Written by Arthur Debsi Born in 1913 in the city of Minyah, Egypt, Ramses Younan grew up in a modest, and Coptic family. In 1929, he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts, and started a teaching...
RAMSES YOUNAN, Egypt (1913 - 1966)
Written by Arthur Debsi
Born in 1913 in the city of Minyah, Egypt, Ramses Younan grew up in a modest, and Coptic family. In 1929, he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts, and started a teaching career in public schools all around the country, right after he obtained his teaching certificate in 1934. The following year, Younan joined the group called Jama’at al-Daa’ya al-Faniyya (Art Advocates Society), founded in 1933 by the Egyptian artist Habib Gorgi (1892-1965), and some art educators such as Youssef al-Afifi, and Hussein Youssef Amin (1904-1984). The group contributed to the promotion of art education in Egypt, and published the book entitled Ghayat al-Rassam al-‘asri (The Aim of the Contemporary Artist), written by Ramses Younan in 1938. The latter would eventually join the group of Art and Liberty, which initially stood up against the Fascist movement, and ideology from Europe, having reached Egypt in the mid-1930s. With a versatile profile, Younan actively participated in the introduction, the elaboration, and the spreading of the Art and Liberty ideas. And his thought was regularly published in several articles, including ‘From Dada to Surrealism’ in 1942, and ‘The Decision belongs to the People’ in 1943, all issued in the leftist magazine Al-Majallah Al-Jadidah (The New Magazine) – founded by Salama Musa (1887-1957) in 1929. The remarkable work of Ramses Younan was such that he became editor of the magazine from 1941 to 1944, the year it was banned by the state. This magazine tackled different subjects such as societal problems, arts, and politics; which consequently made it a great medium of expression for the artists of Art and Liberty. However, due to his political commitment, and activities, Ramses Younan was arrested in 1946. After being released, he traveled to France in 1947, where he settled in Paris. There, he pursued the painting, and simultaneously worked for the French National Radio between 1952 and 1956. On July 16th 1956, the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) nationalized the Suez Canal Company, and the troops of Israel invaded the Sinai, followed by the bombing attack of France, and Great Britain. Concerning this event, Younan was somehow torn between the new nationalist, and revolutionary vision of Egypt, and the French imperialistic politics. And because he didn’t want to take any position in favor of France on the radio, he left the country to go back to Egypt in 1956. In 1960, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture granted him support, enabling him to fully dedicate his time to painting.
On December 22nd, 1938, Art and Liberty announced their bi-lingual, Arabic-French manifesto named Yahya al-Fann al-Munhatt (Long Live Degenerate Art), which was signed up by artists, but also writers, journalists, and lawyers. They firmly condemned the rise of the Hitlerian power, and ideology in Europe, as they stated: ‘[In Vienna] Works by great German [sic] artists such as Marx Ernst, Paull Klee, Karl Hofer, Oskar Kokoschka, George Grosz, and Vasily Kandinsky have been confiscated and replaced by worthless National Socialist art’. They consequently proposed an innovative artistic program, which corresponded to the contemporary times, and the social realities of Egypt. Indeed, the group of Art and Liberty demonstrated in a various artistic production, which included paintings, installations, and also photography, the fears, and anxiety, of a generation living in wartime.
When it comes to the study of Ramses Younan’s career, it is important to note that he was also an important intellectual, and the author of a consequentially written oeuvre. First, he is known for the translations into Arabic from French literature, like the bundle of poems entitled Une Saison en Enfer by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), as well as the play Caligula by the writer Albert Camus (1913-1960). On the other side, his writings exposed his theoretical, and philosophical ideas about art, which were mainly in the foundation of the Art and Liberty group’s development. Thus, Younan defined the group, and its scope, taking a critical view of Surrealism in Europe, especially in the book Ghayat al-Rassam al-‘asri (The Aim of the Contemporary Artist). He effectively engaged an analysis of the movement in Europe, and highlighted the dimensions, that it could take: ‘The art of this group [Surrealist Artists] is liable to degenerate into an artificial, forced art that demonstrates the wit and skill of the conscious mind more than the specters and impulses of the unconscious’. To Ramses Younan, although the artistic approach of the Surrealist artists in Europe was avant-garde, it still belonged to the ‘bourgeois mythology’, which provided an illusion in favor of capitalism, and bourgeois existence.
In the 1940s, the oeuvre of Ramses Younan highly followed the thought, that Surrealism could be associated to a moral, and social revolution. Nevertheless, the painter stressed the project of shaping a new form of Surrealism, that he would call ‘Subjective Surrealism’. This new form encouraged the artists to integrate identifiable symbols in their works, through a completely free creative process. Like his colleagues, Younan depicted the portrait of a society, which experienced the poverty in Egypt during the years of WWII, and in particular the problem of the prostitution. In 1940, Ramses Younan wrote an article, Al-Bagha’ Mushkilah laha Juthour (Prostitution is a Problem with Roots) for the periodical Al-Tatawwur (Evolution), denouncing the fact that, because of the extreme poverty in Egypt, some women were forced to work in brothels. From this period, the artist produced works such as La Passion Sauvage (1940), part of the Dalloul Art Foundation’s collection, where he expressed another vision of the female body, which would embody the social issues. Here, he decided to use a dark palette of colors, with a combination of red, and earthy tones, in order to insist on the frightful, and gloomy atmosphere of the scene. In the middle of the composition, he illustrated a naked woman, who is screaming, and seems to be in profound distress. Detached from any academic painting rules, which commonly value the beauty of the female body, Ramses Younan chose to dehumanize the one of his character. As a matter of fact, he intentionally ripped apart, and distorted the body, while he exaggerated the muscles of the arms, and the legs. On another level, he created a sort of a beast, or monster, with nipples of the woman’s breasts looking like bulging eyes; and the stomach becoming jaws. The woman is mutilated, and resembles a skeleton. The Egyptian Surrealist artists were extremely cultivated, and had a strong knowledge in the psychoanalytic theories of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), which nurtured their artistic reflection. In La Passion Sauvage, Ramses Younan offered a rich narrative interpretation of the several struggles, from which the woman is suffering: a physical struggle due to the wartime, an inner one with the subconscious, an outer one with the conventions, imposed on her by the society.
The surrealist environment, in which Ramses Younan took the public, is readily apparent in Untitled (1946), also part of the Dalloul Art Foundation’s collection. The painter illustrated an imaginary scene, in which he again worked on the dismantling of the physical reality. Playing with the shadows, and the light, he integrated in the composition some enigmatic figures, and only a woman is identifiable. The latter is naked, and her long dark hair completely covers her head, while she is walking. By her feet, a head of a man is placed on the floor; and in the middle of the scene, appear two other figures, which recall creatures of darkness, carrying a kind of oil lamp. It is difficult for the viewer to clearly identify the elements, and the actual meaning of the painting. Ramses Younan rendered a world close to the one of the subconscious, the dreams, which are free from any reasonable logic, and mental mechanism. This peculiar plastic treatment manifested his new artistic vision that would replace what he called the ‘bourgeois mythology’. He explained this approach in the two following essays La Désagrégation des mythes (The Disaggregation of Myths), and Notes sur une ascèse hystérique (Notes on a Hysterical Asceticism), by presenting the importance of the artist’s role, and the dimension, which a painting should take. In his writings, he tended to discredit truth, and its control over fiction; and considered the notion of ‘falseness’ to have a powerful part in the act of creation. Yet, as the Surrealist movement was declining, many Egyptian artists moved towards abstract art. As of 1960s, Ramses Younan produced abstraction seen in the two examples Untitled, both dated from 1964, and part of the Dalloul Art Foundation’s collection. Using warm earthy colors, Younan filled the surface of the canvas with heavy, and thick brushstrokes. Abstraction, which was also linked to the traditional ancient Egyptian art, could be another alternative to express the free imagination of people, and reflect a form of the unconscious.
According to Ramses Younan, the movement of Surrealism in Europe, was still in a phase of experimentation. Through his painted, and written work, he succeeded in proposing another artistic, and theoretical vision of Surrealism, which occurred in Egypt as another contribution to the European artistic avant-garde.
Ramses Younan passed away in 1966.
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Selected Solo Exhibitions
Abaad room, Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo, Egypt
Karim Francis – Contemporary Arts Gallery, Cairo, Egypt
Centre Culturel Français, Cairo, Egypt
Centre Culturel Français, Cairo, Egypt
Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Cairo, Egypt
Atelier du Caire, Cairo, Egypt
Galerie des Beaux-Arts de Bab el-Louq, Cairo, Egypt
Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, France
Foyer d’art du Lycée Français, Cairo, Egypt
Selected Group Exhibitions
Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950-1980s, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, United States of America
Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950-1980s, Block Museum of Art of Northwestern University, Evanston, United States of America
Surrealism Beyond Borders, Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
Monaco-Alexandrie, le grand detour. Villes-Mondes et surréalisme cosmopolite, NMNM – Villa Sauber, Monaco, France
Surrealism Beyond Borders, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States of America
Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950-1980s, Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, United States of America
Memory Sews Together Events that hadn’t Previously Met, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950-1980s, McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, Boston, United States of America
Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950-1980s, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York, United States of America
A Century in Flux, Highlights from the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Art et Liberté, Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948), Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Swede
Art et Liberté, Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948), Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Modern Art from the Middle East, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, United States of America
Art et Liberté, Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen,Düsseldorf,Germany
Art et Liberté, Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
When Arts Become Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965), Palace of Arts, Cairo, Egypt
Art et Liberté, Rupture, guerre et surréalisme en Égypte (1938-1948), Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
The Short Century, Sharjah Museum, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Tajreed, A Selection of Arab Abstract Art, 1908-1960, Contemporary Art Platform, Kuwait
Le Théorème de Nefertiti, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France
Tea with Nefertiti, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
Le Corps découvert, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France
L’Art Égyptien contemporain, Salon des Indépendants, Paris, France
Salon d’Automne, Akhenaton gallery, Cairo, Egypt
Exposition de l’association des anciens élèves de l’École des Beaux-Arts du Caire, Cairo, Egypt
L’Art égyptien contemporain, Grand Palais, Paris, France
Visages de l’art contemporain égyptien, Musée Galliera, Paris, France
Rétrospective des artistes boursiers de l’État, 1960-1966, Cairo, Arab Socialist Union
Paintings of contemporary artists of the U.A.R, Montreal, Canada
The 32nd Venice Biennial, Venice, Italy
The 5th Alexandria Biennial, Alexandria, Egypt
Exposition des artistes boursiers de l’État, Manasterly Palace, Cairo, Egypt
Exhibition of abstract art, L’Art pour Tous gallery, Cairo, Egypt
Exhibition of contemporary Egyptian art, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
Exposition des artistes boursiers de l’État, Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo, Egypt
The 6th São Paulo Biennial, São Paulo, Brazil
The 1st Yugoslav Triennial of Plastic Arts, Praha, Yugoslavia
Salon d’Automne, L’Art pour Tous gallery, Cairo, Egypt
Impressions d’Égypte, L’Art pour Tous gallery, Cairo, Egypt
Encore l’Inconnu, Galerie Cultura, Cairo, Egypt
Vers l’Inconnu, Galerie Cultura, Cairo, Egypt
Mezinárodni surrealismus, Topic gallery, Prague, Czechoslovakia
XIVème Exposition des surindépendants, Paris, France
Le Surréalisme en 1947: exposition internationale du surréalisme, Galerie Maeght, Paris, France
Travaux automatiques, Foyer d’art du Lycée Français, Cairo, Egypt
Ière, IIème, IIIème, IVème, Vème Exposition de l’Art Indépendant, Foyer d’art du Lycée Français, Cairo, Egypt
Exposition du groupe de Propagande artistique, Cairo, Egypt
Salon du Caire, Cairo, Egypt
Affiliations and Memberships
Art et Liberté Group
H.E.Sh. Hassan M. Al Thani collection, Doha, Qatar
Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
May Moein Zeid & Adel Youssry Khedr collection, Cairo, Egypt
Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
The Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
The Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo, Egypt
The Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon
Al-Tatawwur (Evolution): An Enhanced Timeline of Egyptian Surrealism
Alexandra Dika Seggerman
Iowa Research Online, English, 2013
إسطورة رمسيس يونان :...و يا ليته يبكي
Medina Portal, Arabic, 2018
Ramsis Younan Artiste Defunt (1913-1966)
وزارة الثقافة قطاع الفنون التشكيلية, Arabic, French, 2011
The Double Game of Egyptian Surrealism: How to Curate a Revolutionary Movement
Jonathan Guyer, Surti Singh
lareviewofbooks.org, English, 2017
The Myth of the False: Ramses Younan's Post-Strucuralism avant la lettre
The Arab Studies Journal, English, 2000
The Nile of Surrealism: Egyptian Surrealism
Abdel Kader El-Janabi
Hommage a la peinture de R. Younane
The World of Mahmoud Said
El-Megala Magazine, English, 1964
Pousse par ses besoins
Arabic, French, 1949
اوجين ديلاكروا زعيم الحركة الرومانتيكية
The Future of Culture in Egypt
Al Tatawwur Magazine, Arabic, 1940
تأملات في الفن
Jaridat Al Ahram, Arabic, 1962
La peinture moderne en Egypte
المجلس الأعلى للثقافة, Arabic, French, 2005
Excerpt from Book pp.68-70-382
Modern Egyptian Art 1910-2003
The American University in Cairo Press, English, 2005
Excerpt from Book pp. 23-32-33-34-35-104-105-106-107