Magazine article Artforum International

"When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965)"

Magazine article Artforum International

"When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965)"

Article excerpt

"When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965)"

PALACE OF ARTS, CAIRO

ON DECEMBER 22,1938, nearly two years after the Nazi Party organized its infamous "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich, a motley group of writers, literary critics, lawyers, and artists based in Cairo published their historic manifesto, "Long Live Degenerate Art." Throwing their weight behind beleaguered European modernists who were being "abused and trampled underfoot" by forces of the "new Middle Ages," this group not only aligned themselves with global antifascism, they proclaimed their faith in the primacy of individual freedom against the onslaught of nationalism in interwar Europe. This, in sum, was the official calling card of the Art and Liberty group. Recognized for its internationalist rhetoric and its identification with Andre Breton's Surrealist movement, the group--as a major exhibition this past fall at the Palace of Arts in Cairo, curated by Floor Al-Qasimi, Salah M. Elassan, Ehab Ellaban, and Nagla Samir, demonstrated--was the first truly modernist art movement in Egypt.

Despite its 1938 manifesto, Art and Liberty didn't mount their first exhibition until February 1940; by 1945 the collective had virtually ceased to exist. It was supplanted the following year by the newly formed Contemporary Art Group, led by the artist and teacher Hussein Youssef Amin. This latter organization, critical of Art and Liberty's foreign orientation at the expense of ideas and concerns specific to Egypt, was also well represented in "When Art Becomes Liberty." In this sense, the show--with more than twenty-five artists, 172 artworks, and numerous photographs and archival materials--was groundbreaking, providing one of the most comprehensive and concise accounts of mid-twentieth-century Egyptian modernism, with Surrealism as its connecting thread.

Installed across the venue's three floors and many galleries, the exhibition had three main sections. The first, dedicated to Art and Liberty, featured key works by that group's leading members and their contemporaries. Clearly, these artists played fast and loose with painting styles developed by their European counterparts. So while Ramses Younan's Nature Loves a Vacuum, 1944, which shows a biomorphic construction in the foreground of a barren landscape with a diminutive naked figure in the distance, is clearly in conversation with Salvador Dali's Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936, Kamel El-Telmissany's Untitled (Seated Nude), 1941, depicting a naked woman with a large metal peg driven into her lap, her right fingers severed, comes across as a more wickedly imagined and savagely painted Georges Rouault. Among the more enigmatic paintings here was Inji Efflatoun's The Girl and the Beast, 1941, in which tentacular rocks and plants seem to compete with a large airborne raptor for a terrified, partially naked girl trapped high up on a mountainside. Efflatoun's work shows the reaching influence of Art and Liberty's Surrealist bent, advocated by the artists and writers gathered around the author Georges Henein, the movement's most ardent advocate in Egypt.

The second section, devoted to the Contemporary Art Group, included such gems as Kamal Youssef's Key Holder, 1952, as well as Samir Rafi's The Family and Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar's Man and Cat, both 1956. …

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