Liberty in Art and Wit in Anarchy By Erik de Mauny , cairo 1944
If the Independent Art Group’s fourth exhibition, “Art et Liberté,” which has been open throughout the past week at the Lycée Français, has aroused a mild outcry, I think its organizers will scarcely be displeased. Several hundred people came to the opening on Friday of last week to express admiration, bewilderment or scorn: but it may safely be assumed that all were diverted. Never has a Cairo exhibition been more frankly framed pour épater le bourgeois. And how people love being shocked! As I write, I still have in my ears the mutters of protest and murmurs of derision which serve some for criticism. From the artist’s point of view, anyway, hostility is better than indifference. All the pother is a little distracting, however, to anyone trying to write a review. Apart from its entertainment value, does such an exhibition as “Art et Liberté” have intrinsic merit, and has the avant-garde, which so bravely flaunts the banners of Freud, Lautréamont, Tanguy, Breton and Ernst, made any significant progress or discovery? I think the answer is yes—but it must be qualified. Freud’s experiments with the subconscious are events in human history as relatively important as the inventing of the steam engine or the discovery of radium. A vast terrain has been revealed; but pathetically little has, as yet, been charted and the artist who strays there to make his survey, having thrown away compass and theodolite because they no longer serve, is now forced to make new ones. It is surprising how much of the original symbology pops up. There are sponges and gloves, flash bulbs and unattached eyeballs, and several yards of viscera. I wandered round expecting at any moment to see one of Dali’s poached watches dripping over a cliff, and was disappointed when it failed to materialize. It is a little depressing, how swiftly new conventions harden … Some of the freshest and most promising exhibits are those of young Egyptian artists. There is a portrait of a child by Salem El Alawy which has lingered in my mind, and the f ine intuition which makes this memorable is present to a lesser degree in Mountains and the eagle and snake fight. The painting, Eloge de la Vie by Fathy El Bakri, is both fascinating and gruesome. The artist has used colors as bland as those of a child’s picture-book to make Le Marché Noir de l’Amour effective and slightly horrifying. The Combat de Cavalerie of Wayel Mansour Fahmy and Saad El Khadem’s La Prise d’Acre are both remarkable for their naïve delight in movement, and as congested as medieval historical tapestries. Saad El Khadem justifies the ruddiness of his figure study calling it Bain Turc, but I found the studies by Kamal Youssef overwhelmingly meaty. Why the passion for beefy women? I thought, with regret, of Suzanne Valadon’s pert Parisiennes. Some better-known artists are to be found here too. Eric de Nemes has three— The Hand of Glory, Daphné and Finale d’Opera—all done with his usual meticulous polish. The Armenian artist Arte Topalian has used a sprightly sense of color to good effect in Fantasia. Nomicos’ Adonis-like figures are particularly attractive. And there is Angelo de Riz, who experiments with several techniques, but in his best is too suave and slick. I find that I have not mentioned Inji Efflatoun’s Prostration and Allégresse, which have a f ine, clean intensity, nor the prolific tortures which Fouad Kamel’s paintings express, and which have an occasional power. Nor the prehistoric heads and ungainly horses of Samir Rafi’’s curious dreams, which he expresses strikingly enough, but which I should hate to share. There are the knick-knacks and composite pieces so essential at a surrealist show: of these The Kisser of Fregwin Lewis is the most clever and striking, while Victor Musgrave’s The Book is very amusing. Apart from these and the pictures, there are some exceptionally fine photographs by Idabel and by Jean Costa. In brief, this is a stimulating exhibition which speaks well for the future. There are the mediocre, but they will drop away. The charlatans, the exhibitionists, do not matter very much. What counts is originality of vision and a desire for progress and development. Who is to decry rebels, if so much of the ancien régime incites to rebellion. It was, after all, Mr. Munnings and not Augustus John who, in March of this year, became President of the Royal Academy!