Rethinking Surrealism: Art et Liberté (f. 1938), and the Subjective Realism of Ramses Younane (1913 - 1966)

By Sam Bardaouil
Submitted to Session P4996 (The Surreal and the Real between Orientalism and Post-Orientalism, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In 1938, painter and theorist Ramses Younane, a leading member of the Surrealist, Cairo-based collective Art et Liberté coined a new definition of Surrealism which he called Subjective Realism. This was soon followed by the notion of Free Art, developed by fellow Group member Kamel El-Telmisany. Through this new definition, Art et Liberté proposed a new direction for Surrealism , which they perceived as a movement in crisis. Founded on December 22, 1938 with the publication of their manifesto Vive L'Art Dégénéré, the Group rejected the convergence of art and nationalism, aligning themselves with a complex, international and evolving Surrealist network spanning cities as far flung as Paris, London, Mexico City, New York, Beirut and Tokyo. At the dawn of the Second World War and during Egypt’s colonial rule by the British Empire, Art et Liberté was globally engaged in its defiance of Fascism, Nationalism and Colonialism.

Through consulting a significant body of artworks from the 1920s until the 1940s, along with a diverse corpus of unpublished primary sources such as personal correspondence, periodicals, newspapers and magazines, exhibition catalogues and art-related publications by the Group and other sources, this paper seeks to demonstrate how, through a process of acute negotiation and appropriation, Art et Liberté developed a distinct Surrealist language that was at once, internationally minded yet locally concerned. The paper will also put forward a new reading of the Group’s 1938 manifesto by weaving in new evidence from hitherto unpublished material, proposing that it was equally intended as a response against a local flirtation, and in some cases alignment, with an increasingly popular Fascist ideology, as much as it was a response to the Fascist and Nazi oppression of the avant-garde in Europe . In doing so, the paper seeks to shed light on how the Group provided a restless generation of young artists, intellectuals and political activists, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, men and women alike, with a heterogeneous platform for cultural and political reform. Last but not least, the paper posits Art et Liberté's significant visual and literary contributions beyond the polemics of post-colonial discourse and the pitfalls of historicism, advocating for a new art-historical understanding of the Surrealist movement that transcends the polarizing paradigm of Saïd's Orientalism.