The group Art et Liberté was founded by Cairo-based artists, intellectuals and political activists in 1938, as a response to looming war and protected, unjust social structures that gripped the region. Stockholm’s Moderna Museet showcases this largely overlooked extension of the surrealist movement with the exhibition Art et Libeté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948), which opened at the end of April and runs through Dec. 8.
More than 200 paintings, photographs and documents are on display at the museum, which is located in the heart of the city on the island of Skeppsholmen. Among the 19 featured artists are Ramses Younan, and the American photographer Lee Mille
r, who lived in Cairo from 1934 to 1938.
The group pushed for cultural and political reform in the British colony that was on the verge of being drawn into World War II, rejecting the waves of colonialism, nationalism and fascism that were sweeping the world at that time.
“In this hour, when the entire world cares for nothing but the voice of the cannons, we have found it our duty to provide a certain artistic current with the opportunity to express its freedom and its vitality,” wrote member Georges Henein in Art et Liberté’s first exhibition catalogue in 1940.
Cairo had a well-established, state-endorsed arts community centered around salons, which drew tens of thousands of visitors annually. From its inception, Art et Liberté attempted to trample the barriers of control that the government had maintained over the arts.
Egyptian society was marked by extreme economic inequality, with a small elite class drawing extreme wealth from controlled industry and landholding while half the nation’s population lived in poverty. The group believed that the heart of surrealism was more than an art movement. According to Modern Museet representatives, it was a call for a social and moral revolution, which led to the coining of a new term for surrealism: subjective realism.
“Among the surrealist painters, one group is persuaded to direct all its efforts to the gathering of all things contradictory,” wrote Younan in 1938. “Then there is ‘automatic drawing.’ … Lastly, we propose ‘subjective realism’ where the objective elements and human elements are mixed, giving surrealism a more profound and complete meaning.”
The members’ works and shared goal of puncturing this economics system produced significant pushback from establishment institutions.
“Surrealism presents a danger to our ever-growing civilization, which we must not ignore,” read an April, 1941 editorial in the Cairo Gazette. “We must fear it and fight it as we fear and fight communism, for any nation that accepts and encourages its development is surely heading straight into the slime of moral decay.”
Curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the exhibition offers increased understanding of modernism through Art et Liberté’s artistic contributions to the surrealist movement. It was previously on display at Centre Pompidou in Paris and at the U.K.’s Tate Liverpool, among others institutions.