The killer blow of Jonathan Jones’ review of the exhibition Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberté 1938–1948 at the Tate Liverpool (published in The Guardian 27 November 2017), comes about two thirds of the way down. “[T]here is no great artist in this show and no evidence the Egyptian wing of surrealism added anything essential to an international movement that was already waning by the 40s,” he writes. Jones’ point, leading up to this wounding stroke, is that artists in Egypt who formed the Art et Liberté group and took inspiration from the surrealist school of thought were simply becoming Westernised. According to the British critic, essentially it was the Tate’s mistake to present them under the banner of Other. “Exhibitions that celebrate global twists on the story of modernism, therefore, may not see otherness at all, but just award points to non-European artists of the 20th century for getting safely westernised,” writes Jones. Following this logic, if something has not progressed much it is not modern art at all, but rather a take on the history of art. This is not only short-sighted but also risks embracing the Orientalist mind-set.
Before writing the review, Jones claims to have been influenced by his work on the forthcoming BBC documentary Civilisations – which attempts to tell a globalised history of art – and therefore criticises Surrealism in Egypt as failing to look beyond the self-imposed Eurocentric borders that were erected around the time of the birth of modernism. Yet upon closer examination, it appears Jones has not understood the nuances or importance of the artists in question, nor does he seem to have given it much time, since his review even includes critical errors about certain artworks.
For example, Jones refers to Mahmoud Said’s 1933 painting La Femme aux Boucles d’Or as being “beautifully vulgar,” going on to say that the portrait is of “a woman showing off her long golden hair and generous breasts in front of a horizon that pointedly includes two mosques.” The author fails to explain the importance of Said’s painting in this exhibition, limiting himself to this crude description. Said was an honorary adopted member of the Art et Liberté group and was a master at capturing the complexity and richness of Egyptian society throughout his lifetime, particularly during the period that the exhibition explores. Instead of crediting Said’s vastly respected oeuvre, Jones reduces Said’s painting to a “so-so” effort at nudity, which in itself he credits to Surrealism’s endorsement of sexual liberation rather than any autonomous practice on Said’s part. This too is a misconception. The Art et Liberté group was formed in 1938, yet there are numerous examples of nudes in Egyptian art starting from the early 1920s. Georges Sabbagh’s Nue Allongée (1921), Said’s Le Nu au Coussin Bleu (1926) and Youssef Misrahi’s Baigneuse (1927) are just a few of countless examples. Egyptian art did not have to wait until the end of the 1930s for Art et Liberté to advocate “sexual emancipation.”
Jones also refers to what he identifies as being “Ida Kar’s 1940 photograph titled Eternity,” explaining that it “shows rotting meat on rib bones that look like colossal columns.” The artist in question should in fact be referenced as “Ida Kar/Idabel,” as the image is a collaboration between the Armenian artist Ida Kar and her husband Edmond Belali, who created the Idabel photographic studio in Cairo. Moreover, this specific artwork is not entitled “Eternity,” but L’Étreinte (The Embrace). The photograph does show bones from the carcass of an animal, but is an example of the ‘dépaysement’ technique that surrealists applied to give an object another life, in this case, referring to Pharaonic columns. These are not mere details to be overlooked, especially when the review only fleetingly refers to two artworks and then goes on to disregard the entire exhibition.
Another lynchpin to Jones’ criticism is that western audiences have become “fixated […] on the cult of the avant garde.” The artists that formed Art et Liberté were undeniably avant-garde, not necessarily because of their style or the paintings they produced, but in their thoughts and actions. On the brink of World War II, when Hitler was destroying what he called “degenerate art,” these Egyptian artists, in support of their European colleagues, wrote a manifesto that read: “Long Live Degenerate Art.” This was a rebellious and revolutionary act in its own right, one that places them as equals rather than simply trailing in the wake of some superior western ideal. This argument becomes clear when Jones mentions that the Egyptian surrealists and indeed, all the world’s writers and artists were “cring[ing] before the might of Paris” during this time. Certainly, Paris was mighty, but it was only mighty because it was a contact space for a multitude of people. The author is omitting the fact that foreign artists, whether European, African, American, Latin American, or Asian, all had an influence on each other as they connected there. The critic’s narrow frame of mind quickly becomes monotonous.
“Why should we look at second-rate imitations of a modern French style when we could be contemplating a majestically beautiful minbar carved in Cairo in the 15th century?,” Jones argues. If the featured artworks are perceived as second-rate imitations, it could be that the writer has not grasped the context of modern Egyptian history. In search of a national identity after independence in 1922, artists delved into their roots, whether Pharaonic, Islamic or Coptic. This created a concoction of ideas and symbols that in turn gave birth to a variety of art groups, which included various nationalities and religions. Leaving out this background, and many other sides of the overall narrative is an immense disservice to the viewer/reader and also strips away all the achievements of the group, exposing a redundant cliché of Islam. Gazing at a minbar fits in the exoticism of Egypt—bringing to mind examples of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Orientalist paintings—whereas surrealism surely does not. With just a few words, Jones deprives Egyptians from the right to freely explore art.
A statement such as “modern art was born in France in about 1900” is exactly why exhibitions like this are extremely important. As much of the rest of the international art world has caught on, if only superficially, it is imperative to constantly challenge this discourse, particularly surrounding the impact of modernism during the early decades of the twentieth century. There are many definitions and strands of modernity and they are all equally valid. Why must non-Europeans be left in the waiting room of history, as the philosopher John Stuart Mill so eloquently wrote in On Liberty and On Representative Government, a concept further developed by Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe?
When reading Jones’ review, Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” also comes to mind. Only recently has Egyptian art been exhibited on such a scale, and the many layers of the story are slowly being revealed. Jones’ unimaginative article demonstrates how the west still attempts to speak for others without full knowledge of the events and influences that fed it from every side. Modern art, and art in general, should not be viewed in a void, it should be contextualized, which is what this exceptional exhibition has accomplished. Only when we free ourselves from ingrained, invalid, delusive, and outdated ideas, can we open our eyes to “otherness,” so that it might finally get the legitimacy it deserves in both space and time.