Although the majority of the artwork dealt with Egyptian subject matter, the artists were still very much connected to their international counterparts, such as American photographer Lee Miller and French writer André Breton. They were also largely affected by the Nazi looting of European artworks. These international relationships and influences facilitated the introduction of surrealism to Egyptian art history, enabling artists to foster Egyptian Surrealism. Furthermore the prominent founder of the group, Ramses Younan, sought to establish a new type of surrealism known as Subjective Realism. In an attempt to move away from the premediated style of Dali and Magritte, Younan identified the need for a surrealist art form that allowed for radical dreaming, was void of any pre-conceived notions and included works “driven by the subconscious impulse”, also referred to by the artists Kamel El-Telmissany as Free Art. Based upon the group’s 1938 manifesto ‘Long Live Degenerate Art,’ a direct response to the Nazi’s reaction to modern art, the movement took a pivotal stand against totalitarian regimes that attempted to silence expression and confiscate artworks in order to fulfil radical agendas. Signed by twenty-eight artists, directly addressing the hostility towards new artistic creation, the manifesto expresses: “O men of art, men of letters! Let us take up the challenge together! We stand absolutely as one with this degenerate art. In it resides all the hopes of the future. Let us work for their victory over the new Middle Ages that are rising in the heart of Europe.”
The subject matter portrayed in the paintings and literature produced by artists in the group differed greatly from the European surrealist works the society had grown accustomed to. Unlike Dali’s hyper-sexualized female figures and Magritte’s thoughtful compositions, Greek-Egyptian surrealist painter Mayo (Antoine Malliarakis) and other Egyptian Surrealist artists used their paintings as a platform to elucidate the severe economic injustices faced by the Egyptian population at large during World War II.
Ramses Younan (1913-1966) was not only one of the most prominent painters in Egypt, but was also an essayist, critic and the co-founder of the Art and Liberty group. After attending the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, Younan experienced recognition of his art by participating in many exhibitions in the 1930s. Soon after, Younan moved to France for eleven years, before returning to Egypt where he further developed his figurative, yet not realist style of painting. The present 1940 work Untitled (Woman Sleeping) portrays a distorted woman sleeping against an arrangement of wooden panels. Younan accentuates certain features, such as the woman’s long nose, large eyelids and hollowed cheeks, as well as her disproportioned breasts and arm. The rest of her body appears to merge with the background and the mystery of the night. Completed during the height of the movement, it may be suggested that this work explores the theme of poverty and inequality during a time when Cairo experienced an extreme wealth disparity between the wealthy one percent and the underprivileged.
As the most highly acclaimed father of Egyptian surrealism, Ramses Younan has left an indelible mark on the Egyptian art scene of the last century. He was born in al-Minya in Upper Egypt in 1921 and began his career in the arts when he enrolled the School Fine Arts in Cairo in 1929. He continued working in the arts by working as an art teacher in secondary schools in Cairo. Throughout 1933 to 1938, Younan was a regular participant of the group shows entitled Salon du Caire which were hosted by the Friends of the Fine Arts Society.
Throughout the 1940’s Younan immersed himself in the Art and Liberty movement. Besides his art, Younan was also very much an intellectual. He was keen on raising awareness of modern art in his native Egypt. In 1943 he maintained his status as a prominent critic and writer through the role of editor of El Magalla El Guidida (the new magazine) – a revolutionary and artistic publication.
We begin to see Younan’s exploration with abstract art in his first show in Paris in 1948. This show indicates his move from surrealism into abstraction. Nonetheless, his complete immersion into the abstract art scene surfaces upon his return to Cairo from Paris in 1957. Ramses Younan returned to Cairo following his dismissal from the French Broadcasting services for refusing to broadcast statements against the Egyptian government as a result of the tripartite attack on Egypt in 1957.
Younan inaugurated the abstract art movement in the 1958 show in Cairo entitled Toward the Unknown. His ability to transition from surrealism to abstract art is a direct expansion of his oeuvre and his aptitude to break away from “the traditional” and established modus operandi of the time.
Surrealist photographer, Ida Karamian (Ida Kar/Idabel) was born in Russia in 1908 to Armenian parents. Her family relocated to Alexandria Egypt and she later continued her studies in Paris. There, she met surrealist photographer, Henrich Heidersberger, who helped Karamian develop her initial experimental surrealist photographs. After returning to Cairo, Ida Kar married Edmond Belali with whom she established the photographic studio ‘Idabel’, where they exhibited many of Art and Liberty’s group shows. Much of Kar’s critical acclaim can be attributed to her successful solo show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1960; and shortly after in 1966, the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired sixteen of the artist’s portraits. This acquisition of Kar’s work contributed greatly to her credibility as an artist, affirming her success at the time and relevance as a surrealist photographer. Ida Kar’s L’Etreinte (The Embrace) is a prime example of the surrealist juxtapositioning that she consistently used in her artwork. Kar’s photography often commented on the phenomenon of colonialism, which inspired the Art and Liberty movement in addition to the exploitation of fascist leadership. The second work Untitled (Surrealist Study) was a collaboration by Ida Kar and Angelo de Riz, which ultimately combined both artists’ photographs, creating a dream-like narrative.
Angelo de Riz was an Italian artist who escaped Italy’s fascism and sought refuge in Egypt. Shortly after migrating, De Riz joined the Art and Liberty movement and eventually attained Egyptian nationality. De Riz worked closely with Georges Henein and Ramses Younan to further advance surrealism in Egypt by becoming a prominent member of the Art and Liberty group, as one of its first signatories.
Mayo was born in 1905 in Port Said, Egypt to a French mother and Greek father. Having completed his education in Alexandria, he was accepted to the Beaux Arts in Paris at the age of twenty, where he relocated and met the leader of Surrealism, André Breton in 1927. Breton would end up having a profound influence on his work. Mayo’s 1937 portrait, Le Marin (The Sailor), depicts a unique subject matter compared to his well-known works that portray distorted bodies or unsystematic juxtapositions. This portrait exemplifies Mayo’s use of luminescent colours and the importance of light in his work, which is visible throughout his extensive oeuvre.
Egyptian painter, poet and teacher, Fouad Kamel supported the Art and Liberty group in Cairo and exhibited his works throughout World War II through this platform. Similar to the interest of the other members in the group, Kamel’s writings and paintings often explored the theme of the adversity of the disadvantaged and impoverished of Egypt. Despite Art and Liberty’s disintegration in 1948, Kamel continued to organise exhibitions of surrealist art in the late 1940s. The present portrait The Green Face illustrates a young woman donning earrings and only revealing her side profile to the observer. Her body is made up of geometric shapes and more illuminated than her face, demanding the viewer’s attention, as if her body were a formula to be studied. The image of the fragmented body became a source of social as well as artistic protest for Egypt’s surrealist artists.
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