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Monumental Iraqi Modernist painting to lead Sotheby's 20th Century Art / Middle East auction
Mahmoud Sabri, The Death of a Child, 1963, oil on canvas, 137 by 196cm. Est. £350,000-500,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Appearing on the market for the first time since it was acquired directly from the artist in the 1980s, this powerful masterwork by celebrated Iraqi artist encapsulates the artist’s avant-garde style and unique subject matter – rendered on an impressive scale. The poignant painting will now be offered as a highlight of Sotheby’s bi-annual 20th Century Art / Middle East sale on 30 April, with an estimate £350,000-500,000.

Born in Baghdad in 1927, Sabri took a subversive stance against the era’s repressive Ba’athist regime, writing a manifesto that would lead to a long period of exile for the artist. His openly political works provide insights into the socio-political issues of the time, as he engaged in several paintings that sought to depict the suffering and plight of the Iraqi populace. Sabri’s focus was on the harsh realities of daily life, simplifying models of forms to instil a symbolic quality.

In 1960, Sabri travelled to the Surikov Insitute of Art in Moscow, and this exposure to both contemporary Soviet Realist artwork and traditional Russian Orthodox icons proved transformative. This work is the pinnacle of this style, whilst also evoking Old Master paintings of lamentation, notably the work of Italian Renaissance artist Giotto.

This bold yet austere piece centres on the mourning of a boy by several figures in various grief-stricken stances – harshly etched with jagged and symmetrical tendencies, their facial features grimly-set. A painting of balancing contrasts, there is an angelic quality to the figures standing over the illuminated boy on the right-hand side of the painting – depicting the intertwined nature of hope and despair. Thus the allegorical work conjures up notions of enduring strength in the struggle for freedom, whilst mourning the victims lost in that fight.

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