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Khalil Gibran, A collection of thirty-three letters written to Marie El-Khoury from 1908-1920 accompanied by three rare works on paper
The last major collection of its kind, this previously unknown series of letters and works on paper by Khalil Gibran offers a rare glimpse into the mysterious personal life of one of the greatest novelists of modern Arab and American literature. Testament to his importance, Gibran’s most renowned novel, The Prophet, has never been out of publication since its first edition in 1923 and has been translated into over fifty languages. It is extremely rare to see such objects at auction, having only passed through the hands of Gibran’s closest friends and their descendants.
Gibran’s oeuvre, just as the man himself, is a poetic hybridization of European and Islamic philosophies – borrowing from European literary styles, whilst situating the central plot and characters within a uniquely Middle Eastern sensibility. Born in Lebanon to a Maronite Christian family, Gibran’s family moved to the United States in 1895 where he first explored his passion for arts and humanities. During his youth, his brother and sister died of tuberculosis and his mother of cancer within a span of a couple of months. His tumultuous childhood inspired a sense of rebellion, causing him to reflect on the conditions of society’s poor, neglected, and oppressed and encourage a narrative of empowerment and self-determination for those living in it. In later life, Gibran became the leader of The Pen League, comprising Arab writers of the Arab-American diaspora.
Gibran’s exceptional expressive works seek to explore the immaterial beauty within an imperfect world. His studies and drawings have a distinctive duality to them, balancing both a sense of divine beauty with an opposing sinister quality. Indeed, known for his spirituality and heightened capacity for contemplation, his works in every medium – be it painting, drawing, prose or poetry – are rooted in the mystical and tethered to his interest in Sufism.
The auction will present thirty-three letters written by Gibran to his friend and patron Madame Marie Azeez El-Khoury, during his travels to New York, Boston, Atlantic City and Paris. Syrian-Lebanese Khoury was a poster-child of the American Dream – rising from a modest immigrant background to become nothing less than a celebrity in the circles of the New York elite. Hosting legendary dinner parties, Khoury had a particular reverence for Gibran’s ability to electrify and enthuse. These letters reveal the pioneering author’s thoughts at critical junctures in his life, whilst also uncovering an intimate relationship with Marie El-Khoury.
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Kader Attia, Demoncracy, white neon, cable and transformers, 2010 (est. $30,000-40,000)
Among the most recognised and institutional Arab artists today tackling issues of post-colonialism, transnationalism and identity, Kader Attia’s works illuminate the beauties and woes of the contemporary condition. Having spent his childhood in both France and Algeria, his relationship with either national identity was one where he felt ‘in between’ yet hyperaware of the textured histories of the regions. His captivating works are designed to intervene, acting as a site of cultural and historical repair and reflection.
Executed at the precipice of the Arab Spring – a transformative and widespread democratising movement – this rare neon work is a commentary on the fluidity across the seemingly rigid lines of the Christian West and the Islamic East. The abrupt unlit letter in the middle of the word ‘democracy’ suggests an ulterior meaning, highlighting the precarious nature of the idea – one tinged with potential risk rather than wide-eyed hope. The poignant minimalist approach evokes a powerful message of the Middle East’s right to object to and redefine the paternalistic West-East relationship.
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Jean Dubuffet, Palmiers aux Bedouins, watercolour and glue on paper, 1948 (est. $60,000-80,000)
‘We came back absolutely cleansed of all intoxications… as well as enriched in the ways of savoir-vivre’
During the gloomy post-war years in a ravaged Europe, Dubuffet spent considerable amounts of time with the Bedouin people of the Algerian desert, which proved a great remedy and welcome escape from daily life. Executed during the artist’s travels to Ghardaia and El Golea on the doorsteps of the Sahara desert, Palmiers aux Bedouins is a rare example from an exceptional body of early works.
Dubuffet’s fascination was more than mere escapism, and in many was linked to art brut - an interest in visual cultures that were independent of official dogmas and the art school system. Thus, the isolated lifestyle of the Bedouins and their rituals appealed to the artist’s visual sensibility and desire to reach outside the mainstream of the European art historical tradition. This placed Dubuffet in the long line of French artists visiting North Africa in the search of new sources of inspiration – from the Orientalists Jean-Léon Gerome and Eugène Delacroix to Henri Matisse.
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Antoine Malliarakis Mayo, Ismailia (Le Marché Arabe), oil on canvas, 1934 (est. $30,000-40,000)
Born in Egypt, Mayo spent his youth in Alexandria before moving to Paris to study art – straddling a trans-regional identity. The artist spent much of his time in the artistic hotbed of Montparnasse and befriending artists including Man Ray, Picabia and Foujita along with the infamous muse Kiki de Montparnasse. The cerebral and provocative nature of the Surrealist genre is a consistent theme in Mayo’s work and heavily impacted the burgeoning Surrealist movement in Cairo. The Egyptian surrealists founded the revolutionary ‘Art and Liberty Group’, incorporating notions of political libertarianism and Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind.
Parisian artists at the time, such as Paul Gauguin and Yves Tanguy, sought to revitalise classical Greek figures in their work, locating them in a plethora of positions and contexts. This iconic painting is a stylised rendition of the traditional Arab marketplace, notable for its rich palette of vivid tones and classical statuary influences. Mayo also supplemented his art with costume and set design, and his paintings showcase a marriage between dramatic and cinematic conventions – a distinctly expressionistic painterly approach with attention to the luminosity of colours.
Ismailia is one of the earliest works by Mayo ever to appear at auction and perfectly encapsulates the amalgamation of the artist’s Egyptian origins merged with the French style of the 1930s.
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Ali Banisadr, Meanwhile, oil on panel, 2012 (est. $100,000-150,000)
Born in 1976, the work of internationally acclaimed artist Ali Banisadr is heavily influenced by his childhood experiences as a refugee of the Iran-Iraq war. His intoxicating canvases are dominated by intricate fantastical abstract landscapes that convey something of the chaotic violence he witnessed. Drawing on both Eastern and Western artistic traditions, Banisadr’s work has developed through a prism of art historical references - recalling the complexity of Persian miniatures, the wide-ranging landscapes of the Flemish Old Masters and abstract expressionism. Meanwhile, an elaborate canvas, is rendered in the rich blue and purple colours often associated with miniatures from the Shahnameh: The Book of Kings.
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Tamara de Lempicka, Indien à Turban, oil on canvas, 1939 (est. $70,000-90,000)
Tamara de Lempicka’s oeuvre blends opposing influences – figuration and abstraction, Italian Renaissance portraiture and Hollywood glamour – to extraordinary effect. Her paintings portray elegant, sophisticated women and men, with sculptural bodies and faces – epitomising Art Deco style.
Painted in vivid colours and set against a sky-blue background, this work is an idealised portrait of a man wearing a white turban and traditional gold-rimmed robe. The face is cast in stark chiaroscuro, delineating his angular features with bold contours – a stylistic geometry that reflects Lempicka’s progressive attitude.
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Sohrab Sepehri, Untitled (From the Tree Trunk Series), oil on canvas, 1970 (est. $200,000-300,000, illustrated above)
‘All my dreams led to the desert and to the trees’
One of the most important works by Sohrab Sepehri to appear at auction, this rare majestic painting of a semi-abstracted grove of trees is unparalleled in its elegant brushwork and restrained palette – portraying both the influence of the Far East and the profound love Sepehri had for his homeland.
Born in Kashan, Iran in 1928, Sepehri continually paid homage to the untamed grace and beauty of his childhood home through landscapes made up of minimalism and partial abstraction. During the 1960s, the artist travelled to Tokyo and was exposed to the ancient paintings of Japan’s medieval masters, drawing on their use of the flattening of space, dark outlines and earthy palette.
The artist’s favourite subject matter, the tree was a symbol of benevolence and stability in a corrupted world – capturing the quiet grandeur and mystical quality of ancient forests. With a shy, retiring temperament, Sepehri found expression in these lyrical landscape paintings – his poetic sensibility immortalised in soft brush strokes.
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Idris Khan, This Thing, oil based ink on acid free paper, 2013 (est. $20,000-30,000)
Idris Khan’s enigmatically titled and monochromatic work encapsulates the artist’s enduring fascination with the Nietzschean binaries of order and disorder, clarity and obscurity. Made up of hundreds of lines of Arabic – Khan’s own writings in response to art, literature, philosophy and religion – hand stamped on top of each other towards a completely opaque centre point. Confusing all meanings and progressively inhibiting understanding, the result of the experiment is to generate uncertainty and a tension between the bright edges of clarity and reason and the impenetrable core.