Through captivating compositions full of theatrical imagery tackling good, evil and tragedy, Iraqi Modernist Kadhim Haider has formulated a unique painterly practice fusing religious imagery with patriotic subject matter. Following the Ba’athist coup of 1963, Haidar drew inspiration from the Shi’ite epic of the Martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Using imagery conjured from the rituals of Ashoura that were merged with motifs and scenes from his own Sumerian, Babylonian and Mesopotamian heritage, he employed both modern techniques of design and aesthetic principles to present 35 significant works that were titled Melhamet al Shahid (The Martyrs Epic) that was exhibited at the National Museum of Modern art in 1965.
Reconfiguring traditional visualisations of these ritual performances or the historical events of the battle itself, Haider implemented semiotic abstraction whose visual lexicon neutralised their very religiously focused meanings, allowing his works to be more accessible for a wider audience and narrated the struggle of an unnamed, as opposed to specific, martyr. Ultimately using these references as allegories for contemporary Iraqi socio-political history, his reference to an unknown martyr became a deep-rooted symbol for the plight of the human being itself, believing that man should defend his freedom through death rather than life. Throughout the sixties and seventies, Haider continued to tackle these notions of martyrdom and testimony. Pushing their figurative form into a much more developed type of abstraction that shunned the semi-figurative application he had implemented before, he explored a sense of mythological space in his new works.
Christie’s is delighted to be offering an impressive example that showcases Haider’s work from the 1970s. Entitled Three Figures, he adopts an aesthetic vocabulary that exudes an organic simplicity, that comes to life through a medley of shapes. Hints at varying physical traits suggestive of a male, female and child prevail, who as they stand beneath an ominous blue moon – a change from his usual depiction of a red blood moon that stood as a depiction of a lunar eclipse that is symbolic of the wrath of God on the day of judgment – emanate a sense of loneliness and despair.
By harmonising a multitude shapes, their unique placement which was heavily inspired by Cubism, is juxtaposed by the three-dimensionality their figuration creates. Accentuated by the use of earthy, pastel hues, against the rich and vibrant moon, Haider offers a tactile sense of movement which exemplifies this overwhelming sense of pathos. With this in mind, Three Figures can be seen as a strong metaphor intending to tackle the politics of the Middle East following the Six-Day war in 1967 which saw a new generation of noble men, women and children die for their land whilst defending their rights. From this perspective it is clear that Haider uses his composition to provide a stark and haunting visualisation of this tragedy and the after-effects that ensued.
This attention to construction and architectural orchestration of forms across his works are the result of the artist’s interest and study of stage sets and costumes for a number of theatre productions. In Three Figures, Haider divides the background areas into segments depicted through overlapping squares and rectangles, creating imaginary dimension of perspectives that instigate a sense of theatrical movement, adding fervour to the scene he depicts. It is interesting that given its architectural connotations that this work was once in the collection of Jaafar Allawi. One of the pioneer architects along with Rifaat Chadirji, Qahtan Awni, Mohammer Makyia and others, it was through his architectural practice – it was common at the time that artists would mingle with architects and vice versa - that Allawi came to acquire this work.
Three Figures, with its Modernist approach and Cubist and Symbolist resonance pays tribute to the artist’s national cultural heritage in a powerful example that is a testament to Haider’s skill and importance in both Iraqi and Arab art history.