MAHMOUD HAMMAD A SYRIAN MASTER OF ABSTRACT ART (1923-1988)
Born in Damascus in 1923, the Syrian multi-skilled artist Mahmoud ibn Amin Hammad was a painter, a printmaker, a medal engraver and a sculptor. Hammad attended the Italian School of Damascus and the Jawdat al Hashemi secondary school in Tajheez where his professors, given his remarkable talent, encouraged him from an early age to study art.
At the age of sixteen, Hammad traveled to Italy for the first time where he discovered history of art and paintings by renowned foreign artists and his passion subsequently grew tremendously. But the war forced him to return to his homeland where in 1939, he participated in his first group exhibition in the halls of the Law Institute of Damascus and met fellow artist Nassir Chaura (1920-1992) with whom he maintained a long-lasting friendship. In 1940, both artists partnered to establish the Atelier Veronese in the center of Damascus and later, initiated the Syrian Art Association in the neighborhood of Abu Roummaneh, where contemporary artists would gather to learn, discuss ideas, find inspiration and create works of art.
Nassir Chaura and Mahmoud Hammad exhibited together a few times during their lifetime and one of their most impactful shows was at the Club Al Saad in Aleppo in 1951, at a time when Hammad had settled there to teach art in schools. The exhibition caught the attention of many art critics and collectors and soon after, Hammad was selected for the first Autumn exhibition to be held in the National Museum of Damascus where he was granted the first prize for his work entitled Maaloula.
In 1953, following his acclaimed exhibitions, Hammad participated in his first solo show at the Fine Arts Association and a few months later, he was granted a scholarship from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome and settled in the Italian capital until 1957. While he studied painting, mural art, printmaking and medal engraving, Hammad also took part in exhibitions, received many prizes and acquainted other Arab artists including Adham Ismail (1922-1963) with whom he traveled to Andalusia.
Upon his return to Rome, Hammad married the Lebanese artist Durriya Fakhoury and in 1957, they returned to Syria and Hammad became an art professor in Daraa where he lived for two years and started a series of painting depicting the social scenes of the Southern area of Horan. In 1960, he moved back to Damascus and helped with the establishment of the first Faculty of Fine Art. In 1967, a UNESCO grant led him again to Europe for a few months, this time again Rome but also Paris where he encountered renowned contemporary European artists and his works were shown to a new foreign audience.
Back in Damascus, Mahmoud Hammad alongside Nassir Chaura and Elias Zayat founded the Damascus Group, an affiliation of Syrian Abstract artists and soon after, Hammad was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Fine Art where he remained until 1980.
Mahmoud Hammad, considered today as a pioneer of Modern Syrian art and Arab Abstraction, depicted abstract compositions that revealed an extraordinary balance between form and color and evoked both his academic and aesthetic savoir-faire.
His work can be divided into four consecutive phases:
Between 1939 and 1953, Mahmoud Hammad was inspired by Impressionism and as such, his paintings revealed Realism and sometimes even Surrealism like the many drawings he executed for famous magazines of the time.
The second period of his career, from 1953 to 1957, was his Italian period. As the artist stated 'in Rome, all channels of art and culture opened up, to me this period was a period of learning, I was not looking to create a personal style that defined me, but it was rather an experience to develop a deeper knowledge of the discoveries that were taking place in the artistic field'. While in Italy, Hammad painted many landscapes, nudes and faces in a classical and academic style.
From 1958 to 1963, upon his return from Italy and as he settled in the Southern part of Syria in Daraa, Mahmoud Hammad strived for his own artistic identity and focused through his paintings on his impressions of the landscapes surrounding him as well as the archaeological and social aspects of the city of Daraa. At the time, Hammad painted February 1958, a politically charged work through which he evoked the union between Egypt and Syria by depicting the metaphorical birth of the two nations' child and at the same time, alluded to the Palestinian cause in many of his works among which A Girl from Horan, Wounded and Exile.
The final and most acclaimed period of his career - his Abstract period - was from 1964 to his death in 1988. At the time, Hammad had achieved aesthetic maturity and started his sought-after series of Abstract works in which the Arab script and letters became the main element, derived in a Modernist style. By arranging the letters throughout the surface of the work in a modern style, Hammad added rhythm to his paintings. In the first years, words were decipherable, but with time, they melted into abstraction and became architectural and musical compositions where emotions took over the meaning of words.
As such, Hammad created contemporary paintings in which the Arabic letter played the most important role and through the letter itself, his playful and joyful compositions revealed a new reality.
While his paintings were gaining exposure regionally and internationally, Hammad also focused on printmaking, designing official stamps and engraving medals with social and nationalistic themes and was soon commissioned the medal for the Republican Golden Hero, a unique casted medal that was gifted to the President Hafez Al Asad in 1974. As a sculptor, Hammad was also commissioned to produce a symbolical statue for the Martyr's graveyards in Nejha as well as the Statue of the Unknown Soldier that was erected in the Kassyoun Mountains.
Awarded with the Knight Commander Award from the Republic of Italy in 1975 and with the Syrian Highest Medal of Merit in Arts and Literature in 1977, Mahmoud Hammad was acclaimed internationally during his lifetime. Posthumously, the Syrian government granted him a few other prizes for arts and culture and Mahmoud Hammad undeniably remains today one of the most important and influential artists of Modern Arab art.
He was awarded the Syrian First Class Order of Merit in 1989 by the Syrian Republic after his decease.
Biography by Elias Zayyat, quoted from the Syrian Arabic Encyclopedia - Translated by Bibi Zavieh and Hala Khayat, published in Christie's Catalogue " Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian, Turkish Art " 2014, sale 1230 - Dubai, UAE.