Ramsés Younane experimented with calligraphic abstraction, of which Arabesques (1961) is a prime example. Throughout his career, Younane was dissatisfied with Egypt’s art establishment, which favored neoclassical academism, neglecting the important modernist movements occurring outside of Egypt. To counteract that regressive tendency, he wrote extensively about the developments of modern art, especially the transition from realism to abstraction. In an effort to kick-start Egypt’s aesthetic road to abstraction—with its implications of free expression—Younane co-founded the Art et liberté (Art and Freedom) group as an alternative to the stagnating art academies, adopting instead a Surrealist mode of unfettered artistic investigation. Younane himself was for a time an avowed Surrealist and identified with the movement’s conceptual fluctuations between external realities and subjective understandings.
In Arabesques, Younane constructs a fantastical realm of abstract spaces and gestural ambiguities, using the calligraphic mark to carve out a surreal landscape of jagged ruins and peaks in earthen browns, opening into soft blue-green voids. The enigmatic canvas avoids specific cultural references and instead invites the viewer’s personal engagement with paint and representation. The title Arabesques references a significant motif of Islamic design, part of Egypt’s rich decorative and architectural tradition in Egypt. With this verbal cue, the artist seems to suggest that traditional Arab-Islamic forms can break free of academic limitations and can be revitalized within modernist paradigms. Arabesques, completed only five years before his death, is considered one of Younane’s mature works. His life’s work earned him the distinction of being one of Egypt’s leading proponents of expressive abstraction.
Ramsès Younan is recognized as one of the founders of Egyptian Surrealism. He finished his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Cairo in 1933 and became a secondary school art teacher in 1934.
From 1939 to 1946, Younane participated in the Trotskyist group Art et Liberté. He was involved in the publication of a number of left-wing reviews, including La Part du Sable (with poet Georges Henein, 1914–1973) and al-Tatawwur—the first socialist magazine in Egypt.
From 1942 to 1944, Younan edited Al Magalla al Gedida (All-New Magazine), the first Trotskyist bulletin published in Arabic. Younan immigrated to France after World War II, showing in the Expositions Surréalistes Internationaux (International Surrealist Exhibitions) in Paris and Prague in 1947.
In 1948, he published a pamphlet with Henein, “Notes sur une ascèse hystérique” (Notes on a Hysterical Asceticism), critiquing elements of Surrealist practice, particularly automatism and the movement’s relationship to Marxism. He broke with the French Surrealists that same year.
Younan translated the writings of Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Arthur Rimbaud in Arabic. He returned to Egypt in 1956 and represented the country in the 1961 Bienal de São Paulo and the 1964 Venice Biennale.