Eric de Nemès: a Hungarian Illustrator in Cairo


I first came across Eric de Nemes as a bit part player in the Egyptian Surrealist movement in the 1940s through Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath’s exhibition on the Art and Freedom Group( I got this photo from the catalogue). Nemes, they said, was the group’s most prolific book illustrator, though little was known about him. He came to Egypt from Hungary via Beirut. He either arrived in 1939 or 1940; it was hard to say. Perhaps he was a relative of the famous art collector Marzcell de Nemes. Perhaps he was forced to leave Hungary amid rising anti-semitism in Eastern Europe. This is only my speculation. Very little is known about him and some people even say that he was Bulgarian, not Hungarian.

It is certainly true that his illustrations appear in books throughout the 1940s. Bardaouil and Fellrath mention his illustrations for Ikbal al-Alaily’s Vertu de ‘Allemagne and his unpublished illustrations for John Waller’s The Lovely and the Dead. His work is almost everywhere you look. Here, for example, are two frontispieces that he made for books by Cyril des Baux (the first for his translation of Euripides Bachhae and the second for a book on Greek tragedy).


He also did work for people writing in Arabic. Here, for instance, are his illustrations for the al-Ma’arif editions of ِAhmed al-Sawi’s books. The first is on Byron and the Second (The Yellow Dragon and the Red Bear) is on Asian Politics. I don’t know whether Nemes worked in house for al-Ma’arif or whether these covers were a favour for his friend.


He is named on the inside cover as “The famous Hungarian artist Eric De Menish”


Another thing that particularly defined his work was the print-block style illustrations that he inserted throughout the text to make it more lively. Here are some examples from the books I have already mentioned.


This is a technique that really caught on in Egypt and one book that I have about a young woman at University who goes for a trip to Saqqara and ends up blasting into space takes it to new extremes.


Throughout the 1940s Eric de Nemes spent his time doing illustrations for several different people. He also edited an anthology of English poetry (Poetry of our Times) in 1943, with this introduction:


After the 1940s he becomes slightly harder to trace but what we do know about him hints an interesting new way to look at cosmopolitanism in Egypt.

For Sam Bardaouil, who centres his exhibition on the figure of Georges Henein, Egypt’s cosmopolitan moment ends in the early 1950s with the nationalism of the Nasser period. Art became more focused on “Egyptian” forms of expression and Henein saw it as regressive and uninclusive. A group called the Contemporary Art Group was set up which, apparently, excluded people likes Eric de Nemes as not Egyptian enough.

However, Nemes himself did not take the same stand against this group that Henein did.  In fact, he praised them and welcomed this new “Egyptian” art. “Was he aware of what they truly thought of him? Did he experience a change in conviction caused by the political climate sweeping across the nation?” asked Bardaouil.

We do not know de Nemes’ side of the story but we do know that he stayed in Cairo. He next turns up in 1960 working as the layout artist at the Arab Observer with, among others Maya Angelou and W.E. B. Du Bois’ stepson, David. He was now working in a totally different but still deeply cosmopolitan circle in a new Cairo. In her memoirs, Maya Angelou says of Eric Nemes that he “showed me that where an article was placed on the page, its typeface, even the colour of ink, were as important as the best written copy.”

This is all I have been able to find out about the famous Hungarian artist but if anyone knows any more I would love to hear it. Egyptian history is full of stories of the Europeans who left after Nasser’s revolution but in Eric de Nemes we could hear the views of a person who stayed.

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