When we think of Surrealism, it’s most often Salvador Dali, André Breton and René Magritte that first spring to mind. Yet the surrealist movement spanned much further than Europe, underpinned by a progressive, internationalist energy in an age of rising fascism. Drawing upon this past, Tate Liverpool’s new show is the first major UK exhibition to address a much underrepresented, yet fascinating chapter in the history of the movement: Art et Liberté.
Art et Liberté (jama’at al-fann wa al-hurriyyah) was a radical, politically-engaged collective of artists and writers who lived and worked in Cairo. It was founded in 1938 with the publication of the group’s bold manifesto: Long Live Degenerate Art, which actively opposed the rise of fascism in Egypt and the country’s subjection to colonial rule by the British Empire. It also expressed allegiance with struggles in Europe – ‘degenerate’ being the term used by the Nazi Party to attack many avant-garde artworks, while the front page bore a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, expressing solidarity with Spanish people suffering under the Franco regime. The group had strong links with other surrealists around the world, and included the American photographer Lee Miller and English artist and writer Roland Penrose among its members.
Perhaps one of the most defining aspects of Art et Liberté was the unique strand of surrealism that the group developed, termed ‘subjective realism’. This sought to strike a middle ground between surrealism’s fascination with the universal themes of the subconscious and artistic liberation, and the locally-specific concerns of the group’s immediate environment. The exhibition includes Mayo’s terrifying painting, Coups de Bâtons (1937), which captures the police brutality used to disperse crowds during protests, while a series of photographs by Ida Kar and Etienne Sved attack the nationalistic pharaonic imagery that featured in government propaganda of the period.
Art et Liberté also addressed the suffering and objectification of women; depicting the female body very differently to the erotic male gaze found in other surrealist works. The group included several prominent female artists, such as Inji Efflatoun and Amy Nimr, whose work addressed issues such as the widespread prostitution and poverty inflicted upon women through the influx of British soldiers in Cairo during World War II.
Altogether, Surrealism in Egypt will present more than 100 paintings, photographs, drawings and archival documents, powerfully capturing the zeitgeist of Egypt at the time. The show is curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of Art Reoriented; an initiative which aims to ‘put forth a critique of conventional historiographical classifications by focusing on the multifarious nature of modernity’. Acting under such intentions, Surrealism in Egypt looks set to be an eye-opening show.