Cover image for The consul : conversations with Gérard Berréby
The consul : conversations with Gérard Berréby
Rumney, Ralph, 1934-
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Uniform Title:
Consul. English
Publication Information:
San Francisco : City Lights, [2002]

Physical Description:
124 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.
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N6797.R83 A35 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Throughout his adventurous life, Ralph Rumney was 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 intelligåence and dry wit.

Profusely illustrated with Rumney's own photos, paintings, and collages and other documentary materials.

" The Consul regains that magnificent freedom that a handful of people enjoyed and shared with artists, writers and others, in a world whose password was total, unfailing rejection of the world." --Judith Brouste, Art Press

"...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 (1934 - 2002), was the sole member of the London Psychogeographical Society, a founding organization of the Situationist International (1957). He is the author of The Leaning Tower of Venice , a fabled psychogeographical exploration of that city.

Malcolm Imrie is a literary agent and translator whose translations include Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and Josè Pierre's Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions 1928 - 1932 .

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Do you know what the Greek word poiesis means? It relates to the idea of making. And ars , in Latin? Practical knowledge. Yes, and this kind of "making" comes from other Latin authors like Lucretius, who assimilated it into the sphere of art. That definition of art applies just as much to the poet and the artist as it does to the scientist. In my opinion, none of these can exist without the others. Or at least the bringing together of the three activities has been the aim of my work right up to this day. My work has always been based on experiment, in the same way as modern science. And it seems to me very unlikely that I'm ever going to change. So there is no problem with competition, with success or failure, because your career has not been that of a traditional painter or even an avant-garde painter. I don't believe in avant-gardes. And I've never felt myself to be in competition with other living artists. It doesn't interest me. There were periods when I sold everything I painted. I don't know where my works have disappeared to. 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. Marcel Duchamp once said that he had given up painting, and everyone believed him. But it was clear that he had never stopped working. It would be wrong to think he stopped his own research. Obviously, he needed to give himself some space. One might have thought that you, too, were a mythical character, dead as a productive artist and as a thinker, but enjoying a certain notoriety for things that were rather legendary, like the famous Guide Psychogéographique de Venise-Psychogeographic Guide to Venice. But then one discovers that you haven't stopped working, either. To make some sense of all this, let's go right back to the beginning. Where do you come from? I was born in Newcastle in 1934. When I was two, we moved to the outskirts of Halifax in Yorkshire. I lived with my parents in an enormous vicarage. There was a huge garden, with an orchard and a vegetable patch-a real asset during the war. I loved that place. Who were your parents? My mother was a middle-class Londoner, a doctor's daughter who became a nursing sister and a missionary in Abyssinia. She was proud of being the first white woman admitted to the court of Haile Selassie. A very enlightened woman. Unfortunately, my main memories are of her illness. She died when I was fourteen. My father was the son of a miner. He started work in the mines when he was twelve and had no formal education. After the war, he took up the study of theology and spent several years in Nyasaland (now Malawi) as a missionary. Upon his return to England, he took the cloth and became a vicar in Newcastle. It is hard to imagine today the struggle it took then for someone from the working class to make it into the petite bourgeoisie. Not so far away from the world of Engels ... ... not very far. And Keir Hardie, the great Scottish Marxist Socialist, founder of the Independent Labor Party, the first Labor parliamentary candidate, came to a meeting outside Durham when my father was a child. He warned new recruits to his party: "Watch out-corruption begins with brandy and cigars." Keir Hardie had to share a bed with my father, something of which my father was always proud. My father was a stretcher-bearer in the 1914-18 war-he survived by the skin of his teeth. After the war, he educated himself. He put his trust in the church, to the point of becoming a clergyman. He read a lot, studied in libraries, things like that. His intellectual development was the result of encounters with various socialist circles. A notion that was at the heart of socialist or laborist movements in England was that you could improve yourself through learning. Some groups had published books to help in this process. They held meetings to spread the theories of Marx and Engels. My father would take me to these meetings when I was just a kid. I heard old workers quoting Hegel. They'd set up popular universities? More associations than universities. Yes, but the popular universities were associations. They were not run by the state. The Communist Party, for example, set some up. In our case, it wasn't as structured as that. The groups would have a little meeting place, or meetings would simply be held in someone's house. We all got together, and everyone was welcome. Sometimes you'd get a cup of tea or coffee, but during the discussions people took it seriously. I'd never heard of Kant or Engels; I suppose I was more middle class. And I'd see these lads with their dirty hands who'd just come home from the factory and who were debating things like that. That was university for me. Later, in Soho, I found the Malatesta Club, the final redoubt of old English anarchists. Did you have any other schooling? Of course. I started with primary school, where I met my first love. I was four or five when I met a little girl. We swore that we would get married when we were grown up. We held hands on afternoon walks. We formed a "crocodile," where you walk in pairs, and we always made sure we were together. I was crazy about her and she was about me. A happy childhood. When I was about seven my father, deciding that it was necessary for me to have a scholarly, middleclass education, sent me to a private school. Happiness ended? Yes. It is a very bad memory. Tell me more. It sounds terrible. I was seven. I was very hurt by being separated from my parents and thrown into an unknown world. The school, which had already been damaged by a German naval bombardment in the First World War, had been evacuated from Scarborough to a place called Eshton Hall, not far from Skipton. It was very beautiful. We stayed in a mansion, a real palace, a very elegant edifice built in the early nineteenth century. There must have been seventy pupils in all. It was a society with a strong sense of hierarchy, even between boys only separated by two years. You had to adapt. I was a little bit of a rebel and got angry with the other kids who I thought were accomplices of the system. According to Bertrand Russell, there are three things that derive from Plato: Nazism, communism, and the English education system. It was a kind of torture for me. In the end, I put up with it. Throughout the war there, my only happy moments were when I found myself alone in the grounds of the mansion, which were quite extensive: there was a river, woods, abandoned gardens, orangeries. I loved hunting for birds' nests or tickling for trout in the stream. And there were badgers and otters. I spent as much time as possible outdoors, in the wild, alone, for it seemed that no one else was interested in those things. You were different from the other children? Oh, yes! I think that anyone who has this rebellious side and who manages to keep his creativity quickly finds himself different from others, out of step. Today's educational systems, whether in England, France, or elsewhere, all try to normalize you. It is often very hard to resist, and those who succeed in doing so are rare. Paradoxically, the English education system is supposed to be one of the best. I'm not very up to date with all that. All I know is that Tony Blair is attacking it, claiming that it must be improved, that it has become archaic, that it doesn't work. Recently, in the United States, it has been shown that in teaching mice to negotiate a labyrinth one can replace electric shocks by an injection of adrenalin. In the same way, one could perhaps use injections instead of corporal punishment in the English education system. Anyway, the fact is that I spent a certain amount of time within that system and without that I would not be who I am. At the same time, rebellion was necessary. When I got out of the system, when I decided to leave school-at sixteen, because I was somewhat precocious-I should have gone on to Oxford. I could write verse in Latin and Greek, something I have since forgotten, thank God. My teachers saw me as a troublemaker, but as rather intelligent. I was quite good in physics, a little less good in the other sciences, very good in English literature and French, or at least relatively so. I still need to correct my mistakes in French. When did you first come to France? It was a summer camp outside Briançon, in 1948. I was fourteen. I did a bunk for a few days and got as far as Paris. It was summer; it wasn't cold. I discovered Saint-Germain-des-Prés and, not far from there, the Vert-Galant on the Ile de la Cité, where you could sleep out. Did people still swim in the Seine? Yes, but it wasn't recommended. I caught the first crayfish that I'd ever seen. It had come out of the water and was trying to get back in over the bank. I had no idea what this poor creature was. So I watched it for a while, then put it back in the water. I did a drawing of it. When did you start drawing? Like all kids, I think I was always drawing. But the real shock for me in terms of art came a bit later, when I started using libraries. I discovered the Surrealists in a book from around 1936. It was a book on the first Surrealist exhibition in London. You must have seen reproductions in the catalog. Yes. It was a book by Herbert Read. In effect, that was where I discovered modern art. The texts also got me into big trouble at school. I wrote an essay where I compared, naively perhaps, Byron's Mazeppa with Dalí's The Great Masturbator . Naturally, it caused a scandal. How old were you? Fifteen, perhaps. It was in the days when they told you that you would go blind if you masturbated. We were surrounded-and we're still surrounded-by a system of power aimed at the suppression of creativity and the control of sexuality. Throughout my education I was always looking for what was forbidden. Always searching for things that were more or less proscribed. It seemed to me fascinating to note that in books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whenever there was an "obscene" passage in the translation, they left it in Latin in the text. As I had been taught to read Latin, and since at that age one tends to be rather interested in such things, I had been given the power to discover what I wasn't supposed to know. I had been taught Greek and Latin, but certainly not with that intention. And then in good libraries one could discover works that were much more interesting. For example? Lucretius' De Rerum Natura . Lucretius is a philosopher who still interests me. I also relished anything that was a bit licentious and the eroticism of classical writers. I read Catullus, Sappho, Ovid, Martial, and Juvenal. And there were also books on art. Through the discovery of the book on Surrealism, I was drawn to seek out the works of the Marquis de Sade. In the Halifax library, I filled out a slip that was needed in order to get Sade's books. At that time, English law prohibited the reading of such works. If you were an adult and could prove that your research justified consultation of such a book, it was necessary for a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to be present while you were reading. He stood behind you and turned the pages. The librarian knew as little as I did about the Marquis de Sade. When he found out, he shared his discovery with my father, since I was a minor. There was an enormous scandal, and I was generally regarded as a disgusting, perverted brat. How did your father react? He went through the roof. I can understand this in one sense: he was a clergyman. He was popular and respected in his parish. I simply explained to him that I had found Sade's name in a bibliography. It was my father who had taught me how to do research, to use catalogs, to explore different indexes and bibliographies. Moreover, he could sometimes be very open-minded. For example, when he found me painting imaginary nudes, he immediately bought a book on the nude in art, to try to understand. He also gave me Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things . I read it without understanding very much, not being very mystical at the time, any more than I am now, for that matter. After that, I saved all my money to buy my own books. Within Penguin Books-very cheap paperbacks-there were three series that fascinated me: Penguin Classics, books on art, and Pelicans, focusing on the sciences, in the philosophical sense of the term. And Marx? How did you come to read him? In the library. Which led to another report from the librarian to my father, as he had his eye on me by then. But this time my father took my side. Banned books have always intrigued me. What were your first contacts with the art world? It was in 1951. I'd hitchhiked to London and arrived there with ten shillings in my pocket. I spent a few days at the Festival of Britain. There I met artists like Philip Martin, Martin Bradley, and Scotty Wilson, all unknown at the time but now enjoying a certain notoriety. Wilson was a kind of Douanier Rousseau, while Martin and Bradley were the leaders of a small group of English artists who took their inspiration from French or Italian art, turning their back on the dominant American culture. They sold their works on the Thames Embankment for a pound each or something like that. It seems crazy and completely inconceivable today. The festival itself was a huge exhibition of art, industry, and music. It was wild! Suddenly removed from my little provincial backwater, I was discovering the modern world. I listened to jazz for the first time. There was also a very important exhibition at the Royal Academy, entitled "The School of Paris 1950." The work which made the greatest impression on me was a painting by Jean Hélion. A funny coincidence, considering what was to happen later. That journey down to London was a real cultural shock for me. It was hard for you returning to Halifax? Yes. All the more so because this discovery of the modern world further distanced me from my father. I had the impression that the family ties that bound me to him were unraveling before my eyes. But then I found other families. Communism, first of all. I came to it via Marx and Engels. And I argued with my father. Continue... Excerpted from the consul by RALPH RUMNEY Copyright © 2002 by Malcolm Imrie Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.