1 October 2018

MARVELLING

Robert Doisneau, Mademoiselle Anita, Paris 1951. © Atelier Robert Doisneau.

Seeing sometimes means constructing a little theatre with the materials at hand, and then awaiting the arrival of actors … From experience, I know that the show is always livelier on the poorer outskirts of town. These settings testify to mankind’s struggle. They’re full of nobility because everyday acts are carried out simply, and the faces of people who have to rise early in the morning can be very moving – what a lesson in vitality we get from young women heroically putting on make-up at dawn every day before rushing to the metro. It’s enough to melt your heart.

– Robert Doisneau

The octaves leaped from clapper to clapper as all the church bells of Paris poured out their splendid shakes. Now, for the first time since the summer of 1940, the city sang, it really sang. This Thursday evening, on August 24, 1944, General von Choltitz telephoned Berlin with the handset raised against the sonorous Parisian sky. Close to midnight there was only one bell left chiming, the mighty Emmanuel in the south belfry of Notre-Dame, our Lady.

A newspaperman from Le Figaro witnessed the city’s overnight transition as he was leaving the Hôtel de Ville – the City Hall where the Allied troops strategically camped out – the following morning, and found himself “submerged by an enormous crowd that was everywhere, on the streets, the quays, the boulevards, the passages. They applauded. They shouted. They stamped their feet. They cried. On one of the tanks, surrounded by the din of motors and smoke, a cat, a miniscule little cat, calmly sat surveying the scene. The crowd roared their approval. That was what this unique day was like: one part exuberant celebration, exalted, delirious, an incredible lightheartedness that poured out in song, kisses, in unbound joy; the other part, a climate of civil war.”

“Paris was imagined as a heroic society, a place of extraordinary deeds,” argues Rosemary Wakeman in her book The Heroic City: Paris 1945–1958. “The media spectacle crisscrossed between journalists and participants. Celebrity was for the taking. Public space became a stage for outpourings of public emotion and zany performances that were impulsive, reflexive, and fame seeking. In the photographer Robert Doisneau’s visual portrait of the Liberation, spontaneous rumba lines snake through the streets, young men stripped down to their shorts frolic in the fountains at the Place de la Concorde, people dance impulsively – together, alone – and wave, wrap themselves in, parade with the French Tricolour. The Liberation was […] a seizing, a dizzying transformation of the everyday. Life was reformed, reformulated in a playful speculation on what it might be.”

Susan Sontag noted in Regarding the Pain of Others that, “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and death.” Robert Doisneau (1912–1994) was much rather like that cool cat on the army tank, part of the scenery, basking in the hubbub of life, extracting its unknown beauty. For half a century he wandered through the city and its forgotten suburbs. It was in the areas of life where people were doomed to carry on and accept the lousy plots they were given that Doisneau acquainted himself with humanity’s most imaginative powers. The object of Doisneau’s photography is in itself a dizzying transformation of the everyday. “Marvelling is a mission that few photographers have chosen,” he told Frank Horvat in November 1987: “The world I was trying to present was one where I would feel good, where people would be friendly, where I could find the tenderness I longed for. My photos were like a proof that such a world could exist.”

Some existential juice from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) to begin with: “A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well – or ill?” You only have to go to Kulturhuset (the House of Culture) in Stockholm to see Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb – a show sharply and lovingly curated by Atelier Robert Doisneau in Montrouge (where he lived) and produced by diChroma Photography in Madrid – to conclude that this champion of humanist photography did incredibly well. As William Blake put it in his days: “As a man sees, so he is.”

“Robert Doisneau is one of the modest masters in the history of photography. He is also a photographer with a lot of humour, and he is of course very, very famous for his romantic Paris pictures – the famous The Kiss picture that everyone is asking for – but this exhibition presents Robert Doisneau in a different light,” says Maria Patomella at Kulturhuset, who likewise had a poster of this well-known/hackneyed Doisneau picture Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville in her teenage room. The Kiss was an arrangement with two paid actors smacking away on Rue de Rivoli (with the City Hall and Notre-Dame in the background) for a series of kissing couples for Life magazine in 1950. The Kiss is luckily concealed in the only showcase, where you can contemplate the two ominous “faces” that appear in the picture’s lower left corner.

When the fallen major-league gangster Henry Hill goes to Hell in Scorsese’s definite masterpiece Goodfellas (1990), he doesn’t end up in prison but in suburbia. In the film’s end scene, he opens the door to his Witness Protection Program nest to retrieve the morning paper in his light blue bathrobe, makes eye contact with the camera while his voiceover says: “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook.” The saints and the sinners of suburbia were the people most worthy of Doisneau’s camera eye: “I look like them, I speak their language, I share their conversation, I eat like them, I am completely integrated into that milieu. I have my own work which is a bit different from theirs, but perhaps I am sort of representative of that class,” he said. “In those ordinary surroundings which were my own, I happened to glimpse some fragments of time where the everyday world appeared to be freed of its ugliness.”

There are one hundred and one prints in the show, fifty-six of them are from the 1940s and thirty-seven from the 1950s, Doisneau’s greatest decades. Les pavés (1929) is a close-shot cubistic flow of cobblestones, the first picture he ever took and an evidence of both his original eye for the unoriginal and of his early diffidence, notably when it came to approaching other human beings, even kids. There are two tentative photos in the show from the 1930s of children (boys) who are playing alone, or just framed as solitary souls, in which you sense the photographer’s uneasiness about achieving more than a distant frame. La chambre de Gentilly (1930) is a fine composition, lonely and dejected as a Hopper painting, of the room of his younger days in this southern Parisian suburb, just across of what is now the Boulevard Périphérique.

“My own suburb was one of two-storey houses, rather grey and dumb, but full of nooks, recesses, makeshift repairs, inhabited by people living between the street and the bistro. Here and there a small workshop, like my father’s plumbing business. From my window, in the early morning, I watched the workmen coming to be hired, then going out on their assignments. If they had a few minutes to spare, they would have a drink in the bistro, then walk out slightly dizzy, fetch the handcart and be on their way to the job, which was sometimes far off.”

The intention of Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris (1853–70) was not just to make the city more beautiful and airy, but also to clean away the so-called classe populaire from the heart of Paris. The southern suburbs were a little less unattractive than the banlieue nord with its heavy industry. The wastelands of Gentilly were young Robert’s playground – places like the funky Bièvre, a stream straightened up to a canal that the pious used to follow on their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and the Zone (where “you went to play, to make love or to commit suicide”) on the “wrong” side of the fortifications that encircled Paris until the late 1920s. It was Doisneau’s mother who gave him the sense of the marvellous. He was eighteen years old when he photographed La chambre with the eyes of the seven-year-old boy whose mum had just died.

Peter Hamilton, who worked with Robert Doisneau for the retrospective at Modern Art Oxford in 1992, writes in his book that a “combination of creativity, chance, play, even désobéissance [disobedience], contrives to produce a magical effect” in Doisneau’s photography: “His vision of Paris is concerned with how it works on a human level […] as an organic whole, a mass of individual activities which generate the life and energy of this city, what makes it real and distinctive, yet at the same time magical and strange, unlike any other place on Earth.” Yes, and Walter Benjamin was right to argue (in The Arcades Project from the 1930s) that, “Parisians make the street an interior.” 

“[Parisians] imagined new photos to both capture the world and operate in the viewer’s mind,” suggests Catherine Clark in Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860–1970, “photography, photographs, and modes of understanding them changed how people understood, saw, and acted in the world”. For Doisneau to photograph the city he loved, and the people who acted out their lives there, was a means of possessing Paris as a whole magical theatre: “I feel a vague sense of ownership. I’d nevertheless like to remain one of those rare, broadminded owners who always leaves the door wide open.”

The camera entered Doisneau’s life as an attempted shortcut device for his shyness when he was studying figure drawing in Montparnasse and wanted to snap people on the street in order to draw them from these photographs he nonetheless did not dare to take of them. Doisneau’s callous aunt put the orphan thirteen-year-old in a backwards crafts school for the printing industry. At seventeen, Doisneau was working with professional photo equipment at a graphic art studio in the city. In 1931, he started as an apprentice for André Vigneau in Quartier Latin. This modernist artist and photographer became a very important source of inspiration for Doisneau, “for Vigneau talked to me of another painting, another philosophy, another cinema”.

Robert Doisneau was an avid reader throughout his life and Vigneau introduced him to a host of writers. One of them was the great Jacques Prévert: “Prévert taught me to have confidence in the discovery of everyday objects which people didn’t see any more, because they were contemptuous of them, too used to them. He found ordinary words, used every day, and presented them to people as if they were precious jewels. And he loved to play, to discover new things […] Jacques would ring up and say, ‘Do you know the street where they unroll the big lengths of plywood near the Faubourg St Antoine?’ I would say, ‘Yes,’ and he would say, ‘No you don’t, come and get me and we’ll go there.’ So we would go and look at this, there would be whole logs of this stuff, we’d take in the sound of the work, the colour of the wood, the smell of the sap and the look of it as it came out.”

Doisneau did not “shoot” people. Although he could photograph Paris and the Parisians with divine reckless abandon (and thankfully he did), he was at the core of it all – and in his own words – a pêcheur d’images. That the gentle fisherman of images was fascinated by Brassaï’s Paris de nuit, which came out in 1933, is evident from the selection at Kulturhuset. The essence of the pictures in Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb is an almost metaphysical day-for-night mood. From the time he met his favourite drinking buddy Robert Girard in the late 1940s (Girard was a poet of sorts), there was a change to real-night photography where Doisneau was moving with grace through some darker areas of life among the nocturnal animals of lowlife Paris: “When I am in horizontal position, my brain gets irrigated, like the cork of a wine bottle that’s laid flat. That activates my imagination and stimulates my desire to go out and use my mind. So I rise and go out, eager to see and to marvel.”

From 1934 to 1939, he was hired by Renault as a photographer at the factory on the Île Seguine, not far from where he lived, a period that Doisneau claimed was “the true beginning of my career as a photographer and the end of my youth”. It was not the outbreak of the war that got him fired from Renault but his constant late arrivals (a common theme in his professional life). There were always too many photographic distractions occurring on his way to the plant, and besides, at home, he was rather perfecting his method of doing colour prints in the kitchen lab than getting a good night’s sleep. Doisneau and his wife Pierrette had moved into a new building at 46 Place Jules Ferry (the little park in the middle bears his name today) in Montrouge, a suburban area just south of the Périph. This was where he, true to his mission, was to live for the rest of his life. 

Doisneau had just joined the Rapho agency when the Boche began to march in September 1939. His more than dormant nature of disobedience, in combination with what was developing as a case of tuberculosis after six insufferable months as a foot soldier, made the army decide that they had had enough of him too. Assailed by Stuka dive-bomber planes, Robert and Pierrette Doisneau and two million other Parisians, two-thirds of the city’s population, formed the exodus towards safer areas of France in June 1940. The couple returned to Montrouge near the end of 1940.

In 1942, Doisneau was commissioned to photograph the country’s foremost scientists for a book – Les nouveaux destins de l’intelligence française – committed to show that la France, in spite of the Nazi Occupation, was not on its knees. The same year he took the metaphorical Resistance picture Le cheval tombé with his Rolleiflex camera, an image so beautiful and perfect in everything that it has the looks of a tableau vivant. The passersby are gathering on the street in a communal spirit to help the fallen horse get back on its hooves. The white horse, gleaming with light, is almost like a Christ figure here, like the severely abused donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966). The thing about Doisneau’s photographs is that they almost never resemble the imagery of the French masters of film, whereas “Doisneau” vibrates all over in their greatest pieces essentially from the 1930s and the 1950s.

The Boche called Paris “the city without eyes”. The Parisians refused to even look at their oppressors. “Every morning the Germans paraded down the Champs-Élysées in full uniform with military bands playing and flags flying. Huge swastikas hung from buildings and monuments. In a slap in the face of French sensibilities, even the city’s clocks were set to Berlin time. Street and direction signs were in German. But scenes of hideous repression – neighbourhood hunts and arrests, unmitigated violence and cruelty, the roundups of Jews – were the real public spectacles,” writes Rosemary Wakeman. “Suffice it to say that the graffiti, the jeers and taunting of German officials, the public singing of the ‘Marseillaise’, the distribution of tracts, the surreptitious honouring of key dates in the nation’s history, the displaying of the V sign for victory, the protest marches and demonstrations constituted an extraordinary and highly dangerous public theatre in their own right.” 

The French term for the early stages of World War II was the Drôle de guerre. The French army outnumbered the Wehrmacht’s divisions by far but the Gallic rooster was all pomp and circumstance, ignorance and inertness. On June 10, 1940, the Government retracted to Vichy in the midst of France and declared Paris an open city. Four days later the Boche owned the city. They put a big V and a huge banner on both the Eiffel Tower and the Palais Bourbon: “Germany Wins on All Fronts.”

In 1941, Doisneau found something that was “guiding me to my seat during the horror film of the German Occupation” – his place in this Phoney War was to produce fake documents (“identity cards, Ausweisen, passports, false papers for Jews”) for the underground Resistance movement. There are only a few pictures in the show from the days of the Occupation. From 1944 and on, it is like Doisneau was processing this horror film in his mind through his camera; the pictures are as mournful as they are masterful.

The incredibly melancholy La pleine lune du Bourget (1946) depicts a steamy locomotive on the turntable in this railyard with nine other iron horses behind, all panting and waiting to be turned around, for these engines could only go in one direction. That these kinds of locomotives were about to disappear at the time when this picture was taken is only half of the story. Gare du Bourget was the station from which the French Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

He cherished the mishmash of these northern suburbs as well: “I always came back to Saint-Denis, even though it’s a long way from my own suburb. This community is an extraordinary mixture, exactly the kind I like: people from all origins, a basilica where the kings of France lie buried, a Communist town hall twenty metres further, a canal, a motorway, some huge public housing projects and endless rows of small suburban houses. It’s the juxtaposition that fascinates me – in fact, all my photos are self-portraits, in the sense that I always show people living in the same absurd surrounding as myself.”

Somehow Doisneau belonged to the “Bohemian nation” that Jules Romains was describing in his eight-thousand-pages strong Les Hommes de bonne volonté (Men of Good Will, 1932–1946): ”In contact with the enclosure, all around it, a singular swarm had developed, and almost fixed itself. A membrane of population, just half a kilometre thick, but stretched out over thirty-six; a sort of annular city stuck to the other and alive with its residues. The military zone, which forbade houses, tolerated hovels and barracks. A people of irregulars, nomads, fallen, or immigrants waiting, had taken the opportunity to settle there, clinging to the clay, muddy, clandestine, still half-floating, which was gradually sinking into the soil of habits, traditions, rights.”

Doisneau’s 1940s photography is full of extramural life, populated with people living from day to day, half-floating yet fully alive, as the luminous two in La dernière valse du 14 juillet (1949), a tender couple waltzing under the stars. At some other “end” of the city, a group of sideline gardeners is working in a deserted moat in Dans les fosses du Fort d’Ivry (1949). Others, in Doisneau’s considerably more sombre pictures, do what star-crossed people have to do – they live to fight another day.

A highline RER train cuts through the “green” industrial landscape with the Eiffel Tower far off in the distance in La ceinture verte (1949), a picture taken near the Renault plant, and the realism is almost magical here. Doisneau photographed the waterways of Paris – sandwiched between rundown factories and impermanent football grounds or (with a bit of juvenile imagination) African plains, territories annexed by neighbourhood imps – with the embodied feelings of the lovers in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). Juliette wants to escape the barge, she wants the lights of the city, but for Jean this is life itself.

Doisneau photographed houses and buildings like Charles Marville photographed houses and buildings in the 1800s, as if they were (lonely) individuals in their own right. La maison d’Erik Satie (1945) is like a posthumous portrait of Satie himself, twenty years after the composer’s demise. Eighteen thousand residential buildings across Île-de-France (the Paris region) were destroyed during the war, and Doisneau’s pictures of the French capital’s gaping holes have a strong resemblance to how the central parts of Stockholm looked like in the 1960s when the Social Democrats wrecked everything in their way. Doisneau’s 1940s are also full of contrasting vistas of good old Paris versus Soviet-style residential blocks for a dull new world.

“Erecting a barricade meant collectively performing an act that would exorcise the bad old days. There was an explosive desire for joy in the air, one that made every single woman in the stone-passing chain seem beautiful to the beavers building the insurrectional barricade,” Doisneau remembered. “As I pedalled from one working-class quarter to another, from Saint-Michel to Belleville and from Ménilmontant to Batignolles, I noticed how barricades, like mushrooms, always grew in the same spots. Strangely, the chic neighbourhoods of Passy and Monceau were completely free of them – the soil there must have been completely devoid of the spores required for spontaneous germination.”

Doisneau’s Barricade Place du Petit Pont (1944) shows one of those germinated barricades at the beginning of the narrow Rue de la Huchette near Notre-Dame. On August 18, the workers of Paris went on strike. The following day people all over Paris openly joined the Resistance forces together with the police and the Garde mobile to erect barricades and fight the Boche as the Allies were nearing the city. A week later, General de Gaulle paraded down the Champs-Élysées as if he singlehandedly had eradicated the Krauts from the capital. In any case, Paris was free again, if still a turbulent place for years to come. The North American author Saul Bellow called Paris of the time “one of the grimmest cities in the world”. “It was also a moment of vengeance and retribution,” as Rosemary Wakeman explains in The Heroic City:

“German stragglers were dragged out of buildings and beaten by bystanders. French women caught with German soldiers were publicly stripped and their heads shaved, and they were paraded in humiliation through the streets. Avaricious shopkeepers and bofs [black marketers] were rebuked. Locals suspected of collaboration were turned in or gunned down. These acts of community vigilantism were their own form of theatrical tragedy […] Meanwhile, speculators and black marketers scalped everything from cigarettes to penicillin. The nouveau riche, brandishing heaps of bank notes acquired through illicit traffic, bought up everything from families living on the edge of penury […] The malaise deepened. Tempers frayed. Armed robberies became the norm. Fear, pity, and fate were all embodied in the tragic dreams in the streets.”

“Mon cher Doisneau,” Blaise Cendrars wrote him in a letter of March 1949 when they were working on Doisneau’s first book, La Banlieue de Paris, “You are a genius.” Directly after the war, Doisneau started to work for several magazines. One of them was the exquisitely produced Le Point that had a specific theme for each new issue. Another man who thought that Doisneau was a genius was the editor-in-chief at Paris Vogue, Michel de Brunhoff, who had halted the magazine during wartime. Doisneau worked for Vogue for a few years (he also scouted people from the Rue Mouffetard area for Irving Penn’s “Small Trades” project in Vogue), but fashion photography was not Doisneau’s medium (he described himself as “a mixture of rubble and slag”) and he was never at ease with the snotty models during the photo shoots. The photographer used to show up at fancy parties representing Vogue in a rented tuxedo made to fit with the aid of safety pins.

“Sometimes they seem to show nothing other than the poses of a pointless world; but sometimes, in a better light, they seem to illustrate an extremely refined society,” Doisneau said of his Vogue pictures. “With hindsight, I can say why Michel de Brunhoff offered me a contract. I was like a gardener’s son invited to play with the children of the lord of the manor, welcome as long as he brought a new angle to things. In my case, the new angle was guaranteed, because I had never, I mean never, seen such sights.”

Heroic Paris continued to be a place of extraordinary deeds. “How could Paris regain such a high cultural standing so soon after the war?” asks Agnès Poirier in her book about the city’s new golden era at the end of the decade, Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940–1950. “Germany was in eclipse. Russian and Eastern European cultural life devastated, Spain isolated by General Franco’s regime, Italy busy recovering from a generation of Fascism, and Britain as marginal as ever to Europe and intellectual debates.”

“After 1944, everything was political; there was no escape. World citizens of the Left Bank knew this, and they did all they could to question both US policies and the Communist Party’s views. Paris was, for them, both a refuge and a bridge to think in a different way. They opened up the possibility of a Third Way, ardently embracing the idealism of the United Nations and the glimmer of utopia in what would later become the European Union. These pioneers also reinvented their relationships to others,” Poirier continues. “They also proved, with only a few exceptions, to be very hard workers.”

Photography was a vital part of the commemoration when the city celebrated its two thousandth birthday (the Bimillénaire de Paris) in 1951. That year, Robert Doisneau shared the space with Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis, Brassaï and Izis in a show with “outstanding reportorial photography by contemporary Frenchmen” as the MoMA presented its Five French Photographers in the press release. Overall, there is a great sense of communion in Doisneau’s pictures from the 1950s, and he had released the breaks on his bashfulness. His café and restaurant pictures are spheres of loveliness – look at Mademoiselle Anita (1951) at La Boule Rouge, caught in a dreamy instant where her hands are folded like the paws of a cat. And look closely and you see the duplicated image of the photographer in the mirror.

These establishments provided “a better vantage point for taking stock of things” if you were a philosopher with a camera and a great sense of joie de vivre: “So the café was, for me, the reunion of people from different milieus, all of them whom brought together their own ideal. With the excitement of a little wine, these people talked without holding back, without fear of being ludicrous. And what happened was that they really gave of themselves.” One such character was the bowler-hatted Coco (1952) and his forces of potables and friends (the print in the show is unnecessarily cropped though):

“It was Robert Giraud who introduced us in a panhandlers’ bistro on Rue Xavier Privas. Coco didn’t have much to say, though. Solicited by the red wine in front of him, he obligingly returned the favour. The big attraction was to imitate a drum beat on the seat of a stool, pounding out a legionnaire’s chant, ‘Violà du boudin!’ Suddenly Coco would snap to attention, as of back in the Foreign Legion. Everyone present would laugh, which didn’t really bother him. He seemed to enjoy the mockery.”

La cour des Artisans (1953), from the ninth arrondissement, is “a photographic chance” and one of the greatest pictures in Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb. A woman is walking over a courtyard in a shabby setting while the four men on the left are locked in their separate ruminations. They all look like actors in a play, with very little to say about the direction. Doisneau explained it as “A picture that seems to me very curious, very bizarre. If I would have models on my disposal, I would never arranged them like that.” And yet, that was just how many of the French authors of the era arranged the characters in their stories, left on their own devices, with four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.

“Reality does not exist for me. I am a false witness,” says Doisneau while he strikes his Gallic nose and smiles in his granddaughter Clémentine Deroudille’s Le révolté du merveilleux/Robert Doisneau Through the Lens, and this TV documentary from 2016 runs nonstop in the show. Another Pierrette who imbued him with an augmented sense of life was Pierrette d’Orient. Doisneau and Girard followed her for days and they both fell under the spell of this strangely attractive accordionist, who “was a pretty little lady indeed. She delivered her song – always the same slow lament, ‘Tu ne peux pas t’figurer comme je t’aime’ – with complete detachment, with a little contempt even,” Doisneau remembered. “Standing before folks moulded by hard labour, who held their fingers clenched even when at rest, she luxuriated in a sense of idleness. Her catlike nonchalance carried the slightest hint of cruelty. Back in the Middle Ages the spell that woman cast would have sparked a bonfire.”

Pierrette d’Orient plays her number “You Can’t Imagine How Much I Love You” for the butchers from Les Abattoirs de la Villette too, in the café in Les bouchers mélomanes (1953). One of the men looks straight into the camera, as may happen when a photographer asks a tough guy to turn around and love the music. A world that Doisneau adored was Les Halles – there is a series of pictures of Les Halles meat carriers in the show – and in March 1969, when this fantastic market was to be demolished, only to be replaced by a freakish shopping mall many years later, he noted that Paris was losing its “belly”: 

“I had a lot of friends there. In that village-like quarter I was a harmless photographer considered mildly obsessed. I didn’t like these technocrats’ ideas, with their ‘geometric’ goals labelled profitability, specialisation, division of labour, and efficiency. All of this was in diametric opposition to everything I came to Les Halles at night to seek, everything I was trying to picture. Saint-Eustache, the ‘village church’, was itself a mixture of styles and odours. Incense-smelling Gothic on the inside, celery-smelling Renaissance on the outside. And all around, humanity massed in the glow of fairground lights, rich and poor alike, truck drivers and market porters, butchers and Dior customers, grocers and drunkards. Everyone addressed each other in the familiar tu form, and above all there hovered great gaiety and good will, values that electronic computers cannot calculate.”

But Paris in Doisneau’s photography was never (apart from a few pictures like The Kiss) treated like a museum from the immovable past. His understanding of beauty’s fleeting essence was just as thoroughly existential as his dislike towards the ghosts of the “car-packed, scheme-laden, jogger-happy Paris”. When Jean-Paul Clébert published his Paris Vagabond in 1952, he dedicated the book to Robert Doisneau:

“It amazes me that neither the Musée de l’Homme nor any decent popular geographical magazine ever pays attention to the city populace, ever offers the public at large an ethnographical view of the poor districts, and that the big dailies would far sooner enlighten their thousands of readers on the rites and customs of the Navajo than on those of the oldtimers of Nanterre; and I am likewise amazed that despite the great mass of books – and good ones – devoted to Paris ancient and modern by chroniclers of the weird and wonderful social life of the capital, Parisians themselves remain ignorant of their city, disparaging it or invariably confining their rote thoughts and observations to the poetry of the quays of the Seine and the virtues of the national art museums, finding it bizarre that an ordinary man, but one who knows how to see, hear and smell, and to use his senses like outsize antennae, might still in this day and age bother himself with new sights and sounds, or be aghast, stupefied, dumbstruck, at a complete loss for words and quite unable to sleep until he has raced over to his friends to tell them of his discoveries and drag them along to share and delight in them.”

Doisneau had a joyous memory from his youth. The girl he secretly loved jumped on his bike one day, and off they went into the woods. And for a few rare hours, life was perfect. Doisneau’s photography was his way to challenge time, to preserve life’s perfect moments. Think of his famous picture from 1952 of a caped gendarme who walks by the devilish mouth opening to the Cabaret de l’Enfer in Pigalle and who tries to keep a straight face. Its hilariously wonderful architecture can be spotted among the street scenes of the early 1930s Paris in the remake of Papillon (2017) – today at 53 Boulevard de Clichy you walk into a less attractive Monoprix store.

Doisneau left the door wide open for those on the margin, for those who always found cunning new ways to get through the day. The world he has preserved for us is a world populated with people who dress, who walk, who talk, who are what they think they are.

Robert Doisneau, La plaine lune du Bourget, 1946. © Atelier Robert Doisneau.

Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb at Kulturhuset in Stockholm through November 25, 2018.

5 July 2018

ALTERED IMAGES

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 about 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.