Ralph Rumney

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The Independent Online

Ralph Rumney, artist: born Newcastle upon Tyne 5 June 1934; married 1958 Pegeen Hélion (née Guggenheim, died 1967; one son), 1974 Michèle Debord (née Bernstein; marriage dissolved); died Manosque, France 6 March 2002.

The artist and writer Ralph Rumney was one of the founding members of the Situationist International.

A recent book by Alan Woods, The Map is Not the Territory (2001), gives a lucid and witty account of Rumney's encounters and arguments with key figures in the history of the 20th- century avant-garde, such as William Burroughs, Georges Bataille, Yves Klein, Félix Guattari and, most significantly, Guy Debord. Above all it reveals Rumney as an imaginative and singular artist, a fact which until recently had been largely forgotten in his home country.

Debord and his fellow Situationists believed that, for the first time in history, human beings were no longer participants in but rather spectators of their own lives. This was because in all spheres of human activity reality is consistently being replaced by images. (The process is best described in Debord's 1967 book La Société du spectacleSociety of the Spectacle – which most heavyweight commentators in France now agree was the key text of May 1968.) Rumney himself gave a neat description of "Situationism" as "artistic, political and philosophical games which provoked an extreme reaction, and which put you back in touch with real experience, real life".

Rumney was born in 1934 in Newcastle and raised in Halifax, where his father was a vicar. His career began when he encountered the works of Karl Marx and the Surrealists as an adolescent in Halifax public library. He went on to order the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, not realising that at that time any student of the works of the "Divine Marquis" needed dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rumney's father was outraged to receive a letter from the Bishop of Leeds enquiring after the moral health of his son and even more outraged to find that his son was a pervert.

To add insult to injury, Rumney was also subsequently dismissed from his local Communist Party for a lack of moral rectitude. Aged 18, and already with a semi-criminal past, via a brief escapade in Sicily, Rumney washed up in the early 1950s in the cafés and bars at the heart of avant-garde Paris.

He was described by a friend who knew him then as "an innocent abroad". But Rumney also possessed a sharp intellect and artistic ambitions. It was not long before he fell in with equally sharp and ambitious minds in the form of Gil Wolman, the film-maker and artist, and then Guy Debord, drinker and would-be poet.

I first met Rumney in 1996 as I was writing a book on Guy Debord. Rumney's opinion of the man was clear:

Guy Debord was the most intelligent man that I ever met. It was an honour to have known him. From the moment I met him – and don't forget we were very young – his politics, his whole philosophy of life if you like, was immaculately intact.

This single-mindedness was clearly in evidence when, in 1957, at a bar in the tiny village of Cosio d'Arroscia high in the Ligurian Alps, Debord founded the Situationist International. Ralph Rumney was present throughout the week-long meeting, taking photographs, witnessing, he thought then, the beginning of a new era in civilisation. "We were fanatics," he says, "but we weren't wrong."

Rumney's own career as an artistic revolutionary was cruelly interrupted when "real life" intervened in his personal game-plan. On 8 March 1967, at their exquisite flat on the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris, his wife Pegeen, daughter of the millionairesss and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, killed herself with an overdose.

Rumney had married her in Venice in 1958. He immediately found himself inexplicably loathed by Guggenheim and her acolytes. "My only crime was that I wasn't a sycophant and Peggy had to be surrounded by sycophants," he said. "I spoke to her like an equal, like a grown-up, because that was how I'd been brought up, and she simply didn't like it."

The night that Pegeen died was only the beginning of the nightmare for Rumney, who found himself accused by the Guggenheims of aiding and abetting her suicide. Their prestige, reputation, money and lawyers made it impossible for him to overcome the vicious slurs. He was forced to live undercover in Paris, where he was none the less trailed constantly by Guggenheim's private detectives. On the advice of a friend, he finally made for London, where, penniless and desperate, he was obliged to take a job as a telephone operator. This was a far cry from the art world of Paris and Venice, and even further still from the revolutionary aims of Guy Debord and the Situationists who were poised for the heroic events of May 1968.

Rumney later married Michèle Bernstein, Debord's first wife and one of the most rigorously intellectual and courageous of all the Situationists. Although they were to divorce, the relationship remained amicable and intimate. By the mid-1990s, after periods in Italy and England, Rumney decided to return to his avant-garde origins.

The impulse for this return was his notion that in recent years, as Debord predicted, the term "society of the spectacle" had itself become a cliché, entering the post-modern lexicon to describe any contemporary process from the playful pursuit of designer consumerism, globalisation, New Labour, the internet and celebrity worship. "You have to remember," he remarked recently, "that at Cosio we were declaring a war against the modern world, not celebrating it."

Rumney's return to form was marked most clearly in the summer of 2000 when, under the aegis of the original London Psychogeographical Committee, which he founded in 1956, he brought "psychogeographers" from five countries to Manosque, the small town in Haute Provence where he lived, for a month of drink, debate and art. "Ralph is a hero," declared Michel Guet, delegate at Manosque 2000 and leader of the "Banalistes", currently France's most active avant-garde group of artists:

He has refused to concede that the dreams of the old avant-gardes are finished. That is why artists will build monuments to him in the 21st century.

Andrew Hussey