Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Salah al-Din Muhammad: Artist, Critic and Archiver

Salah al-Din Muhammad's efforts were instrumental in elevating the Syrian visual arts movement within the broader Arab visual arts landscape.

Salah al-Din Muhammad
A picture of Salah al-Din Muhammad.

Yousef M. Sharqawi

Salah al-Din Muhammad (1949 – 2016) was a prominent Syrian critic and researcher who extensively researched visual art, history, and the foundational aspects of Syrian civilisation.

Starting his journey as an avant-garde artist in Syria, Muhammad fervently pursued novel avenues towards critical modernism, primarily through geometric methodologies. He skillfully transformed his academic background in architecture into a channel for his critical visual analyses and research.

His efforts were instrumental in elevating the Syrian visual arts movement to a significant position within the broader Arab visual arts landscape. In recognition of his contributions, he earned the moniker “architect of art.”

Criticism as Art

Salah al-Din Muhammad had a profound visual and spiritual understanding. His unique approach harmonised his roles as both a critic and an artist, forgoing a purely inductive, analytical or constructive viewpoint when examining paintings.

Rather than solely identifying problems for discussion, Muhammad’s early paintings served as a springboard into the realm of critical writing.

In his own words, Salah al-Din Muhammad likened himself to a botanist dissecting a flower rather than an artist. He believed that the most qualified individuals to write about artists are artists themselves, as their writing resonates with emotions, satiates vanity and reveres the sanctity of art.

From the mid-1970s onwards, Muhammad’s engagement with words exuded a musical quality, perhaps influenced by his conviction in the sentiments expressed by the German artist Paul Klee that, whether painting or writing, one must intertwine with music.

Salah al-Din Muhammad emerged as a pioneer in visual criticism, displaying a profound belief in the potential of numerous Syrian artists. He viewed criticism not merely as an exercise in narrativity or constructivism but as a creative endeavour.

Without his contributions, the cultural representation of the Syrian visual movement would have lacked clarity. Over more than half a century, Muhammad meticulously portrayed its essence through over forty-five documentaries in his programme “Visual Art in Syria.”

Additionally, he authored numerous books and articles published in prominent outlets such as the Visual Arts Magazine, the al-Telefezioun Magazine, and the al-Thaqafiyya Magazine, writing around a thousand paragraphs for the latter.

Drawing inspiration from the Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, whom he frequently referenced, Muhammad embarked on a journey akin to Vasari’s comprehensive documentation of the Italian Renaissance.

Critics as Encyclopaedic Intellectuals

Salah al-Din Muhammad believed that a comprehensive understanding of art necessitates an understanding of history across its diverse spectra, including political, economic, social, cultural, literary and intellectual dimensions.

He articulated this viewpoint by stating, “When I see a painting, I look for the extent of its correspondence with the supposed stage. When I see an Orientalist painting, I look for points of correspondence with images of the place in previous stages.”

Salah al-Din Muhammad’s critical writings on visual arts displayed a remarkable openness to diverse forms of art, which not only enriched the expressiveness of his texts but also imbued them with an encyclopedic quality. This inclusivity underscored his pioneering role in shaping contemporary artistic trends.

According to Adeeb Makhzoum, a Syrian critic and visual artist, the documentation and crystallisation in Muhammad’s contributions “hold promise for the future emergence of a broad audience for visual art, akin to other art forms.

This evolution suggests that all visual works will transform into a dialectical phenomenon, evolving alongside technological advancements and actively shaping public taste.” Makhzoum believes that Muhammad’s work impacts the public:

Contemporary aesthetic knowledge, as conveyed through Muhammad’s research, films and programmes, refines taste and spiritual perception and fosters heightened artistic sensitivity among the public.

Furthermore, Muhammad’s endeavours break away from stagnant educational paradigms in the arts, transitioning from classical notions towards a modern conceptual framework, which enables viewers to engage deeply with artistic works, immersing themselves in the aesthetic experience and uncovering its beauty through a lucid, poetic language that resonates with their emotions and aspirations.

Consequently, the artistic discourse internally influences the audience, fostering a deeper understanding of the works that captivate their attention.

The influence of Salah al-Din Muhammad’s efforts became evident early on, as he and his contemporaries came to dominate the public’s perception of art.

Media coverage of the time reflected this shift, with headlines questioning, “Is there nothing but visual art in Aleppo?”

Critic as a Historian

Salah al-Din Muhammad deliberately avoided artificial or grandiose gestures in his approach to the exploration of the East. Instead, he strived to recapture the enchanting essence of Arab heritage in a manner true to his vision.

Through his works, he embarked on a journey through cultural history, illuminating the profound impact of Arab civilisation on the foundations of Western civilisation.

Moreover, he sought to unify the elements conducive to a burgeoning Arab visual arts renaissance, distinct from the paradigms of contemporary European culture.

Salah al-Din Muhammad adopted a pragmatic approach to his work and research, prioritising concrete methodologies over theoretical abstraction. He delineated his approach through three distinct stages of research:

I initially collected information from a multitude of sources, spanning many years. My extensive travels across locations like Estonia, Georgia, Moscow, Paris, Tunisia, Kuwait, Cairo, Vienna, Istanbul, Berlin, and Rome, along with visits to museums and private collections, aimed at broadening my knowledge base comprehensively.

Simultaneously, I embarked on the second stage, collecting thousands of photographs, slides, old maps, and rare graphic works. My objective here was to curate a focused repository of assets encapsulating the essence of Arab heritage.

In tandem with the first two stages, I engaged in the third stage, which involved conducting comparative analyses between Arab civilisation and other cultural milieus.

This analytical process was evident in my works, especially in films such as Civilised Horizons, Dilmun to Ugarit, and Islamic Civilisation in Syria.

While I acknowledged the inherent challenge of presenting entirely novel insights, I emphasised the importance of incremental contributions, recognising that novel contributions are often relative.

Salah al-Din Muhammad maintained a steadfast obsession with uncovering the roots of Syrian civilisation within the collections of the museums he toured.

This commitment underscored his emerging role as a meticulous archivist. He captured the collections of renowned international museums and institutions, such as the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Alhambra, the National Library in Paris and Centre Pompidou, as well as various museums in Britain, Vienna, Rome (including the Vatican and the National Gallery of Modern Art), Florence, Venice, Milan, Cordoba, Seville and other places extending all the way to Georgia.

Muhammad visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York twice, documenting its contents through his lens on both occasions.

Salah al-Din Muhammad’s scholarly endeavours extended to addressing gaps in the field, prompting him to explore mural painting as well. Among his notable contributions is the comprehensive study entitled Syrian Art Throughout History.

Additionally, Muhammad meticulously documented the mural drawings in well-known Damascene houses.

However, as Salah al-Din Muhammad expressed, “One individual cannot do everything. One contributes merely a few drops to an ocean, just a few drops.”

Yet, throughout his life until his passing in 2016, he succeeded in leaving behind a legacy of an entire sea, underscoring that “Only those who belong to a certain civilisation are the most attuned to its heritage.”

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles