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[Nettime-bold] Ralph Rumney, RIP
David Mandl on Fri, 8 Mar 2002 13:02:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Ralph Rumney, RIP

Ralph Rumney

Rebellious artist and co-founder of the Situationist International

Malcolm Imrie
Friday March 8, 2002
The Guardian

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

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,
Filix 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, Michhle
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, Lautriamont 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 Michhle
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 Libiration 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.

He is survived by his son, Sandro, a well-known art dealer.

Dave Mandl
dmandl {AT} panix.com
davem {AT} wfmu.org

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