A painter who was equally known for works on traditional and folkloric Egyptian subjects as he was landscapes and opera productions, the oeuvre of the Egyptian artist Seif Wanly is characterised by the artist’s palette of vivid hues and charming scenes. Having trained in the atelier of the Italian master Otorino Becchi, Wanly executed his observations of the world in a style that drew from both the Cubist and Futurist art movements.
Wanly established a studio in his native Alexandria with his brother Adham in the early 1940s which drew thinkers, writers, artists and musicians to the weekly gatherings hosted by the two brothers. It was during these weekly gatherings that conversation revolved around the latest trends in music, theatre and the visual arts both regionally and abroad. No doubt these cultural gatherings inspired Wanly to depict these subjects as a means of recording and archiving the cultural activities taking place in his hometown of Alexandria.
Wanly’s painting Don Quixote evokes in its style the analytic cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. An experimentation in painting, analytic cubism was the rejection of conventional perspective drawing to elicit the construction of three dimensional space in an alternative manner. Fragmenting the subjects by painting their form from several angles, analytic cubism allowed for the creation of multiple planes within one painting. This created the illusion of space and regular dimensionality in a painting while adhering to geometric shapes and a cubist style in the work.
Don Quixote reminds one of a masterpiece example of this style by George Braque such as the painting Man With a Guitar which was painted in 1912. Wanly’s experimentation with cubism is no less masterful in his painting of a scene from the opera Don Quixote which he would have watched from the wings of the Sayyed Darwish Opera theatre in his native Alexandria. The Egyptian artist regularly depicted the dance troupes and actors who performed in his hometown, and his devotion to the theatre and its participants was rendered over years in a variety of styles. His portrayal of the opera Don Quixote in this cubist manner helps to capture the energy of the libretto composed by Willhelm Kienzi.
Wanly depicts six figures in his painting, four of whom are masked. Ostensibly, the two unmasked are the lead characters Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. The painting has neither a traditional foreground nor background. The characters are all painted flatly on the canvas, yet space is alluded to with the placement of Panza at a strategic angle away from Don Quixote at the bottom right of the canvas. Panza is depicted singing, further alluding to Wanly’s depiction of the opera itself, and not simply the novella. The characterisation of Panza in both the novella and opera as a simple-minded peasant is emphasised with the cartoonish depiction of Panza with a very round head, an O-shaped mouth in song and eyes that look like those of a button doll. In contrast, Don Quixtote is more angularly depicted to suggest a more serious consideration of his character.
Don Quixtote stands the full length of the painting, his face in profile whilst his body is turned out to the viewer. His hand is carrying a lance which he has standing upright, his head is tilted backwards, perhaps looking ahead at his target of wind wills or other adversaries. Wanly adds endearing charm to Don Quixote by drawing him as a traditional Spaniard from that era with a sharp, pointed, red beard and a thin, black moustache– so long it sticks out and is suspended in the air whilst his armour shines brilliantly in its rendering of white and grey.
Behind Don Quixote, masked figures evoke both theatre masks and military masks. Yet they also conjure African masks like those that inspired Pablo Picasso during his cubist period. Wanly’s homage to Picasso, whether intentional or not, is arguably visible not only with the inclusion of the masks, but with his stylization of three different face types in this work– similar to Picasso’s various stylisations of faces.
Wanly’s choice of colours in his many works related to the opera are usually bright and depicted in saturated colours. In contrast, this work is rendered mostly in black with emphasis on certain parts of the scene rendered in bright greens, turquoise, white and reds. This careful balance and placement of colour not only supports the excellent technical deconstruction and Cubist reconstruction of the scene, but it highlights his skill in rendering the movement of music in a two-dimensional form so skilfully.
This work is considerably larger in size than anything that has recently come to auction by the artist, making this work a rare but significant piece. Owing to its size, a viewer can clearly identify the brushstrokes of the artist, and trace the spatial relationship between the subjects visually with the naked eye. The work allows for an immersive experience. For the briefest of moments, it would be easy to imagine one’s self as a participant on stage with the singers. No doubt, this is a rare masterpiece for both its aesthetic appeal and technical skill.