ART / FEATURED GALLERY

The Vive l’art Dégénéré manifesto (1937)

by Loulwah Kutbi

“You are Egyptian, and you must return to us Egyptian. You must work consciously in Paris, because we place all of our hopes in you. We wait impatiently the results of your hard work to prove that Egyptians do not lack in ideas and are not incapable of succeeding in the domain of Art, which is a manifestation of civilization” (Abū Ghāzī and Boctor).

The Vive l’art Dégénéré manifesto (1937) ignited the initial fire of the profoundly political, ever so defiant Art and Liberty group of 1938. It may be pegged as an unfruitful melancholia to recall upon a piece of paper that was flung around the streets of Cairo some 83 years ago. But how different is a 1930 manifesto to our contemporary cyber art collectives chanting for change and joint awareness in reflection to contemporary issues? What forged solidarity then continues to foster solidarity now, the belief in the art’s ability to ignite cultural awakenings, to build the primal building blocks of a culture that resists. This is shone through especially when noticing the efforts exerted into effacing this group’s radical, defiant, and detrimental ethos from collective history. Today, the group’s revolutionary art is confined to the homes of private collectors and those that remain open to the public, are ridiculed by the politics of location and usually not accessible to those whose histories and presents resonate to the most.

The Art and Liberty group was initially influenced by cultural exchanges between the revolutionary Egyptian poet Georges Henein and Surrealist French Poet Andre Breton. It was however not limited to said exchanges, nor deluded by the cultural and socio-political differences that existed between artistic landscapes of the west in contrast to Egypt. However, increased exposure to Breton’s surrealist movement, gave Henein incentive to begin exporting surrealism amongst Cairo’s creative and artistic circles circa the early 1930s. Gradually, the group’s founding members started to mobilize and hold reign of the artistic currents of expression in their city, which at that point in history had become fatally compliant to the state and status quo. Members of the Art and Liberty group were firmly determined to become masters of their own fates and worked with their art as they worked with lives,  constantly experimenting and evolving around temporal socio-political events and their own experiences reacting to said changes.

In March 1938, the group’s surrealist education catalysed when Italian futurist poet F.T Martinetti recited his “La Poésie Motorisée” in Cairo’s essayist club. Denunciations from the young surrealists took him by surprise, Henein right then and there opposed Marinetti’s poem on the basis of its perceived fascist sentiment and stood with him a group of visionary artists who had enough with the contamination of art scenes with nationalism.  Later that year, On December 22nd, 1938, the group published their Vive l’Art Dégénéré! (Long Live Degenerate Art!).  The manifesto was written by Henein and co-signed by 37 of the city’s artists, intellectuals, and writers. Most of them members of the Art and Liberty group including Heinen, the  painter and theorist Ramses Younanewho reimagined pharaonism in his art, Kamil Telmissanythe painter of grotesques”, and the brothers Anwar, an ardent marxist whose publications were met with immediate bans and Fouad Kamil, a painter and poet whose illustration graced the group’s first exhibition catalogue cover.  The manifesto encapsulated a sentiment of international solidarity that extended from Cairo all the way to fellow comrades in Europe who were resisting the perils of totalitarianism. It was spread around the streets of Cairo in both English and Arabic, in condemnation of the resurgence of fascism, nazism, and nationalism in Europe. The manifesto’s title was a critique of the infamous Nazi degenerate art exhbitons of the 1930s, which perceived modern art to be degenerate on racial lines. It addressed the awareness of Egyptian intellectuals and their role in challenging events which threatened their freedom of expression and liberties. The struggle was transnational, it transcended the confinements of man-made broader, the rigid separations of man on the basis of ethnicity and geography. 

WE FIND ABSURD, and deserving of total disdain, the religious, racist, and nationalist prejudices that make up the tyranny of certain individuals who, drunk on their own temporary omniscience, seek to subjugate the destiny of the work of art.” 

Extract from manifesto

The group was born shortly after the manifesto’s publication on March 29, 1939. It was also part of the “International Federation of Revolutionary Art” which was a global network of Trotskyists and surrealists committed to “emancipating the imagination from any and all constraints” (LaCoss).  The surrealists believed that By exploring the criticality of one’s subconscious, the surrealist art movement, as described by Salvador Dali allows explaining cultural and political phenomena via “the descendance into the subconsciousness”. The network was heavily influenced by concepts of Freudism and socialism. The objective remained to incorporate surrealism’s morale into Egyptian art scenes, and not the other way around. After the manifeto’s publication and envitible scrutiny from the public, Telmissany replied to accusations pointed against their misrepresentation of “Arab” culture in an article by AlRisalah, declaring “ Have you heard stories or poems from local, popular literature?…. All of these, Sir, are all surrealist. Have you seen the Egyptian Museum?… Much of pharaonic art is surrealist. Have you seen the Coptic Museum? Much of Coptic art is surrealist”. Later, the group established in conjunction with their annual exhibitions the Arabic-English language magazine “Al Tatawwur”, it was defined by the group as  “The first avant-garde literary and artistic review in the Arabic language” (Alexandrian 30).

Many details remain obscure about the group, but looking back at recent catalogues of the groups work -at least those that survived- an image manifests that helps fill in gaps dug by the anxious recorders of history. Catalogues of the group’s annual exhibitions show a multitude of unique, independent surrealist artists who were not confined to a leader’s dogma nor any principle that constrained free, uninhabited creative expression. The group was subject to change, and responded in accordance with events. Some members broke off according to their own departures and leanings, and the scope of influence that the art and liberty group spread into the egyptian art scene remains irreversible regardless of efforts exerted to efface it.

In Ramses Younane’s portrayal of the female body, we notice a completely flipped interpretation of the female figure. The raw, the brutal and real is translated in the work portraying “[b]odies in a state of decay or deflation, shattered and incomplete: pointing to the inscription of violence on the social body.” Society and the implications of traditions were never sidelined in the groups’ works,  they were put in full display, open for the public to decipher. Women were especially given a voice and were actively recruited and exhibited in the group’s expositions and events, again a detail that is under emphasised in interpretations of the group today. Artist and prominent leftist  activist Inji Afflatoun who spent the majority of her life incarcerated in jail for her activism , notes in her memoirs that the group’s contribution to her self-discovery “came while she was a high-school student in Cairo thanks to three years of contact with members of the art and liberty group and her participation in their ‘independent art’ exhibitions.”The impact that the group left on Inji also pushed her into liberating herself from her avant-garde, bourgeois milieu both linguistically and ideologically. The art and liberty group, on a local level,  sought to liberarte society from the narrow definitions they’ve come to accept of freedom, expression and liberty. Hence, they were extremely engaged with the public and sought to recruit artists and creatives directly from society, choosing not to make art an elitist sphere of political and social engagement. They gave space for women, men, born and bred inhabitants of Cairo as well as those who only recently succumbed to the charms of the historical capital; it did not condition membership to any criteria besides that of sentiment. Anyone who fundamentally agreed with the group’s social driven agenda would find home and refuge.

By the late 1940s, The International Federation of Revolutionary Art network faltered at the dawn of the second World War. The JHF resumed working and diversifying communion outlets well after the federation’s demise, even serving ties with long-time collaborator Breton in pursuit of a more nationally representative art collective. However, anxieties over an independent Egypt worried imperial officers, who ironically deemed the group’s existence as too much of a threat to “national security”. Active pressure was enforced by the state to dismantle the group under the guise of “preserving peace”. The efforts exerted by the then imperial overlords and their second grade national figurines, paved the path towards creative stagnation and the group’s dismalmentent, which triggered many members to seek exile, or perhaps even safety, abroad, The re-molding of culture seemed to abide by invisible criterions, criterions based on abstract definitions of culture and identity projected by the very few in power over a mass majority who dared challenge these constructs, the group’s  resistful march towards change could only be met with eursaion.

 

NAVIGATION

“You are Egyptian, and you must return to us Egyptian. You must work consciously in Paris, because we place all of our hopes in you. We wait impatiently the results of your hard work to prove that Egyptians do not lack in ideas and are not incapable of succeeding in the domain of Art, which is a manifestation of civilization” (Abū Ghāzī and Boctor).

The Vive l’art Dégénéré manifesto (1937) ignited the initial fire of the profoundly political, ever so defiant Art and Liberty group of 1938. It may be pegged as an unfruitful melancholia to recall upon a piece of paper that was flung around the streets of Cairo some 83 years ago. But how different is a 1930 manifesto to our contemporary cyber art collectives chanting for change and joint awareness in reflection to contemporary issues? What forged solidarity then continues to foster solidarity now, the belief in the art’s ability to ignite cultural awakenings, to build the primal building blocks of a culture that resists. This is shone through especially when noticing the efforts exerted into effacing this group’s radical, defiant, and detrimental ethos from collective history. Today, the group’s revolutionary art is confined to the homes of private collectors and those that remain open to the public, are ridiculed by the politics of location and usually not accessible to those whose histories and presents resonate to the most.

The Art and Liberty group was initially influenced by cultural exchanges between the revolutionary Egyptian poet Georges Henein and Surrealist French Poet Andre Breton. It was however not limited to said exchanges, nor deluded by the cultural and socio-political differences that existed between artistic landscapes of the west in contrast to Egypt. However, increased exposure to Breton’s surrealist movement, gave Henein incentive to begin exporting surrealism amongst Cairo’s creative and artistic circles circa the early 1930s. Gradually, the group’s founding members started to mobilize and hold reign of the artistic currents of expression in their city, which at that point in history had become fatally compliant to the state and status quo. Members of the Art and Liberty group were firmly determined to become masters of their own fates and worked with their art as they worked with lives,  constantly experimenting and evolving around temporal socio-political events and their own experiences reacting to said changes.

In March 1938, the group’s surrealist education catalysed when Italian futurist poet F.T Martinetti recited his “La Poésie Motorisée” in Cairo’s essayist club. Denunciations from the young surrealists took him by surprise, Henein right then and there opposed Marinetti’s poem on the basis of its perceived fascist sentiment and stood with him a group of visionary artists who had enough with the contamination of art scenes with nationalism.  Later that year, On December 22nd, 1938, the group published their Vive l’Art Dégénéré! (Long Live Degenerate Art!).  The manifesto was written by Henein and co-signed by 37 of the city’s artists, intellectuals, and writers. Most of them members of the Art and Liberty group including Heinen, the  painter and theorist Ramses Younane who reimagined pharaonism in his art, Kamil Telmissany the painter of grotesques”, and the brothers Anwar, an ardent marxist whose publications were met with immediate bans and Fouad Kamil, a painter and poet whose illustration graced the group’s first exhibition catalogue cover.  The manifesto encapsulated a sentiment of international solidarity that extended from Cairo all the way to fellow comrades in Europe who were resisting the perils of totalitarianism. It was spread around the streets of Cairo in both English and Arabic, in condemnation of the resurgence of fascism, nazism, and nationalism in Europe. The manifesto’s title was a critique of the infamous Nazi degenerate art exhbitons of the 1930s, which perceived modern art to be degenerate on racial lines. It addressed the awareness of Egyptian intellectuals and their role in challenging events which threatened their freedom of expression and liberties. The struggle was transnational, it transcended the confinements of man-made broader, the rigid separations of man on the basis of ethnicity and geography. 

WE FIND ABSURD, and deserving of total disdain, the religious, racist, and nationalist prejudices that make up the tyranny of certain individuals who, drunk on their own temporary omniscience, seek to subjugate the destiny of the work of art.” 

Extract from manifesto

The group was born shortly after the manifesto’s publication on March 29, 1939. It was also part of the “International Federation of Revolutionary Art” which was a global network of Trotskyists and surrealists committed to “emancipating the imagination from any and all constraints” (LaCoss).  The surrealists believed that By exploring the criticality of one’s subconscious, the surrealist art movement, as described by Salvador Dali allows explaining cultural and political phenomena via “the descendance into the subconsciousness”. The network was heavily influenced by concepts of Freudism and socialism. The objective remained to incorporate surrealism’s morale into Egyptian art scenes, and not the other way around. After the manifeto’s publication and envitible scrutiny from the public, Telmissany replied to accusations pointed against their misrepresentation of “Arab” culture in an article by AlRisalah, declaring “ Have you heard stories or poems from local, popular literature?…. All of these, Sir, are all surrealist. Have you seen the Egyptian Museum?… Much of pharaonic art is surrealist. Have you seen the Coptic Museum? Much of Coptic art is surrealist”. Later, the group established in conjunction with their annual exhibitions the Arabic-English language magazine “Al Tatawwur”, it was defined by the group as  “The first avant-garde literary and artistic review in the Arabic language” (Alexandrian 30).

Many details remain obscure about the group, but looking back at recent catalogues of the groups work -at least those that survived- an image manifests that helps fill in gaps dug by the anxious recorders of history. Catalogues of the group’s annual exhibitions show a multitude of unique, independent surrealist artists who were not confined to a leader’s dogma nor any principle that constrained free, uninhabited creative expression. The group was subject to change, and responded in accordance with events. Some members broke off according to their own departures and leanings, and the scope of influence that the art and liberty group spread into the egyptian art scene remains irreversible regardless of efforts exerted to efface it.

In Ramses Younane’s portrayal of the female body, we notice a completely flipped interpretation of the female figure. The raw, the brutal and real is translated in the work portraying “[b]odies in a state of decay or deflation, shattered and incomplete: pointing to the inscription of violence on the social body.” Society and the implications of traditions were never sidelined in the groups’ works,  they were put in full display, open for the public to decipher. Women were especially given a voice and were actively recruited and exhibited in the group’s expositions and events, again a detail that is under emphasised in interpretations of the group today. Artist and prominent leftist  activist Inji Afflatoun who spent the majority of her life incarcerated in jail for her activism , notes in her memoirs that the group’s contribution to her self-discovery “came while she was a high-school student in Cairo thanks to three years of contact with members of the art and liberty group and her participation in their ‘independent art’ exhibitions. The impact that the group left on Inji also pushed her into liberating herself from her avant-garde, bourgeois milieu both linguistically and ideologically. The art and liberty group, on a local level,  sought to liberarte society from the narrow definitions they’ve come to accept of freedom, expression and liberty. Hence, they were extremely engaged with the public and sought to recruit artists and creatives directly from society, choosing not to make art an elitist sphere of political and social engagement. They gave space for women, men, born and bred inhabitants of Cairo as well as those who only recently succumbed to the charms of the historical capital; it did not condition membership to any criteria besides that of sentiment. Anyone who fundamentally agreed with the group’s social driven agenda would find home and refuge.

By the late 1940s, The International Federation of Revolutionary Art network faltered at the dawn of the second World War. The JHF resumed working and diversifying communion outlets well after the federation’s demise, even serving ties with long-time collaborator Breton in pursuit of a more nationally representative art collective. However, anxieties over an independent Egypt worried imperial officers, who ironically deemed the group’s existence as too much of a threat to “national security”. Active pressure was enforced by the state to dismantle the group under the guise of “preserving peace”. The efforts exerted by the then imperial overlords and their second grade national figurines, paved the path towards creative stagnation and the group’s dismalmentent, which triggered many members to seek exile, or perhaps even safety, abroad, The re-molding of culture seemed to abide by invisible criterions, criterions based on abstract definitions of culture and identity projected by the very few in power over a mass majority who dared challenge these constructs, the group’s  resistful march towards change could only be met with eursaion.