Tate Liverpool is currently showing an exhibition Egyptian Surrealism.
Long live degenerate art
The Egyptian art collective Art et Liberté were founded on 22nd December 1938. Their first manifesto was called “Long live degenerate art”. They were anti-fascist, anti-nationalism and anti-colonialist. They also rejected art as both propaganda and art for arts sake.
The group of artists were part of a wider international movement connected to André Breton and the French circle of Surrealists. The poet Georges Henein was the centre of this exciting circle of artists. Although based in Egypt and containing many Egyptian artists, Art et Liberté were also a very cosmopolitan group, with individuals from different cultures and backgrounds (through birth, education or training) collaborating together and inspiring each other.
The crisis of Egyptian Surrealism
The War impacted on the artists. Egypt was essentially under colonial control by the British. Much of the resources of the land were dedicated to the war effort, which largely took place in the desert to the West. In the gallery, Samir Rafi’s Nudes is placed next to Pathe film footage of the aftermath of a bombing raid. The similarities are clear, but there differences
The artists were interested in themes of feminism from the start, but this theme became stronger during the war because of increased inequality and prostitution. Amy Nimr was drawn to undersea imagery. Her early paintings show images of figures beneath the waters, ambiguously placed between life and death. Girl with a fishnet in 1928 depicted a blueish green woman held in a fishnet, surrounded by clam shells. Her young son was tragically killed during the war. He picked up a camouflaged bomb during a picnic trip. After this Nimr’s paintings become more focused on the death and destruction wrought by war.
Egyptian Surrealism and Ancient Egypt
To get to the exhibition you have to walk through an exhibition dedicated to John Piper. This is fortunate to some degree as there are similarities between the sets of artworks. For example, some of Kamel El Telmisany’s brushwork resemble the dark shades in Piper’s architectural works. Yet the engagement between artist and history is different in Art et Liberté.
The artists of Egyptian Surrealism engaged with modernity both in terms of style and theme. Ancient Egypt is not a major theme of their work. One of the most obvious nods to Ancient Egyptian art was painted by an English artist, Roland Penrose who painted his parter Lee Miller as Nut.
Yet images of Egypt are strong. Desert scenes, cut through with rivers, are plentiful. Maher Ra’ef paints a desert caravan scene straight from history. In the fifties, artists associated with Art et Liberté founded the Contemporary Art Group. This group sought to explore how art can be made authentically Egyptian. Abduh Khalil took some great photos posing before ancient Egyptian pyramids.
The show is a revelation in many ways both for the entire ‘school’ of Art et Liberté but also for individual artists.
Getting this exhibition was a bit of a coup for the city of Liverpool. The show originally opened at the Centre Pompidou last year, it then showed at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and will show at Moderna Museet in Stockholm later this year.
It was a shame that the Tate gift shop did not have anything related to the collection, not even an exhibition booklet. With better engagement from Tate, this could have been a 5 star show. As it was, it is 4.75 stars. I recommend a visit.
★★★★ & (3/4 ★)