01 Painting, Middle East Artists, THE ART OF WAR, Mahmoud Sabri’s Al Mawt al-Tafl (The Death of a Child), with Footnotes #86

Henry Zaidan
3 min readMar 4, 2024
Mahmoud Sabri
Al Mawt al-Tafl (The Death of a Child), C. 1963

oil on canvas
137 by 196cm.; 54 by 77 1/8 in.
Private collection

The Death of a Child, painted during Sabri’s earlier artistic phase in the 1960s, stands as an epitome for his artistic openness which was exacerbated by a career in exile. The painting evokes inspirational elements through the artist’s exposure to both contemporary Soviet Realist artwork and traditional Russian Orthodox icons. The piece depicts the mourning of a boy by several figures that are in various grief-stricken stances. They are harshly etched with jagged and symmetrical tendencies that emulate contemporary Soviet drawings. The facial features of the people are grimly set and the bold though austere colors typify the visual language of the artist’s anguish. More on this painting

The career of the Iraqi modern master Mahmoud Sabri has followed a similar trajectory to that of a number of Middle Eastern artists in exile. Largely ignored for a considerable part of his life for political and personal reasons, his importance has only latterly come to light, and his following and appreciation suddenly taken on a life of its own. Born in 1927 in Baghdad, Sabri pursued a degree in social sciences at Loughborough University in the UK. While in England, his interest in painting developed and he attended evening art classes, making his artistic debut in an exhibition held at the Iraqi Embassy in 1947. Following university he made a successful career in banking, becoming deputy head of the largest national bank in Iraq at the age of 32. He had meanwhile met with the group of artists that was to eventually form the Societé Primitive, including Khalid Al Qassab, Faik Hassan and others, exhibiting with them at the Al-Qassab residence in 1952. Unlike the Jama’t Al Fan Al Hadith, including Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said, Sabri was committed to a more democratic ideology that everyone’s cultural heritage should be incorporated and adopted as his own. Sabri’s education had sensitised him to social issues and with his growing love of art, he soon resigned from the bank to take responsibility for establishing the first Exhibitions Department in Iraq. His political beliefs however remained a central theme throughout most of his artistic career, and he started to focus on painting. Typical of many artists from the region, including those from the neighbouring countries of Iran and Russia, he was socio-politically engaged in a region where artists felt compelled to serve a purpose and art was considered a tool — just like literature — for expressing political concerns and speaking out against repression. Well-read in Marxist thought on art and culture, Sabri naturally gravitated towards Realism and became an active writer and intellectual. More on Mahmoud Sabri

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Henry Zaidan

In my Blog is an Online collection of significant paintings from the 1st century to today; complete with art-history and artist bibliographies.