David Mandl on Fri, 8 Mar 2002 21:39:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 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

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

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

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

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

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