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The Great Avant-garde Movements
Surrealism - 1924
"A Week of Kindness"
(A surrealistic novel in
"Thought rendered visible"
The Surrealist movement was begun
officially late in 1924 with the publication of
Andre Breton's first
Surrealist manifesto, but not without the intercession of several
With the end of World War I the
Surrealists benefited from the gathering in Paris of those
earlier sequestered in isolated cities. The emergence of Surrealism can be
viewed as a physical coalescence of the
in Paris in 1917 and 1919 with intermittent visits;
Man Ray made a
permanent move in 1921; Tzara moved in 1920, with
the same year;
Ernst followed from Cologne in 1922. In addition, the
so-called School of Paris was an amalgam of pre- and postwar avant-garde
movements. Until the worldwide Depression in 1929 it was a glorious and
fateful period, and
Breton was to be its maestro.
Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, the founders in 1919 of the avant-garde magazine Litterature,
had served in the war but had remained in contact with the vocal and
active literary avant-garde figures in Paris. The more nihilistic
figures—such as the enigmatic dandy Jacques Vache and the outrageous
English artist-writer-dancer-boxer known as an American, Arthur Cravan—
joined with the equally avant-garde but more moderate voices aligned
before the war with the development of "modern" visual art, such as
Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Andre Salmon, and Blaise Cendrars. This was a
complex and volatile mix.
Dadaism was "officially"
founded in Paris at the moment of Tristan Tzara's first public lecture in
1919, there was a "proto-Dadaist" movement already established. Taken as a
unit and to momentarily ignore their differences, they maintained the idea
of "a permanent revolt of the individual against art, against morality,
against society." In the words of art historian and curator William Rubin,
Dadaism and Surrealism were heirs to something much broader, "a kind
of creative activity already in the air" since about 1912.
The parallels and the divergences, which
make a clear history so difficult to trace, were demonstrated at the 1917
performance of Apollinaire's play Les Mamelles de Tiresias ("The
Breasts of Tiresias"), a farce already designed in the best of the
avant-garde tradition to shock and provoke the sensibilities of the middle
class. By this time Guillaume Apollinaire was one of the most important
French poets and art critics of the early twentieth century. Serving and
becoming wounded in the war, he had been the first to champion the work of
emerging artists like
Matisse, was a friend of the Futurists,
and was in fact the first to coin the word "surrealist," which appeared as
the subtitle to his
Play-Yet the opening was "one-upped" by
Jacques Vache, who, excited by the play, began waving a pistol.
Threatening to fire it into the audience, he had to be forcibly stopped.
This was a dada event before
Dada, but equally significant is that the
same "gesture" had been made several years earlier by Cravan—who had so
insulted modern artists and Apollinaire that the latter challenged him to
a duel. Breton, appropriating the story years later, used it unattributed
to describe what it meant to possess a Surrealist sensibility.
Developed in the 1930s by
Breton, the poem-object combined images
and text. Fragments of words and visual objects were sectioned off from
one another, but intended to accidentally exert an influence on each
other; a case of "reciprocal exaltation," wrote
From Dada to Surrealism
The group of young poets around
Litterature aligned themselves with
Dadaism by mid-1920 and
Dada manifestations or soirees and wrote
declarations—just as the movement imploded.
Picabia publicly declared
dead in 1921 and attacked other
Dadaists in 1922, including Tzara, because
it had become too organized a movement. For the opposite reason, in 1922
called for an international conference to lay out a program for the
"modern spirit," a concept widely shared and variously defined across
Paris at this time.
Dada had brought them to this point but something more
lucid, programmatic, and progressive was now needed. This departure from
the anarchism of
Dada marks the beginnings of Surrealism.
The conference was rejected publicly by
many of the
Dadaists, who called
Breton to task for insulting them and Tzara. In revenge,
Breton waylaid Tristan Tzara in public during a 1923
performance. A full-scale riot ensued and police action was brought
against Breton. The lines were finally drawn and many have presented that
night as the passing of leadership from Tzara to
Breton. The word
"surrealism" had been appropriated from Apollinaire, who never defined it,
and put into circulation during 1921-23, as
Breton and his colleagues
began "crystallizing" the tenets of the movement. In October of 1924
Breton published his manifesto.
The image of the closed eye became a
secret sign among Surrealists for the subversion of
reality by drawing on
interior states. Thus the image of the
open eye, ordinarily interpreted as access between the
individual and the
world, was a false vision or mirror.
Reality lay elsewhere.
The Meaning of Breton's Surrealism
In the first manifesto
declared his definition of Surrealism to be different from that of Apollinaire's. What Breton ignored was the faction of more radical
Dadaists who had already rejected Apollinaire and his love of art as too
Breton's real genius was that of a politician. He laid claim
to positions both more radical, like Vache, and more conservative, like
Apollinaire, while ignoring his own differences with them. He felt his
program for art differed from both positions and as a good promoter he
knew one must herald newness rather than synthesis. Nevertheless, an
important part of the Surrealist movement would always side with the more
radical position and suspect "art" work as irrelevant; even
argue against art in its traditional meaning.
Breton declared "surrealism" a "new mode
of pure expression" and admitted they could have used the word su-pernaturalism just as easily. But he wanted a special sense of the
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its
pure state, by which we propose to express—verbally, in writing, or in any
other manner—the real process of thought. The dictation of thought, in the
absence of any control exercised by reason and outside any aesthetic or
Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms
of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in
the disinterested play of thought. It tends to destroy definitively all
other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all
the principle problems of life.
The definition was followed by
list of writers and poets, essentially members of his own circle, who had
already "performed acts of Absolute Surrealism." And immediately
began his lifelong cultural archaeology by listing those now past who
could pass for Surrealists: Dante, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Vache,
Рое, among others. However, these men could never be Surrealists at all times because they
suffered from "preconceived ideas." Their great talents were,
suggests, perhaps lessened because they filtered their works in order to
produce them. True Surrealists have no talent, he argued, thus they need
no filters; they are able ideally to speak their own thoughts just as they
have them. In fact, the best Surrealist is one who never stops long enough
to record words at all since that would undo the pure "state," or channel
Breton demands in the identity of Surrealism. This means, as
would later try to show, that virtually anyone can be a Surrealist, if and
when they develop this clear channel between thought and act. Indeed, the
manifesto taken as a whole is an argument for the removal of those blocks,
an argument to liberate human creativity in its fullest capacity.
The first manifesto argued for a poetic
and not a visual form of Surrealism. Following the lead of the European
avant-garde in general,
Breton argued Surrealism as an aesthetics of
liberation. He inverted the original
Dada conception of life as insane to
life as overly rationalized, but his solution differed only in degree.
Both movements held faith in the creative act and moment, insisting on
absolute freedom and on the site of art as the mind rather than in its
physical form. The major difference was
Breton's insistence on a
systematic program and his public address to an audience over time. The
Dada moment was an act not meant to survive; the audience could
participate but merely in the carnage of the moment. The Surrealists
claimed a concern for permanent change, or, to take a page from Leon
Trotsky, the Russian political theorist later supported by
Surrealists wanted to establish a "permanent revolution." To sustain the
concept of moment to moment revolution was their ultimate dream.
Tanguy's early works created a habitat
for abstraction, a place where dismembered
form took on a sense of life, appearing to be at home
in a primordial soup.
The Psychoanalytic—My Way
A major point of separation between
Dadaism and Surrealism was the Surrealists' enthusiastic embrace of the
ideas of Sigmund Freud.
Breton had studied medicine, served as an orderly
in an army mental clinic during the war, and, in 1921, paid homage to
Freud with a visit. Freud was flattered by the artists' professed belief
in his work, especially since so little of it had reached France in
translation, but overall the meeting was a bit of a disaster as
left without Freud's support. Freud considered the realm of the
unconscious to be inaccessible except through the indirect method of dream
analysis and apparently random associations. To him, easy or even direct
access to the unconscious was impossible.
The influence of Freudian psychology was
crucial and it is imbedded in the basic understanding and work of the
Surrealist movement. But in reading
Breton we are struck by his lack of
particulars regarding psychology or Freud. He raised the issue of
psychology in his 1924 manifesto as an area that provides an alternative
to "living under the reign of logic" where only logical methods of
description and analysis are applied to solving problems. Sounding more
like a romantic symbolist from the late nineteenth century than a true
modern supposedly knowledgeable in psychology, he argued the significance
of fancy, imagination, and superstition.
Apparently what he had learned from
Freud, whose name and general orientation to the importance of dreams he
publicly praises, was simply that there were "strange forces" below the
surface of our waking state, important forces we rarely admit into normal
consciousness, and the key to them lies in the state of dreaming. He
observed that not even the "analysts" have worked out all the means of
investigation and application of this knowledge. And, in what is likely a
veiled reference to his rebuff by Freud,
Breton proclaims that this area
can now be "the provinces of the poet as well as the scholar."
Breton did provide a powerful argument
for the authority of artists and their creativity: They now equal the
scientists, the Surrealists declared, and can lead the exploration into
new areas and methods of investigation.
Andre Breton, Cadavre Exquis, Valentine Hugo,
Greta Knutson and Tristan Tzara
was the most famous of several games
developed by the Surrealists.
It was a strategy of
chance used to generate disjunctive images from collective participation.
Automatism, which is the free flow of
associations, was to be the process or state of mental existence whereby
control of reason was purposefully lost in favor of "the real process of
thought." Most interpreters of Surrealism have accepted
that "pure psychic automatism" was the single most important principle of
Dadaists had spoken for the abolition of rationality and
logic in favor of new art processes and forms developed through chance and
irrational association. For the Surrealists, chance remained a valid
external force, but because of their interest in psychiatry the automatic
was equated with the unconscious in all its manifestations. In 1922 Breton
wrote specifically of this state of psychic automatism as "a near equivalent to the
dream state," a place where one could hear the "murmur" of the
"unconscious." In 1919 he had recognized that fragmentary sentences
emerged from unknown origins into his conscious perception when his mind
was "in total solitude, when sleep is near." These fragments were
"first-rate poetic material," and he and others began to contemplate how
to induce such material into existence voluntarily.
At first he and Soupault practiced a
purposeful forgetfulness of the outside world which produced their first
"automatic" book in 1920, Les Champs magnetiques ("Magnetic
Fields"), written in daily and disconnected fragments that
"magical dictation." From this they moved to "periods of sleep," which was
their form of the trance state mediums used when contacting spirits. The
process was successful to varying degrees, depending
upon the individuals involved. Robert Desnos was the most extreme in his
ability to speak in poetic Alexandrines, twelve-syllable phrases correctly
accented in rhyme, while "asleep." Hypnosis, a technique generally
rejected by Freud, was used extensively with many of the results
transcribed and published. The experiments among the Surrealist poets in
hypnotic sleep were a general attempt to implement Freud's ideas and link
them to the process of creativity, to open the doors of psychic
perception. However, the Surrealists ignored the diagnostic and
therapeutic particulars of psychoanalysis to create a synthesis that
served their own ends and belief in poetic production.
Poets concentrated on speaking and
writing automatically, i.e., by means which bypassed rational control.
Some editing would occur after the fact. Visual artists such as
Masson sometimes used the same technique, premise, and editing.
1944 pen and ink drawing Bison on the Brink of a Chasm is
one of many produced by a process of "automatic" drawing. The title seems
to make an oblique reference to life lived in this state—as one may on the
brink of a chasm. Both writers and visual artists also developed a number
of other techniques to bypass control. Many, like
Ernst, relied too on the principle of chance as developed in
Games, especially word games, and
gamesmanship were popular among all the Surrealists for reasons of chance.
Francis Picabia, and the New York circle of patrons were
major exponents of such gaming well before the advent of Surrealism.
Perhaps the best known Surrealist game was the one titled "exquisite
corpse" (cadavres exquis), developed in 1925. Like many of their
games it was designed for group participation and relied on the chance
encounter as a disruption of rationality and a product of the shared,
oceanic unconscious in which the Surrealists believed. Each player would
write a word on a section of paper, then fold it so the next player could
not see what had been created. The next player had to add to it. The game
began with words but was immediately adapted to images or combinations of
words and images.
Many a Surrealist painting was born from
the juxtaposition of such disjunctive images. A phrase—celebrated among
Surrealists—borrowed from the nineteenth-century Symbolist poet
Lautreamont (Isidore Ducasse) summarized the desire for an entire
aesthetic based on disjunction and displacement: "The
chance encounter of a sewing machine and umbrella on an ironing board."
The image seemingly makes no sense and is the more frustrating or
disjunctive simply because it decontextualizes normal objects in the
world. Their reliance on elements of disjunction and displacement, first
Cubist collage of 1912, then modified by the
intriguing parallels to many of Freud's theories of psychological
mechanisms. It also led to the marvelous.
Bison on the Brink of a Chasm
Few were as adept at
the transformations of automatic drawing as
to praise him with Goethe's phrase, "What is within is also without."
Introduced in the first manifesto, the
concept of the marvelous grew in importance if not in clarity for Breton
over the years. Scholar of Surrealism Hal Foster has argued that the
marvelous eventually replaced automatism as the basic principle of
Surrealism. The 1924 understanding of Surrealism was defined as a
resolution of the states of dream and reality into "a sort of absolute
reality, a surreality" This rare state, one considered natural in
children before they are weaned from it,
Breton calls by another name—the
As the Surrealists came to value more
greatly internal necessity or compulsion over choice, the marvelous became
a state of possession. It visited you or you sensed its possession of
another. The marvelous and beauty could now be restricted to that which
One (Number 31, 1950)
The automatism of Surrealism and a belief in primal psychic
forces are at the fore in Pollock's mature style,
which shifts away from the earlier, more raw mythology of
and the Surrealists.
The Crisis in Consciousness: Politics &
Politics, from a
Dadaist viewpoint, was
simply one more rational system contributing to the general cultural
insanity and thus to be rejected. There was to be liberation, but for the
individual soul and moment. The Surrealists began with a
position, then developed a more systematic and engaged attitude to
politics. But also typical of the Surrealists, everything was filtered
through Breton and his own desire to maintain a coherent movement, even if
it meant equivocation in the face of demands for resoluteness.
From automatism, a liberation in
physical fact was assumed to follow. This claim has been made by many
avant-garde movements and often remains the case today. Few movements
supported direct or overt alliances with politics. This was certainly the
position of the Surrealists until about 1929. Their first consistent
journal, La Revolution surrealiste ("Surrealist Revolution"),
published from 1924 until 1929, was in sympathy with the political left,
especially the Russian Revolution carried off under the banner of Marxism,
but not its overt action. By 1929 their position became a self-proclaimed
"crisis of consciousness."
The relation between art for itself
(what Ernst called the pursuit of pure Surrealist activity) and politics
was precipitated by personal battles of power, French injustices against
indigenous peoples in Morocco, and Joseph Stalin's 1929 exile of the
Russian revolutionist and writer Leon Trotsky, whom
admired. In a conference called in 1930 by
Breton to form a unified
response, the many factions broke with his leadership. This led to a
second manifesto for Surrealism and a purification of the movement, with
Breton excommunicating those who held positions different from his own.
But, as usual, his position was equivocal and ignored its
own contradictions. Of course, as he clearly noted, a good Surrealist
knows no contradictions.
Breton attacked the move of
colleagues into direct alignment with the Communist Party. Then he exiled
some of those who believed too strongly in art for its own sake and
aligned the movement with the French Communist Party—only to move
Surrealism away from it by 1934. The Second Manifesto in 1929 distanced
itself from automatism and discussed the inadequacies of dreams.
Surrealism would no longer use art for an "alibi" but push toward a
philosophy of political commitment. The new journal would not be simply
the "Surrealist Revolution" but now, in 1930, labeled "Surrealism in the
Service of the Revolution" (Le Surrealisme аu service de la
revolution). Yet at the same time
Breton introduced the "occult,"
adopted the language of alchemy, and endorsed a mystical stance, all of
which are antithetical to direct political action. This, however, did set
the tone for later Surrealism to explore the mystery of the unseen, and of
the strange, uncanny power of inanimate objects. Also at this time Louis
Aragon, speaking for the Breton wing, publicly introduced the importance
of love for the Surrealists.
Breton's authoritarian tactics and
equivocations were met by published counter-attacks of him as a "false
revolutionary" and a second group of Surrealists, aligned with Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille, among others, split off.
Breton had already
attacked Bataille with great venom for supporting extreme concepts which
Breton considered pathological, separating them from an overriding ethics.
Later, the Bataille circle of Surrealism was to produce some of the most
dramatic and controversial forms whose "limits" remain a debated topic
today. Overall, the ranks of the Surrealist movement were pruned, but
simultaneously several new and important members joined up as the life of
Surrealism entered a second, more international phase.
The Great Masturbator
Masturbator became an independent character in
paintings and writings. The central image of the profile head is that of
the closed eyes place the figure in the unconscious. The grasshopper is a
self-referential representation of a displaced childhood fear of being
eaten, a sublimated fear allied to sex.