martyr that emerged out of that event—a hero who by his death in a struggle for truth paradoxically triumphs. Haidar developed this concept of the martyr in painting by focusing on the symbolic relation between the fallen martyr and his horse. As he explained to the newspaper al-Jumhuriyya in 1965: "the horse represents the knight, keeping with the popular belief that the horse carries the spirit of the knight after his martyrdom." That symbolism is present in the mourning processions where al-Husayn is represented by a riderless white horse; but it has its roots in a legend that, when al-Husayn's horse saw his beheaded corpse, it circled around his body, rubbed its head in his blood, let out a ferocious whine and killed forty men.
The paintings in The Epic of the Martyr were different sizes [they] reflect, as Dia al-ʿAzzawi has written, Haidar's desire to collapse the distinction between gallery and street, and between art and ritual, by reproducing the atmosphere of the folk celebration inside the museum. To that end, for the exhibition in 1965, Haidar composed a poem in which each line corresponded to a painting in the series, in this way reproducing the coupling of pageant and poetry in the mourning processions.
This attempt to go beyond the conventional materials of painting, in order to use the artwork to stage an experience that is not only visual but also emotive, makes The Epic of the Martyr one of the earliest pieces of contemporary art in the Middle East."
Saleem Al-Bahloly received a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and has held fellowships at Johns Hopkins and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is writing a book about an intellectual shift that occurred in Iraq during the 1960s in response to disillusionment with left-wing politics. The above text has been abridged.