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Surviving Fascism? “Art and Liberty” in Egypt, 1938-1948

“Well this exhibition feels a little too timely,” my colleague Clare Davies posted to Facebook during a November 21, 2016 visit to Art et liberté: Rupture, guerre et surréalisme en Egypte (1938-1948) at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.[1] The exhibit—a major contribution to contemporary efforts to account for the globalizing trajectories of international surrealism—offers a close, documentary view onto the efforts of a group of intellectuals, artists, and even lawyers in Egypt to defy the erosion of creative liberties under a 1930s sweep of fascist and totalitarian movements. Operating beneath the banner “Art et liberté,” the group’s revolving cast of affiliates went on to organize five exhibitions in Cairo, hold seances and zikr gatherings, produce literary collections, launch journals such as Don Quichotte (est. 1939) and al-Tatawwur (est. 1940), and conduct a parallel program of direct political activism under the imprimatur Pain et liberté—all during years of increasing desperation within the Kingdom of Egypt, a de facto British imperial holding.[2] Residents suffered the repressions of the police state and the cruel asymmetries of an industrializing economy while also becoming interpolated to the Allied cause. By 1942, Cairo had become a military base for Middle East and North African operations, hosting some 140,000 soldiers (as well as movie theater and prostitution enterprises that served them). For artists in Cairo or Alexandria, the toponym “Egypt” designated a dream space of marvelous juxtaposition—see the Dada/Surrealism special issue “Wonderful Things”—but also a toxic interface of militarism, nationalism, and colonialism.

Fig. 1. Installation view: Social network map of correspondence between surrealist authors.

Curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath have packed an untold number of poignant objects into nine gallery spaces: paintings, drawings, photographs, brochures, correspondence, and even book inscriptions traded between a transnational multitude of displaced Surrealists (fig. 1). When I visited in October, the photographic works stood out as most intriguing, as if “last snapshots” from a Cairo bohemia: montage prints by Ida Kar joining the solarized outlines of doll-like figure and lace to a charcoal drawing by Angelo de Riz, and a contact sheet of photographs by Étienne Sved  (fig. 2) staging wistful, outmatched encounters between humans and Colossi. By the time of a November visit, however, following the surprise U.S. election of Donald Trump that rendered his hate-speech campaign promises into an impending reality, the group’s clarion calls to resistance were pushed to the fore. Clare posted a photograph of an April 1942 special issue on the fascist threat in Egypt produced by the left-wing revue al-Majalla al-Jadida (fig. 3.). Its cover, likely designed by the 23-year-old surrealist Fouad Kamel, bellows, “Fascism made flesh and blood!” in red block letters cutting across a marching formation of helmeted soldiers. Beneath, an isolated grouping of deadly emblems—a swastika, a fasces, and a skull—tilt with coordinated effort, becoming a mechanized blade. The boldness of this design belies the precarity of its contributors’ efforts. Writers such as Georges Henein, Ramsis Younan, and Kamel Telmisany were working to mobilize brilliant, deconstructive analyses of dictatorship, but they knew that it offered only slight resistance to the blunt instruments of the military regimes.

Fig. 2. Étienne Sved, Untitled (contact print), c. 1945.

In the case of a fluid collective entity such as Art et liberté, a group that both did and did not claim a relationship to the world surrealist movement of André Breton, it makes little sense to speak of origins or singular objectives (see Bardaouil’s companion monograph for a first attempt to parse the stakes of different filiative possibilities). The group announced itself as such on December 22, 1938, when thirty-seven intellectuals resident in Egypt signed a manifesto titled “Long Live Degenerate Art,” which declared their opposition to the reactionary attacks on art in Hitler’s Germany, with its entartete Kunst campaign, and elsewhere, in Vienna and Rome. Their pamphlet—printed bilingually as Vive l’art dégénéré/Yahya al-Fann al-Munhatt—positions their cause within ongoing international resistance; it draws its visual punch from a large reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica (fig. 4). And, as Abdel Kader El-Janabi and Donald LaCoss, among others have tracked, it drew vocabulary and tone from another manifesto of international solidarity: “For an Independent Revolutionary Art,” issued July 25, 1938 by the unlikely alliance of Breton and Leon Trotsky at the home of Diego Rivera in Mexico, and launching a global anti-Stalinist front to be called the Fédération internationale de l'art révolutionnaire indépendant, or FIARI.

Fig. 3. Al-Majalla al-Jadida no. 421 (15 August 1942).

The primary instigator of the “Long Live Degenerate Art” manifesto was Georges Henein, the great misfit intellectual who, as the child of an Egyptian diplomat and an Italian mother, had grown up in Cairo, Madrid, Rome, and Paris. As early as 1935, he was publishing his own surrealist verses in Cairo, several of which wield a spirit of free association as a corrosive force within the period’s most bellicose declamations (See, for example, “The Returning War,” a numbered sequence of forty-six absurdist lines, in translation in Bardaouil’s book). During a 1936 stay in Paris he made the direct acquaintance of Breton, joining the circle’s pamphleteering efforts and signing their declaration against the Moscow Trials. And by 1938, he had signaled alignment with the FIARI version of imaginative socialism, and with Trotsky over Stalin. Not all participants in the Egyptian group held identical commitments, however. Some were loyal to other programs of the Egyptian Communist party, or sought to mobilize directly against the irredentism of Italian fascism, or against anti-Semitism. Concomitantly, many professed a concern for civilizational progress as a function of staying connected and alive to world energies. Indeed, the group’s charter, which they signed in January 1939 and published in both Clé (the FIARI bulletin in Paris) and al-Tatawwur, comprises several different, nested convictions. It commits to protecting cultural and artistic liberty, but also bringing to light the works, thinkers, and values needed to “comprehend the present moment,” and keeping the youth of Egypt in contact with the world’s literary, artistic, and social events.

Fig. 4. Installation view: "Long Live Degenerate Art" manifesto (Dec. 1938) in foreground.

The prismatic effects of Art et liberté’s manifold alliances can make it resistant to ready characterization and to familiar narratives of, say, avant-garde/modernist antinomies. But this is not to suggest that the group hasn’t been chronicled. The bibliography on Henein’s Francophone writing is vast, and references to the group recur in Egyptian modern art surveys (Karnouk; al-Razzaz), histories of French literature in Egypt (Kober), and anthologies of surrealist writing in Africa (Rosemont), as well as studies of the entanglements of surrealism and Sufism in North African literature (Abdel-Jaouad; Flores Khalil; Adonis), photographic art practices in Egypt (Golia), and Communist networks and activism (Botman; Renton). Moreover, since 1986, a dedicated study of the movement by Egyptian critic Samir Gharib has been available in Arabic and in English translation. The current revival of interest in Art et liberté arises not from academia per se, but rather out the art world of galleries, museums, and auction houses, which has so far yielded, in addition to the Pompidou exhibition, a second show in Cairo, organized and funded by the Sharjah Art Foundation, with others planned, including a global surrealism exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Modern in 2020. The record of engagement even includes one key progenitor exhibition from 2010, organized by artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin during a remarkable residency at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery. Their project, which they billed as a “special exhumation of the Egyptian surrealist movement” took shape around their sense of a lost material history. Instead making new use of Art et liberté’s original tactics of estrangement, such as reprinting its aphorisms onto street posters, they produced surrogate experiences. My favorite, “Female Workers of the World, Be Beautiful!,” slyly plays with the gendered optics of international Communist solidarity.

Fig. 5. Rateb Seddik, Untitled (c. 1940).

Bardaouil and Fellrath tack in the opposite direction at the Pompidou. Doggedly recovering objects once presumed lost from farflung collections and archives, they insist on making Art et liberté manifest in its visual works. It is now possible, for the first time, to see in person Rateb Seddik’s startling 1940 oil-on-wood painting (fig. 5) depicting a melee of zombie men who jab and choke one another in the intense psychosexual space of an Egyptian bath, and to consider multiple works from Inji Efflatoun’s early-career series of Girl and Monster paintings (1941-42) (fig. 6). Further, the curators take care to designate two key points of Egyptian art historical context for the group’s rebellion. They demonstrate the academicism of the Egyptian beaux-arts apparatus as one immediate foil for Art et liberté, and highlight a local trajectory of futurist-surrealist clashes as a second. Some elements of this clash are well known. Breton had expressed personal disdain for Marinetti’s brand of futurism, a fact that Henein relayed to Cairo audiences in a 1937 speech, reporting that Marinetti’s “artificial and superficial dynamism” had earned him the “legitimate scorn of the surrealists.” Yet Marinetti stood as more than a celebrity ideologue in Egypt as well, for his own life journey had begun from Italy’s imperial entanglements in Egypt and the African Mediterranean. Born and raised in Alexandria, where his father worked as a lawyer in the penumbra of the Suez Canal projects, he attended Egyptian French schools until the age of eighteen (and the experiences of his Oriental and African youth animate his Manifesto of Futurism, as well as his Mafarka le futuriste [1910]). The exhibition tracks how other writers in the Italian community in Egypt developed futurist writing and attitudes in Cairo over the interwar period, too, often in loose affiliation with Marinetti. These ties reached a crisis of sorts in 1938, when Marinetti visited Egypt in the role of propagandist. During a lavish Cairo fete arranged by right-wing futurists and their society friends, Henein and others launched a protest and shouted Marinetti down. Their action establishes yet another point of beginning for Art et liberté’s collective opposition.

Fig. 6. Inji Efflatoun, Girl and Monster (c. 1942).

Finally, the exhibition highlights the presence of avant-garde British poets and artists in Cairo as well, many of whom joined the Egyptian group’s final few exhibitions. Victor Musgrave was stationed in Egypt as an active serviceman—he exhibited in the 1945 show La Séance continue. Robert Medley, who exhibited in the same show, worked as a military artist. Still others, such as Lawrence Durrell, who left Greece after the Nazi invasion, lived there for years as unaffiliated persons of letters. And the salons hosted by Amy Nimr Smart, a painter married to a British diplomat, helped to solidify contacts between the group. Equally noteworthy as an actor in regional surrealist developments (although not mentioned directly by Bardaouil) is Simon Watson Taylor, an anarchist poet and a secretary to the Surrealist Group in England. In 1944, he toured to Cairo as a member of a military entertainment unit, where he met with Henein, then onto Baghdad, where he got to know the editors of the cultural revue al-Fikr al-Hadith, with whom he published poems (which the journal translated into Arabic). What we learn is that, by the war’s purported end, these surrealist networks not only attracted adherents from soldiers and civilians alike, but they also fulfilled Art et liberté’s 1939 pledge to keep “the youth” in touch with world developments.

But for what? Surely, Art et liberté’s struggle against a total fascist inundation—a threat that did not disappear at war’s end—calls us to consider anew the fractured meanings of such rallying keywords as liberty, freedom, or independent art. Egypt’s surrealists carried on without any illusion of victory. This point becomes all the more pertinent when the imploding sureties at the heart of Art et liberté: Rupture, guerre et surréalisme en Egypte (1938-1948) are considered against the more celebratory presentations of surrealism found elsewhere in the Pompidou. On the fifth floor, for example, there is a room-sized exhibition André Breton, surréalisme et politique organized in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. It too offers visitors a close look at documents, this time from Parisian surrealist participation in “all of the 20th century's combats in defense of liberty”: pamphlets supporting the 1925 Rif rebellion, a copy of The Truth About the Moscow Trials (1936), of Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War (1961), and others. But the whole assembly appears under the glib title, “When the Surrealists had the right idea,” as if to smuggle something like moral authority back into play under the cover of signatures on petitions. Such wishful sentiments are, it must be emphasized, fully at odds with the insights to be gleaned from Art et liberté—indeed, they are hostile to them. In Egypt, we are called to recognize, the work of surrealism proceeded from a recognition of the futility of “the right idea” within a collective condition of super-exploitation.


[1] Art et liberté: Rupture, guerre et surréalisme en Egypte (1938-1948). October 19, 2016 – January 16, 2017. The Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. The exhibit is traveling to Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid; Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; and the Tate Liverpool.

[2] I give manifesto and article titles in English translation, but have left group and institution names, as well as periodical names, in the original French or in Arabic transliteration. The group name Art et liberté existed bilingually from its very first pamphlet, and was named al-Fann wa-l-Hurriyya in Arabic (similarly, Pain et liberté was also al-Khubz wa-l-Hurriyya). Because the Pompidou materials leave the name in the French, I do so here as well.