07 February, 2010 - 28 February, 2010

The Battle of San Romano

Mohammad Omer Khalil

Sunday February 7, 2010

About the Show

The Battle of San Romano” by Paolo Uccello seen through contemporary eyes is the new challenge of Sudanese artist Mohammad Omar Khalil. Three diptychs and six watercolors revisit the 15th century battle in a different manner, while remaining truthful to the original work.

Paolo Uccello (born Paolo di Dono, 1397-1475) was a Florentine painter, known for his pioneering work on visual perspective in art. Living between two eras, Uccello attempted in a unique way, to reconcile two distinct artistic styles - the essentially decorative late Gothic and the new heroic style of the early Renaissance. His most famous paintings are three panels depicting the battle of San Romano exhibited today in three museums: one in the Louvre, Paris, another in the National Gallery, London, and the third in the Uffizi, Florence. These panels represent the victory of the Florentine army over the Sienese in 1432, and were commissioned by a Florentine merchant in 1456. The story goes that when Cosimo de Medici saw the paintings, he confiscated them and offered them to his grandson Lorenzo. The bloodless but action-packed battle scene, the sculpture-like treatment of forms, the bright colors, the elaborate decorative patterns of the figures and landscape doubtless gave great pleasure to the young Medici prince.

For Mohammad Omar Khalil, the fascination with Ucello’s works dates back to 1963 when he first travelled to Florence and visited the Uffizi. Mesmerized by the power of the paintings, he went back to the museum once a week to look at the Battle of Romano, wondering at the manÍs genius. He knew, deep inside him, that one day he will do something with the three panels. The opportunity presented itself when he came to Paris in January 2009. Invited by the Mansouriah Foundation to use its studio at the Cit des Arts for one year, Mohammad Omar Khalil embarked on his big venture to create panels based on Uccello’s masterpieces. But the question was how and where to start with such an important project? How to deal with the responsibility of revisiting Uccello’s paintings without copying them? Khalil’s intuition led him and opened the way. After visiting the Louvre several times to look at the panel of the Battle of San Romano, Mohammad Omar Khalil began to do sketches. The challenge was significant as he had not drawn a single sketch since his school days in Sudan, and there he was in the Paris studio, paralyzed in bed with a bad flu, producing endless sketches of the famous battle.

Born in Burri near Khartoum in 1937, Mohammad Omar Khalil belongs to that first generation of Sudanese artists trained at the School of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum. In 1963, he went to Florence where he studied fresco painting and advanced printmaking techniques at the Academia del Arte after which he spent a year in Ravenna studying mosaics. He moved to the United States in 1967, and settled in New York where he still lives and works. A master engraver, Mohammad Omar Khalil teaches at Columbia University. He conducted as well printmaking workshops at MoroccoÍs cultural moussem in Asilah from 1978 until 2005.

His paintings are his secret world. According to his needs, Khalil integrates in them all kinds of materials such as images, textures, pieces of wood, of paper, of metal… that are transformed by the hands of the artist to find their right place in the larger context. The effect of the collage technique is important in the construction of his works and some of his surfaces include areas of patterned commercial fabric or reproductions of old paintings, of posters or cuttings from newspapers and magazines.

For the Battle of San Romano, Mohammad Omar Khalil uses that same technique in the three diptychs. This time, however, he introduces the sketches drawn and inspired by the 15th century paintings in order to reach a stunning result: The collage, the image and the drawing merge in a hidden and secretive order of colors and spaces that remind one of old frescoes and mosaics. Using the same dimensions as Uccello’s panels – 323 x 182 cm; 313 x 182 cm; 310 x 182 cm – Khalil worked his canvases on various levels, creating several layers, covering the collages with oil painting and playing with the colors to produce in the end a structured and balanced piece of art carrying the perfect light. The decorative aspect in Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, his well-studied perspective and way of dealing with space subjugated the Sudanese artist who doubted and hesitated for long. Not knowing how to proceed with the three large paintings, Khalil’s sketches nevertheless helped him to produce several watercolors. These formed the basis of his reflective work on the big panels.

The collages seem to be Mohammad Omar Khalil’s way of viewing the exterior world while the watercolors, reproducing motifs and forms in a light and bright manner, are the subjects of his own search: Different fragments of Uccello’s panels, Moroccan doors and ceramic walls, tanners at work and tanners’ holes, streets and people of Fez… lead the artist in his creativity and the composition of his artistic space. The three diptychs of the Battle of San Romano are the core of Mohammad Omar Khalil’s exhibition, while ten watercolors (six are based on the Battle, and four depict the Moroccan city of Fez) uncover the different approaches used by the artist in the construction of his stories. The scene, however, changes when his interior world, his dreams and the nostalgia for his country are thrown, in free and less structured strokes, on the paper. The two watercolors, inspired by Tayyeb Saleh’s novel Season of Migration to the North, reveal the artistÍs hidden and intimate garden. Shared memories of Sudan and the vibrations of a world to which they both belong are quite explicit in these works The collages of the exterior world suddenly disappear, and the interior heart open up to tell its secrets.

Roula El Zein