She Said “Baby Elephants (and even skies and mountains too) Die Alone”
May 31, 1938 — a “Law on Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art” was decreed under Hitler’s Third Reich, stating that “the products of degenerate art, which have been seized in museums and publicly accessible collections before the passing of this law and have been identified by authorities appointed by the Fuhrer and Reich Counselor can be seized without compensation on behalf of the Reich, provided that they were guaranteed to be owned by nationals or domestic legal entities”.1 The law legalised the confiscation of works of art, which the German authorities deemed ‘degenerate’.
The term ‘degenerate art’ (or ‘Entartete Kunst’) referred to a series of travelling, ‘shaming’, exhibitions set up for propaganda purposes, to show unfavorable examples of works of modern art — namely artworks considered unGerman. By 1937, following an exhibition in Munich called ‘degenerate art’, plans were set forth for the ‘cleansing’ of German museums from such works.
Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, took the matter into his own hands and commissioned Adolf Ziegler, President of the Academy of Fine Arts, “to confiscate from all states of the Third Reich, federal-, state- and municipal-owned museums, galleries and collections, the existing products of the era of ‘decayed work”. Ziegler’s delegation travelled to more than 100 museums and confiscated 20,000 works made by more than 1400 artists.2
December 22, 1938 — In Cairo (Egypt), a group of artists, writers, journalists and lawyers, sign the manifesto Vive L’Art Degenéré (tr. Long Live Degenerate Art). The signatories denounced the hostility with which literary and artistic creation were met in European societies of the time. They particularly condemned Hitler’s aggression towards modern art, which “des brutes galonnées promues au rang d’arbitres omniscients”3 (tr. “gallooned brutes, promoted to the ranks of omniscient referees” ) — as fascist state officials were referred to in the manifesto — deemed as ‘degenerate’.
The manifesto reads:
“We know with which hostility today’s society views all literary and artistic creation that threatens, more or less directly, the intellectual disciplines and moral values, the maintenance of which, depends society’s survival.
Today this hostility is manifested in totalitarian countries — particularly in Hitler’s Germany, by the most abject aggression against an art that gallooned brutes, promoted to the ranks of omniscient referees, qualify as ‘degenerate’”.4
Vive L’Art Degéneré was originally published as a bilingual tract. French and Arabic versions were printed on each side of the manifesto’s folds, and in the center, a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, under which a bilingual — also Arabic and French — text declares the constitution of the Art & Liberté (tr. Art & Liberty) group, and goes on to say that details about the group will be published in newspapers.
Many of the signatories included Egyptian, as well as foreign intellectuals, settled in Cairo.
The establishment of a francophone literature in Egypt can be traced back to Napoleon’s expedition in 1798, marking the beginning of French influence on cultural and social groups. Until the late 1950s, french literature was absorbed and reproduced by an animated intellectual class of Egyptians and local foreigners in Alexandria, Cairo and other urban centers.
February 4, 1937 — On this day, Georges Henein, a francophone Coptic-Italian, writer and poet, pronounced an inauguration speech deeply explicating the inner-workings of the European Surrealist movement and its many influences in literature, poetry and politics. His speech also presented the work of two Egyptian-based artists — later becoming known as major players in the Egyptian surrealist movement — Kamel Telmissany and Angelo de Riz, whose paintings Henein analyses as the reconstructions of multiple phases of a nightmare, “bien plus passionnant et grandiose que la vie domestique”5 (tr. “much more passionate and grandiose than domestic life”).
In Cairo, a conference held at the headquarters of “Les Essayistes”, diffused on Egyptian State Broadcasting, and repeated with variations on March 1st 1937 at the Alexandrian “Atelier”. The conference was led by Georges Henein, who presented a short history of surrealism and its earlier influences in wartorn Europe, in: “Bilan du Mouvement Surréaliste”.
On voyait parfois s’ouvrir sur le front de la chanson un miroir comme une [enfance raidie
qui crachait l’image par terre
et brisait l’éclatante jeunesse des traces de sang traînaient quelque part
sur des draps souillés par des crépuscules attardés…
je me souviens aussi c’était une journée plus douce qu’une femme je me souviens de toi image de péché
frêle solitude tu voulais vaincre toutes les enfances des paysages il n’y avait que toi qui manquais à l’appel étoilé
je me souviens d’une horloge coupant des têtes pour indiquer les heures
from Tristan Tzara’s L’Homme Approximatif
Georges Henein concludes his speech with the following statement: “In Paris, last summer, we heard the repetition, not without pride, of a sentence that rang like the echo of a social upheaval wherein France was the theatre. There is — said people — something that has changed. [ ] Ladies and Gentlemen, you would agree with me that since the surrealist intervention, also in the itinerary of art, of poetry, of thought, something has changed”.6
December 1938 — The Art & Liberty group publish the manifesto “Long Live Degenerate Art”, distributed in Cairo and Alexandria and later published in surrealist journals in Paris and London.
“A group of artists that has been formed in Egypt which calls itself the ‘Degenerate Art Group’ is now in the process of breaking up,” began a report by ‘Aziz Ahmad Fahmi in Cairo’s alRisala in early July 1939.7
19 January 1939 — An Arabic and French language FIARI publication bearing the name of Art & LIberty was published in Cairo. This was the main publication of ‘Art & Liberty’, a group of artists and writers, whose image making and writing practices were seen as ‘surrealist’, although the group’s political affiliations extended beyond their associations with surrealism. “A powerful catalyst in defining the surrealist group’s purposes and direction in Egypt came in late March 1938 at a salon organized by the essayists in honor of the Futurist poetry of the Alexandria-born F. T. Marinetti. Henein spearheaded a disruption of the proceedings, protesting angrily that the event was a sick celebration of fascist imperialism since Marinetti had been a loud supporter of Mussolini’s aggression. The surrealists believed that those living in North Africa should be much more upset with the brutal fascist Italian colonial war on the Libyan resistance movement (1928-1934) and Italy’s 1935 invasion and occupation of Ethiopia”.8
January 22, 1939 — Georges Henein, K. Santini, Lee Miller, Marie Riaz and their friends gather in an apartment in Zamalek (in Cairo) to play a surrealist game of questions and answers, in French,what would they do if…
…if the document they left behind that Sunday, was to be read 76 years later, on a Tuesday, in English, in a classroom, in Chicago? [LISTEN HERE]
The group’s goals were “the unequivocal affirmation of cultural and artistic liberty; a pledge to focus on the works, people, and ideas “essential to understanding the present time”; and “a commitment to maintaining a close contact between the youth of Egypt and the current literary, artistic, and social developments in the world”.9
She Said, Baby Elephants (and even skies and mountains too) Die Alone