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Artist Andrew Vicari is now spending a brief vacation in Abu Dhabi, where 40 of his works on the life of the Bedouin in the Gulf states are on display at the Cultural Foundation. Most prominent among them is a huge painting of the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan. In the meantime, Vicari is at work on another gigantic painting depicting a royal family from one of the Gulf states (the name of which is as yet unknown) that will cover a canvas of 270 square meters. For this painting, he will receive the fabulous sum of 25 million pounds Sterling.

Vicari, 66, is a Welsh artist of Italian origin who usually lives near Monaco. He has acquired his wealth through painting Arab leaders, particularly from the Gulf states, and very large, detailed depictions of scenes from the Arab east. More than a decade ago he completed a monumental work made up of 125 paintings about the first Gulf War, including figures of soldiers and commanders and battle scenes. Saudi Arabian prince Khaled bin Sultan, who was also the commander of the Saudi army, paid $20 million for the work.

Vicari was captivated by the charms of the East at a relatively late stage. He studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London, with leading artists like Lucien Freud and William Coldstream, and became acquainted with Francis Bacon. He was introduced to the Middle East by a friend who worked at the British Foreign Office and often played host to leaders and officials from Arab countries, who took an interest in what was happening at Vicari's large studio.

In 1974 Vicari exhibited for the first time in Beirut, but his financial breakthrough was when he continued from there with a friend to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi finance minister commissioned Vicari to paint 60 pictures that would be exhibited at the King Faisal Congress Center. In 1978 Vicari completed the paintings and pocketed his first million dollars. The religious dilemma was solved for him by an official at the Saudi palace: The prohibition on idolatry was interpreted to mean that Allah's intention was not that human beings would not be painted, but rather He himself.

This is not exactly what the Iranian clerics thought. When Vicari completed his paintings of the Saudi kings in 2000, he received an offer from the Iranian clerics to acquire those paintings for $8.5 million, but for one purpose only: to destroy them in order to uproot the plague of depictions of human beings. Vicari refused the offer, which was fairly low relative to his accustomed fees for painting.

Light and horizons

Vicari is the only artist who has been allowed to paint portraits of the Saudi kings, just as he was the only artist whom the Americans allowed to move about among the soldiers during the first Gulf War and even to paint General Norman Schwarzkopf. He has succeeded in breaking the tradition of 1,500 years during which human beings were not painted by Muslim artists.

Religion does not stand in the way of kings, even if they are called the guardians of the two places that are most sacred to Islam. Thus, King Faisal and his sons obtained larger-than-life portraits and joined the cult of personality that had usually characterized Arab leaders who are not among the guardians of tradition.

At the time Vicari explained that he had given the title "The Triumph of the Bedouin" to this gigantic series of paintings, "not because I meant triumph in the sense of a victory gained, but rather as a celebration: a triumph of the will and spirit of people emerging into the harsh light of new and wider horizons." It is not clear to which light and which horizons exactly Vicari was referring, but his reputation has only increased since then: He has become the most highly-paid artist in the world and has been accepted as the "official" artist of the Gulf state leaders, who are prepared to pay between $1.5 million and $5 million for one of his "standard" works.

As preparation for "The Triumph of the Bedouin," Vicari, together with people from the court of the Saudi king, went through a long list of books, stories, maps and other historical testimonies and put together a narrative that found its place in the pictures.

Vicari had a far greater role in this than just the court painter of a kingdom: He constructed the image of the noble Arab figure according to the perceptions of a European, but this time with the agreement of his Saudi patrons and not out of a purely colonialist approach.

Thus, in any case, Vicari became acquainted with King Khaled, Faisal's son, and later with King Fahd, and thereafter with other Gulf state rulers. Later on it was Prince Khaled, the governor of the Asir province and the manager of the King Faisal Foundation, who pushed the art project and, inspired by Vicari, established a school of painting in Riyadh. During Vicari's stay in Saudi Arabia, he also gathered materials on Arab horses for a series of 100 paintings, which was shown in the exhibition "Genesis of the Arabian Horse." Thus, the artist who is not so well-known in the country of his birth is also a painter of kings as well as the official painter for Interpol and the French police.

What all this has to do with the emergence of the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia into the "light of new and wider horizons" is difficult to know.