Jewad Selim (Iraq, 1919-1961) Young Man and his Wife

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Lot 44*
Jewad Selim (Iraq, 1919-1961)
Young Man and his Wife

Sold for US$ 336,000 inc. premium
Jewad Selim (Iraq, 1919-1961)
Young Man and his Wife
oil on canvas, signed and dated '53 in Arabic lower right, inscribed in Arabic on the reverse, the title in English inscribed on the stretcher in the artist's hand, framed
51 x 76 cm.


  • The inscriptions on the back read: al-Zawjan or "The Couple" and Shabwazawjah raqim 5 or "Young Man and Wife, number 5".

    Artist’s family collection.

    Jewad Selim Touring Exhibition, Portland (Maine), New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, USA, organised by the American Friends of the Middle East, March – April 1954;
    Iraqi Art Exhibition in India, Delhi, Calcutta and Hyderabad, 1953;
    Baghdad Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures, Al Mansur Club under the patronage of the King, February 1956;
    Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Iraq, Unesco House, Beirut, October 1957;
    Memorial Exhibition, Fine Arts Institute, Spring, Baghdad, 1962;
    Baghdad Modern Arts Group Annual Exhibition, Baghdad, April 1964;
    National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, January 1968.

    A Major Work by Jewad Selim

    Bonhams is most honoured to be able to offer such an important work by Jewad Selim, the father of modern Iraqi art, in our inaugural Dubai sale. Works by Jewad Selim are very rare and particularly such a fine oil painting as the present lot, which has come from the artist's family collection. Jewad's life came to an untimely end at the age of just forty-one and so the surviving body of work of this young artist, whose influence was to inspire generations to follow, is extremely important to the history of the modern art of the Middle East.

    Jewad Selim (1919-61)

    It is impossible to understand the modern art movement in Iraq without taking into account the works of this pioneer sculptor and painter, who was undoubtedly the most influential artist in Iraq's modern art movement. To him, art was a tool to reassert national self esteem and help build a distinctive Iraqi identity. He tried to formulate an intellectual definition for contemporary Iraqi art. In charting his country's contemporary social and political realities, he was committed to combining the indigenous historical and folkloric art forms, with contemporary Western trends. He was fascinated with the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian sculptures, the reliefs of Babylon and Assyria which he saw at the British Museum and the miniatures of the 13th Century painter Yahya al-Wasiti, which he discovered in Paris. On the other hand, he admired the work of the French sculptor Maillol and the British sculpture Henry Moore, who was a visiting teacher during his time at the Slade in London. He was also very interested in African carving that he frequented at the Horniman Museum. He studied the great masters, Impressionist techniques and the works of Post-Impressionists and tried painting in the style of Cezanne, Miro and Bonnard for whom he had a special feeling. He also studied the great post-war Picaasso-Matisse Exhibition, which left a profound impression on him. Nasb al-Hurriya (Monument for Freedom), which is a visual narrative of Iraq's 1958 revolution (still standing in the centre of Baghdad) marked the culmination of Jewad Selim's artistic career.

    Born in Ankara, Turkey in 1919 to Iraqi parents who moved to Baghdad in 1921, Jewad Selim came from a strongly artistic family: his father was an accomplished amateur painter, whose work was influenced by the European old masters, and his brother Nizar and sister Neziha were also accomplished painters, becoming well-known in their own right.

    Jewad was sent to Europe on government scholarships to further his art education, first to Paris (1938-39) and then to Rome (1939-40). The affects of World War II resulted in Jewad cutting short his studies and returnong to Baghdad, where he began part-time work at the Directorate of Antiquities, where he developed an appreciation and understanding of ancient art of his country, and he also taught at the Institute of Fine Arts and founded the sculpture department. During this wartime period in Baghdad, Jewad and a group of Iraqi artists became acquainted with several Polish officers who were painters, two of whom had studied with Pierre Bonnard. The Polish artists introduced the young Iraqis to the latest European styles and concepts, leading Jewad to comment in his diary that after discussion with the Poles, he understood the importance of colour and its application; and only then was he able to fully understand the works of European artists such as Rembrandt, Goya and Cezanne.

    In 1946, he was sent to the Slade School of Art, London. At the Slade, Jewad met his future wife and fellow art student, Lorna. Jewad returned to Baghdad in 1949 to become Head of the Department of Sculpture at the Institute of Fine Arts, where he taught his students to draw on the heritage of their country to create a distinctive Iraqi style and artistic identity, which would become the ethos of an influential art movement just a few years later. In 1950 Lorna joined Jewad in Baghdad, where they were married.

    In 1951, Jewad Selim formed The Baghdad Modern Art Group, stating in their proclamation that: "…A new trend in painting will solve the [artistic] identity problem in our contemporary awakening by following the footsteps of the thirteenth century [Iraqi] painters. The new generation of artists finds the beginning of a guiding light in the early legacy of their forefathers". Other members included Shaker Hassan al Said (see lot 96 in this sale), Khalid al-Rahhal (lot 15), Qahtan 'Awni, Faraj 'Abu, Mohammad al-Husni, Khalil al-Ward, Abdul Rahman Kaylani, Rasul 'Alwan, Fadil Abbas, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, as well as Selim's wife Lorna , his brother Nizar and sister Neziha. Modern Iraqi art began with the first exhibition of the Baghdad group where they announced the birth of a new school of art that would "serve local and international culture".

    After painting his most mature works in the 1950s, the artist gave up painting and focussed on sculpture, the culmination of which was his Monument for Freedom in Tehrir Square in Baghdad of 1960-61. This was the largest monument built in Iraq in 2500 years. This monument was a collaboration between Jewad and the architect Rifat Chadirji, with Jewad making the bronzes and Chadirji designing the wall. It was a government commission and resulted in an argument between Jewad and the President. Jewad had no political allegiances and felt strongly that art should represent the people rather than political events. Amongst the figures on the monument was a soldier, who was a compromise Jeward referred to as "the people's fighter for freedom from oppression". The time frame presented by the President was unrealistic and the project did not run smoothly. The first figure to be completed and hung was, ironically Freedom. Immense pressure was put on Jewad to finish his work and he suffered a heart-attack. He died one week later on 23rd January 1961 at the age of just forty-one, leaving a wife and two young daughters.

    Young Man and his Wife

    Jewad Selim painted Young Man and his Wife in 1953 for his one-man touring exhibition of America. At the time, he held three teaching posts: the Women's College in the mornings; the Higher Teachers' Training College in the afternoons; and the Institute of Fine Arts in the evenings. Despite this full schedule, he still found time for his daily guitar practice, maintaining a keen interest throughout his life, and his own sculpture and painting. The working arrangement suited the young couple with Lorna, who would become a renowned artist on her own right, working in the day and Jewad working late into the night. At home, they converted the traditional Iraqi "guest's room" into their shared studio. They had little money and art works produced were often sold from home as soon as they could be created. It was highly unusual for the family to keep any of their paintings.

    Prior to the American tour, Lorna persuaded Jewad to promise to give her one of his paintings from the collection destined for the States as a "family painting" and she selected Young Man and his Wife; Childrens' Games was kept also. All the other exhibits were sold and these two were returned to the family in Baghdad. After Jewad's death, Childrens' Games was given by Lorna to his brother Nizar and his family, and Young Man and His Wife remained with Lorna. The painting has only been shown a few times since then and has stayed within the family.

    Young Man and his Wife has a fresh and spontaneous feel, which Lorna attributes to Jewad's creative process, which was to know exactly what he wanted to paint before picking up his brush and he often completed works in just a few hours. Jewad's innovation of integration of Iraqi and European ideas creates a work that is a perfect fusion. The two figures stare boldly out of the canvas in the manner of Picasso or Modigliani; they have round faces with large open eyes and two-line noses, not unlike figures of the two European masters; crescents and other abstract forms fill the ground. However, when one looks more closely, it is clear that the iconographic inspiration for Young Man and his Wife is, in fact, drawn from the decoration on Abbasid figural lustre ceramics of the 10th Century, which to our eyes have a curiously modern appearance with their simplicity of line and abstract motifs in the background. Young Man and his Wife looks to the past and yet is uniquely modern.


    The 1953 exhibition caused great excitement and high critical acclaim across the United States, with large numbers of Americans coming to see Jewad's semi-abstract, intriguingly symbolic and forceful creations. Whilst Jewad's exhibition was on show in New York at Middle East House, the home of the American Friends of the Middle East who organised the tour, one art critic was heard to exclaim: "They are so modern". He looked very confused when the artist shook his head and said: "No, they are traditionally Oriental". Jewad explained that he had taken his art training in Europe and agreed that undoubtedly his work did reflect European influence; however the colour and forms he used, he declared, were familiar in the ancient art of Babylonia and the even older Sumerian culture, which he had absorbed whilst working on restorations in the Baghdad Archaeological Museum. At the time, the American press referred to the artist as: "Artist-Diplomat" and declared that he was a "wonderful ambassador of the new Middle East that is slowly emerging out of the ruins of the old". The tour made him the first Arab artist to receive such international recognition, a recognition which ironically preceded any amongst the general population of Iraq.

    Jewad's early death in 1961 was a shock to the artistic community of Iraq, but his spirit remained and was reignited by a new wave of young artists returning from their studies abroad, who picked up his mantle of extending Iraqi art into the rest of the Arab world and internationally. Jewad had paved the way ahead.


    Wijdan Ali, Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity, Gainesville, 1997;
    Contemporary Art from the Islamic World, Jordan, 1989
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