It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the closest post-war England got to producing an indigenous avant-garde with any kind of international reputation was the distinctly retrograde community of painters, sculptors and potters who migrated to St. Ives in the 1940s and 1950s. Unless, that is, one counts the phoney avant-garde so cynically manufactured by Charles Saatchi in London in the 1990s.
In the twentieth century, English artists who were prepared to risk an experimental encounter with the intoxicating techniques of the artistic avant-garde had to get their kicks on the continent.
There they could inject themselves with an addictive cocktail of politics and aesthetics, in the secure environment of an entire culture of quarrelsome artistic outcasts. St. Ives, Paris and London were all stops for Ralph Rumney, the British avant-garde artist who is the subject of The Consul – a meandering but often arresting book, in which a central interview between Rumney and Gerard Berreby snakes through margins scattered with strange and intriguing images and documents.
In the mid-1950s, after turning down a scholarship to Oxford and quitting art school in Halifax, Rumney spent several months in St. Ives as an abstract painter – though he ‘also painted local landscapes, boats and so on, in the hope that tourists would buy them’ (he cheerfully admits that ‘none of them did, as a matter of fact’). After genuflecting before the altar of abstract art in Britain, he briefly moved to London. There, ‘being pretentious at the time,’ he held a meeting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on how to reconstruct post-war London: ‘[I] suggested that at least one per cent of the budget allocated for the rebuilding should be spent on research among those people who were living in the tower blocks that were becoming more and more a part of the urban fabric.’ Everybody ignored him; ‘I was seen as a little jerk,’ he observes with enjoyment.
Shortly afterwards, he ‘buggered off to Paris’ in order to avoid having to do his military service.
The disaffected gang of artists and intellectuals towards which Rumney gravitated defined itself against the ‘intellectual bourgeoisie’ that governed the contemporary cafe scene, ‘of which Sartre was the most notorious representative.’ Led by the formidable Guy Debord, who ‘had a kind of hold, a kind of power, over whatever was going on around him’, a number of them, including Rumney, went on to found the Situationist International (SI), arguably Europe’s last great avant-garde, in 1957.
The SI was a potent post-Surrealist synthesis of art and politics, of theory and practice – revolutionary in its reinvention of the notion of the avant-garde. The group had an alchemical effect on the political imagination of the generation of European students radicalised in the late 1960s: it became a terroristic force in art and politics the creativity of which almost matched that of Dada. Debord was its Andre Breton. Intellectually brilliant, he had a tyrannically capricious character.
As Rumney rather wistfully records of him: ‘Always delightful and then, from one day to the next, bang, he would shut the door in your face.’ Sure enough, one of Debord’s first acts as the eminence grise of the SI was to expel Rumney from the organization.
Rumney, who had developed an interest in radical urban planning before he left London for Paris, had at least in part been attracted to the intellectuals who founded the SI because they took the practice of ‘psychogeography’ seriously. Psychogeography, which had been codified by the Letterist International, an artistic precursor to the SI, was defined as ‘the study of the precise effects of geographical setting on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ I
n order to make the SI sound international, Rumney suggested at the outset that the London Psychogeographical Committee, an institutional front for Rumney himself, should be formally affiliated to it. Debord agreed to this, and encouraged Rumney to undertake a psychogeographical study of Venice that he could print in the first issue of International Situationniste.
The study was completed in 1958, according to Rumney; but his newborn son conspired with an inefficient postal system to prevent its arrival at Debord’s house in time for the journal’s publication. It was supposedly because of this lapse of revolutionary discipline that he was expelled from the SI.
Under the heading ‘Venise A Vaincu Ralph Rumney’, International Situationniste No.1 declared that, ‘beset by countless difficulties and increasingly sucked into the milieu he had tried to traverse,’ Rumney had simply disappeared in northern Italy. With a funereal flourish, it concluded: ‘Thus it is that the Venetian jungle has shown itself to be the stronger, closing over a young man, full of life and promise, who is now lost to us, a mere memory among so many others.’
His ejection from the SI is the moment for which Rumney is most notorious, and to which he owes a perverse form of fame. Indeed, Rumney was most interesting because of the people he knew.
The Consul is a rich source of gossipy, if often insightful information about various avant-gardist personalities of the 1950s and 1960s. There are descriptions of elderly radicals like Marcel Duchamp, of Americans like William Burroughs and the Beats, and of French philosophers like George Bataille – as well as of countless other influential figures with whom he came into contact. Ralph Rumney finally emerges as the Zelig of the post-war avant-garde. He is constantly present on significant occasions, but never contributes anything particularly significant to them.
At times, it is quite difficult to work out why stubbornly impatient intellectuals like Debord, who had a clear, if not inflationary sense of his own cultural importance, put up with his presence. This is the case when Rumney offers his account of first arriving in Paris in the mid- to late 1950s: ‘There were certain rites of passage that one had to undergo in order to be accepted into particular cafes like Moineau’s. You had to know what Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, or Hegel thought about such and such, and if you didn’t know, you would be told to get lost or treated as a complete fool. At first, I felt a bit left out: I only knew school French and this didn’t allow me to join in serious discussions. But one way and other I managed to get myself accepted by some people.’
Berreby goes on to ask Rumney whether his knowledge of alcohol was better than his knowledge of French, and is quickly told that ‘the two developed in parallel’. ‘When I got to Paris, drinking was the only real activity,’ he recalls; and one can’t help suspecting that it was an anarchic capacity for creative drunkenness, rather than scintillating conversation, that made him attractive to these avant-gardists.
Perhaps the most poignant and revealing photograph in The Consul is the famous image that commemorates the founding of the SI in July 1957. Taken from a squatting position, presumably on a step a little beneath its intimidating subjects, it records the presence of Pinot-Gallizio, Piero Simondo, Elena Verrone, Michele Bernstein, Guy Debord, Asger Jorn and Walter Olmo. At first sight, surprisingly, Ralph Rumney himself does not appear in the photograph. It transpires that he is the person behind the camera. In recording the event, he half excluded himself from it.
The same slightly self-defeating logic applies to The Consul, his anecdotal record of the post-war avant-garde: the more vividly the various highly charismatic revolutionaries with whom Rumney consorted come to life, the more he is himself effaced.