A the door is slightly ajar. Through it, a pencil of light crept along a suddenly cracked carpet—as if someone had just tried to force their way in or out—and up the wall of a darkened room. The glow has an eerie crackle, bright enough to illuminate the bottom of a large photo of a military figure. His head is lost in the shadows.
Yet even in this loose painterly transcription of a photo, the stance, bulk and uniform immediately evoke Saddam Hussein. The rug, too, an almost abstract set of characters, is clearly Arabic. What happens on the other side of that door, however, could be happening anywhere in the world right now. Or so the painting suggests, with its continuing ambiguities of time, place, and light. Its title is Meditation room.
Mohammed Sami was born in Baghdad in 1984 and was co-opted by the Baath Party to produce murals until he was able to escape, first to Sweden and finally to Britain. He is an extraordinary artist, as quirky as he is gifted. His scenes take place in a no man’s land somewhere between memory and dream. They participate in reality as they invent their own visual world.
A pile of mattresses—beautifully painted in all their minute differences in color and design, as if to illustrate the princess and the pea—hints at the bodies that once lay upon them. Ten brothers and sisters is the melancholy title. A rack of black dresses, on hangers so that the hooks occupy the heads, looks like a procession of deadly judges.
The Parliament Hall is a brilliant conceit: the backs of empty chairs stretch into the distance like a graveyard of tombstones. But more than that, it’s a fascinating work of art, each shape painted with translucent delicacy as it fades into blood-red darkness; some still glisten in the gloom as if there are half-dead ghosts ahead.
Wailing Walls III it shows a diamond-shaped pattern of marks that suggests a kind of flocked wallpaper, in shadowy grays, greens and browns. But there is a panel of light – almost as if sunlight is shining through a window onto a rectangular spot. Look closer and you will see a small nail that casts a clear shadow. This is where the obligatory photo of Saddam once hung in every household. Its removal leaves an etiolated pallor, like that of creatures living under a rock.
Sami has a great gift for visual wordplay and dubbing. A potted plant casts its shadow on the opposite wall and looks like spray-painted political graffiti. Is the box under the bed a suitcase for ready escape or a toolbox of torture? A green meadow of flowers doubles as a field of bright medals: alluding to both the killers and the dead.
In his art it is not always obvious what is up and what is down. A huge canvas of a city at night shows flakes of black ash—undepicted, so mysteriously embodied in the oil paint itself—falling down on the buildings below and at the same time seeming to rise. A small monochrome canvas appears to show a body bent double under a load, but turns out to be the shadow cast by a pill packet lying askew on a stone ledge.
What appeared to be a nameless mass of flesh on an altar dripping with blood actually showed a podium in an abandoned conference room. Who may have made the address and what, so to speak, is not being said. The invisible presses urgently through the visible; and there are pictures here that are as loaded with clues, allusions, and mounting narratives as any fiction.
The largest work here, almost six meters wide, shows buildings picked out by a beam of golden light as the blue twilight fades. They are perched on the edge of a monumental cliff. You stand face to face with this massive stone wall, the paint scraped and layered, modeled and smoothed, every detail as carefully rendered as if it were as beautiful as the sky. Which is in its own way, even though it stands between you and the sight of hope above. That the title of Sammy’s painting is A refugee camp it only adds to the many nuances in this vision of what art – and freedom – can mean and be.
George Morandi (1890-1964) is the perfect choice of artist to mark the 25th anniversary of the nearby Estorick Collection, home of modern Italian art in London. The Estorique already owns many of his fascinating still lifes, but these are enhanced here by two more galleries of paintings and prints from the Luigi Magnani collection, usually kept in a neoclassical villa outside Parma and never before transported to Britain.
Magnani, a wealthy professor of music, was almost as shy as the prisoner Morandi. His tender attempt to commission a painting of a lute resulted in a protective still life of a toy guitar triumphing over an upside-down lute. Magnani then simply bought whatever Morandi allowed.
Some of these paintings are so strange—heavy roses, strange fruits, starkly metaphysical shadows—that they reveal Morandi steeped in the art of immediate predecessors from Manet to De Chirico and Cézanne. But they enhance the joy of the more characteristic paintings around them. A trembling jar stands fearfully on the edge of the table. Four vessels, one glowing with a streak of copper light, seem to be looking down into the depths below.
An assemblage of vases, pitchers, and jars gather in the pale light, huggers-plunderers, the spout of one keeping watch over the others. The atmosphere is conspiratorial, secretive.
Look deep into the paintings and it’s not obvious how the objects connect. There is no formal logic, no measured intervals between Morandi vessels. Sometimes they blend into each other, or the color of one mysteriously seeps into another. Its countertops become flickering shadowlands in the many sharp engravings collected by Magnani.
And to see these prints alongside Estorick’s wonderful collection of drawings is to take on all sorts of new affinities. The tall jugs look like swaying poplars, the short vases are as sturdy as the rocky hills in his pencil landscapes. Indoors and outdoors are strangely connected in his unique imagination.
Morandi’s extraordinary revelation—dressed in such murky colors and such fine strokes—is that every little incident in still life (and landscape) can be psychologically exciting. You see this again and again in this show, where three white vases look like classical sculptures in the dim light, and a milk jug can appear to dominate the teacups in a fascinating series of enigmatic variations.
Star ratings (out of five)
Mohamed Sami: Point 0 ★★★★
Giorgio Morandi: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation ★★★★