Centre Pompidou, Paris, October 19, 2016–January 16, 2017; Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, through May 28, 2017
This fascinating exhibition, curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath in cooperation with Bernard Blistene and Catherine David of the Centre Pompidou, is devoted to the Surrealist artists and writers group Art et Liberté. It presents a little-known chapter in the aesthetic struggles and the political activism in Egypt between 1938 and 1948. Rallying behind the Egyptian Surrealist poets Georges Henin and Albert Cossery’s 1937 manifesto “Long Live Degenerate Art,” which stood in opposition to Hitler’s attack on modern art in Munich, the group considered Surrealism a natural artistic expression of contemporary issues outside of Fascism, Communism, and Capitalist ideology.
Art et Liberté was founded in Cairo initially to protest the highly patriotic annual Salon du Caire, which organized artists by nationality. The group countered with Surrealist exhibitions and writings that rejected the association of art and nationalism; they dismissed the popular aesthetic currents, ranging from Symbolism to Naturalism. The Art et Liberté artists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers joined with displaced artists who had international affiliations, thereby allowing Art et Liberté to extend its reach to Paris, London, Athens, and San Francisco.
It defined its mission as making art that would be a vehicle for social change. In that way, they aligned themselves with André Breton and Leon Trotsky’s 1938 manifesto “For an Independent Revolutionary Art.” At the same time—like their counterparts in Eastern Europe and Latin America—they insisted that Egyptian Surrealism had native roots in folk tales and crafts as well as in Coptic religious art. Out of this, Art et Liberté evolved its own definition of Surrealism, believing that, in addition to being an art movement, its fundamental mission was “social and moral revolution.”
The painter Ramses Younane, for example, wanted to take Surrealism beyond Dalí and Magritte, whose work he considered too self-conscious, too calculated, and too limited in scope to allow for spontaneous imagination. He also considered automatic writing and drawing too self-involved and lacking in social awareness. Instead, Art et Liberté formulated a style called Subjective Realism, whereby artists incorporated recognizable symbols in works inspired by imagination.
In this context, that standard subject of naturalist writing and social-realist art, the prostitute in the city, became a major focus for issues of social inequality and economic exploitation.
Pioneering women in the group—Amy Nimr, Nata Lovett-Turner, and Natalija Tile—made feminism a central concern in their own publications, such as the Arabic language al-Tatawwur and the French Don Quichotte. In paintings depicting fragmented bodies, emaciated, distorted, or dismembered figures the female body expressed the society’s harrowing injustice. Photographers, like Lee Miller, Ida Kar, Hassia, Rami Zolgomah, Khorshid, and Van Leo, used solarization and photomontage to deconstruct the human form and created surrealist juxtapositions that were commentaries on colonialism and the Fascist exploitation of Pharaonic Egypt.
In a Cairo within the orbit of war, under British colonial occupation by 140,000 troops, a rising Fascist ideology debated the values of democracy, which became a major preoccupation of artists and writers. Art et Liberté gave Egypt a major intellectual and artistic legacy that is illuminatingly presented in this exhibition with its comprehensive catalogue.
By the end of World War II, in 1946, Art et Liberté was divided by a dissenting organization, the Contemporary Art Group, which no longer identified with Surrealism and wanted to develop an authentic Egyptian Art. Out of this group emerged some of Egypt’s leading modern artists, including, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Hamed Nada, and Samir Rafi. This exhibition gives a unique perspective on the historical and cultural complexity—the artistic, intellectual, and political life of a culture we now view as reduced to religious and political ideology. It also explains the sudden appearance on the international art scene of the sculptures and paintings of Saloua Raouda Choucair, who was Lebanese and of the Druze Religion. Her work evolved amid the turmoil in Beirut, Lebanon—once considered the Switzerland of the Middle East.