The Ramsès Younan family and Jean Colombain have kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work.
‘Art does not belong to a territory. Chirico is not more Italian than Delvaux is Belgian than Diego Rivera is Mexican than Tanguy is French than Max Ernst is German than Telmissany is Egyptian. All these men participate in the same fraternal struggle against the logic of the bell tower and of the minaret, which do not know how to raise even a pathetic barrier’ (Kamel El-Telmissany in Don Quichotte, March 1940).
When the author of the Dictionnaire général du surréalisme et de ses environs (1982), Edouard Jaguer, described Ramsès Younan, he wrote the following: “Most certainly the most interesting of all of them and the most tormented amongst Georges Henein’s friends who gathered around his periodical ‘La Part du Sable’.” He further quoted the artist who had declared in 1947, ‘I cling onto my madness with the smallest hope to conquer the world and to destroy the emptiness. I do not want ‘friends’ but rather accomplices involved in the same crime: pierce through emptiness, rape emptiness’. Younan was referring to the emptiness of history and of academia that he denounced as early as 1938 in his first critical and influential essay Aim of the Modern Artist, raising public awareness of Modern art. Alongside fellow artist, poet and critic Georges Henein, Younan became a founding member of the ‘Art and Freedom’ Society, whose motto ‘Long Live Degenerate Art’ was defined in their revolutionary manifesto published in December 1938. This antifascist organization protested against the oppression of artistic expression in Nazi Germany, forming to some extent the Egyptian counterpart to the various Surrealist trends raging through Europe at the same time. Five ground breaking exhibitions held by the group Art et Liberté took place in Cairo between 1940 and 1945, each causing more uproar than the other. In 1943, Younan assumed the role of editor of El Megalla el Jedida, (‘The New Review’) an Egyptian revolutionary and artistic publication, upholding his status as a prominent writer and critic, but also as an anti-conformist and Trotskyist denouncing British colonialism as well as Hitler and Stalin.
Painted in 1946, the present composition by Younan epitomizes his Surrealist period, that scarred Modern Arab Art for the decades to follow and that earned him the recognition as being one of the founding figures of the Arab Surrealist movement. Resonating Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘rows of porticos and corridors’, fusing Delvaux’s female nudes in classical landscapes with Salvador Dali’s and Max Ernst’s organic shapes, Younan combines morphological violence, embodied by the headless and armless woman whose decapitated head lies on the ground, with an architectural silence dominated by the two featureless, body-less and colourless figures at the centre of the composition. Each covered with a black veil, Younan may be hinting to the controversial debate on the lifting of the veil ('burqa') animated by the rising Egyptian feminist movement at the time. Led by female activist Hoda Sharawi (1879-1947), who had recently been appointed head of the newly founded Arab Feminist Union in 1945, the movement advocated the 'burqa' as hindering female emancipation.
An X-ray of this painting shows significant pentimenti on the left of the composition, as Younan’s nude woman was previously half-hidden in another doorway, that was behind the smallest black silhouette. Younan liberated the nude female figure from the doorway, therefore achieving his desire to ‘pierce through emptiness’ as she ‘pierces through’ the metaphysical architecture, which stands for the artist’s subconscious. The present work was probably the last painting Younan produced before he moved permanently to Paris in 1947 until his return to Egypt in 1956. Paris had a full-scale impact on his works and by the 1960s, his style had wholly developed into abstraction. Only a handful of paintings from Younan’s Surrealist days are known, some of which are housed in the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art Cairo, yet the present lot is one of his rare works that is signed and dated in his recognizable red pigment. Some of Ramsès Younan’s works and writings will be at the core of the much anticipated pioneering exhibition dedicated to Egyptian Surrealism, entitled Baby Elephants Die Alone: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1930s-1940s), which will open its doors this fall at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (28th September 2016 – 9th January 2017), before touring to the Kunstsammlung Nordhein-Westfalen of Dusseldorf and the Tate Liverpool in 2017.