5 July 2018


Ramses Younane, Untitled, 1939. Courtesy Sheikh Hassan Al-Thani Collection, Doha. © Ramses Younane.

Much of Coptic art is Surrealist. We do not imitate foreign schools but create an art form that has emerged from the tanned soil of this land and that has been running in our veins from the day we used to live by unrestrained free thought until this very hour … The word “Surrealism” is nothing but the modern technical term to what we have always referred to as free imagination: the freedom of expression, the freedom of style, and the orient, since eternity, has been dwelling to all of this.

– Art et Liberté member Kamel El-Telmisany in 1939

The man who was Emma Bovary was just twelve years old when he witnessed a giant granite needle jammed with surreal inscriptions from a very different world floating by one day in Rouen-on-the-Seine. The sight of the mighty Luxor Obelisk on the huffing and puffing Louqsor barge during its journey to Paris in December 1833 made the young Gustave Flaubert desire and fancy a country he only knew from the vast supply of extravagant mannerisms which was the certain imagery of Orientalism.

Napoleon’s invasional Egyptian “expedition” of 1798 and onwards produced the comprehensive volumes Description d’Égypte (1809–29) with close to three thousand illustrations depicting ancient Egypt, and then a host of French painters and their special blends of Neo-Classicism and Orientalism. “Egypt’s strangeness – its difference – represented a challenge to Europe’s post-Enlightenment mentally with its claim to universality and to its self-awarded license to decode and subordinate the cultural systems of others,” argues Peter Osborne in Travelling Light: Photography, Travel and Visual Culture. “Long before disembarking, European travellers knew what had to be seen and how it was to be interpreted […] In the minds of European photographers and spectators alike the country was already a set of myths and meanings awaiting evocation. Egypt was, as Barthes might have put it, Egypticity – the signifier of mythical values, already a sign of itself. It was already representation.”

Flaubert (who detested the snobbishness of the French) adored the muck and the muss of the country without reserve from the moment he arrived in Alexandria in November 1849. In a letter from Cairo he wrote: ”Here we are then, in Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs, the land of the Ptolemies, the kingdom of Cleopatra (as they say in the grand style). Here we are, and here we abide, with our heads shaven as clean as your knee, smoking long pipes and drinking our coffee lying on divans. What can I say? How can I write to you about it? I have scarcely recovered from my initial astonishment.”

“It’s an astounding hubbub of colour, and your poor old imagination, as if it were at a firework display, is perpetually dazzled. As you go walking along with your mouth open gazing at the minarets covered in white storks, the terraces of the houses where weary slaves are stretching out in the sun, the sections of wall that have sycamores growing through them, the little bells on the dromedaries are tinkling in your ears, and great flocks of black goats are making their way along the street, bleating at the horses, the donkeys, and the merchants,” Flaubert penned back to France with much glee. “There is jostling, there is argument, there are blows, there is rolling about, there is swearing of all kinds, there is shouting in a dozen different languages. The raucous Semitic syllables clatter in the air like the sound of a whiplash. You come across every costume in the Orient, you bump into all its peoples.”

The eminent Victorians persuaded their way into Egypt and its valuable cotton industry in the summer of 1882 when the Royal Navy bombed major parts of Alexandria to dust. Although never quite a colony of the Empire, Egypt remained in the claws of Great Britain until the 1950s. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the instalment of President Nasser was also the beginning of the end for the country’s internal old regimes – the self-concerned Cairo elites and the powerful landowners alike – by the dethroning of the Nazi-loving King Farouk and the impediment of the nationalist paradigm waved by the considerably popular Wafd Party since the ending of World War I and, from the mid-1930s, several large groups of uniformed Arab Fascists patrolling the streets of Cairo.

“When people think of Egypt and the visual arts, images from the more than twenty-five hundred years of the Pharaonic period usually come to mind. Some might remember that Egypt for nine hundred years was part of the Hellenistic-Byzantine world, or that for fourteen hundred years it has had an Islamic legacy,” considers Caroline Williams in Re-Envisioning Egypt 1919–1953 with a great understanding of the complexity of al-Nahda – or the “special Renaissance” in the arts – which endorsed the fiery fabrication of the nationalist state that began in the 1920s: “The Pharaonic theme most readily allied itself with the new emerging nationalism since it emphasised Egypt’s own authentic and distinct historical and cultural past. This theme also distinguished Egypt from the European background of its British occupier. Thus, although the images produced in this first period did not entail radically new and different art forms, they nevertheless laid the foundation for a manifestly modern Egyptian art movement.”

Mahmoud Mokhtar was the Nahda pioneer who blended a 19th-century French sculpture style with monumental dictator kitsch that mimicked the particular heritage and the ancient dramatics of the Pharaohs. And as he stated, “When I was a child, there had been no sculptures and no sculptor in my country for more than seventeen hundred years. The images that appeared among the ruins and around the edge of the desert were considered to be accursed and evil idols – no one should come near.” In his most famous work, Egypt Awakening (1928), we see a woman – Huda Sha’arawi, the nationalist who started the Egyptian Feminist Union – relieving herself of her hijab in front of a Las Vegas-y sphinx, as if it were a once-and-for-all statement at a time when Egyptian women, after the age of twelve, were confined to the homes of their fathers, brothers or husbands, and only the ancient goddesses were equal to men.

In his wonderful memoirs My Last Breath, published a year before the filmmaker’s true last sigh in 1983, Luis Buñuel recounts the Surrealist meetings at Le Cyrano on rue Biot or at André Breton’s place at 42 rue Fontaine (both in Pigalle): “Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such critical crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny – in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed. The real purpose of Surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself […] It was an aggressive morality based on the complete rejection of all existing values. We had other criteria: we exalted passion, mystification, black humour, the insult, and the call of the abyss. Inside this new territory, all our thoughts and actions seemed justifiable; there was simply no room for doubt. Everything made sense.”

For a bunch of disobedient Egyptian writers and artists, most of them still in their teens or in their early twenties, Surrealism made a lot of sense. They were the people who believed they belonged to a whole world (the fact that almost all Surrealists came from well-off families granted them a free pass towards an itinerant way of life and a range of cosmopolitan manners) and who regarded the highly Francophonic Cairo as their home but Paris as the bellybutton of human culture. The Art et Liberté group conjured their rebellious energy only months after Britain and France had declared war on Nazi-Germany (succinctly, Dada had been centred around a World War that had just ended and Parisian Surrealism around a World War in the making). On December 22, 1938, these new radicals signed the French-Arabic manifesto “Long Live Degenerate Art”. The title itself was a tribute to all the many great European artists who were ridiculed and purged during the twelve-stop Entartete Kunst exhibition tour throughout the Third Reich. It was also a way to leave the door open for the members of the classical avant-garde.

All roads lead to (and fro) Cairo in the rich and compendious Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948) show at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, a show that has been on tour since October 2016 when it opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, with new turns at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf and Tate Liverpool. “A large preparatory work in putting this together was in fact retracing the stories and the connections and the lives of the people, finding the documents, and I guess it almost made it an obsessive compulsive project over the last years because the stories are so fascinating,” says Till Fellrath of the curatorial duo Art Reoriented to the gathered press. “The Moderna Museet is the grand finale of this show, and it is perhaps also a neutral territory to present it in because in many of the other stations before there was a strong political connection.”

But it is Sam Bardaouil who does all the talking here. “Cairo can be seen as a centre when we take the time and effort to go in and understand what was happening there, without being forced to always make these almost too naïve and normative comparatives that there is one canon, and that everything else has to fit that canon, which is really a very outdated and tired approach to thinking abut art history. It is a bit surprising that we are always so stunned that these connections existed, simply because we didn’t know. But the more we learn the more we realise that this was actually more the norm than the exception, and we need to catch up with what was happening then,” he pleads.

“This exhibition is about changing our point of reference. It is important to imagine a different art history. When you are looking at all these places that have been considered peripheral, we can start imagining a new narrative that unfolds and we can actually reveal and unpack these beautiful stories and intricate connections, making space for new stories and expand our vision and enriching our understanding of what we thought we knew.”

Tremendous work is indeed behind this peculiar show about Surrealism in Egypt. The duo became mesmerised, and obsessed, by Art et Liberté when they discovered this (at the time) obscure group while working on a show called Tea with Nefertiti: The making of the Artwork by the Artist, the Museum and the Public in 2012. They met two hundred people for interviews, they moiled through all sorts of non-digitalised publications from the days of Art et Liberté at the Egyptian National archives, and they travelled to see these (at the time) unknown works spread over twelve countries and forty-six collections. Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948) has all the beautiful stories and intricate connections that Bardaouil and fellrath promise, and the Moderna is doing us a service by presenting these things to us. But how does this material of one hundred and thirty artworks – and a salmagundi of historical documents, with quite a bundle of graphical delights – hold up to Parisian Surrealism? 

“Art is not to be considered as a representation of the world, but its transformation into the wonderful,” were the German multi-artist Oskar Schlemmer’s last words in his diary of 1943, and by “wonderful” he did not necessarily mean beautiful. The titles of the sections in the show – “The Permanent Revolution”, “The Voice of Cannons”, “Fragmented Bodies”, “The Woman of the City”, “Subjective Realism”, “The Contemporary Art Group”, “Writing with Pictures” and “The Surrealist Photo” – are some citations from the voices and writings of the members of Art et Liberté. Most of the canvases in this show appear to have been painted by bedlamites in a world of sad ghosts, stretching from murky amateur Surrealism to folksy realism in a size-reduced vein of Third-World murals in which promulgation always seems to win over poetry. The nook where the photography is presented is a Surrealistic pillow though, a splendid area of solarisation, global modernity and local transformations into the wonderful.

But stop the music for a minute. It is a mystery why international art catalogues – this one comes in different English, French, Spanish, German and Arabic versions (and with the title on the spine running from bottom to top à la the French way of committing things) – so often fail in regard to the editing. This is a catalogue, however, that looks rather swell and the essays do not cling to the usual routine academia care of the art world’s store of garden-variety writers who just love the smell of their own farts. As the great Jonathan Meades recently expressed it in his BBC programme on Jargon: “There is very little jargon, as opposed to slang, which describes, let alone celebrates enjoyment and exhilaration.”

And since we are in the capital of vainglory, charlatan goodness and thought policing – every day a new absurdity in the land where the “Feminists” are squeezing the trigger – we are also under the thumb of Big Sister’s very own Ministry of Love in which brainwashing and bully-worship always seem to win over poetry and the solid advantages of humankind. The Swedish press folder presents its bunch of nonsense, and for the millionth time we are introduced to the half-arsed dichotomy of “strong women” (anyone with a vagina) versus the other sex and its fabled male gaze. One of the forty-five things the writer Varlam Shalamov discovered during his fifteen years of survival at one of Stalin’s Gulag camps was that “the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five per cent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.” It is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly.

“What Walter Benjamin termed the ‘poverty of the interior’ becomes the target of Surrealism and its attempt to transform everyday life,” writes Stephen Bronner in Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia. “No other modernist trend had a theorist as intellectually sophisticated or an organiser quite as talented as Breton. No other was as international in its reach and as total in its confrontation with reality. No other fused psychoanalysis and proletarian revolution. No other was so blatant in its embrace of free association and ‘automatic writing’. No other would so use the audience to complete the work of art. There was no looking back to the past, as with the Expressionists, and little of the macho rhetoric of the Futurists. Surrealists prized individualism and rebellion – and no other movement would prove so commercially successful in promoting its luminaries. The Surrealists wanted to change the world, and they did. At the same time, however, the world changed them.”

Art et Liberté’s key figure, the poet Georges Henein, became friends with Breton in 1936. “What you are experiencing here is a sort of confrontation,” Bardaouil suggests as he sweeps the whole show and then a big world map of the intellectual trade routes between the Surrealists: “It is an homage to Georges Henein who’s truly the most befitted figure when it comes to the founding of Surrealism in Egypt and bringing the movement there. This is Henein when he was about twenty years old, and this is his press card. He was a critic and he wrote reviews for a lot of cultural magazines. And he was a total enfant terrible, talking about all these scandalous things in a typically Surrealist style. Henein was born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and an Italian-Egyptian mother. He spoke several languages and was very cosmopolitan, similarly to many Egyptians at the time. He spent his teenage years in Madrid, his father was an ambassador there and this is where his connection to Spain comes from. In 1936–37 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, he started writing all this Surrealist poetry, denouncing Franco and the Nationalists.”

While the classical avant-garde was dispersed by the breakout of World War II, the condition was very different in Cairo where writers and artists tried to rejuvenate Surrealism through a plucky kind of anarchy, a notion repeated in the catalogue but scarcely sensed in the show. Here you get the same feeling of restraint and sunny suffocation as in Michael Pearce’s almost perfect Beast (2017) in which the fascinating Moll (perfectly played by Jessie Buckley) is leaving her birthday party – while her voiceover is talking about killer whales going bonkers in captivity – to swap her overbearing family with a presumable homicidal maniac on this tourist biscuit tin in the English Channel. In his first novel The House of a Certain Death (1944), Art et Liberté member Albert Cossery describes how “People and things were urged on by a synthetic animation that pushed them toward the broad horizons of their daily misery.” This is by and large how exciting these paintings are. The group claimed to be part of a world of thought and sharing, however judging from these works they appear to have preferred the reverberating pool sounds of their own misgivings.

“It is very important to recognise the fact that the most active period in the life of this short-lived group was during the Second World War,” says Bardaouil. “Although it was a hidden colony, Egypt was forced to put all its natural resources and infrastructure at the service of the British Empire. So the war started, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers were coming to Egypt, and in 1942 one of the main decisive battles of the Second World War was fought on the Egyptian-Libyan border, the El Alamein Battle, when they defeated Rommel and the Italian corps. The war was there, and it was a very strong reality. Some artists, like Amy Nimr, experienced it first-hand. Her son died when they were on a picnic in the desert and he picked up an object that looked like a shiny little toy. Turned out that it was a bomb being thrown out by the axis forces from the sky. And then in 1943 after her son died her works have a very macabre and sombre tone.”

Amy Nimr’s paintings, even before the death of her ten-year-old son Mickey, are some of the most macabre in the group, and this group was obsessed with death and injury. She is also the artist with the earliest and easily the best painting in the show, a decade before the “Long Live Degenerate Art” manifesto and the beginnings of Art et Liberté: the forever fascinating Untitled (Girl with Fishnet) (c 1928) is a piece of world-class Surrealism (Nimr was only twenty-one when she made it in Paris) which depicts a trawled-up young woman, either dead or dead in spirit, with her legs covered with black mussels, and the fish that is more about rape and war than food and nourishment. This is like Edward Much (for those of us who do not appreciate Munch) had done a painting in the style of Magritte’s finest and sickest piece Young Girl Eating a Bird (1927), as nauseating as the beach scene in The Tin Drum (1979) with the horse head that is brimming with eels.

Sam Bardaouil mentions Marcel Salinas’s The Purpose of the Contemporary Artist, published in 1938, “and in the book he described Surrealism as falling under two categories: on one hand you have the Surrealism of Dalí and Magritte that is totally meditated, everything is planned beforehand, it’s not about the subconscious anymore, it’s too contrived. On the other hand, a second form of Surrealism is that of automatic drawing and writing – which is too much about the subconscious – and that’s not actually informed by what’s happening in society, they are not creating the revolution that Surrealism promised when it became too self-involved. For Art et Liberté, a new form of Surrealism was important, and that new form was called Subjective Realism – subjective, meaning the freedom to work in any style, any form, any topic that they were interested in; realism, meaning being connected to the reality of where they existed and the public that was seeing the works.”

“The Surrealists in Egypt came to Surrealism through Subjective Realism in 1938,” he explains. “Now, what we must keep in mind is that at the time Surrealism was being negotiated in so many different parts of the world, and all these younger artists who were from a second generation of Surrealists were thinking, ‘Wait a second, Surrealism is a little bit outdated with the whole Freudian, Marx and Hegelian thing – we need to find a new language, a new theory.’ So Art et Liberté engaged in this conversation.”

“The fragmented body was a very important motif in order not only to show the effect of war or the effect of social inequity, poverty and starvation. Egypt was definitely not a Utopia, rural labourers and working class were living below the poverty line, so they wanted to comment on these things. But it was also a way of creating a cultural revolution,” he adds.

“This is a work by Ramses Younane that exemplifies what Subjective Realism is all about. He chose to work as a Surrealist in an aesthetics that many Surrealist artists were using at the time. This broken female figure is a direct reference to the ancient goddess of the sky, Nut, who is always portrayed with her body arched over the sky as a sign of fertility, as a sign of life. But in this case she is more a sign of starvation, suffering and death. There is a beautiful hybridisation of a Surrealist aesthetic and local contents. This is their way of being internationally connected yet being locally minded.”

Yes, Younane’s untitled painting from 1939 is a rare piece in the show as it switches between the ghastly, grim and gruesome, and a Surrealistic form of beauty, just like the arched Nut who swallowed the sun god Ra in the evening and gave birth to him again every morning. Except, here is a world wedged into a constant twilight zone where nothing can sprout, and gone are the stars and the planets that were her children. There is a charming ink drawing by the British Surrealist Roland Penrose in the show, Lee as Nut (1938), with a naked Lee Miller – whom he would marry after the war – bent the other way round in a space where different realities conspire. Lee Miller was at the time married to the wealthy and considerate Cairene businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, but like most foreigners who came to Egypt she never could adjust to her new life there, as described by Carolyn Burke in Lee Miller: A Life:

“Lee’s gloom was not unusual among expatriates. ‘Many people find exile in Egypt difficult out of all proportion to the trials which at first appear to be tangibly involved,’ [British writer and diplomat] Robin Fedden wrote. The climate unhinged Europeans due to the lack of seasons ‘and the recurring stimuli they offer,’ he continued, but also because the landscape was ‘boneless and unarticulated’ – except for the desert. The realisation that Egyptian fields ‘are not soil but bone-mould and excrement’ was known to produce ‘claustrophobic panic’. Only Egyptologists or Muslims could appreciate the country. The isolation of the expatriate was deepened, he thought, by the ‘nightmarish unreality’ of Cairo, where ‘the black satin and pearls are complimentary to rags and tatters’ – the situation he described as ‘Levantine unreality’.”

Lee Miller called Art et Liberté a group of misfits. She was something of a “misfit” herself, always on the run, always ready for a daring new escapade, another escape from herself. (“You see darling,” she wrote to a lover in 1939, “I don’t want to do anything ‘all for love’ as I can’t be depended on for anything. In fact I have every intention of being completely irresponsible.”) Her Egyptian photography can be seen as her interim period between the early days with Man Ray in Paris and her state-of-the-art photo studio in New York in the first half of the 1930s, and her absolutely sensational work for British Vogue during World War II. Her pictures of the deserts around Cairo in the show are void of both people and Surrealist “props” but superbly executed and superbly other-dimensional. 

The first time she met the wealthy and unconventional Roland Penrose was in the early summer of 1937 at a Surrealist costume party in Paris during one of her many escapes from Egypt (Penrose had painted his right hand and left foot blue for the occasion), and they spent the rest of this time together in Miller’s bed at the five-star Hôtel Prince de Galles. Miller introduced her main man to Henein who offered Penrose to preside over Art et Liberté’s general assembly on March 8, 1939.

Penrose published the group’s manifesto in its original form in the following issue of The London Bulletin that spring: “The victories of Fascism do not fail to provoke reactions and awaken an activity which is creative as well as defensive. In Cairo a newly founded group Art et Liberté led by the Surrealist poets Georges Henein and Georges Santini and the painter Telmisany has recently published a manifesto in Arabic and French entitled ‘Long Live Degenerate Art’ containing a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica,” he wrote in his introduction. “It is signed by thirty-six intellectuals and has been widely distributed. In spite of a press boycott the group is constantly active, holding meetings and protesting vigorously when a new menace to their liberties becomes apparent.”

The largest painting in the show looks like an explosion in a shingle factory. The size and the bang considered – disjointed arms and legs and torsos stretched beyond saneness in a silent chord of shapes that shouldn’t be – one would expect a bigger splash than a visual mess. “This is a work by Mayo from 1937,” says Bardaouil, “the same year that Guernica was done, and it is called Coups de Bâtons, the blows of sticks, and it is kind of depicting that moment when the police would raid one of those underground cafés with Leftist writers and painters. Maybe they are writing their manifestos, just about to go out and distribute them on the streets. And it is a beautiful painting because it shows a moment, an explosion frozen in time. There is so much tension, so much energy. It is again showing us that Surrealism was not the end in itself but a tool towards creating a language that could actively reflect on the local political context what these artists were concerned with.”

Georges Henein, in Breton’s words, was “the imp of the perverse”. On February 4, 1937, he talked about Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Dada and the unconscious mind during his blistering speech “Appraisal of the Surrealist Movement”, which was broadcast over Egyptian Radio, at the avant-garde collective Les Essayistes’ club in Cairo. And on March 24, 1938, he returned to this club together with his friends to make a racket when Marinetti (the Alexandria-born hotspur and founder of Italian Futurism, who published his “Manifesto of Futurism” in 1909 and who co-wrote the first “Fascist Manifesto” in 1919) came to Egypt on a delegation to talk about Futurism, the machine and the advantages of war in a lecture called “The Motorised Poetry”. “And he came as a member of the Reale Accademia d’Italia, as a delegate of the Fascist state,” says Bardaouil, “and this was the event that triggered this group to come together.”

Art et Liberté grew by a continual accumulation of ills. The catalogue’s main text is by Sam Bardaouil who describes that their “sense of freedom was augmented by the realities of a raging war, and articulated with a pressing awareness of the growth of Fascist and totalitarian ideologies within Egypt”. As Patrick Kane writes in his book The politics of Art in Modern Egypt: Aesthetics, Ideology and Nation-Building: “The isolation of the elite nationalist road for art and its limited utility to the state raises the question of whether it had been intended to be shared among the masses, despite its rhetorical programs and pedagogy. Indeed, the revolt of the Egyptian Surrealists and their successors who had been sent as art teachers to rural schools in the late 1930s [and who were appalled by the conditions they found] is indicative of the dissidence within the national program of the arts.”

Despite the fact that Surrealism everywhere was primarily a literary movement, one cannot pretend that the “Long Live Degenerate Art” manifesto is anything else than a dull piece of writing. On the occasion of the Art et Liberté manifesto Henein produced a little side description of their objectives: “a) The affirmation of cultural and artistic freedom, b) To promote awareness of works, individuals, and values, knowledge of which is indispensable to understand the present time, c) To maintain a close contact between the youth of Egypt and current literary, artistic and social developments around the world.” 

“Basically they began with a bulletin, and then they started publishing a biweekly magazine called Don Quichotte. And then a journal called Al-Tattawwur [Evolution] in Arabic that appeared for one year before it got censored. They then opened a publishing house, Les Éditions Masses, and a second one called La Port du Sable,” explains Bardaouil. Anwar Kamel, the editor of Al-Tattawwur (the journal that placarded itself as “the premier review of art and literature in the Arab world”), was another literary name in the Art et Liberté group. He became known in 1938 with a collection of prose poetry, The Outcast Book, which was a call for a grand revival of desires.

Ramses Younane wrote in the fifth issue of Al-Tattawwur (May 1940) that bourgeois society faced “a crisis of poetry, enjoyment and delirium; a crisis of movement, growth and openness”: “On a cultural level, the bourgeoisie worked to replace blind faith with rational analytical reason. But the glorification of reason, insightfulness, and commercial shrewdness moulded life into a technological mechanical system that did not allow for the caprice of imagination and the pleasure of a free spirit. Natural instincts and deep-seated affections whose nature it was to search for pleasure were exploited and distorted by commercial battle and competitive struggle.”

Art et Liberté exhibited their works together about once a year from 1940 to 1945. When their first show opened on February 8, 1940 – as Caroline Williams describes it in her book – “most of the paintings revolved around the theme of the human psyche as it was affected by the war. The group felt their duty was to open the public’s eyes to the horrible realities of cruelty and ruin that were the products of war. They shocked their audiences with images featuring distortion, the absurd, and the unnatural. Their canvases featured strangely shaped tree trunks with breasts, staring hollow-eyed faces, separate and maimed body parts in wasted and empty landscapes.” One such painting from the Cairo show in 1940, and Stockholm 2018, is Mahmoud Saïd’s La Femme aux bouncles d’or (1933) – surprisingly one of the few pieces in the show that actually depicts a bit of urban life – and it stars a somewhat genderless Goldilocks with an indelicate Mona Lisa smile.

“These artists were Feminists to the core,” asserts Bardaouil, “and it has to do with a lot of things. First of all, there were a lot of woman artists in the group that were not left to the margins as for the use of the main artist to paint them in an eroticised manner, nor were they just companions faded into the background. They were equally incorporated as authors, as thinkers, as poets, as visual artists and painters, but also as prominent patrons. It so happens that several members of the group, like Amy Nimr and Marie Cavadia, who were actually from very wealthy backgrounds, supported younger artists. And sometimes they were lovers as well – that always adds a nice twist to the story.”

The curators have arranged three dismal paintings by Kamel El-Telmisany – Nude (1941), Nude with a Rose (1940) and Nude (1941) – as a haunting triptych. “Each of these deformed female figures has another face hidden in the body, some sort of animal that’s about to jump out and devour the person standing in front of that woman. And this is a discreet reference to an important poem by Georges Henein called ‘Saint Louis Blues’,” explains Bardaouil. “When you look at this, it is really about showing the suffering, the female figure as a place where there is a certain war going on that leads to the breaking down of the figure,” he ponders. “There were 140,000 soldiers stationed in Cairo at the time and the poverty led to arising prostitution. These artists were asking people not to condemn women if they were forced to go into prostitution, but to find ways to helping them out. They were asking for equal rights for women to vote, to take ownership of their own bodies, their own sexuality. So this is really visionary when you think about it.”

Samir Rafi worked on his painting Nudes (1945) for several years. It is a piece about the massive destruction of Alexandria – an abattoir of wretchedness turned into a cannonade of visual effects and excessive rhetoric. Firearms, mutilated bodies, war skies and ominous birds, and the hairy monster that crashes businesswoman Ines Conradi’s naked party in Maren Ade’s classic Toni Erdmann (2016) – Hieronymus Bosch as kitsch. A bird in Surrealism is a symbol of the unconscious. Mayo’s cyclopic L’Oiseau (The Bird) from 1937 is high on the wings of her rhythms, as if Miró had painted something pretty great for a change, and it is known from Egypt’s ancient stories that the soul rose from the swarthiness of the tomb to become a bird in the sky and returned to its body at nightfall to bring the comfort of daylight. 

The arboraceous paintings that Inji Efflatoun exhibited at Art et Liberté’s third group show are quite excellent. Efflatoun was only eighteen years old in 1942, but she is the real thing. Sam Bardaouil has a lot to say about her Boy and Lamp (1941), which he calls “a very striking image of a little boy wrapped by some sort of monster, and a forest in the distance. This is taken from a short story by Albert Cossery called ‘The Barber Killed His Wife’, and it is a very telling story of what Art et Liberté really stood for. In this story, a young boy comes running to his father’s tanning studio in the slums of Cairo, and he comes in with a penny in his hand. But the father is trying to break the news to him that this penny is far from enough to buy anything really and celebrate. And as they are having this conversation, a policeman comes in from the city, which the author describes as ‘a jungle of monsters’, and in the distance is a blood moon up in the dark blue sky. The policeman starts to intimidate the little boy, saying that he cannot go to the city, that he will never leave his place or amount to anything. But the boy is determined to never give up, to keep hoping that there could be a better life in the future. The whole scene happens under a lamppost, at number 13 in the dark alley.”

In the darkness at the Studio des Ursulines stood a very nervous filmmaker on the sidelines of the cinema on June 6, 1929 for the premiere screening of Un chien andalou. Luis Buñuel had filled his pockets with stones, en cas de malheur. Everybody was there: Cocteau, Picasso, Le Corbusier, André Breton, Max Ernst, Paul Éluard, Tristan Tzara, Magritte, René Char, Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy – “the tout-Paris” – and a young woman of the world named Ida Karamian. This was the film that made her want to become a photographer. Two thousand five hundred years ago the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that concerning Egypt “there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works that defy description”. The dream (or nightmare) logic of Ida Kar’s Surrealistic photography, from a perspective of praise, belongs to that characterisation.

Two black and white photos are covering the entrance walls downstairs at the Moderna. The oldest is from 1927 and it shows King Fuad I as he opens the Salon du Caire exhibition which was organised by Société des amis de l’art each year in December. The monarch has a lot of men behind him and a few (Western only) women tucked away in a corner. The other picture is taken at Art et Liberté’s group exhibition in 1941 and there is not a woman in sight.

There are screens in the show with moving images of urban life and the war. Art et Liberté belonged to the unwholesome fire of World War II, with that anger gone the group imploded. Another bunch of artists was in the wings of making new “revolutionary” Egyptian art when Henein wrote his formal goodbye to Breton in the summer of 1948. The works by The Contemporary Art Group at the Moderna Museet are easily recognised by their ugly awkwardness and the dilettantish Social Realism, exhibited in abundance in Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar’s painting The Beloved of the Sayyidah (c 1950) and, to a lesser degree, in his celebrated spaceman portrait The Green Fool (1951). A decade earlier, Kamel El-Telmisany had worded that “There is no bigger crime in the world of art than for an artist to limit his art within a specific piece of land.” The Contemporary Art Group was purely Farmland, Egypt.

Bardaouil writes in the catalogue, “As far as Art and Liberty were concerned, the movement was not a fixed static entity. On the one hand, it was a faltering art movement of different schools whose various evolving styles and methods had not arrived yet at one conclusive definition. On the other, it was a project of social revolution that was still figuring out how to articulate, in concrete terms, the tangible role that art could play in the implementation of that revolution,” echoing Ramses Younane’s words from 1938: “Since Surrealism is still in the face of experimentation, it has not managed to discern its abilities and limitations, and is constantly hesitating in its methods. For sometimes it deviates towards the right and at other times to the left. It makes advances in one direction, but eventually retracts – like an archaeologist who does not fully know where treasures hide or what treasure will the belly of the earth surprise him with.”

Joyce Mansour, whose poetry is a compound of dark Surrealism and Egyptian mythology, did not partake in Art et Liberté but had a history similar to many of its members: she was born in England (to Egyptian-Jewish parents), lived in Cairo, died in Paris. In Cris (Cries), her first collection of poetry from 1953, Mansour writes: “I will fish up your empty soul / In the coffin where your body mildews / I will hold your empty soul / I will tear off its beating wings / Its clotted dreams / And I will devour it.” It is a poem about female concupiscence and the outrage of refusing a soul to rise as a bird to collect the sunlight and salvage some life.

Anwar Kamel had this to say in the fifth issue of Al-Tattawwur (May 1940): “As for those who still insist that we are corrupting people’s minds through our ideas, we now announce that if liberating minds from superstition and reactionary myths is corrupt, if liberating people from bondage and slavery is corrupt, then from hereon our mission and message in life is: to corrupt the minds of men.”

But Art et Liberté was never about a mind pleasantly out of control. It all happened under a lamppost, at number 13 in a dark alley.

Inji Efflatoun, Composition surréaliste, 1942. © Inji Efflatoun.

Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948) at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through August 12, 2018.

22 April 2018


Judith Lauand, Concreto 61/Concrete 61, 1957. The Museum of Modern Art (promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros). © Judith Lauand..

This revolution in form (and politics) manifested itself in the displacement of attention from the pictorial plane – painting as a container and object of contemplation – to the edge of the canvas and beyond.

– Mónica Amor, Theories of the Nonobject: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, 1944–1969

“Devo is about that clean face of the future,” explained the group’s guiding philosopher Gerald Casale in the early 1980s when he talked about the need to get rid of “the self-destructive characteristics of beliefs that are no longer applicable or humane in the world situation” and to replace them with some new traditions: “We picked the happy astronaut as a symbol. An astronaut keeps his troubles behind him.” In 1935, shortly after his return to Montevideo after tens of years in the company of the fizzy historical avant-garde in Europe, the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García published his manifesto illustrated with a map of South America turned on its ear. It was as if he was emptying a whole continent’s garbage can of political and artistic entropy and flabby beliefs. Out went the prospect of a grimly uncertain future.

As Mónica Amor argues in Theories of the Nonobject, “These semantic negotiations speak to a crisis of mediums and representations that stimulated a series of aesthetic investigations by artists in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela – investigations that departed from the trajectories of Soviet Constructivists and European geometric abstract art that influenced the cultural landscapes of those countries in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. At that time and in those places, myriad international references – Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism, Soviet Constructivism, Bauhaus, Parisian Concrete art, Swiss Concrete art, and the work of such artists such as Alexander Calder and Max Bill – shaped the efforts of South American artists to negotiate local cultural realities and construct an avant-garde practice based on the pure forms of geometry.”

That’s right, the pure forms of geometry. In the forth issue of their Purist magazine L’Esprit Nouveau in 1920, Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant summoned “for an art free of conventions which will utilise plastic constants and address itself above all to the universal properties”, concluding that “The highest delectation of the human mind is the perception of order, and the greatest human satisfaction is the feeling of collaboration or participation in this order.” Ten years later, Theo van Doesburg’s “Concrete Art Manifesto” devised this new term for the art world in his single-issue magazine Art Concret, in which he declared that it was time to endorse “concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a surface” – everything else was disregarded as “illusionistic, vague and speculative”.

These painters, designers and architects were in many respects the early explorers of space, with a variety of ideas that decades later started to converge in the minds of a new avant-garde of bright young artists who were working in various fields of applied arts in Latin America – specifically in Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina – in the midst of World War II. Enormous energy was poured into this grand inquiring call to order.

The meat of the matter for these radical social theorists was a quest for certainty by way of a concretisation of thought and a scientific perception of space. In her book on Hélio Oiticica (Folding the Frame), Irene Small explains how this art – “As opposed to being ‘abstracted’ from the world” – “was self-referential and nonrepresentational – a ‘concrete’ reality in and of itself. Compositions were meant to operate according to an internal rather than illustrative logic.” Nonetheless, the acuity and coherence of these methodically derived compositions were positively aimed to resound without delay in the notional (“universal”) mind of the viewer.

“In my case, this period of anguish began in 1943 and lasted for several years. My reflections and anxieties at the time revolved around that very urgent need we felt to enter history so that we might be saved from oblivion.” This is the voice of Carlos Cruz-Diez in Ariel Jiménez’s conversation book about this Venezuelan artist who after the war moved to Paris to join Los Disidentes (The Dissidents) in order to catch up with the modern world (and to experience works of art in more vivid forms than in scarce art books in black and white), and from there surge into the future: 

“Anyone with even the slightest historical consciousness, who is able to gauge the immense inequalities in our country, cannot help but be pained by them. Dissatisfaction with the present inevitably awakens a desire for change and, among some of us, a desire to contribute through our work to help make that change possible. It makes perfect sense, then, that at the close of one of the longest dictatorships in Venezuelan history [in 1935], that of Juan Vicente Gómez, young Venezuelans would feel a need to transform the reality they had known.”

Matilda Olof-Ors talks about Mid-Century Latin American Concretism as a time when much of the inspiration traversed and vanquished all sorts of borders, confines, frontiers, verges. Concrete Matters, her wonderfully originative and most exquisitely effectuated show at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is made of star stuff. “When you face the show, the artworks may at first glance look quite similar,” she explains. “However, behind these idioms there are different agendas. There are artists who used this concrete language to shape a mathematical reality. And there are others who more acquired a spiritual perspective, approaching this on the basis of discernment and perception. What is also interesting to see is how many artists saw this as an idiom whereby they would formulate their ideas about how to transform the world with fairly related political agendas.”

Concrete Matters is designed in association with architect Albert France-Lanord and the show is like a better-arranged universe. “What we talked a lot about were practical issues because many works are quite small,” says Olof-Ors, “so I wanted an architecture that both creates intimate meetings between the works but where there is also an openness. We also talked a lot regarding this thing about movement, the visitors’ movement in terms of experiencing the works. We were talking about shapes of course, about the importance of colour. When he came back with a suggestion, one of the overall thoughts was also to slightly modify the shape of the room. It is basically a very straight square and through this solution he wanted to make a more rectangular shape and find a rhythm and a way to stage the works. And I noticed that the works did not have to be displayed on the same wall to be seen together.”

The curator was not the innate Hispanist that one would assume when this curious opportunity landed on her desk at the Moderna. “It is always the same names that are taught at universities and institutions, and that you often meet in museums, so a closer look at names and places that we have not done before is extraordinary satisfying. I also had several blind spots in regard to this material.” There are twenty-six artists in the show and some eighty pieces (mostly paintings) of concrete greatness, predominantly from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros that kept the works for Stockholm before they will be permanently domesticated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “And I can only congratulate the MoMA, really,” smiles Matilda Olof-Ors with infallible mirth in her voice.

Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, according to Olof-Ors, “has always worked to change the image of Latin American art. Donating is a step in this work, and that is very effective of course if you want to widen or nuance the historiography. She is an incredible art lover, she feels for these works. She collected in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and I think the first artist she started with was [Jesús Rafael] Soto because they are both from Venezuela.” Last year señora Phelps de Cisneros expressed that, “I think we can say that Latin America has finally arrived at its rightful place in global art history.” Inversely, what this reassessment of Concrete art with its true beauty and powerful deep resonances evocates is an urgent need to enter history where this movement once revolved.

In Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader, Jennifer Jolly writes about the conviction to start afresh in the New World in her chapter on Joaquín Torres-García: “Exploring pre-Columbian art in Paris’s museums, he realised that the basis of art’s order and structure did not have to stem from ancient Greek classicism, but had precedents in ancient American art forms. Such archaic traditions provided formal structure and symbolic content and evoked a time when art provided a ritualistic social unity […] Thus when Torres-García returned to Uruguay, he had already began a process of intellectual inversion, rethinking traditional and avant-garde European ideals, even before reacquainting himself with his homeland.”

The earliest piece in the Concrete Matters show – Locomotora con casa constructiva/Locomotive with Constructive House (1934) – is by this Uruguayan artist who disfigured the European paragon of Neo-Plasticism – straight black grids filled with primary colours on crisp white grounds – with slack rectangles and muffled colours in accordance with his concept of “Constructive Universalism” in which the global permeates the local and the local permeates the global.

“We have two works by Torres-García, who lived in Paris and knew Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, and was in that context, but at the same time chose not to completely embrace it but made it his own. It is also exciting how he after forty years abroad, working with Gaudí in Barcelona, returned to Montevideo and started an art school and attempted to enforce this combination of the new with the native culture. He had a spiritual attitude towards the form that the new artists in Argentina did not have. It is interesting how close they are in some aspects, but so incredibly far in others,” says Olof-Ors – and adds, “He was the person who many could oppose.”

Torres-García’s Escuela del Sur (School of the South) – mind the inverted South American map with Uruguay sunny side up – and “the second renaissance” of his art journal Círculo y Cuadrado, a great remainder of his thrilling European history and the short-lived Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square) group that he cofounded in Paris in the late 1920s, and other related matters made him a figure of wide-ranging influence for a younger generation of artists in the Rio de la Plata.

“One of the most sweeping of the several implications arising from the destruction of conventional modes of representation was the idea that painting should be an absolute entity with no relation to the objects of the visible world, and that it should be composed of completely abstract forms whose origins were in the mind,” writes Hershel Chipp in Theories of Modern Art about Cubism, this angular ism that sprouted in the first decade of the 1900s. “Art constructed according to this ideal, having avoided all taint of the material world, and being free of any personal influence of the individual artists, would be completely autonomous and obedient only to universal laws. Because of this belief art was often considered as a sort of idealist model for the harmonious relations which were believed ultimately possible for both individuals and for all of society.”

The problem for many of his students was that Torres-García’s embryonic art looked liked ironed Cubism drizzled with sensuousness and emotion, and that it was rooted in the past. The Latin American vanguard wanted only colour, line and space – the pure elements of painting, the clean face of the future.

The Argentinian wall (facing Torres-García’s two oil paintings) begins with a Dadaesque and two-and-a-half dimensional rendering of a “Mondrian” by Juan Alberto Molenberg, Compsición/Composition (1946), one of the rare pieces in the show that utilises the Dutch painter’s palette of colours. This wall displays the irregular shapes of these playful and highly beautiful works from the Madí and AACI groups in Buenos Aires that pursued the dictum of Rhod Rothfuss’s manifesto “The Frame: A Problem in Contemporary Art” – published in the scanty yet very important one-issue journal Arturo in April 1944 – which stated that “the edge of the canvas is made to play an active role in plastic creation. It is a role it should always play. A painting should be something that begins and ends in itself. Without interruption.” These artists adopted the anatomy of European geometric abstraction while turning its principled hegemony on its ear. In addition, out went the legacy of the rectangular illusionistic “window” for a framework of rationality and intellect.

Matilda Olof-Ors affectionately calls the Argentinian works “hardboiled” and remarks that, “Many of these artists were members of the Communist Party and it certainly looked like this art was also a way of propagating the Marxist message. They believed that representational art did not coincide with their political interest because it rather created a passive viewer. They wanted to put the viewer in connection to the direct objects.”

That was also the overall thesis when eighteen artists of the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención movement signed the “Inventionist Manifesto” in March 1946 – that Concrete art “acquaints humans with things rather than with the fiction of things”: “The age of representational fiction in art has come to an end. Man is less and less sensitive to illusory images. That is to say, he is progressing in his sense of integration in the world. The old phantasmagorias no longer satisfy the aesthetic appetite of the new man, formed in a reality that demands of him his total presence, without reservations.”

Tomás Maldonado was the most drastic advocate of Concrete art’s union with revolutionary tactics in Argentina (he was too radical for the Communist Party which ousted him in 1948) and he argued that, “The biggest lacks in nonrepresentational art were caused by its failure to achieve either new composition or the definitive removal of the illusory. Thus we began by breaking with the traditional format of the painting.” His painting Desarrollo de un triángulo/Development of a triangle (1949) is the only “Russian” piece in the show. It is great but also, ironically, anachronistic.

“For the artists and critics of this generation, Concrete art was far more than a formal style – it provided the road map to the new materials and techniques that would populate the future. With newfound access to technical education, Concrete artists were exposed to new working methodologies and gained critical thinking skills that ultimately allowed them to re-evaluate many of the long-held conventions that governed their approach to fine art. In the modern economy, manual labour was no longer prized; instead innovation came to be rewarded,” informs Aleca Le Blanc in the catalogue to Making Art Concrete at the Getty Center (fifteen of the works in Concrete Matters came directly from Los Angeles) about their endeavours to modernise Argentina and Brazil. “Artists were quick to engage with the effort and took active roles in shaping its direction as architects, designers, and educators […] They were now the generators of new ideas and systems, optimistic about their process of research and development, with the imagined ends of making their modern cities appealing and efficient places to live and work.”

What we have to understand, however, is that Concrete art flourished and perished under the thumb of Juan Perón’s despicable presidency 1946–55, which he modelled on a miscellany of tyrants. Maldonado published his “Present and Future of Concrete Art” manifesto in 1951: “Despite all its efforts, today Concrete art fails to surmount the obstacles which prevent it from having a wider, more generous influence; but no doubt, its more deeply hidden vocation, almost its raison d’être, is to succeed in acting on very wide sectors someday, to become a public art, open to millions of men. We can say, in fact, that the true meaning of Concrete art lies in what it may become, rather than in what it is at present.”

Maldonado realised the magazine Nueva Visión: Revista de cultura visual in Buenos Aires (which had a better longevity than similar publications), and became a teacher of design and theory at the new Ulm School in southern Germany, cofounded by Inger Aicher-Scholl (sister to Sophie Scholl who was guillotined by the Nazis in 1943) and the versatile Swiss artist Max Bill who was an impressively important figure of inspiration for the Latin American Concretists. Max Bill is the crucial “foreign” name in Concrete Matters with his gorgeously “synthetic” oil painting 1–8 in vier Gruppen/1–8 in Four Groups (1955–63).

The Independent Salon in Buenos Aires showed propaganda paintings of Peronist working class heroes. The Concrete artists routinely encountered hatred from all areas of society: “Today people who are failures, who have anxieties over the future, who desire an easy posterity, without study, without talent and without morals, have found a refuge in abstract art. This morbid, perverse, and infamous art has progressively led to the utter degradation of art. It reveals the visual, intellectual and moral aberration of a group, fortunately small, of misfits,” expressed the Minister of Education in a public speech in 1949, just twelve years after the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich. “Morbid art, abstract art, does not fit in; there is no place for it in our young and blossoming country. It is not in line with Peronist doctrine, which is a doctrine of love, perfection and altruism that has heavenly ambitions for the people.”

Venezuelan Concrete art began with a capital rejection. “‘NO’ is the tradition we want to establish,” spurred the members of Los Disidentes in their 1950 manifesto. “We came [to Paris] to confront problems, to struggle with them, to learn to call things by their names, and for this reason we cannot remain indifferent faced with the climate of falsity that is the cultural reality of Venezuela.” Apart from the rather unoriginal graphic design of the Concrete Matters catalogue (which is following a template that has been the norm in Sweden since the early 1990s), it is a classic and helpful publication based on these groups’ magniloquent manifestos.

“It is a way to listen to the voices of the artists,” hints the curator. “And also because the works on so many levels appear to be so similar – but then you read the texts and you understand that there were artists who really did not like each other’s ideas, and that was something I wanted to emphasise. It is really here that they puff their chests and declare to us what they want to do. The manifestos were such an important entry to the period and it is great to have them translated, and some are actually presented for the first time.”

“The texts are so incredibly different,” she continues. “Some are quite clear both in tone and what they want to convey, some are pretty abstruse. But I thought that they were very rewarding to read as well, because here it somehow becomes audaciously obvious that here is where the age of the descriptive image is facing its end. And it is also exciting with this discrepancy that sometimes their bombastic words do not correspond to what they will actually achieve in their art. It is evident how young some of them are, and how they want to attain distinction in their current time, and that in itself is something that is super exciting.”

Military conspirators gave rise to eighty victorious coups d’état in Latin America between 1920 and 1966. Venezuela – with more petroleum than Saudi Arabia and all the monetary prerequisites for a swift and pleasant modernisation of the country – looked very promising for a few years after the end of World War II, only to be overthrown again by a new band of sanguinary generals who restored the status quo.

It really comes as no surprise that young Venezuelans utilised these purist ideas of arithmetical computations and the certitudes of geometry to locate the radio waves of the mind and to block out the emotive forces of our animal nature. “In Venezuela, the non-figurative idiom was attacked in a different way,” explains Matilda Olof-Ors. “There was a greater interest in perception, for our perception. What happens when we physically encounter a work of art – how does colour occur, how does movement occur?” We are the motor in this array of kinetic art.

Soto’s stripy, layered and serenely energetic optical pieces, like the Kinetic Box (1955), must be strolled to take effect in the mind. (The paintings of Cézanne and the Cubists were his first love in art.) Soto returned to Venezuela in 1952 together with Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero when the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva asked them to join the league of great modernists who were creating the public art for the magnificently utopian Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas (1940–60). Otero’s three Mid-Century Modern gouaches in the show are like delicious little hors-d’œuvres. They swirl like waves in space and solely follow their own individual arranging principles.

Otero moved to Paris as soon as the World War II was over. And as for the rest of the Concrete artists who thought they worshipped Mondrian until they saw his works for real, Otero went to the Netherlands only to discover how handcrafted and (relatively) imperfect they looked compared to the reproductions. The tall Tablón de Pampatar/Pampatar Board (1954) is an “improved”, corrected or deconstructed “Mondrian” of rhythmical narrow stripes of red, blue and yellow, and black and white, which appear to move upwards-downwards and sideways, more to do with computerised movements than a boogie-woogie on Broadway.

Geometric abstraction, in an atmosphere of less opinionated perfectionism than abroad in Paris, was discussed, created and exhibited at home in Caracas where artists gathered around the Taller Libre de Arte. “We don’t paint faces, we invent things,” they stated in the catalogue to the first effort to show Concrete art in Venezuela in October 1948. “We are very keen on colour and are seduced by geometry. We also try to be sincere about the truth of the plane and the space.” The Open Air Studios was backed by the junta’s Ministry of Education, how was that possible? This fascination for the system of geometry seemed to pass as a fairly auspicious endeavour, innocuous as the children’s activities in Spanish director Victor Erice’s mysteriously subversive masterpiece The Sprit of the Beehive (1973), which totally went over the heads of Franco’s little helpers.

The last work in the Concrete Matters timeline is Gego’s Esfera/Sphere from 1976, a pulpy three-dimensional body of syncretised, unsymmetrical wires suspended over a flat podium. “It is as if the technical engineer in Gego was at odds with the architect-artisan, each one constantly trying to undo the other,” suggests Mari Carmen Ramírez in Questioning the Line: Gego in Context. Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt was a Hamburg professional whose life was rendered worthless after the Night of Broken Glass.

“It is very exciting to examine these physical movements of people who for various reasons had to flee from Europe, like Gego for instance. She was an architect in Germany but ended up in Venezuela, a country where she didn’t speak the language or had any contacts but eventually came to work as an artist. And you also think of the world situation today where there are still, regrettably, people on the run every day,” says Olof-Ors.

The purview of Gego’s works in the show – from the planar ink drawing of her skeletal nets to the galactic Sphere – is like a three-piece evolution chart of the course that Concrete art took in the next country, where the Museo de Arte Moderno turns Museu de Arte Moderna. In Abstraction in Reverse: The Reconfigured Spectator in Mid-20th-Century Latin American Art, Alexander Alberro notes how “the colonial history of Brazil – a narrative defined by transplantation – facilitated the revolutionary desire to create something new in a territory that, lacking any trace of ancient civilisation, provided modernism’s ideal tabula rasa: a place of endless new beginnings”.

But as Mónica Amor argues in her book, these artists responded “to a crisis of representation in general and not just a crisis of pictorial representation” – “they employed strategies that emphasised the wall, the exhibition space, the urban environment, spectatorship and subjectivity, and public address. These stratagems were executed under the aegis of Constructivism and Concrete art, but they were often manifested in crisis and displaced the tenets and forms associated with these artistic legacies.” Brazilian Concrete art originated from an understanding of national identity and universal inclusiveness, invention and vicissitude, aided by the steady squabbles between the contrasting groups Ruptura in São Paulo and the much more samba-minded Frente in Rio de Janeiro.

“In the mid-50s, the artists in Rio and São Paulo were in the same shows, but eventually a schism arose between them,” says Matilda Olof-Ors. “In São Paulo, it was considered that the artists in Rio had a far too experimental approach to the concrete idiom and had misunderstood the whole thing with Concrete art. And mutually, in Rio they thought it was the other way around, that the artists in São Paulo had misunderstood everything. It was rather a focus on colour than the black and white on the other wall. The artists in Rio introduced a more subjective gesture and an entirely experimental approach.”

“Ruptura embraced a little of the same thoughts that Max Bill had worked on in how this geometric, concrete idiom can be used to mathematically shape an idea where the artwork is rather the result of something that already has been thought out. A good example of this is the black and white painting by Geraldo de Barros [Função diagonal/Diagonal Function (1952)], based on a principle where the framework really defines the entire shape of the piece. It is first divided into its midpoint and draws a new square in between which is then divided into its centre, and so on and so on. Another example is Waldemar Cordeiro, born in Italy, who also ended up in Brazil. He was very interested in the golden ratio, in the logarithmic spiral. [Idéia visivel/Visible Idea (1956)] is also a work where the principle has already been devised and the work becomes a formation of that principle.”

(László Moholy-Nagy was the artist who – in the 1920s, during his Professor years at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau – initiated this rationalising method of having a principle established in advance that would altogether shape what would come out in the end: he used to telephone his instructions in codes to a sign painter who would then produce these exact works of art for him.)

The two MAM institutions in Brazil’s largest cities were both established in 1948. The one in São Paulo was built by the industrialist Ciccillo Matarazzo who also presented the first Bienal de São Paulo in the fall of 1951, a truly international event with works from nineteen countries. Matarazzo engaged the Belgian art critic Léon Degand in that same international vein as the Founding Director of MAM-SP. The first thing Degand curated there was a show called From Figurative Art to Abstract Art which charted art’s forwardness in history, from the bottom of the painterly illustrative to the highest achievements in geometric abstraction.

Grupo Ruptura was formed by seven artists in 1952 while they were participating in a show at the MAM-SP. “The only female artist who was in Ruptura was Judith Lauand, there are three works in the exhibition, and she was also engaged in gestalt psychology – how the work is perceived as a perceptual whole, even though the lines are divided – and brought motion into the works,” says Olof-Ors. Lauand’s Concreto 61/Concrete 61 (1957) is a highly graphical piece – alkyd on hardboard as the Brazilians liked it – of twenty straight black lines of various sizes in an agitated symmetry which creates a propeller-like effect that ripples through space.

Grupo Frente was formed in Rio de Janeiro in 1954. The manifesto (if one can call it that) was written the following year by the group’s ideologue Mário Pedrosa whose personal belief was that art must show the public how “to fully exercise their senses and to shape their own emotions”. Olof-Ors mentions Pedrosa’s “ability to bring together people, but also conduct an art-critical discussion and highlight different art historical and philosophical reasoning that were very important for the way this art developed”. There is a great, untitled work from 1954 by Ivan Serpa in the show. Serpa was teaching young people how to paint at MAM Rio’s Ateliê Livre – a project that had been initiated by the museum’s forward-thinking Founding Director Niomar Moniz Sondré – where many in this group met for the first time. One of them was Aluísio Carvão. His painting Construção 8/Construction 8 (1955) emits a ciphered message of small rectangular bits that whisper until they reach the mind of the viewer. It is the most beautiful thing.

The members of Grupo Frente were attacking spatiality in different ways, whatever it took to break up the flatness of the surface. Matilda Olof-Ors talks about Lygia Clark’s painting on plywood, Planos em superficie modulada/Planes on a Modulated Surface (1956), one of the curator’s many favourites: “Above all, this is the painting where she physically attacks the framework and manages it in such a way that the boundary between the work and the space around it is blurred, and how she developed her idea about what a line may be – that it is not a character that you always need to apply to a surface, but a line can also occur between two colour fields that are joined, where interstices can also be a line. All her reasoning which later resulted in the rejection of the flat surface – that it was merely an illusion,” explains Olof-Ors. “Lygia Clark literally aggressed the frame, but in a different way than the artists did in Argentina. She simply painted over the frame, and in some way it is also here where the boundary between the artwork and the surrounding space is defined, and she further continued to literally erase the boundary between art and life which became more and more disintegrated.”

Aleca Le Blanc writes in the Getty catalogue how “Many Concrete artists took advantage of symmetry, doubling or mirroring their forms in their paintings.” One such example is a gouache from Hélio Oiticica’s series Metasquema/Metascheme (1957) in which wide ink lines form geometrical diagrams of repetitions and deviations, void of both personal stuff and the spurs of intuition. Looking at these works today is like listening to Kraftwerk’s music before the development of MIDI technology in the early 1980s, when there was always still an underlying Mensch to be sensed in their concept of the Man-Machine. Saul Bass’s title sequence to The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) with the protruding white rectangles against a black fond was four years later mirrored in reverse in Oiticica’s Pintura 9/Painting 9.

Irene Small expresses in Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame that “In Brazil in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some works of art were folded things. They displayed physical folds: pleats that drew space between them, creating inner cavities and hidden clefts, or bends that pressed flat planes into three-dimensional figures, cutting through space and organising form against it. But their folded character was virtual as well: a free-floating notch seemingly displaced from a plane, a temporal twisting, a hinge between work and world.” One such work is Oiticica’s untitled and hovering piece from 1959 that is both a painting and a sculpture, or perhaps none of it.

Lygia Clark’s rubber sculpture Estudio para obra mole/Study for Soft Work (1956) and her origamic Bicho, Radar/Creature, Radar (1960) sculpture of hinged aluminium triangles are two pieces that have made a way through this space. “Bichos are meant to be interactive meetings with the person who is playing with the pieces, and there is no front and back, no upside down, right or wrong way to arrange it. It is the living organism she lifts into an art form that is not referring to a world around. I had to put on my gloves and shape and it was great fun,” reveals Olof-Ors.

“However, Book of Creation is unrivalled, I think,” she continues. “I am very happy to have had the possibility to lend Lygia Pape’s fantastic artwork from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is a work that she created in 1959, just in the process of signing ‘The Neo-Concrete Manifesto’, and this, similar to Lygia Clark’s Bicho sculpture, was a work that was created to be interacted with. There is some sort of loosely consistent narrative about Creation in which we ourselves are creating. There is a loose narrative that she sometimes also featured on signs, about how it was at first the water and the water retreated. So this can also be read as a story of human development with incredibly simple means. It is weird that we cannot touch them, but we have been able to present a film where we see the artist interact with them.” Livro da criação is a pop-up book of sixteen gouache-on-cardboard “pages” – from the blue water to the bright yellow sun – based on the equations of Concrete art, and it is every bit as superb as Matilda Olof-Ors describes it.

“Modernist buildings were erected as emblems of a new era and artists were involved in the formation and definition of public space,” writes Ira Candela in her book on Lygia Pape (A Multitude of Forms). “The construction of the city of Brasilia between 1956 and 1960 epitomised the reimagining of Brazil and President Juscelino Kubitschek’s promise of ‘fifty years of progress in five’. Yet the promise was short-lived, and the risk of the invention of history materialised in the country’s regression after the coup d’état of 1964.” Pape was carried off by force by three men with machineguns in 1973, “Little bird in the cage,” they triumphed. She was incarcerated for three months. She was tortured. She was an artist.

“Art cannot be merely illustrations of a priori concepts,” argued the poet and critic Ferreira Gullar in “The Neo-Concrete Manifesto”, published on March 22, 1959 in the arts and culture supplement of the Rio de Janeiro daily Jornal do Brasil. “Such statements might lead one to believe that Neo-Concrete artists want to shun objectivity and lose themselves in subjective chaos. But in fact, we seek a kind of deeper objectivity resulting from the intimate integration of material with mankind’s feeling and mind.” As the principal ideologue for the Neo-Concretists in Rio, Gullar imparted what was wrong with the theoretical Concretists – how they spoke “to the machine-eye and not to the body-eye”. And the “body-eye” was the Neo-Concretists’ new thing, along with reception theory and a return to the wisdom of artists such as Mondrian and Malevich.

“While Gullar and the Neo-Concrete artists were empiric in their rejection of theory as a referential horizon – they objected specifically to Concrete art’s reliance on references imported from mathematics and science and its correspondence with systematic compositional methods (seriality, permutations, gestalt) – their attraction to philosophy, especially the phenomenology of the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, was undeniable,” explains Mónica Amor in Theories of the Nonobject (a term she purposely picked up from Gullar).

Alexander Alberro mentions In Abstraction in Reverse that “philosopher Theodor Adorno argued that critical theory functions like ‘bottles thrown into the sea’ for future readers, whose identities cannot be known”. One such bottle has reached the Stockholm Galaxy in our time. Concrete Matters is like a happy astronaut from the past, with a belief in inquiring and affirmation that might also carry the rest of us through.

Lygia Pape, Pintura/Painting, 1954–56. Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape and Hauser & Wirth. © Projeto Lygia Pape.

Concrete Matters at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through May 13, 2018.