Art of the 20th Century



A Revolution in the Arts

 



Art Styles in 20th century Art Map

 


 

The Great Avant-garde Movements


 



Surrealist Art




 

 

Preface

CHAPTER ONE

Precursors

CHAPTER TWO

Anti-art

CHAPTER THREE

Conquest of the marvellous

CHAPTER FOUR

Surrealism and painting

CHAPTER FIVE

Towards a revolutionary art

CHAPTER SIX

Across the world

CHAPTER SEVEN

The object

CHAPTER EIGHT

Festivals of the imagination

CHAPTER NINE

In the United States

CHAPTER TEN

Surrealist architecture

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The post-war period

CHAPTER TWELVE

Occultation
 

 

 

*
see also:

Surrealism - 1924

Max Ernst
"A Week of Kindness" (A surrealistic novel in collage)

EXPLORATION:
Rene Magritte "Thought rendered visible"

EXPLORATION:
Salvador Dali

EXPLORATION:
Surrealism  "The Dream of Revolution"

*

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 


Occultation


Pierre Molinier
Enrico Baj
Alberto Gironella
Max Walter Svanberg

Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
Jean-Claude Silbermann
Jorge Camacho
Agustin Cardenas
Ugo Sterpini
Fabio de Sanctis

 

 

As early as the Second Alanifeste Breton had written of his quest for 'the profound, real occultation of surrealism', a process which he saw accomplished in the last ten years of his life. By the 'occultation' of the movement he meant its transformation into a secret circle, a closed group, with the task of cultivating the idea-forces of the modern world in an ideal climate, much as the esoteric sciences were practised in the Middle Ages. Towards the end of Breton's life, the freedoms which the surrealists had won for themselves had become accepted truths, some of which had been assimilated by society, while avant-garde artists and theorists drew benefit from all of them (without always admitting it). From now on surrealism sought to appeal only to adepts, and to conduct its affairs in such a wav that those who approached the movement would be obliged to submit to some kind of initiation before they were admitted to it. Andre Breton did his utmost to keep the revived group to the fundamental principles of the movement, and at this level to discuss the facts of the present and future of artistic creation.

A succession of periodicals - Medium, Le Surrealisme, mеmе and La Breche - are evidence of the activity of this spiritual college. They include surveys similar to those of the early days, on strip-tease or on the possibility of interplanetary travel. One particularly interesting survey, 'Ouvrez-vous ?' ('Will you open the door?'), asked participants what they would do if 'noble visitors', for example, Balzac, Cezanne, Seurat, Goya or Robespierre, were to ring their door-bell. The surrealists still carried out 'interventions', which were almost all intended to protect the memory of some poet or artist against false interpretations. They also invented new games, like 'Analogy Cards', which was a variant of the Portrait Game, and in particular 'One into Another'. Breton, who developed this game with Benjamin Perot in his house in Saint-Cirq-la-Popie, was very fond of it, and described the rules as follows : 'One of us went out of the room, and had to decide on a particular object (for example, a staircase), with which he would identify himself.

 

 While he was out the rest of us had to agree on another object which he would have to represent (for example a bottle of champagne). So he had to describe himself in terms of a bottle of champagne, but with such peculiarities that gradually the image of the bottle would be eclipsed and finally replaced by the image of the staircase.' But games of this kind, aids to collective knowledge, no longer had such clear repercussions on painting as the invention of Exquisite Corpse had had in 1926.

During this period of 'occultation', the studies which surrealist art pursued began to probe into magic, maybe not in the hope of deriving direct inspiration from it, but at least to use it as a system of reference. This transition was a result of Breton's interest in Celtic iconography, which developed after he had read L'Art gaulois dans les medailles (1954), by Lancelot Lengyel. He saw Celtic iconography as a formal proof of the stupidity of the quarrel between figurative and non-figurative artists, and as a reason for choosing works from the past on the basis of the extent to which they were opposed to Graeco-Roman culture. In 1955 he took part in organizing the exhibition 'Perennite de l'Art gaulois' at the Musee Pedagogique. This exhibition included ancient Gallic medals side by side with modern paintings which shared with them 'only a common desire to shake off the Graeco-Roman yoke'. He was aware that this law of proximity was inadequate, whereas the idea of magic was flexible enough to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable tendencies in art.

Breton's book L'Art magique (1957) was an attempt to create a movement of opinion and to purify the sources of aesthetic judgment. 'If the epithet "magic" is deliberately applied to the word "art",' he wrote, 'this increases the scale of the demands of art'. This concept allowed the construction of a new hierarchy of values, and a 'dignification' of the work of art beyond the formal or intellectual criteria which normally locate it. It also made it possible to encompass works which belong to different categories, as the illustrations to Breton's book show. These include examples of the archaic arts, alchemists' signs, the Tarot symbols, Tibetan banners, and scenes from films such as The Bride of Frankenstein and The Golem, Postman Cheval's Palais Ideal, and paintings by Goya, Monsu Desiderio and Watteau. Breton drew a parallel between 'magic in practice', as it was in the past, and works which have a magic power without evincing doctrine or ritual. These latter include 'all those whose power over us is greater than might be expected from the means which they disclose'.

 

One might be led to believe that Magic Art had taken the place of Revolutionary Art, which had been the ideal proclaimed in the past, and that surrealist art had fallen into two stages, one directed towards Revolution, the other towards Magic. In fact Revolution and Magic are merely dominant factors in their particular periods. 'Magic implies protest, in other words revolt', said Breton. Breton does not allow the artist to sacrifice his liberty of creation to the cause of magic : 'We will be obliged to retain here as specifically magic art only that which goes some way towards recreating the magic from which itself was created.' He confesses that when he looks at ancient works which have resulted from magic practices, he is aware above all of their power to disconcert : 'With some few exceptions, their hold over us is not a result of the magic with which they were originally impregnated, but of the beauty which flows from them, even though this beauty may not have been consciously sought, but may have arisen only incidentally.'

Revolution and Magic are the two values which surrealism used to conceal its unconfessed raison d'etre, which was to make a religion out of poetic inspiration. These two values constantly succeeded each other, turn and turn about, like day and night, in surrealist thought, whose contradictions are a direct result of the impossibility of reconciling them. Whenever the surrealists settled for one or the other of these two values, they did so in almost identical terms; the works which Breton regarded as magic move in the same direction as those he regarded as revolutionary.

 

One of the painters on whom Breton counted to illustrate his conception of a pictorial magic which would not necessarily allude to aspects of alchemy was Pierre Molinier. Molinier, who was born in 1900, was proud of his past as an adventurer and a bartender, which he had combined with his painterly vocation; this had developed early. In 1925 he did a number of drawings of chateaux, and in 1929 he produced his first abstract picture, The Blonde Lady, which consists of two strokes, one yellow and the other black. In 1940 he began to paint strange domineering women's faces. These heroines gradually became actresses in his mental theatre, rehearsing for a tragedy which was destined to be played out behind the curtain.

Molinier got in touch with Breton in 1950, and from Bordeaux kept up a protracted correspondence with him. In 1955 Molinier's exhibition at L'Etoile Scellee was hailed by Breton as a triumph of surrealist art. Breton wrote : 'The virtue of his art, which sets out to be deliberately magic. ... is that it breaks the law which says that every painted image, no matter how evocative it may be, nevertheless remains an object of conscious illusion, and cannot aspire to a plane on which it makes an active intervention in life'. Molinier's painting is based on a single obsession, and evokes a kind of succuba, a radiant and cruel figure which stretches its limbs over the world, and which, like a female octopus, forms a single, monstrous body with the prey which it absorbs. What Breton considered to be magic in Molinier was his demonstration that it was possible for painting to create a confusion which disorientates ideas and directs desires.
 


Pierre Molinier
Self-portrait


Pierre Molinier
Untitled

 


Pierre Molinier
The Paradise Flower

 




Max Walter Svanberg
Chimera

 

Max Walter Svanberg, another post-war surrealist discovery, also weaves mottled variations of a female apparition which shows itself and then slips aways, disguises itself or multiplies, which sometimes has several heads, and flesh like bedecked and braided cloth. In 1948 Svanberg had founded the 'imaginist' group in Stockholm. The group appealed to lyricism and to the fantastic, but Svanberg found no difficulty in leaving them when in 1953 the surrealists noticed his painting Portrait of a Star in a Paris exhibition, and got in touch with him. There was a tribute to him in one number of Medium (no. 3, 1954), and an exhibition of his paintings was held at L'Etoile Scellee in 1955. 'My painting is a hymn to woman', he wrote, 'to that strange hybrid of visions and reality, of convulsive beauty and chaste temptations'. Svanberg's women are stars or birds as well, decked out in delirious finery which seems to be made of butterflies' wings. To show them still more luxuriantly, he sometimes made 'bead mosaics'.
Breton admitted that Svanberg's work fascinated him, and went on to make an admirable analysis of the effects of a 'fascinating' painting. 'It immediately brought me into a cone of light which is blind and disturbed, pierced at frequent intervals by a dart. In this cone all is giddiness, and the being moves forward despite itself, moving in short stages, under the impulse of an irresistible attraction, and inspired by absolute danger.' In this Breton showed his constant conviction that a painting should be 'inhabitable', and should arouse eddies in the spectator's unconscious mind. Svanberg is certainly the greatest Swedish surrealist painter, although he remained a solitary. Indeed he did not come to Paris and meet Breton and his friends until 1964.
 


Max Walter Svanberg
Portratt av en stjarna III
 

 

Enrico Baj, an Italian painter who in 1951 was an initiator of the 'nuclear movement' in Milan, is in a different category. His painting makes a virtuoso use or collage, and has a satirical intention. There is a great deal that is childlike in Baj, and this had led him to make game of his anxieties, and to imagine a bogeyman whom he strips of his powers by disfiguring him.


Enrico Baj
Fire! Fire!, Al fuoco, al fuoco
1963

In Tralali Tralala (1955) and Little Chamber Animal (1955), he began to introduce the character whom he named 'Signor Olo', who consists of a head and legs, but no body or arms. He made 'ultra-bodies', caricatured figures which are both clownish and serious in intention, from scraps of wallpaper and cloth. In 1961 he produced a series of picture-objects which are parodies of period furniture - cupboards, tables, chests with drawers which do not open - using rosewood veneers and marquetry, and in this way creating human figures in the shape of furniture : an example is Profile of an aristocratic lady in the style of the First Empire (1961). His most famous series, and rightly so, is that of the Generals, whom he covered in real medals from his collections : Man with decorated nose (1961); Military parade in the Bois de Boulogne (1963). Baj has done some highly unconventional illustrations for Lucretius' De Natura Rerum.

The 'X Exposition Internationale du surrealisme' opened on 15 December 1959 at the Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris on a theme which had been chosen with the intention of being anti-aesthetic : 'Eros'. In his letter to the exhibitors Breton described eroticism as 'a privileged place, a theatre in which incitement and prohibition play their roles, and where the most profound moments of life make sport'. He reminded them that eroticism, 'far from necessitating the representation of scabrous scenes, derives a great deal from equivocation and can readily undergo many transpositions'. He supported his choice of theme by pointing out the need to show the public that the work of art, which had been consumed by concerns of a purely formal nature, had to rediscover the emotional power which it had lost. 'Then - and certainly only then - can the organic link between exhibitor and spectator, more and more lacking in today's art, be established by means of perturbation.'

The setting of the exhibition, which was designed by the architect Pierre Faucheux, gave the idea of 'a sumptuous ceremony in an underground cavern'. The visitor passed through a grotto, with its walls draped in red velvet and the floor strewn with fine sand, to a Fetishist Room organized by Mimi Parent. The ceiling/belly, one of Marcel Duchamp's ideas, throbbed and palpitated, and a soundtrack played back sighs recorded by the poet Radovan Ivsic. Meret Oppenheim had made a Cannibal feast in which a group of dummies representing men sat at a table on which lay a woman with a golden face, her body covered with food. There were two guest exhibitors, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who showed that pop art had a bond with surrealism.
 


Meret Oppenheim
Cannibal feast
1959
 


Meret Oppenheim
Cannibal feast
1959

 






 

The most interesting newcomer was Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern, a self-taught German painter, whom Bellmer had discovered in Berlin. Schroder-Sonnenstern had begun to paint in 1949, when he was fifty-seven. Before this he had been a canteen hand, a stable boy in a circus and a farmworker, and had been both in prison and in mental hospital. He worked exclusively in coloured crayons, and his drawings showed men and women in a music hall which represented the universe.
 

Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
(1892 - 1982)


Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
The Demoness of Urgency
1958
 


Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
Der betende Lowe, oder Die geschandete Kraft
1952
 


Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
Untitled


Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
Die mondmoderne Eva

 

 


Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern

Das Hohe lied der warme


Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
Dr. Phil Rabaukuss Spieszebor


Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern
Die wendumb, signed: sonnenstern's gestalten
1948
 


Alberto Gironella
Festin a Bunuel
1975

In Breton's entourage there was no shortage of young painters to replace those who went off on their own as they came to maturity. Breton was always available to consider the claims and demands of the young members of the group. He considered that these new artists on whom he had passed judgment, or who had drawn their inspiration from him, were the hopes of surrealism. Yves Laloy, who was first an architect, used a plastic language inspired by Kandinsky to evoke geometric constructions and celestial buildings whose forms are no more than rhythms. Alberto Gironella, the Mexican painter, based his work on the metamorphoses which he inflicted on works of art of the past; on the basis of Goya's Queen Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Parma and in 1960-1 of Velazquez' Queen Mariana, he produced a series of picture objects, all different variations on a theme which he dissected as if he were seeking to perform a complete exegesis.

Le Marechal began by writing poems, and in his paintings showed a visionary universe which seems to be seen through misted binoculars, with buildings vacillating in space at the whim of Le Marechal's apocalyptic imagination. In 1963 another poet, Jean-Claude Silbermann, made Sly Signs, plywood cut-outs, which are signs for imaginary shops.
 

Herve Telemaque, the Haitian painter, began in 1961 to paint pictures in which his personal mythology integrates surrealism with pop art. Telemaque borrows from comic strips and posters, and enriches them with collages and inscriptions. The Cuban painter Jorge Camacho, who came to surrealism in 1961, paints vehement pictures which show scenes of torture. Another Cuban, the sculptor Agustin Cardenas, made genuine totems in ebony or marble, polished, perforated and embossed, with the aim of making them look like naturally developed products.
 

Jean-Claude Silbermann
b. 1935


Jean-Claude Silbermann


Jean-Claude Silbermann

 

 


Jean-Claude Silbermann

Au grand matou, prince odieux

1964
 


Jean-Claude Silbermann
La voyante
1961

Jorge Camacho
b.1934


Jorge Camacho
Voyage sur le Nil
1988
 


Jorge Camacho

Ace des Tr...
1967
 


Jorge Camacho

La boiteuse lubrique
1962


Jorge Camacho
The Bird, the night

 

 

 


Jorge Camacho
Histoires Natturelles
1973


 

Agustin Cardenas
(Cuban, 1927-2001)


Agustin Cardenas
Horse Figure


Agustin Cardenas
Elle se plaît

 

 


Agustin Cardenas
Science et famille


Agustin Cardenas
La Pareja

 

 


Agustin Cardenas
Bronze

 



 

The XI-e Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme' held at the Galerie de L'CEil in Paris in December 1965, may be regarded as Breton's spiritual testament. The theme which was first chosen was 'the surrealist vision of woman'; it is not without significance that this theme was later replaced by that of 'L'Ecart absolu' - 'absolute divergence'. Charles Fourier, the nineteenth-century Utopian socialist, had used this term in La Fausse Industrie to indicate a method based on the principle of 'using the spirit of contradiction in a broad sense, and of applying it not to such and such a philosophical system, but to all systems taken together, and then to civilization which is the warhorse of these systems, and to all humanity's present social mechanism'. L'Ecart absolu is thus a determination to say and to do the opposite of everything which has been said and done previously. This is the ultimate lesson that the founder of surrealism intended to bequeath to his age; to swim against the current in every way, not in a spirit of sterile opposition, but with the aim of returning to the source of everything.

 

This exhibition was presented as 'an exhibition of battle, which comes directly to grips with the most intolerable aspects of the society in which we live', an exhibition, moreover, which excluded the 'anti-surrealist idea of a detailed programme which would immediately become a source of poetic emptiness and artistic poverty'. Pierre Faucheux's design for the exhibition provided a setting for works which showed this denial symbolically, such as the Discomputer (le Desordinateur), a machine in which a pigeon hole containing an object was lit up when a button on a keyboard was depressed. There were also ten compartments which contained objects made as a protest against various aspects of the servitude of modern life, from technocracy to sport. The public passed under an Arch of Defeat, erected as a protest against military victories, to reach the Consumer, a scarecrow made up of two mattresses arranged in the form of a cross, in the middle of which was a tub full of newspapers. A series of paintings by the newcomers; some of the major works of the masters of surrealism'; objects displayed in an open room which it was torbidden to enter; and surprising furniture by Ugo Sterpini and Fabio de Sanctis, all testified to the permanence of surrealist values after more than forty years of spiritual adventure which had been so rich in varied experiences.
 

Ugo Sterpini
b.1927


Ugo Sterpini
Untitled


Ugo Sterpini
Untitled


 

Fabio de Sanctis
b.1931


Fabio de Sanctis
Poltrona a mano armata (in collab. w/Ugo Sterpini)

1965
 


Fabio de Sanctis
Leonardo cabinet (collab. w/Ugo Sterpini)

1968


Fabio de Sanctis
Untitled

 



 

The death of Andre Breton in 1966 marked the end of surrealism as an organized movement. The number of tributes from his oldest companions which appeared in the Parisian daily papers showed the degree to which he had been able to be not so much the leader of a school as a director of conscience, in the best sense of the word. Even those who had been long divided from him by differences of every kind, men like Aragon, Michel Leiris, Max Ernst, and the cinema historian Georges Sadoul, made public statements of the sad nostalgia they felt. Surrealist activity without Breton was unimaginable; now that he was no longer working in association with Duchamp, surrealist exhibitions could only be retrospectives. It is true enough that, over the years which followed the birth of surrealism, some scribblers had delighted in burying Breton. Others had made desperate efforts to assimilate him into intellectual fashions which varied according to the caprice of opinion, and people were shocked to observe that he resisted the twists and turns of time. The word 'surrealist' will continue to be used to denote any bizarre work which uses the power of the dream to pass beyond the confines of reality. But the epithet should not be used without due consideration. Andre Breton always showed profound scorn for what he described as 'applied phantasmagoria' or 'bazaar surrealism'. He gave no credit to painters who were content merely to imitate the methods of the true surrealists without being driven on by their adventurous and rebellious spirit. Surrealism, as it was practised by the group of artists and poets who began the movement, will remain an honoured and irreplaceable model for all those creators who see art not as the search for an aesthetic, but as the bringing into action of ineffable states of being, mysteries of the universe.
 


Andre Masson
Portrait of Andre Breton
1941

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