About Degenerate Art, Kamel el-Telmisany
Al-Risālah magazine [The Message] (Year 7, Issue 321), August 28, 1939
In issue 319 of Al-Risālah (The Message)
we read a piece titled “About Degenerate Art—a last word” in response to what an esteemed scholar wrote about the “The Art and Liberty” Group and to what came from Anwar Kamel’s discussion with the scholar. Anwar Kamel, a member of the group, had intended to keep away from artistic details and from citing names and dates. However, the esteemed professor cited in this piece of his the name of the learned poet André Breton and translated one of his old articles on Surrealism, then commented on something he had said; so for this reason alone I find myself compelled to correct the mistakes that he made regarding this writer and his movement. Also, in order not to give our esteemed readers an opportunity to see a distorted image of this international movement, which expresses the loftiest and noblest of human feelings in this century and by whose means artistic civilization has been achieved to the highest degree in both poetry and modern painting, laying the foundation for the contemporary school of free poetry and painting grounded in poetic thinking and modern psychological analysis. Following this, perhaps colleagues who are opposed to it might check their accuracy when choosing what they wish to include from the latest reliable sources regarding this modernist movement which continues to expand and renew itself to this day and does not have stagnant thinking or sluggish research and exploration obstructing its activities. It appears that the esteemed scholar may have acquired his information about Surrealism “the art removed from apparent reality,” as is made clear by the paragraphs quoted as a chunk, from the book Bohemian, Literary & Social Life in Paris. We believe that merely reading paragraphs like these, written several years ago, does not give him the right to speak in the way he has done, and that this is an insult to the thinking and the author that he spoke about and to Al-Risālah, given its influence and reach, which does not stop at Egypt, but goes beyond it to the Arab Orient as a whole! And therefore we must state that this “last word” is in response to what he said and we will not be returning to it after this, God willing, other than in detailed analytical publications or public exhibitions and lectures which will be held during the coming winter season that will soon be upon us. Over the past five years, there have been numerous far-reaching developments in the essence of Surrealism; during this period André Breton has published a number of consecutive statements about the movement, which aspects of it have been modernized and what new views and thinking it has acquired; the latest of these was his splendid article in the last issue of his magazine Minotaur—one that the professor really ought to take a look at, and the articles that preceded it. And if you seek further clarification about the latest trends in surrealist painting, also at what has been written by the leading personalities of the movement, French and English critics, poets and writers. Surrealism is not a “purely French movement” as the professor says, but rather is distinguished primarily by being international in its thinking and realization; it does not have a trace of local character, great or small. It is truly quite astonishing that the professor permits himself to fall into such monstrous error in his writing. I advise him in this regard to read what was written by the great British critic Herbert Read in his book Surrealism on the subject of international Surrealism. This free movement and its reach is far from being purely French, as the professor has accused it of being. On the contrary, I can tell him that there is not one Frenchman among the leading painters: the painter Giorgio Di Chirico is Greek-Italian, Salvador Dali is Spanish, as is Picasso; Paul Klee and Max Ernst himself are from Germany and Penrose is English, as is Henry Moore; as for Paul Delvaux, he is Belgian, and Chagale has Russian nationality and so on and so forth … These people, dear Sir, are the leaders of the movement. And it is ironic that there is not one Frenchman among them!! Art does not have a country, my friend. You were wrong when you said: “And I think that artistic movements cannot be transposed with such ease from one country to another … never mind talking about personality and inspiration.” On the contrary, there is a similar movement in Britain, Mexico, Belgium, the United States, the Netherlands, etc. Do you think, Sir, that it is shameful that some Egyptian paintings should be based on or influenced by such a school! We want a culture that flows with the rest of the world; we do not want to stand still while everyone else moves on. Moreover, I also advise you to read the leading article in the Clé magazine’s January 1939 issue, so that you find out for yourself in silence how little you understand this school. Have you never seen, my dear sir, the four-fingered dolls that are special to the saints day holidays (‘aroussit el-moulid el-halawah)? Have you never come across the small rag puppets (‘aroussit al-qaraqoz al-saghirah)? Have you never listened to the stories of Oum el-Shou’our, el-shater Hassan (clever Hasan) and other such folk fables of our local popular literature? … all of this, my dear Sir, is Surrealism. Have you never been to the Egyptian museum? … much of Pharaonic art is Surrealism. Have you not been to the Coptic museum? … much of Coptic art is Surrealist. We do not imitate foreign schools but rather create an art that has emerged from the tanned soil of this land that has been running in our veins since the days when we used to live by unrestrained free thought until this very hour, my friend. You say, Sir, that “the primary impetus” of this French movement, as you alleged, is “the theories of the scientist Sigmund Freud.” This broad statement contains much exaggeration and seeking applause from the masses—if the masses were to support ignorance—incorrectly. This is a far from accurate analysis because Freud is valued by them and by the whole clean free unrestrained democratic world for his thought and thinking. And is it a crime, Sir, for an analysis built on a foundation of Freud’s theories—Freudism— to enter into painting, as is the case with literature and poetry in this country of ours, a free democratic country? Egypt is not yet part of Germany and Italy has not yet colonized our country, to such an extent that Freud’s writings are being burned in our public squares amid screams of savage joy …! No, dear Sir, Egypt is still a democracy and you have been influenced by Fascist and Nazi thinking in this view of yours that our art must be suppressed when you can see for yourself the correct path … do you know, dear Sir, that the paintings by Mahmud Bey Sa’id, one of our great painters, are all Freudian, as are the majority of the writings of Professor Mahmud Taymur Bey and Tawfiq el-Hakim and others. It is not just our art that draws upon Freud’s theories—even if that is to a certain extent accurate for some of us—what calls you to accuse such art of decadence at the top of your voice? I advise you here, Sir, to learn before you write this, about the relationship of these paintings with the hallmark of Sigmund Freud. I point you to what was written about this relationship in an interesting chapter in the book Art & Society by the (critic) Herbert Read or to consult what was written by the British Surrealist about this recently in issues of the London Bulletin. In what you quoted from your article, you used the words “automatic writing”—are you aware, Sir, that this automatic writing is over now and its time has passed? Living things constantly renew themselves, and there is no call, my friend, to cite today something you have learnt something about only now after its proponents have left it behind in the way that you learnt about it. Dear Professor, have you read What is Surrealism by André Breton? I’m certain that you have not read it, because otherwise why did you quote that expression of his that you mentioned today, even though he said it several years ago, and did not mention what preceded it and what he said after that. Perhaps a picture that might please you, Sir, can be found in a lecture that the Egyptian poet Georges Henein, a member of the group, gave in French and was published in one of his magazines, Revue des Conférences Françaises en Orient [Review of French Conferences in the Orient] which came out in Cairo, October 1937 issue. Finally, do you know, Sir, that the most senior critic in Egypt is Ahmad Bey Rassim, a man who has his own view on art since he wrote that it seems in Egypt you can speak about three of the members of this group of painters in a number of articles. He mentioned in the most recent of them, in Al-Ahram, September 17, 1937 and Al-Balagh, October 15, 1937 the influence of popular and oriental art on the works of those artists—the distinguished Kamal William, Fathi el-Bakri and the author of these lines, saying that some members of this group, such as Abu Khalil Lutfi and Husein Yusuf Amin, have informed their art with a high cultural degree of local popular art and their art is imbued with imagination and personal thinking that has nothing to do with the Surrealism and even if it did, not with the original Surrealists, especially in the engravings that are created by the sculptor Abu-Khalil Lutfi. As for the paintings by the distinguished Professor Yusuf el-‘Afifi and Fouad Kamel, they just come from the heart and their lines are composed of their sinews and their blood; their art is personal, and has no direct link whatsoever with anyone else. I would like to reply to you here with what our Professor Yusuf el-‘Afifi replied to one of the critics opposed to his theory one day when he said to him: “Surrealism is nothing more than the modern technical term for what we call imagination, freedom of expression, freedom of action and the Orient has been the home of all this since time began.” And there is no turning back after this.” Perhaps what I have said and demonstrated briefly will inspire the dear readers of Al-Risālah to read some of these authors and critics.
Kamel el-Telmisany Member of the Art and Liberty Group