TONI DEL RENZIO ; Enfant Terrible of English Surrealism

By Levy, Silvano | The Independent (London, England), January 12, 2007 | Go to article overview
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TONI DEL RENZIO ; Enfant Terrible of English Surrealism


Levy, Silvano, The Independent (London, England)


Toni del Renzio was the last of the pre-Second World War members of the Surrealist group in England. He was also the enfant terrible of the movement, clashing furiously with its intellectual leader E.L.T. Mesens.

The ancestry of Antonino Romanov delRenziodeiRossidiCastelloneeVenosa goes back to the Russian Tsars. Born in 1915 in Tsarskoe Selo, he was barely two when the 1917 Russian Revolution forced his aristocratic family to flee for their lives, first to Yalta and then to Italy. After a schooling split between Switzerland and Britain, he went to universities in the United States and Italy and graduated in philosophy and mathematics. As a student he had mingled in artistic circles - the latter-day Futurists, the Milan Abstractionists, the Movement for Rational Architecture. But creativity came to an abrupt end in 1935 when Toni del Renzio, as he had chosen to call himself, was conscripted into Mussolini's Tripolitan cavalry and packed off to fight in Abyssinia. To his horror, he discovered that the Abyssinians castrated their prisoners and he decided to abscond.

Disguised as a Bedouin Arab, he joined a camel caravan and fled across the North African desert. From Morocco he reached Spain, just as the civil war was breaking out. He took up arms against Franco and fought first in the Barcelona streets and then on the Aragon front. War-weary, he set off again and reached Paris in 1937.

There he worked as a designer and painter, mainly for theatres and ballet companies, and became immersed in a vibrant European avant-garde, frequenting Picasso and the Surrealists. He began painting in earnest, producing delicately coloured theatrical illusions inspired by the stage and dance. But, as Hitler was drawing closer to the French frontier in 1939, del Renzio took flight across the Channel.

During the Second World War, he was enlisted in "reserved" work connected with the Allies, including General Charles de Gaulle's Free French fighters, for whom del Renzio designed and coordinatedatravellingexhibition.Asevery-where else in Europe, the Surrealist movement in Britain was in tatters and, by 1941, it had come to a complete standstill. Roland Penrose, its chief founder, had become a captain in the Home Guard and camouflage designer of dubious merit, S.W. Hayter, Gordon Onslow-Ford and Sam Haile had all left for the United States, F.E. McWilliam had joined the Royal Air Force and E.L.T. Mesens had closed the London Gallery, the nerve centre for Surrealism in Britain, stopped publishing London Bulletin, the British Surrealist mouthpiece, and gone to work for the BBC broadcasting Allied propaganda.

Del Renzio decided to take the bull by the horns and revive the ailing movement. "War or no war, there was nothing being done about Surrealism. Hitler had to be defeated, yes, but Surrealism also had to carry on." In March 1942 he published a single-issue magazine entitled Arson, "to provoke authentic collective Surrealist activity", and within months he organised an important Surrealist exhibition at the International Arts Centre in Bayswater.

Seen as the movement's driving force, del Renzio was approached by the editors of New Road, John Bayliss and Alex Comfort, to compile a Surrealist anthology in 1943. Once it was published, a further offer came from Cyril Connolly's Horizon, for which del Renzio was to have edited a whole number. But all this was too much for Mesens, who was enraged that his leadership had been usurped. Unable to contain his anger, he scuppered the Horizon project and viciously attacked del Renzio in the press. By 1944, all the Surrealists, other than Ithell Colquhoun, to whom del Renzio was by then married, had abandoned him. They even sabotaged a recitation of his poetry at the International Arts Centre by showering the stage with rotten eggs. Despite the hate conspiracy, no one could deny that, without del Renzio, Surrealism would not have existed during the war.

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