Ralph Rumney | The Consul

Ralph Rumney | The Consul PDF


Ralph Rumney has been in constant flight from the wreckage of postwar Europe. Crossing paths with every avant-garde of the past fifty years, he was one of the founding members of the Situationist International. Rumney’s traveling companions — Guy Debord, Pegeen Guggenheim, Asger Jorn, Michèle Berstein, Bernard Kops, Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, Félix Guattari, E.P. Thompson, Victor Brauner, and many others — are recalled in the oral history with sharp intelligence and dry wit.





The Consul: Contributions to the History of the Situationest International and Its Time

Igniting as an arts avant-garde in the 1950s and exploding as politically revolutionary at the heart of the Paris 1968 uprisings, the Situationist International has proved a tenaciously compelling radical movement in terms of asthetics and political theory. The MIT anthology, which includes both hard-to-find original material along with critical essays focused on central figure Debord, is ambitious and exciting, focusing on the group members’ significance as political and urban theorists, refusing to let them be written off as idiosyncratic heirs of dada and surrealist art-as-provocation. The argument is persuasive, though the critical essays devoted to their art (like a lengthy amble through Debord’s several films) aren’t nearly as riveting as the group’s manifestos, musings and collective position papers. Only the passionate note by T.J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith matches the intensity of the original documents and no wonder, as they briefly were the group’s British wing. The Consul, in which SI founding member Rumney recounts his life and times, is the second in a series of oral histories assembled (with photos) by French publisher Berreby, but it lacks the savor of ’50s Parisian street and intellectual life that informed his earlier volume, The Tribe. Rumney’s story doesn’t revolve around the SI (particularly as he was booted early on); other claims to fame include a painting in the Tate Museum and a marriage to scion/suicide Pegeen Guggenheim. That might be enough to render Rumney’s tale engaging, or at least juicy, but his self-justifying soliloquies stand in the way, and his vague uninterest in politics leaves the book without a center. But the MIT anthology stands as a fine compendium of the most poetic of political writings, albeit still a partial measure for fans, followers and future revolutionaries awaiting the complete translations of the journal Situationist Internationale.

Publishers Weekly


Ralph Rumney
Rebellious artist and co-founder of the Situationist International

The artist, writer and co-founder of the Situationist International, Ralph Rumney, has died of cancer at his home in Manosque, Provence, aged 67.

Interviewed in The Map Is Not The Territory, a study of his life and works by Alan Woods, he said: “I think the trick, as far as possible, is to be sort of anonymous within this society. You know, to sort of vanish.” Indeed, until the publication last year of that marvellous book, Ralph seemed almost to have been forgotten in his home country, except by those of us fortunate enough to have known him.

In 1989, the Tate bought one of his paintings, The Change, dating from 1957. And there have been a few retrospective shows of his work in the last few years, most recently in his home town of Halifax.

Ralph produced a vast body of work over the years – from informal abstracts to large canvases using gold and silver leaf, from plaster moulds to polaroids, montages and videos. But only now are these being reassembled and reassessed. As he put it: “They’ve been scattered all over the place. That corresponds to a particular way of life, to luck and different circumstances. Things are sold, things are lost. You could almost say that today I’m an artist without works, that they’ve become accessories.”

Ralph’s vanishing tricks were notorious, an essential part of a life of permanent adventure and endless experiment. He moved, as his friend Guy Atkins said, “between penury and almost absurd affluence. One visited him in a squalid room in London’s Neal Street, in a house shared with near down-and-outs. Next, one would find him in Harry’s Bar in Venice, or at a Max Ernst opening in Paris. He seemed to take poverty with more equanimity than riches.”

Only latterly, and partly because of ill-health, did Ralph settle down in Manosque, where he shared a flat full of his paintings with his cat, Borgia. For The Consul, another book of interviews with him soon to be published in Britain, he chose, as an epigraph, a phrase from the French writer Marcel Schwob: “Flee the ruins, and don’t cry in them.”

For most of his life, Ralph was a nomad, wandering from country to country, into and out of trouble – in London, Paris, Milan, Venice, or on the tiny island of Linosa, south of Sicily, one of his favourite places. “I’ve always felt entirely at ease among the 400 inhabitants, regularly cut off from the world for long periods. Some people have accused me of having a morbid love of solitude, but I would claim that what I found there was, in fact, a small society on a human scale.”

Claiming not to believe in avantgardes, Ralph none the less crossed paths – and sometimes swords – with just about every radical movement in art and politics of the last 50 years, made his contribution, and moved on.

He was born in Newcastle, and, at the age of two, moved to Halifax, where his father, the son of a coalminer, was a vicar. He endured boarding school, discovered de Sade and the surrealists in his early teens, turned down places at Oxford and at art school, ran away to Soho bohemia, and to Paris.

What followed was a long, erratic journey. En route, his travelling companions included EP Thompson, who gave him a room when he was 17 so he could escape his parents, and deepened his understanding of Marxism; Stefan Themerson, a collaborator on Other Voices, the magazine Ralph produced in London in the mid-1950s; Georges Bataille, with whom Ralph argued about eroticism; Yves Klein, whose work, like that of Michaux, Fontana and others, Ralph introduced to the London art world; William Burroughs; and the philosopher and psychiatrist, Félix Guattari, who gave Ralph sanctuary in his clinic outside Paris when he was, unforgivably, accused of murder.

In 1967, Ralph’s wife Pegeen – whom he had saved from earlier suicide attempts – killed herself with an overdose of barbiturates in their Paris flat. Her mother, Peggy Guggenheim, who had always hated Ralph (for reasons he describes, with wit and a surprising lack of bitterness, in The Consul), took out a civil action against him for murder and “non-assistance to a person in danger”. Already devastated by the loss of his wife, Ralph endured months of persecution before the action was dropped.

It was Ralph’s involvement with the Situationists that was most important to him, and which has, in part, led to the rediscovery of his work. There is a set of photographs from the first meeting of the Situationist International, in the Italian village of Cosio d’Arroscia in July 1957. All the founding members are there: Walter Olmo, Michèle Bernstein, Asger Jorn and, of course, Guy Debord, smiling at the camera. Only Ralph is missing – because he took the photos.

His own description of the foundation of what some now see as the most lucid revolutionary grouping of the second half of the 20th century is modest, but accurate enough: “At the level of ideas, I don’t think we came up with anything which did not already exist. Collectively, we created a synthesis, using Rimbaud, Lautréamont and others, like Feuerbach, Hegel, Marx, the Futurists, Dada, the Surrealists. We knew how to put all that together.”

Ralph’s membership of the SI did not last long. Debord expelled him – “politely, even amiably” – less than a year later, accusing him, wrongly, as it happens, of failing to complete a projected psychogeography of Venice. But his association with the Situationists did not end there. It endured throughout his life; he remained friends with many of them.

In the early 1970s, Ralph married Debord’s former wife Michèle Bernstein, and, though they later divorced, the two remained close friends. To Ralph, she was “the most situationist” of them all, the one who fought to stop the group turning into an an ideology or a sect. In that case, they were perfectly matched.

A couple of years ago, with public interest in the Situationists growing, a whole slew of books on the movement were published in France. But it was The Consul that was, as the paper Libération put it, “the most lively, the most passionate”. Ralph embodied the best of the SI, in his political intransigence and intellectual curiosity, in his playfulness and wit, and in his anger at those who are running, and ruining, this world.

Malcolm Imrie


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