Modern & Contemporary Middle East

Egyptian Surrealism at the Centre Pompidou

By Roxane Zand

This article originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar Arabia magazine

T wo gifted curators – Sam Bardouil and Till Fellrath – responsible for several well-known exhibitions such as Tea with Nefertiti, Iran Inside Out, Italia/Arabia and the Lebanese Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, have scored yet another triumph through their most recent show Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948) at the Centre Pompidou. This was at the invitation of Catherine David of the Musée de l’Art Moderne in Paris, herself a pioneer of groundbreaking shows on unexamined aspects of the modernist movement outside the Western world (such as the 2014 acclaimed Iran, Unedited History). While this latter show unfolded a historical review spanning more than five decades, Art et Liberté focuses quite narrowly on one decade which was possibly the most seminal in Egyptian art history.


As a country and culture which was both ‘thought leader’ and reference point in regional history, Egypt’s legacy of the Mamluks, like the Ottomans, evolved into a heritage that by the twentieth century had its own singular, modernist expression. While those other two countries – Iran and Turkey – were not directly engaged in World War Two, Egypt was under colonial rule by the British Empire. This gave rise to a particular dynamic of resistance and nationalism which provided fertile ground for what was to happen on the artistic front. Founded on December 22, 1938 upon the publication of a manifesto called Long Live Degenerate Art, a collective of surrealist artists and writers working in Cairo provided a restless generation of artists, intellectuals and political activists with a heterogeneous platform for cultural and political reform. Art et Liberté became globally engaged in its defiance of Fascism, Nationalism, and Colonialism. The Group played an active role within an international network of surrealist writers and artists, proposing a new and particular definition of Surrealism itself. Through this definition, ‘Subjective Realism’ was born, and achieved a contemporary literary and pictorial language that was as much globally engaged as it was rooted in local artistic and political concerns.


So what was ‘Subjective Realism’? Ramses Younane, a leading Art et Liberté theorist and painter who believed that Surrealism at its core calls for social and moral as well as artistic revolution, depicted the movement as being in a crisis where two distinct types were emerging: one, as best exemplified by Dali and Magritte’s absurd juxtapositions, was considered too contrived, pre-meditated, and controlling of the imagination. The second, consisting of stream-of-consciousness writing and drawing, had become too self-preoccupied and not geared enough towards collective empowerment. A new type of Surrealism was deemed necessary, a ‘Subjective Realism’ whereby recognizable symbols were deliberately incorporated into works that were initially driven by the subconscious impulse.  Possibly the strongest section of the Pompidou show is precisely this  ‘Subjective Realism’ where some of the artists even engaged in trance-like states through dhkir and dance, yet brought quite distinct elements into their compositions. Rateb Said’s large canvas ‘Untitled’1940, like the works of Abdel Hadi El-Ghazzar, are replete with references and symbols which go beyond the merely imaginative and dream-like. Mayo too, invites us into a world of suggestions and possibilities, where the viewer is invited to decipher the intent of the artist.


Interestingly enough, unlike the case of Iran where in the late 1930s art was still highly formal and stylized, resting mostly between the polarities of ‘Coffee-house Painting’ and the court-art of miniature painting, Cairo had a firmly placed, state-endorsed culture of exhibition practices. There was an annual ‘Salon du Caire’, organized by a highly conservative arm which encouraged nationalism, and classified artists according to nationality. Art et Liberté however rejected the conflation of art with national sentiment, and the notion of art for art’s sake. This was hardly surprising, given Egypt’s occupation by the colonial army – by 1941 over 140,000 British soldiers were swarming the streets of Cairo. It was inevitable that artists and intellectuals would feel the need for social preoccupation and responsibility in their expressions. A profound engagement with the war, the anxiety that it fuelled, and the destruction that it caused, were a leitmotif across the whole spectrum of these artists.  ‘The Voice of Canons’, as the section that treats the effects of war, is the most powerful of the show, with canvases that recall the anguish of ‘Guernica’ and the nightmare of battle-scenes. Several powerful works by Inji Efflatoun are included here, such as the two ‘Jeune Fille et Monstre’ where the monster of war creates hell on earth.


Two other sections, one entitled ‘Fragmented Bodies’, and another ‘The Woman of the City’, examine the way in which the human body is treated in expressing the artist’s social concerns. Cairo was a city marked by extreme economic inequality.  In fragmenting the human figure, these artists harnessed Surrealism’s revolt against the bourgeoisie who obstructed the evolution of the lower classes. Deformed, dismembered or distorted bodies in the canvases of Mayo, Salinas, and Hassan El-Telmisani poignantly illustrate the harrowing economic injustice that plagued Cairene society.  The motif of the fragmented body became a site of social as well as artistic protest – just as the bodies of the women who were forced to prostitute themselves, as shown in the ‘Woman of the City’ section.  Feminists such as Amy Nimr and Lee Miller hosted salons where they connected Art et Liberté  artists to other surrealist figures both locally and internationally,  facilitating the expression of concern for women’s plight – the ‘woman on the streets’, the suffering prostitute as described in the poetry of George Henein who was a key figure of the movement.  Strong portraits of women and female torsos (especially by Kamel El-Telmisany) make this an impactful part of the overall theme. However, nothing prepared me for the startling beauty of the Mahmoud Said painting, La Femme aux boucles d’or, which was included in this section.  With characteristic skill, Said combines voluptuousness and seduction in his female figures, making them both compelling and articulate, and yet strangely contrasting the forceful, twisted compositions of Fouad Kamel.


Other beautiful, expressive works appear in the Contemporary Art Group section – which were not forcibly identified as Surrealist but nevertheless affiliated with the Art and Liberty proponents. A few of these, such as Abdel Hadi el-Ghazzar, Hamed Nada, and Samir Rafi went on to become Egypt’s leading modern artists. By the late 40s, these figures were diverting from the movement, developing what they saw as a truly authentic Egyptian art. They used a local vernacular consisting of symbolic iconography borrowed from popular arts and crafts – a direction which was also pursued in other parts of the Middle East. Exploring local heritage and motifs was a search for identity, and in Iraq or Iran, artists were also beginning to forge a visual anthropology by the late 50s/early 60s. The question of how art can be made truly Egyptian drove this exploration, and works by Mahmoud Khalil for example, depict references to ancient murals and hieroglyphics.

Seminal photographs, more than 125 works researched and assembled over five years, with over 150 archival documents – most of which have never been exhibited nor seen before – make this show not only ground-breaking but also highly educational and eye-opening, even for the initiated.


I asked our Arab art expert and lender to the show Mai El Dib who is herself Egyptian, for her comment on this exhibition. She said: “What I personally love about the show is that it takes me back to an Egypt I dream about. It is very pertinent in terms of timing, because while Europe is currently going more towards the right as it did in the 30s, the Egypt of the time offered Europeans refuge and was welcoming towards all those who wanted to be free in their expression.

Art and Liberty is important as a movement because we are always criticized by Euro-centric art critics that the Middle East was behind in terms of artistic production in comparison to Europe. This movement was in complete congruence with the worldwide surrealist movement and in conversation with them. It shows a connected world and a global world in the 30s. We can learn a lot from this movement and from this show. It has a humanist element and shows Egypt as it should be portrayed. A country which is a melting pot that constantly produced great ideas and forward thinking movements.”

Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948) is at the Centre Pompidou until 16 January.

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