During the press preview for Performa 13, the performance biennials’s founding director and curator RoseLee Goldberg spoke about how she prepares an informal reader for each Performa as a way to help the performers and audience to understand a certain aspect of performance art history. This year, Goldberg prepared a Surrealist Reader. While surrealism is not an official theme of Performa 13 it is one of the many threads that informs this year’s program.
As a critic with a particular interest in performance art, I was intrigued by what this reader contained and I requested a copy to publish on Hyperallergic.
Below we’ve listed all the articles in the Surrealist Reader along with excerpts from each text. I hope you explore some of the texts in full, but until then here’s a taste from each.
We look forward to seeing everyone who will be attending our sold-out #ArtTalk with RoseLee Goldberg on Monday, October 7.
Highlights from the Surrealist Reader
- RoseLee Goldberg, “Surrealism,” from Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (Thames & Hudson) (skip to excerpt)
- Dawn Ades, excerpt from Dada and Surrealism Reviewed (Arts Council of Great Britain) (skip to excerpt)
Manifestos and the Poetics of the Unconscious
- André Breton “Manifesto of Surrealism” (The University of Michigan Press) (skip to excerpt)
Automatism and the Marvelous
- Laurent Jenny, trans. Thomas Trezise, ‘From Breton to Dalí: The Adventures of Automatism,’ October 51 (1989) (skip to excerpt)
- Shelley M. Quinn, The Historical Development of Surrealism and the Relationships Between Hemispheric Specializations of the Brain (E. Mellen Press) (skip to excerpt)
- Katharine Conley, “Introduction: Desnosian Surrealism,” from Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life (University of Nebraska Press) (skip to excerpt)
Jarry Roussel, Apollinaire
- Raymond Roussel, excerpt from Impressions of Africa, Calder and Boyars (skip to excerpt)
- Michel Foucault, excerpt from Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel (Continuum) (skip to excerpt)
- Annette S. Levitt, “A New Spirit: Apollinaire, Cocteau, and the Synthesis of the Arts” from The Genres and Genders of Surrealism (St. Martin’s Press) (skip to excerpt)
- Alan M. Gillmore, ‘Erik Satie and the Concept of the Avant Garde’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol 69, No 1 (Winter, 1983) (skip to excerpt)
The Image of the Unconscious: Magritte and Dalí
- David Sylvester, “A Missing Person,” excerpt form Magritte (Thames and Hudson) (skip to excerpt)
- Salvador Dalí, excerpt from The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (The Dial Press) (skip to excerpt)
- Haim Finkelstein, “The Incarnation of Desire: Dalí and the Surrealist Object,” Anthropology and Aesthetics 23 (1993) (skip to excerpt)
The Alchemical and the Paranoic-critical
- M.E. Warlick, “The Occultation of Surrealism,” excerpt from Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of a Myth (University of Texas) (skip to excerpt)
Women in Surrealism
- Mary Ann Caws, “Seeing the Surrealist Woman: We Are a Problem,” excerpt from Surrealism and Women (MIT Press) (skip to excerpt)
- Salomon Grimberg, “Frida Kahlo: The Self as an End,” excerpt from Mirror Images: Women Surrealism and Self-Representation (MIT Press) (skip to excerpt)
- Frankling Rosement and Robin D.G. Kelleu (Ed.), “Invisible Surrealists,” excerpt from Black, Brown & Beige: Surrealists writings from Africa and the diaspora (University of Texas Press) (skip to excerpt)
- Tanya Barson, “Introduction: Modernism and the Black Atlantic,” from Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic (Tate) (skip to excerpt)
- Petrine Archer, “Negrophilia, diaspora, and moments of crisis,” from Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic (Tate)(skip to excerpt)
- Kobena Mercer, “Cosmopolitan contact zones,” from Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic (Tate) (skip to excerpt)
- Mélanie Bouteloup, “Tensions in questions,” from Intense Proximity: an anthology of the near and the far (Palais de Tokyo) (skip to excerpt)
- Lowery Sims, “Wilfredo Lam: from Spain back to Cuba,” from Wilfredo Lam and his contemporaries (The Studio Museum in Harlem) (skip to excerpt)
- James Arnold, “Césaire’s Negritude in Perspective,” from Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Harvard University Press) (skip to excerpt)
RoseLee Goldberg, “Surrealism,” from Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, Thames & Hudson
The year 1925 marked the official foundation of the Surrealist movement with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto. By December of that year, the new group had published the first issue of the magazine La Révolution Surréaliste. They had their own premises, the Bureau of Surrealist Research — ‘a romantic inn for unclassifiable ideas and continuing revolts’ — at 15 rue de Grenelle. According to Aragon, they hung a woman on the ceiling of an empty room, ‘and every day received visits from anxious men bearing heavy secrets’. These visitors, he said, ‘helped elaborate this formidable machine for killing in order to fulfill what is not’. Press releases were issued carrying the address of the bureau, and newspaper advertisements specified that the research bureau, ‘nourished by life itself’, would receive all bearers of secrets: ‘inventors, madmen, revolutionaries, misfits, dreamers’.
The notion of ‘automatism’ formed the core of Breton’s early definition: ‘Surrealism: noun, masc., pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing, or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought.’ In addition, Surrealism, it explained, rested on the belief in the ‘higher reality of certain hitherto neglected forms of association, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought’.
Indirectly, these definitions provided for the first time a key to understanding some of the motives behind the seemingly nonsensical performances of the preceding years. With the Surrealist Manifesto those works could be seen a san attempt to give free rein in words and actions to the oddly juxtaposed images of the dream. Actually, Breton had already by 1919 become ‘obsessed with Freud’ and the examination of the unconscious. By 1921 Breton and Soupault had written the first ‘automatic’ surrealist poem, Les Champs magnétiques (‘Magnetic Fields’). So although the Parisians accepted the term ‘Dada’ as a description of their works, many of the performances during the early twenties already had a definitely Surrealist flavor an could in retrospect be considered as Surrealist works.
Dawn Ades, excerpt from Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, Arts Council of Great Britain
The first and last numbers of the (Surrealist Review) offer parallels, which, apart from a kind of conscious shape they give the “mental year” show the changes that took place in Surrealism during it. The first issue had a portrait of Germaine Berton the anarchist, “cette femme en tout admirable” who had killed Plateau, surrounded by the surrealists and those they admired, and also announced an enquiry on suicide “Le suicide est it une solution?” of which the replies were printed in the second issue. The last issue reproduces Magritte’s painting Je ne vois pas la femme cache dans la forêt framed by photographs of the surrealists with their eyes closed, and the results of an enquiry ‘Quelle sorte d’espoir mettez-vous dans l’amour?’; the eleventh number had contained a long conversation (or mutual interrogation) on sexuality. Although the fact that Germaine Berton was a woman was not a matter of indifference to the surrealists, there is not the same suggestion that the woman is the incarnation of the marvelous, and that love is the highest inspiration, which increasingly informed Surrealism and found its most magnificent expression in Breton’s L’amour fou. The overwhelming tone of the first issues is one of despair — désespéré is a word that tolls throughout — which Breton felt had misled many: “surrealism loved greatly”; the young Philosophies group called them hurleurs de mort.
The major animator and source of energy after the first issue was Antonin Artaud. In the second issue, it was announced that the Bureau of Surrealist Research was to be closed to the public, and that Artaud was to take over its direction from 30 January, 1925, “with a view to more direct and effective action” … In the third issue, on 15 April 1925, Artaud specifies the activity of the Bureau. The surrealist revolution aims at the “rupture and disqualification of logic”, at the “spontaneous reclassification of things following an order which is deeper and subtler, and impossible to elucidate using the means of ordinary reason.”
Uneasy at the paroxysmal expense of energy by Aratud, at the abstraction of the place to which he was leading Surrealism, at the terrible rage which drove him (désespéré) to attempt to “intimidate the world with blows of brutal demands” Breton decided to takze over direction of the review himself. The opening, and rather troubled, text of the fourth issue, ‘Pourquoi je rends la direction de La Révolution Surréaliste’ stresses the importance as he later said, of “putting language back into a state of effervescence”. It also places weight upon the actual social situation of the surrealists (one should not forget the really stifling atmosphere of the Third Republic) to counteract Artaud’s wilder appeals to mysticism and revolt. “Let it be understood that in the current state of European society, we remain devoted to the principle of any revolutionary action even if it takes the class struggle as a point of departure, and provided only that it goes far enough.”
André Breton “Manifesto of Surrealism” (The University of Michigan Press)
The mere word “freedom” is the only one that still excites me. I deem it capable of indefinitely sustaining the old human fanaticism. It doubtless satisfies my only legitimate aspiration. Among the many misfortunes to which we are heir, it is only fair to admit that’s we are allowed the greatest freedom of thought. It is up to us not to misuse it. To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery —even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness — is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself. Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be, and this is just enough to remove to some slight degree the terrible injunction; enough, too, to allow me dot devote myself to it without fear of making a mistake (as though it were possible to make a bigger mistake). Where does it begin to turn bad, and where does the mind’s stability cease? For the mind, is the possibility of erring not rather the contingency of good?
By contrast, the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual, or moral advancement. I loathe it, for fit is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity; a dog’s life. The activity of the best minds feels the effects of it; the law of the lowest common denominator finally prevails upon them as it does the others …
Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream. It is, in fact, inadmissible that this considerable portion of psychic activity (since, at least from man’s birth until his death, thought offers no solution of continuity, the sum of the moments of dream, form the point of view of time, and taking into consideration only the time of pure dreaming, that is the dreams of sleep, is not inferior to the sum of the moments of reality, or, to be more precisely limiting, the moments of waking) has still today been so grossly neglected. I have always been amazed at the way and ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams. It is because man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all the plaything of his memory, and in its normal state memory takes pleasure in weakly retracing for him the circumstances of the dream, in stripping it of any real importance, and it erasing the only determinant form the point of view where he thinks he has left it a few hours before: this firm hope, this concern. He is under the impression of continuing something that is worthwhile. Thus the dream finds itself reduced to a mere parenthesis, as is the night. And, like the night, dreams generally contribute little to furthering our understanding …
Laurent Jenny, trans. Thomas Trezise, ‘From Breton to Dalí: The Adventures of Automatism,’ October 51 (1989)
Aragon’s argument proceeds as follows: 1) Automatic inspiration is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, which does not yet say anything about its value. In fact, the passivity required for its exercise entails — for better or for worse — an “objectification” of the personality of him who writes. Everything, even shortcomings, assumes therein the documentary value of revealing “mental facts.” But the text will be worth no more than its author. 2) The result is that one can apply aesthetic judgments to automatic productions: “There is a way, however shocking it may seem, to distinguish between surrealist texts. By their strength. By their novelty. And it is with them as with dreams: they have to be well written … Thus surrealism is not a refuge against style.” It is clear that automatism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of surreality. It must be seconded by style. But what is style? 3) Style consists first of all in writing “good French.” It is also something akin to “walking straight.” But it is above all and decisively “that which cannot be reduced to recipes” and “that which is not redundant.” Through this sinuous series of definitions, we are imperceptibly brought back to “pure expression.” Indeed, style according to Aragon repeats all the definitional characteristics of pure expression: escaping all codification, it is anti-rhetorical; but it is also foreign to all language, since it is a rigorously singular, unconventional, unrepeatable form, in brief, an absolute idiom. The ploy will therefore have amounted, yet again, to displacing the point of pure expression from inspiration to the forms that result from it. Yet nothing has been resolved. Style, because it b incommensurate with any form of recognizable discourse, will be subject to the same vicissitudes as “pure expression”: any form can lay claim to it, since nothing in discourse is ever “redundant” and everything therein can always be reduced to a “recipe.” The terrorist position is renewed, but it is also a weak position, for it can do nothing against the banalization of automatic production.
In the area of automatism, less will be said of “poetry” and more of “lyricism.” And “lyricism” no longer refers either to a subjective outpouring or to any specific literary form. As early as 1929, Dalí redefined it as, “one of man’s most violent [aspirations],” which can be approached only by “instinct” and “the most irrational faculties of the mind.” This renewed acceptation of the word lyricism is made still more precise by Robert Callois, who, since 1933, had been working on an essay on “mental necessity.” For him, the epithet lyrical designates representations susceptible of accumulating within themselves “a considerable affective force” and of absorbing consciousness with “a relentless proliferation.” One of these representations of collective value, the praying mantis, is analyzed at length by Callois in Minotaure 5 (May 1934). Through this example, we understand how much lyricism has changed: it no longer has the character of a personal effusion, always liable to exhaustion or alteration; it has become a collective process, cumulative and violent, the very control of which is problematic.
Politically as well, it is a time of hardening. Surrealist representations change their style. The first surrealism had announced: “We must end up with a new declaration of the rights of man.” Ten years later, we understand better that one of these new rights is none other than the right to automatism. In fact, in “Le message automatique,” which appeared in issue 3–4 of Minotaure, we read this: “What distinguishes surrealism is its having proclaimed the equality of all beings before the subliminal message, its having constantly maintained that this message constitutes a common heritage of which each has only to claim his share and which must at any cost cease to be considered the privilege of a few.” It is easy to recognize in Breton’s vocabulary the traces of his support for historical materialism. We are, however, far removed from any Marxist orthodoxy: the subliminal has replaced the means of production, and as for the propertied class, it appears suddenly to coincide with the metapsychic category of mediums. But the most serious deviation concerns the strategy proposed. Clearly, “passive” automatism lends itself poorly to organized struggle. Indeed, the appropriation of the subliminal assumes a double attitude of solipsism (“bracket the outside world”) and submission (obey “magical dictation”). Moreover, Breton recommends individual initiative to each and all (“each has only to claim his share”). If, therefore, the connotations of this discourse are Marxist, its denotation is fundamentally legalistic and republican (the Communist Party understood this, having just expelled Breton). Nevertheless, for this very reason, the fete of “passive” automatism appears directly linked to the weakness of democracies: its claim on existence is “soft” (as Dalí would say), unorganized, indecisive. To change one’s automatism will amount, for awhile, to changing one’s political imagination.
Shelley M. Quinn, The Historical Development of Surrealism and the Relationships Between Hemispheric Specializations of the Brain (E. Mellen Press)
Automatic writing, a unique phenomenon and one which has cause da great deal of confusion, was the first weapon employed by the surrealists to destroy the barriers between visual and verbal experiences, between perception and conception. By breaking down the conventional semantic system inherent in normative communicative modalities, the surrealists hoped to provoke new perceptions, thus revitalizing both experience and language. In contrast to the usual practice of projecting language onto the physical world, the surrealists’ practice of automatic writing project language into the individual’s perception of the world.
Since Freud proposed the idea that automatic responses reveal the “unconscious” (or, as we describe, in the right brain), automatic writing has frequently been treated by literary critics and casual readers alike as if it were a pathological manifestation. Consequently, the imagery is approached from a pseudo-scientific stance. Indeed, as the situation of surrealist criticism stands, it often appears as if we, as critics, are engaging in the futile task of attempting to effect a post mortem diagnosis and cure of individual poets rather than objectively trying to identify the imagery. The surrealists wanted language to directly reflect experience, and it is doubtful if they would have appreciated having others, under the guise of interpretation, reword or explicate their images in such a manner as to conform to the very normative modes which the poets were trying to annihilate.
Katharine Conley, “Introduction: Desnosian Surrealism,” from Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life (University of Nebraska Press)
It is my contention here that Desnos was the person who shaped the very definition of surrealism, who inspired Bretonian surrealism, and through whom, consequently, the movement should be read. He was the laboratory of the surrealist project. His automatic experiences during the so-called period of sleeps — experiments with trancelike, hypnotic states of unconsciousness occurring from September 1922 through February 1923 — inspired Breton to declare in the summer of 1924 that “surrealism is the order of the day and Desnos is its prophet” (OC 1, 473). A couple of months later Breton stated again, in the first Manifesto, that “Robert Desnos speaks Surrealists will” (331; M 29). I believe that Breton’s definition of automatism, which is at the root of his definition of surrealism itself, comes from his observation of Desnos’s performances while in this semiconscious state, or “second” state as it was called. As psychoanalyst Fabienne Hulak has commented, Desnos’s ability to access the truth of his Unconscious mind, which through his automatic per¬formances he “offered to the [surrealist] tribe,” challenged Breton to define what the group had witnessed, which he proceeded to do in the first Manifesto (100). Desnos was better at automatism than Breton. He was better able to disconnect himself readily from rational thought processes and to surrender completely to the random thoughts and marvelous images that flowed from his unconscious mind.
Desnos was a pivotal figure between Breton and Bataille as well. His first article in Bataille’s journal Documents appeared in the autumn of 1929, just as Breton was drafting the Second Manifesto for the final issue of his journal, La Revolution Surrealiste, which had published Desnos’s work throughout the 1920s. Desnos switched his allegiance from one friend to the other at the exact point when the two friends, Breton and Bataille, were turning on each other. Furthermore, it was at this juncture, in the late winter-early spring of 1929–30, that Desnos wrote his own manifesto of surrealism, entitled the “Troisième manifeste du surréalisme.” In this text he took for himself the right to open up surrealism to the public and to take exception to Breton’s more mandarin conception of the movement. “For surrealists there is only one reality, complete, open to everyone,” Desnos wrote (O 487). “Surrealism has fallen into the public domain.” This was the beginning of his explicit popularization of surrealism: on the radio, in songs, in lyrics for cantatas, m his drawings and paintings, and even as a political prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, where he gave impromptu lectures on surrealism and told surrealist jokes. Desnos anticipated surrealism’s ongoing role in popular culture.
In asserting his right to present his own popular view of surrealism, Desnos established his “expertise” on his former role as surrealism’s star and on his refusal to be co-opted by any authoritarian group, including the one, surrealism, with which he was most identified. With his anti-elitism and his focus on the multiple voices within the self and within surrealism, Desnos resisted Breton’s attempt to shape the movement in his own image. At the same time, Desnos was not necessarily trying to create a new surrealism — one that would be substantially different from Breton’s initial vision. Desnosian surrealism harks back to the mutually shared tenets that launched surrealism and clarifies its founding ideas. As Marie-Claire Dumas has suggested, the very concept of a movement involves the implicit contribution of several participants (André Breton 9). Desnos adhered to the initial ideology of surrealism as a movement fundamentally rooted in collective collaboration and partnership. He lived to the fullest the statement by Isidore Ducasse, so admired by the young surrealists, that “poetry ought to be made by everyone. Not by one person” (244).
Raymond Roussel, excerpt from Impressions of Africa, Calder and Boyars
All eyes then turned towards Balbet, the marksman, who had just taken from the Zouave’s tomb the cartridge pouches, which were now strung about his hips, and the weapon, which was in fact a Gras rifle of a very old make.
Walking rapidly to the right, the famous champion, the object of everyone’s attention, stopped in front of our group and carefully selected his position, facing the north side of the square.
Directly opposite him, a long way off, under the commemorative palm tree, stood the square post with the soft- boiled egg on top of it.
Further away still, the natives who were watching curiously from behind the row of sycamores, at a sign from Rao, stood back to leave a wide space.
Balbet loaded his gun, then, raising it to his shoulder with care, slowly took aim and fired.
The bullet, grazing the top of the egg, removed part of the white so that the yellow was exposed.
Several shots fired in quick succession completed the task thus begun, little by little the albuminous coating was shot away to uncover the inner content, which still remained intact.
Sometimes, between two reports. Hector Bucharessas ran to turn the egg round so that, as a result of this adjustment, the egg successively presented every part of its surface to the fire.
In the background, one of the sycamores formed a barrier for the bullets, all of which buried themselves in the trunk which had been partially flattened in order to prevent ricochets.
The twenty-four cartridges which formed Balbet’s supply of ammunition were just enough to complete the experiment.
When the last puff of smoke had curled from the barrel of gun, Hector took the egg in the hollow of his hand to display it.
No trace of white remained on the delicate interior membrane which, although completely exposed, still covered the yellow without showing a single scratch.
Soon, at the request of Balbet, who was anxious to show that over-cooking had not facilitated the exercise. Hector closed his hand for a moment so that the yolk, which was quite liquid ran through his fingers.
Michel Foucault, excerpt from Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel (Continuum)
Apparently his essays pose no other problems than those they undertake to resolve. The care with which Roussel explains the configuration is even surprising: more than two pages at the beginning of How I Wrote Certain of My Books, then in the middle of the work a return to it, discussing the principle of how the first sentence comes back at the end of the text but loaded with a different meaning, which is clear enough in each of his narratives so that it’s unnecessary to repeat it in a didactic way: the process is evident at the level of words and in the most obvious turn of the anecdotes. No doubt this principle is only the visible summit of a whole pyramidal order where each of his tales finds its basic structure. The key sentence, in opening and closing the narrative, opens many other locks. Let’s bring to these simple texts the careful scrutiny that Roussel set as an example.
In this text are all the elements which will figure in the works of Roussel: narrated theater; lovers taken by surprise; magical substances; people disguised beyond all proportion as minuscule objects (the corps de ballet as spools, needles, and thread); and also in a general way, it articulates the impossible by amassing evidence with the most meticulous attention to detail. But probably the satisfaction Roussel felt about this text came from the marvelous composition of echoes which reverberate from his beginning, two almost identical sentences which must be connected within the text and in all the configurations that are to be found there: repetition, doubles, their reappearance, impediments, imperceptible differences, divisions, and fatal wounds. It’s as if the form imposed on the text by the rules of the game took on its own being in the world acted out and imitated on stage; as if the structure imposed by language became the spontaneous life of people and things. The movement of repetitions and transformations, their constant imbalance, and the loss of substance experienced by words along the way are becoming, surreptitiously, marvelous mechanisms for creating beings; the ontological power of this submerged language.
The instruments, stage settings, performances, and skills exercise two great mythical functions for Roussel: those of joining and discovery. To join beings across the greatest distances of the cosmos (the earthworm and the musician, the rooster and the writer, the heart of a loaf of bread and marble, tarot cards and phosphorous); to join incompatible elements (the water line and the thread of material, chance and the rules, infirmity and virtuosity, puffs of smoke and the mass of a sculpture); to join beyond any conceivable dimension ranges of sizes without relation (scenes carved in grape seeds; musical mechanisms hidden in the thickness of tarot cards). But also to rediscover a vanished past (a lost final act of Romeo and Juliet), a treasure (that of Hello), the secret of a birth (Sirdah), the author of a crime (Rul or the soldier struck by a bolt from the red sun of Tsar Alexis), a lost formula (Vascody’s metallic lace), a fortune (Roland de Mandebourg), or a reason (by a return of the past in the sudden cure of Seil-Kor or in the progressive one of Lucivis Egroïzard). Most of the time to join and to rediscover are the two mythic aspects of one and the same figure. Canterel’s corpses treated with resurrectine join life and death by recreating the past exactly. Inside the great brilliant crystal where Roussel’s dreams float, there are the figures which join (the tresses-harp, the cat-fish, the harnessed sea horses) and those which are discoveries (Danton’s still-talkative head, the figures of divers going up and down preserving fragments of history or legend, the harper which recreates the chariot of the rising sun); and then between the one and the other a violent short circuit: a catfish electrifies Danton’s brain to make him repeat his old speech. In these games imitation has a privileged place. It’s the most efficient means by which joining is identified with discovery. Whatever imitates in fact crosses the world, the substance of beings, the hierarchy of species to arrive at the place of the original and rediscover in itself the truth of this other being. Louise Montalescot’s machine with the tangle of its electric wires joins the great living forest to the genius of the painter by the automatic movement of the wheel; and in doing this she rediscovers the very thing in front of which she is standing. It’s as if she had joined so many differences between them only to rediscover the identity of the duplicate.
Annette S. Levitt, “A New Spirit: Apollinaire, Cocteau, and the Synthesis of the Arts” from The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, St. Martin’s Press
Before the Surrealism of Andre Breton began in 1924, an earlier, freer variant of Surrealism existed, absent the rigidity (both established and flouted by Breton) and the antagonisms (flaunted by Breton) of the official movement. Lacking Breton’s emphasis on the dream state and on automatism in creation, this Ur-Surrealism nonetheless embodies the requisite juxtaposition of unlike entities and creates in the work and/or in the viewer a comparable state of unconscious disorder, of mental chaos that Breton strives for, while expressing a greater sense of vitality and joy. It is best seen in the work of two men, one of whom Breton admired and one whom he detested. For Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau, along with Pablo Picasso (whose art was never as surreal as that of his alter-image, the Bird of Benin in Apollinaire’s The Poet Assassinated), epitomize the creative freedom, the daring experimentation of the avant-garde in Paris during the first decades of this century, as well as its willingness to break rules, to mix media and genres, moods and techniques — in short, to create a metaphorical collage, a pasting together of unlike artistic entities. “Underlying all Surrealist art,” says Lucy Lippard, “is the collage esthetic …
The Breasts of Tiresias includes no dream and no explicit use of the unconscious, central tenets of the Surrealism which began officially in 1924 with the publication of André Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism. But the major component of Surrealism, the juxtaposition of unlike elements, pervades this work. Beyond the powerful impact of its visual, musical, and effects, it is primarily a literary piece in which plays on language are as important as pratfalls. The story line is fairly simple: Therese, a young wife, tired of being a subservient woman destined only for baby-making, becomes a man, Tiresias, who wants to make war, not love. Tying up and dressing her husband in her clothes, Therese/Tiresias goes off to test a variety of career and life roles. The abandoned, cross-dressed husband is pursued by an amorous policeman, whom he rejects, choosing instead to make babies on his own with paper and paste. Instantaneously he is the father of 40,000, including a novelist, a journalist, and the only female child, a divorcee. Ultimately — and ironically — Tiresias impetuously abandons her final role as a fortune teller (a reminder of her ancient Greek role model) to return to her husband, proclaiming the joys of making love, making babies, and nurturing society.
The first audiences — uncomprehending or enraged — unwittingly played their roles in response to these innovative works by Apollinaire and Cocteau, as well as to the very different productions of Antonin Artaud and Roger Vitrac. Worse than the response of an untutored public, the leadership of the nascent Surrealist Movement misread and minimized the significance of these playwrights, the major roles that they played in implementing what would — in a few years, with André Breton’s ascen-dancy — be declared major tenets of Surrealism. The seeming frivolousness of the theatre pieces by Apollinaire (whose poetry and criticism Breton admired) and, particularly, by Cocteau (scorned and reviled by Breton), excluded them from membership in André Breton’s Surrealist Movement, as, ironically, Artaud’s and Vitrac’s professionalism excluded them. But these exiles are the true creators of the theatre of Surrealism, a genre that André Breton never appreciated; inevitably, then, it could not gain its deserved place within his Surrealism.
Alan M. Gillmore, ‘Erik Satie and the Concept of the Avant Garde’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol 69, No 1 (Winter, 1983)
Throughout his life Satie eventually rejected each group of young composers which gathered around him. Through this process he managed to remain continuously in the vanguard, and his frequent alliances with younger men explain, in part, his infantile and artless nature while pointing, perhaps, to a deep-rooted and lifelong insecurity. Writing in Jean Cocteau’s ephemeral broadsheet, Le Coq, Satie declared that a school of Satie did not exist and that it never would for “Sateism” was not possible. He added that if such a school were to appear, he would be opposed to it. Satie went on to note that submis¬sion in art was impossible. In each composition, he asserted, he tried to use the structure and content that would confuse his followers. In that way an artist could not become a pedant or a founder of a school. Through his association with the latest trends in French music, Satie, until his death in 1925, was a seminal influence on a variety of vanguard movements, some ultimately important, others decidedly removed from the mainstream of twentieth-century artistic evolution and consequently short-lived.
Satie opened and closed his career with a hoax, beginning in 1887 with the appearance of his first published score facetiously labeled Opus 62 and ending in 1924 with the scandal of Relâche and his notorious appearance on stage in a five-horsepower Citroen automo¬bile with a poster proclaiming Erik Satie “the greatest musician in the world.” Thus there is a remarkable consistency in Satie’s actions which suggests that it is futile to attempt an explanation of his behavior in terms of a series of traumas which sent him spinning into the role of the outsider. His posture was in the nature of the man and his time, and when the careers of his equally bizarre colleagues and contemporaries — Eugene Vachette, Joséphin Péladan, Alphonse Allais, Alfred Jarry — have been examined, Satie’s very uniqueness comes into question. Although he contrived to live two separate careers, one in the nineteenth, the other in the twentieth century, there was no violent break in his stylistic development, no fundamental change of direction. His ideals were manifested early and he served them throughout his entire career with undeviating loyalty.
It is arguable that Satie was the first composer to realize fully avant-garde ideals, and, at a time when avant-gardism, like anarchism, remained on the fringe, there was no course open to critics but to see him as a freak, a dangerous influence, or a nonentity. Avant-gardism is inextricably linked to the concept of art-for-art’s sake. Its aesthetic basis is traceable to certain libertarian political movements of the early Romantic period — most notably anarchism in its various forms — and the sociological factors which gave momentum to the realization of art-for-art’s sake are to a great extent those which contributed to the formation of avant-garde ideals in the fin de Steele. Indeed, avant-gardism might be considered the inevitable consequence of the art-for-art’s sake ideal, in its most virulent form its reductio ad absurdum.
David Sylvester, “A Missing Person,” excerpt form Magritte (Thames and Hudson)
Whatever its formation, Magritte’s fantasy about his mother’s death has many echoes in his paintings. There are several which evoke death by water; there are numerous instances of faces which are somehow concealed or absent. Examples began to appear as soon as he rejected the formalism of his early work and turned in 1925 to using painting as a means to the realization of a poetic image. The most explicit reference to death by water is a work painted at the end of 1926, The musings of a solitary walker. The setting presents a river, one on the scale of the Sambre in Châtelet, with a footbridge across it, under a lowering sky that is typical of Hainaut. In the foreground, the naked figure floating in the air — perhaps a body, perhaps a lay figure, such as a shop-window mannequin — is a mythic image of the dead. The back view of a solitary bowler-hatted man walking away into the landscape recalls the then so current image of the back view of Chaplin’s solitary tramp exiting behind the end-tides and differs from it profoundly in being inexpressive.
The solitary walker by the river is the ancestor of numerous other bowler-hatted men seen from behind who have some mythic image floating at their back, such as the loaf of bread and glass of wine, or glass of water, in The intimate friend of 1958, or the cut-out figure of Flora from Botticelli’s Primavera in The Readymade Bouquet of 1956; there is also one, in Pandora’s Box of 1951, who has a mythic image, a rose, rampant in his path. They are members of the regiment of anonymous bowler-hatted men constantly identified with Magritte himself, an identification which was probably not intended by him, save in two or three special cases, but which was certainly encouraged, perhaps inspired, by his habit of putting on a bowler hat to pose for the camera, a habit initiated in 1938 and increasingly ex-ploited as a photographers’ cliché.
Salvador Dalí, excerpt from The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (The Dial Press)
I presume that my readers do not at all remember, or remember only very vaguely, that highly important period of their existence, which anteceded their birth and which transpired in their mother’s womb. But I — yes, I remember this period, as though it were yesterday. It is for this reason that I propose to begin the book of my secret life at its real and authentic beginning, namely with the memories, so rare and liquid, which I have preserved of that intra-uterine life, and which will undoubtedly be the first of this kind in the world since the beginning of literary history to see the light of day and to be described systematically.
Indeed if you ask me how it was “in there”, I shall immediately answer, “It was divine, it was paradise.” But what was this paradise like? Have no fear, details will not be lacking. But allow me to begin with a short general description: the intra-uterine paradise was the color of hell, that is to say, red, orange, yellow and bluish, the color of flames, of fire; above all it was soft, immobile, warm, symmetrical, double, gluey. Already at that time all pleasure, all enchantment for me was in my eyes, and the most splendid, the most striking vision was that of a pair of eggs fried in a pan, without the pan; to this is probably due that perturbation and that emotion which I have since felt, the whole rest of my life, in the presence of this ever-hallucinatory image. The eggs, fried in the pan, without the pan, which I saw before ray birth were grandiose, phosphorescent and very detailed in all the folds of their faintly bluish whites. These two eggs would approach (toward me), recede, move toward the left, toward the right, upward, downward; they would attain the iridescence and the intensity of mother-of-pearl fires, only to diminish progressively and at last vanish. The fact that I am still able today to reproduce at will a similar image, though much feebler, and shorn of all the grandeur and the magic of that time, by subjecting my pupils to a strong pressure of my fingers, makes me interpret this fulgurating image of the eggs as being a phosphene, originating in similar pressures: those of my fists closed on my orbits, which is characteristic of the foetal posture. It is a common game among all children to press their eyes in order to see circles of colors “which are sometimes called angels.” The child would then be seeking to reproduce visual memories of his embryonic period, pressing his already nostalgic eyes till they hurt in order to extract from them the longed-for lights and colors, in order approximately to see again the divine aureole of the spectral angels perceived in his lost paradise.
But without requiring this categorical experience of the hour of death, man periodically recovers in sleep something of this artificial death, something of that paradisial state, which he tries to recapture in the minutest details. The attitudes of sleepers are in this regard most instructive: in my own case my attitudes of pre-sleep offer not only the characteristic curling up, but also they constitute a veritable pantomime composed of little gestures, tics, and changes of position which are but the secret ballet required by the almost liturgical ceremonial initiating the act of delivering oneself body and soul to that temporary nirvana of sleep by which we have access to precious fragments of our lost paradise. Before sleep I curl up in the embryonic posture, my thumbs pressed by the other fingers so tightly as to hurt, with a tyrannic necessity to feel my back adhere to the symbolic placenta of the bedsheets, which I try, by successive efforts more and more closely approximating perfection, to mould to the posterior part of my body, irrespective of the temperature; thus even during the greatest heat I must be covered in this fashion, however slight the thickness of my envelope. Also my definitive posture as a sleeper must be of a rigorous exactitude. It is necessary, for instance, that my little toe be more to the left, or to the right, that my upper lip be almost imperceptibly pressed to my pillow, in order that the god of sleep, Morpheus, shall have the right to seize me, to possess me completely; as he wins me my body progressively disappears and becomes localized, so to speak, entirely in my head, invading it, filling it with all its weight.
Haim Finkelstein, “The Incarnation of Desire: Dalí and the Surrealist Object,” Anthropology and Aesthetics
The Surrealist Object existed at the nexus of the mainstreams of surrealist thought and activity in the period leading up to, and even beyond, the Second World War. Proposing in 1924 the creation and circulation of “dream objects,” Breton envisaged their potential for discrediting the “creatures and things of ‘reason,'” and extending the “limits of so-called reality.”‘ This was seen primarily as an extension of the poetic project intended to raise man above the “paucity of reality” (le peu de réalité). Thus, if poetry — or “poésie-activité de I’esprit,” to use the term coined by Tristan Tzara — was to achieve its aim of transforming man and the world, it had to invade reality and permeate life. Three dimensional and comprised mostly of “found” materials, the Surrealist Object offered in its tangible character the most cogent and immediate form of poetic activity to satisfy this demand. As a concretized expression of elusive sensations related to perversion, it occupied a central position in surrealist sexual politics as an agent of sexual subversion. In its blatantly anti-aesthetic stance, it may also be viewed, along Marxist lines, as serving meaningful social action by undermining the “status of the bourgeois commodity object.
The objets foncionnement symbolique, to judge by most accounts of surrealist art, appear to be a landmark in the history of the Surrealist Object. Introducing these objects under the label ‘objets surréalistes,” Dalí meant this activity to be associated with a term that had been in use for quite some time. As early as March 1929, Dalí himself, in a survey of “anti-artistic” trends published in L’Amic de les Arts, refers to “those already created and defined Surrealist Objects” (Oui 1 102). If the Surrealist Object was indeed a well-established concept and category of creative activity, as Dalí’s words seem to imply, what were those objects to which the appellation “surrealist” had been previously applied? Speculations concerning the ancestry of the Surrealist Object point, naturally enough, primarily to Duchamp’s readymades and to various types of dada objects. Indeed, enumerating in his essay “Crise de l’objet” (1936) the various measures taken to bring about a “total revolution of the object,” Breton starts off with Duchamp’s readymades. The readymade’s chief attraction lay for Breton and his friends in the notion of ‘change of role’ as applying to the activity of transforming a commonplace object and helping it achieve a ‘separate identity.” The appeal of the readymade could also have derived from the immediacy of a found object, involving no sculptural or aesthetic considerations and based, as Duchamp argues, on the ‘total absence of good or bad taste.’ In a lecture given in 1922 at the Barcelona Ateneo, Breton chose to illustrate his comments on Duchamp with the object Why Not Sneeze Rose SéIavy? (1921), an “assisted readymade” comprising a birdcage half full of marble blocks in the shape of sugar lumps, among which is thrust a thermometer. What Breton chooses to emphasize regarding this object, the only readymade he mentions in his writing until the publication in 1935 of his comprehensive essay on Duchamp’s work, is the disorienting effect of the unexpected weight of the marble blocks (a quality that, indeed, brings this object closer to the surrealist orbit).
It is quite obvious, however, that Dali’s object as well as the other objects introduced in this issue of Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution exhibit a certain degree of conscious incorporation of sexual content. It is this conscious aspect of the objets à fonctionnement symbolique that Breton appears to criticize in Les Vases communicants. Breton’s reservations are elucidated in Les Vases communicants (1932), in relation to his proposal to put into circulation erotically suggestive objects of the kind revealed in dreams. Breton argues that even “condensation and displacement, the effects of censorship” (66), cannot ward off a rigorous interpretation that would reveal the sexual content underlying such objects. What Breton appears to suggest is that their power derives from their origin in dreams or automatic thought processes, which also subsume the principles of condensation and displacement. Citing as an example Lautréamont’s powerful aphorism, “il est beau … comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie!” (Ducasse 327), Breton asserts that the force of this phrase derives from the encounter of male and female symbols. Objects partaking of a similar mechanism, argues Breton, offer a wider scope of interpretation and have a greater power of suggestion than objects in which some “latent” sexual content has been incorporated intentionally (68). Breton, of course, refers here to Dalí’s objets à fonctionnement symbolique — “without formulating the least reserve as to their explosive value or their ‘beauty'” — and to Dalí’s argument that the intentional incorporation of “latent” sexual content is just the impetus for the formation of a “new and absolutely unknown series of perversions.”
M.E. Warlick, “The Occultation of Surrealism,” excerpt from Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of a Myth (University of Texas)
Paris has rich associations with’ alchemy, particularly the medieval neighborhood near Les Halles, including the rue Nicolas Flamel and the Tour Saint Jacques,’ sites that Ernst first visited in 1913 and that the surrealists would explore during the 1920s. Parisians have had a persistent fascination not only with alchemy but also with astrology, psychics, tarot cards, magnetism, and other occult pastimes. At the turn of the century, Paris was the center of the French occult revival, whose hermetic writings inspired the artists and writers of the symbolist and Rosicrucian circles. Because symbolism exerted such a strong influence on the genesis of surrealism, its hermetic language infiltrated their early writings. In August 1914, André Breton wrote a letter to Theodore Fraenkel concerning Rimbaud’s poem “L’Alchimie du verbe” (“Alchemy of the Word”). However, Breton’s comment that this poem was “the masterpiece of perversity” showed little understanding of its alchemical symbolism.
Emst arrived in Paris at a propitious moment when the nascent surrealist movement was about to take a decided turn toward psychic experimentation. Three weeks later the famous “époque des sommeils” began, events that are summarized in Breton’s article “Entrée des mediums,” published in the November 1922 issue of Littérature. The hypnotic “sleeps” that characterize this period were an outgrowth of efforts that began with automatic writing, another means of access to the unconscious. The ensuing séances are well documented in this article and elsewhere by those who participated over the next few months.'” René Crevel had just returned from a summer vacation during which a medium, Madame D., had instructed him on the procedures for holding a séance. The first was held on September 25, with Crevel, Breton, Max Morise, Robert Desnos, and Simone Breton present in Breton’s small studio at 42, rue Fontaine. After only three minutes Crevel’s head dropped forward onto the table and he entered an agitated state of melodramatic babbling punctuated by gasps and obscenities. Breton wanted to know if others could fall into this trance state, so Crevel left the room. After another half-hour, Desnos fell into a deep hypnotic sleep and began convulsively scratching on the table as if he wanted to write. Upon awakening, neither Crevel nor Desnos remembered what had happened.
Soon after the séances, in December 1922, Ernst completed his first major Paris painting, the large group portrait tided Rendezvous of Friends. A great deal of critical attention has been paid to this painting and its indications of the changing direction of the nascent surrealist movement. It has been compared to Dutch group portraiture, to group portraits by Raphael, and to the tradition of German Romantic friendship paintings. Like many of Ernst’s paintings of the early 1920s, it contains a complex matrix of overlapping symbolic references, found images, and bizarre visual juxtapositions. The figures are placed on a rocky precipice that overlooks a glacial landscape, signifying the Tyrolean Alps, where Ernst first met the Parisian Dadaists. His friends from Cologne, Baargeld and Arp, are included, but other major Dada figures such as Tzara, Man Ray, and Picabia are not. The majority of figures are Parisian writers, most of whom had taken part in the séances, including Breton, Paul Eluard, and Max Morise, while the three men most adept at falling into a trance state — Crevel, Desnos, and Péret — are strategically placed at the outer edges and at the center of the group.
Mary Ann Caws, “Seeing the Surrealist Woman: We Are a Problem,” excerpt from Surrealism and Women (MIT Press)
Headless. And also footless. Often armless too; and always unarmed, except with poetry and passion. There they are, the surrealist women so shot and painted, so stressed and dismembered, punctured and severed: is it any wonder she has (we have) gone to pieces? It is not just the dolls of Hans Bellmer, lying about, it is more. Worse, because more lustily appealing, as in Man Ray’s images.
I am looking at one of the most problematic of them: to describe her (or the part of her that exists, confronting me), is already to feel nervous. She is posed like a challenge, wrapped like a dubious present in shimmering dark water-patterned and tight moire, glistening just about everywhere she is (no head,’ no feet, no anything but that body mesmerizing, arms akimbo), this dame Man Ray so severs and swaddles and stresses is none of us, exactly. But maybe is us all, as we are seen. Sure and strident, ready to do anything we can — except we can neither speak nor think nor see, nor walk and run, certainly not love and paint and write and be. Surrealist woman, problematic and imprisoned, for the other eyes.
Now, I actually think Breton had some problem with the female gender. He really did.
Look what happens to all his heroines: Nadja, fascinating because mad, is then disappointing, because she is not interesting enough; she reads the menu aloud and, says Breton, I was bored. Later, of course, when she has gone truly (therefore, for him, terrifyingly) mad, and been put away— after a pause (“They came to tell me Nadja was insane”), he can confess he was not up to loving her as he should have. But on the moment, boredom. In The Communicating Vessels, Breton is enchanted at one moment by a woman who dangles her perfect legs sitting across from him, next to her dreadfully dull companion (“probably a teacher”-!), at another, by some lovely eyes walking along. He goes back to meet those eyes, but panics at the thought that actually, he wouldn’t be able to recognize the girl were she not looking, because, well, of course, he had forgotten everything else.
Salomon Grimberg, “Frida Kahlo: The Self as an End,” excerpt from Mirror Images: Women Surrealism and Self-Representation (MIT Press)
Kahlo repeatedly referred to the conflict of opposites in her life as well as in her art, and it apparently remained an elusive mystery to her. In two Exquisite Corpses (c. 1932; figs. 25, 26), done with Lucienne Bloch, Kahlo’s contribution provided the androgynous element in a self-portrait (her head attached to a body with female hips and male genitals and Rivera’s head attached to a male body with breasts that wears high heels). In life, Kahlo liked to exaggerate her feminine costume with jewelry, ribbons, flowing skirts, etc. and emphasize her masculine attributes: her moustache, heavy eyebrows, and the hair on the sides of her face. Also, she was bisexual. Kahlo created an exotic persona that could not help but draw the attention of others. This ongoing desire to integrate opposites suggests Kahlo’s conflict over her own unintegrated self and her desire to resolve this conflict. This unintegrated sense of self dominates her painting; imbalance and disharmony fuel the emotional content of her art. Painting herself gashed, cracked, or broken refers not only to her multiple surgeries but to her experience of herself.
To gain a better understanding of what the self is and how a sense of self is obtained is to gain a better understanding of how Kahlo’s life and art evolved.’ Heinz Kohut’s elaboration of Freudian concepts of narcissism and the self is what is known today as self-psychology. Kohut addresses the structure of the self, the experience of selfhood, and the relation between self and objects. We are born with a nuclear core of personality, which is the seed from which the cohesive structure called self begins to form during the second year of life. This process unfolds gradually through the interaction between biology and environment. The self under normal circumstances grows, matures, and remains flexible all of our lives. But first, all of its parts need to work in unison, as a well-integrated mechanism; only then can we sense our self as whole and not have to think about it. Otherwise, we experience the self as unintegrated, fragmented, unbalanced, incomplete, even empty, and we go about our lives self-absorbed, attempting to sustain a sense of cohesiveness in artificial ways by attaching ourselves to some¬one or something we believe will provide the means to keep us whole. Without a sense of self we attempt to establish self-objects, relationships that mimic the ones we had — or wish we had — in infancy, when we were as one with the people around …
Frankling Rosement and Robin D.G. Kelleu (Ed.), “Invisible Surrealists,” excerpt from Black, Brown & Beige: Surrealists writings from Africa and the Diaspora (University of Texas Press)
In the vast critical literature on surrealism, all but a few black surrealists have been invisible. Despite mounting studies of Aimé Césaire, Wifredo Lam, Ted Joans, and, more recently, Jayne Cortez, academic histories and anthologies typically, but very wrongly, persist in conveying surrealism as an all-white movement, like other “artistic schools” of European origin. Occasional token mentions aside, people of color — and more particularly those from Africa or the Diaspora — have been excluded from most of the so-called standard works on the subject.
Anyone who takes the trouble to study the aesthetic avant-gardes prior to surrealism will soon recognize that the surrealists’ concerns are incomparably broader, audaciously ranging far beyond traditional literary and artistic categories. Surrealists were — and still are! — interested in philosophy, magic, myth, history, heresy, the exploration of objective chance, sleep and dream, the interplay of dialectics and analogy. In their search for ways to liberate the unconscious, they practice hypnosis and dream interpretation as well as automatic writing and drawing. They have discovered new techniques, from frottage and collage to cubomania and prehensilhouette, and have invented games that result in collective poetry. “Drawing correspondences between our real and imaginative experiences” — in the words of poet and anthropologist Ayana Karahja — helps resolve the contradictions between dreaming and waking, subjective and objective.”
Rejecting all forms of domination and the dichotomous ideologies that go with them — intolerance, exploitation, bigotry, exclusiveness, white supremacy, and all race prejudice — surrealists make the resolution of contradictions a high priority. In surrealist games, for example, play is regarded not as a matter of power, winning, and losing, but, rather, as a joyful collective dialogue and a source of insight, discovery, beauty, and laughter. Passionate defenders of the Marvelous, the unfettered imagination, poetry as a way of life, mad love, long walks, a revolution of the mind — and indeed, world revolution, the surrealists’ basic platform may be summed up in a few words: creation of a truly free society and the realization of Lautréamont’s watchword, “Poetry must be made by all!”
Tanya Barson, “Introduction: Modernism and the Black Atlantic,” from Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic (Tate)
Any discussion of the Black Atlantic and modernism must necessarily address the appropriation by the European avant-garde of the forms of African art. From the initial pre-war engagement of Dada, Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism, to the interwar years, characterised by a hyperbolic craze for black culture and the Surrealists’ fascination with ethnography, this was a fundamental and persisting feature of the emergence of avant-garde modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. The story of this relationship is usually told without recourse to other movements that occurred more or less simultaneously outside Europe, or in relation to the European context through the agency of individual artists, writers and performers who traversed the Atlantic. There are, for example, significant links between Europe and the Harlem Renaissance in the United States and, similarly between European ‘primitivism’ and Brazilian modernism through artists such as Tarsila do Amaral and Lasar Segall.
Aimé Césaire inaugurated Negritude as an act of cultural and linguistic appropriation, reclaiming the pejorative term nègre and combining it with defiant references to the revolution in Haiti and to African roots to reverse its usage. Equally importantly, literary Negritude became an exercise in linguistic mutability and in neologism, language in the constant process of being made. The efforts of artists to give visual form to the potentialities of Negritude were often inconsistent. Nevertheless, important visual manifestations were produced that constitute a challenge to canonical versions of modernism. Most prominent and successful of the Negritude artists was Wifredo Lam, who effected a powerful subversion of the language of ‘assimilation’ and ‘affinity’ within European modernism in his paintings; African art motifs mediated by Cubist and Surrealist ‘primitivism’ are redeployed and combined with references to Afro-Caribbean culture. As Andrea Guinta has commented, “European modernity’s appropriation of ‘primitive’ formal structures as food for a self-centred discourse was imitated and disarticulated as an operative system in Lam’s work after his return to Cuba. He made the mechanisms of the centre evident, repeated them and charged them with a new meaning … Thus it was discovered that what, in the European discourse, was a horizon of desires or the object of a laboratory experiment, in the Caribbean was the latent everyday, hidden and suppressed since the Conquest and slavery.”
Early twentieth-century ethnographic Surrealism produced a complex iconography that sought to challenge and undermine, but which also often reinforced, the tradition of Western scientific rationalism and its dubious assumptions and prejudices that framed the West’s relation to ‘otherness’. Surrealism both highlighted and adapted die specific pseudo-scientific languages on which such a discourse was based. It was often the black female body that provided the most extreme embodiment of ‘otherness’, both for the proponents of ‘rational’ science and for Surrealism. As O’Grady has commented, ‘it is the African female who, by virtue of colour and feature and the extreme metaphors of enslavement, is at the outermost reaches of “otherness”‘ and yet, she continues, ‘the black female’s body needs less to be rescued from the masculine “gaze” than to be sprung from a historic script surrounding her with signification while at the same time, and not paradoxically, it erases her completely.’ Since the 1980s, a number of women artists have investigated the representation of the black female body and its framing through devices such as ethnographic and classificatory photography, tourist postcards and other seemingly ‘documentary” forms and conventions, as well as pornography, as a way to explore wider issues of gender, race and inequality. Focusing on these examples of the performance of identity and re-presentation of the female body, on contemporary responses to the explicit objectification of the black female body during colonialism through instances of transportation and exhibition for amusement’s sake (most notably perhaps the case of Sarah Bartmann, who became known as the Hottentot Venus), this section of the exhibition highlights a key argument within Gilroy’s book: that the project of modernity was dependent upon and effectively produced the terrors of slavery as part and parcel of its own formation and continuance. But this group of works also addresses aspects of gender politics and notions of visibility that are absent from Gilroy’s text.
Petrine Archer, “Negrophilia, diaspora, and moments of crisis,” from Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic (Tate)
Why 1920s’ Paris should be our starting point as the city where a conjunction of creativity, racial identity, and an infatuation with difference emerged requires an under standing of its bohemian communities, their post-war anxieties and France’s historical attitudes towards black people and Africa. Since the French Revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité had helped to support a response to ‘others’ that stressed assimilation and accommodation (albeit a stifling one) within France’s own sense of imperial destiny. French interest in France’s colonised subjects, especially Africans, went beyond economic considerations. In addition to mainstream patronage and a colonial mission to ‘improve’ black people, the avant-garde’s admiration and borrowing of black forms, which they called les fetishes, satisfied their need for a sense of the magical and spiritual that had been lost in their increasingly materialistic and mechanised society. The assimilation of black forms into the subculture of Paris was remedial and therapeutic, especially after the First World War decimated the city’s youth and left its survivors disillusioned and militant. The avant-garde’s first encounters with Africa and black culture came via their admiration for African sculptures, which, as a result of colonial trade and pillaging, found their way into the hands of collectors and museums at the beginning of the new century. Initially, these objets d’art went under the generic labels l’art nègre, indicating a general ignorance about their origins, and les fetishes, another term suggesting their magical potency. That the fascination they exerted was a mere flirtation with ‘otherness’ is reflected in the cover illustration for La Vie Parisienne from 25 October 1919. A skimpily dressed flapper stares coyly back at a highly embellished sculpture of a life-size female form. The carving is animated, alert and fecund, while our flapper, despite her best efforts at mimicry, is — as the cover’s title suggests — a ‘pale imitation’ of the object she admires. Her backward glance might even denote the way in which the avant-garde viewed these objets d’art as part of an ill-defined primitive past.
Cultural analyst Brent Hayes Edwards, discussing negrophilia and its relationship to diaspora blacks in Paris, questions its appropriateness as a theoretical construct. Although the city’s negrophilia represented a passion for black culture, its preoccupations were still those of the white avant-garde that skewed the experience of blackness. Hayes Edwards uses the term crise nègre, also employed by ethnographer Michel Leiris as a negative commentary on Paris’s infatuation with African culture, to show that the real crisis was that experienced by blacks as a result of their cultural dislocation and their inability to communicate their own sense of being modem to their white vanguard colleagues.” African-Americans saw their use of African idioms as a compliment to their New Negro ideals and modernity. Contemporary cultural expressions such as jazz were meant to counter racist stereotypes and position the culture of diaspora Africans as contemporary. But the white avant-garde’s preoccupation with primitivism and atavistic transgression closed down this sense of modernity in favour of a black identity that was misunderstood and misrepresented. Hayes Edwards redefines crise nègre as ‘a crisis of representation: the modernity of black performance [is] an expression [that] clashes with die mirage of a silent, distant “ethnic” primitive’. For Hayes Edwards, the ultimate crisis for African-Americans was the difficulty of articulating their very existence as part of a modem experience.
Beyond art history, the task of examining these constructs has been taken up by contemporary diaspora artists prepared to explore the fictions and frictions around the black body to understand what and how they signify. They have embraced the stereotypes of blackness in their own work in order to dismantle them from the inside out, using what Stuart Hall has theorised as a ‘turn’— a strategy that calls for a risky journey into the morass of their origins. He describes how these artists are using the black body as a moving signifier ‘on which to conduct an exploration into the inner landscapes of black subjectivity’, and understanding the body ‘as a point of convergence for the materialization of intersecting planes of difference – the gendered body, the sexual body, the body as subject, rather than simply the object of looking and desire’.
Kobena Mercer, “Cosmopolitan contact zones,” from Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic (Tate)
Turning to our second contact zone, we find that Antillean and African students who met in Paris during the inter-war years similarly ‘discovered’ their African ancestry for the first time only by encountering images of sub-Saharan civilisation that offered an alternative to the distortions of the colonial policy of assimilation in which they were raised. When Césaire coined the term ‘Negritude’ in 1935 in L’Etudiant Noir, a journal he established with Leopold Senghor from Senegal, it gave rise to a literary movement that eventually went in different philosophical directions, but it initially acted as a rallying cry for a subjective sense of black ‘authenticity’ hitherto denied expression by the internalization of a Eurocentric worldview.
Radiating outwards from the literary salon convened by Jane and Paulette Nardal, whose periodical Revue du Monde Noir translated Harlem Renaissance writers into French, what made Paris ‘a special place for black transnational interaction’ was the way that a new kind of black internationalism arose from convergences among African anti-colonial movements. In addition, ‘Paris Noir’ was further distinguished as a key site in the diasporic networks of Afro-modernism by the critical role played Surrealism as a counterweight to exoticist tendencies within modernist primitivism.
Instead of valuing so-called ‘negro art on aesthetic grounds alone, critic Carl Einstein and writer Georges Bataille embraced the ‘otherness’ of tribal artefacts in the journal Documents (1929–30) as part of their political critique of colonialism. The 1931 exhibition of commodity kitsch that Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and Yves Tanguy held to reveal ‘The Truth About the Colonies’ was an open riposte to the Exposition Coloniale of the same year. In short, French West Indian students sent to the metropolis to be trained as middle-class professionals not only laid claim to their ‘blackness’ as an empowering act of cultural affirmation, but also went back to the Caribbean with altered perceptions of the region’s indigenous ‘folk’ cultures as a potential route towards the higher reality or surreality that would transform the experience of everyday life.
Whereas Senghor returned to Africa with a classicist version of Negritude, the dialogue between Surrealism and Negritude that led to a shared focus on the syncretic religions of the Caribbean is crucially important to understanding the context in which Wifredo Lam produced “The Jungle” (1943). This was the centrepiece of a new line of avant-garde enquiry into the hybrid mix of African and European elements that had fused into new combinations under colonial modernity. The contact zone in which Lam and other artists explored the Afro-Cuban religion of lucumi, for instance, is thus best approached in conceptual rather than simply geographical terms.
Mélanie Bouteloup, “Tensions in questions,” from Intense Proximity: An Anthology of the Near and the Far (Palais de Tokyo)
Ethnography began with the study of societies encountered in the course of European expansion, as the anthropologist Jean Jamin recalls. Its official functions were simultaneously scientific, social, and humanist. In his Essay on the Gift, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss illustrated his concept of total social fact, defending an ethnography that would be a science of the human being in his concrete reality. The humanist enterprise aspired to rescue colonized, or “uncivilized,” people from oblivion by collecting their objects as scientific proof of an existence soon to meet its end. Yet we know today that ethnographic expeditions were also responsible for the demise of the very societies studied. Jean Jamin compares the Dakar-Djibouti mission to an ethnographic safari that divested the people of their heritage. Not only were populations coerced into selling their culture in order to pay colonial taxes, but the methods of collecting, which favored extensive and team-led approach, proved neither ethical nor respectful; the incidents related by Michel Leiris are appalling. To the infuriation of Marcel Griaule, L’Afrique Fantôme provided first-hand testimony that exposed ethnography’s dark underbelly. A series of oppositions between nature and culture, familiar and strange, near and far, fascination and contempt, savage and civilized, as well as colony and colonized, percolated through his multilayered writing.
While Marcel Mauss assigned the ethnographic museum the task of snatching up the remnants of a society “without history,” art galleries were exhibiting masterpieces of “primitive art.” Artifacts were thus transformed into fetishes — aestheticized, decontextualized, and even broken — to satisfy Western tastes. The visual and spectacular dimension was privileged. The surrealists cultivated “negrophilia,” which grew out of collections of “negro art,” cabarets, theater, photography, and cinema celebrating the expressivity and sensuality of these “savages,” whom they believed they understood. All worldly conversation centered around the “black villages” in colonial exhibitions, jazz, Josephine Baker’s black ballets, and Citroën’s Black, Yellow, and White Cruises.
A photograph brought back by the anthropologist Franz Boas serves as incriminating evidence for how this narrow frame of reference forces modernity out of the shot. The curtain held by Boas and his consultant, the Tlingit ethnographer George Hunt both isolates the individual as an ethnic type and hides the modern Western architecture. This photograph is paradigmatic of what one could call the mise-en-ordre, mis-en-scène and mise-en-forme of the Other proposed by ethnography in the early twentieth century. Populations are relegated, in the words of anthropologist Johannes Fabian, to a “historical present” or “denial of contemporaneity,” symptomatic of a nonsynchronous, Eurocentric perspective.’ This process unmoors cultural expression from the progression of historical time and instead amalgamates individuals, and entire generations, into a composite figure that supposedly represents an entire society, without distinguishing between the past and the present. Yet, as Fabian remarks, “There is no knowledge of the other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act.”
Lowery Sims, “Wilfredo Lam: from Spain back to Cuba,” from Wilfredo Lam and His Contemporaries (The Studio Museum in Harlem)
In Marseilles, Breton and several Surrealist cohorts found lodging in the Vida Bel-Air. Although Marseilles was outside the direct domination of the Vichy regime, it was — as Spain had been three years previously — a hotbed of intrigue and deception. Because of their Surrealist reputations, they were all under suspicion. They whiled away the time drawing cadavres exquis and producing other types of collaborative artworks. Varian Fry noted that at this time Breton,
“made collections of insects, pieces of broken china polished by the sea, and old magazines; he talked magnificently and always entertainingly about every¬thing and everybody, and held Surrealist reunions on Sunday afternoons … (when) … the other Surrealists came: Oscar Dominguez … who was living in a nearby villa with his fat and elderly but rich French mistress; Benjamin Péret, the French poet whose verses sometimes read as though they had been copied down from the walls of public toilets; Wilfredo Lam, the tragic-masked Cuban Negro who was one of the very few pupils Picasso ever took; Victor Brauner, the one-eyed Rumanian painter whose women and cats all have one eye; and many others. Then Breton would get out his collection of old magazines, colored paper, pastel chalks; scissors and pastepots, and everyone would make montages, draw, or cut out paper dolls.”
Securing passage from Marseilles was a game of chance, but at last, on March 24, 1941, Lam and Helena Holzer set sail from Marseilles to Martinique, They were on the same boat with Breton, Victor Serge, Benjamin Péret, and Claude Levi-Strauss, who in 1955 published his memoirs of the trip, in which he noted, “In addition to its human load, the boat was carrying some kind of clandestine cargo. Both in the Mediterranean and along the west coast of Africa, we spent a fantastic amount of time dodging into various ports, apparently to escape inspection by the British navy … Because of the heat, which became more intense as we approached the tropics, it was impossi¬ble to remain below, and the deck was gradually turned into dining-room, bedroom, day-nursery, wash- house and solarium.” Lévi-Strauss went on at great length to describe the hardships that were exacerbated by the lack of sufficient sanitary arrangements, and he expressed the all-around relief when, at the end of April, the lighthouse at Fort-de-France was sighted, with its promise of baths and other comforts. But this respite was not to be had; instead, to their consternation, a number of passengers were herded off to lodgings in a former leperatorium at Le Lazaret, where they awaited their fate. They were soon joined by André Masson, who arrived on a second ship. Breton was able to secure a pass to go to town by day, and there he met local Martinicans, including the poet-politician Aimé Césaire, who was engaged in intellectual warfare with the local Vichy regime in the journal called Tropiques that he was publishing at the time. An important venue of Surrealist thought and anti-colonialist polemic, Tropiques also sought to define a recuperated pride in self on the part of black Caribbeans. The journal published one of the first lengthy analyses of Lam’s work, which was written by Pierre Mabille. At the end of May, Lam finally secured passage to Cuba — first through St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and then the Dominican Republic — arriving in Havana in July of 1941. Victor Serge, who traveled to the Virgin Islands with Lam, dedicated his poem Mer des Caraïbes, written on St. Thomas in June of 1941, to Lam. In it, he laments for the vanquished races of the Caribbean and evokes the image of European colonizers as centaurs — half-man, half-woman, and thus the inverse of the femme cheval—hunting runaway slaves in the bush. It is in that bush, el monte, that Lam would reclaim the heritage preserved by thousands of rebellious Africans in the New World.
James Arnold, “Césaire’s Negritude in Perspective,” from Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Harvard University Press
A concise appreciation of American black poetry was published in Césaire’s cultural magazine, Tropiques, in July 1941. These half-dozen pages may have been taken directly from Césaire’s recent university thesis; they surely reflect the spirit in which he read and responded to the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. His declared intention was to introduce the Martinican reader to three poems by James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay: ‘The dominant feeling of the black poet is one of malaise, better still of intolerance. Intolerance of reality because it is sordid, of the world because it is a cage, of life because it has been stolen on the high road of the sun. This posture of revolt, which the Notebook reveals as more thoroughly exclusive in Césaire’s early work than in that of the American poets, calls for a new existential attitude. Black poetry must be transformed from within to articulate adequately the lived experience of black people. Césaire is writing in opposition to the stifling cultural vacuum that had earlier incensed the authors of Légitime Défense when he says that the black poet “by no means intends to be a painter, an evoker of images, but rather committed to the same adventure as his least respectable heroes” (p. 38). Césaire envisages the black writer henceforth as embracing the struggle and the concerns of the most lowly of his comrades.
Césaire chose to accentuate the features of contemporary black poetry in America that were compatible with his own conviction that the elemental, the primitive — that which is inherent to black experience before its contact with European culture — is to be prized above the most refined achievements of the West. Granting that this is a one-sided version of the Harlem Renaissance, one cannot but be impressed by the fact that in 1962 Langston Hughes found in Césaire’s work a reasonable likeness of the earlier movement. Speaking at the Conference of African Writers of English Expression at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, in June 1962, Hughes is reported to have found “nothing mysterious about the notion [of negritude] … Césaire had done exactly what the writers of the Harlem Renaissance did before [him], back in the nineteen-twenties; only the Harlemites had not given it a name.” Three years earlier, in the best American essay on “Negritude and its Relevance to the American Negro Writer,” Samuel W. Allen (the poet Paul Vesey) had drawn a similar conclusion. Going beyond the concern of the negritude poets with the African past — which he too related to the Harlem Renaissance — he called attention to “that aspect of negritude which … is simply an affirmation of self, of that dwarfed self, denied realization because of the root of its identity … It would appear that the American Negro, like the African, has an imposing interest in the development of his image in the universe, in the correction of the distorted image of himself in society.
There is a widespread assumption that the vogue of art nègre in Parisian cultural circles had a special meaning for the young black students, few in number still, drawn to the French capital to, all corners of the colonial empire in the early thirties. But Césaire was aware that black entertainers in particular were first and foremost exotic creatures, an imported thrill for a tired civilization. In his Notebook Césaire reacted with disgust to the popular image of himself as an alienated object:
Or else quite simply as they like to think of us!
Cheerfully obscene, completely nuts about jazz to cover their extreme boredom.
I can boogie-woogie, do the Lindy-hop and tap-dance.
And for a special treat the muting of our cries muffled with wah-wah. Wait …
Everything is as it should be. My good angel grazes the neon. I swallow batons. My dignity wallows in puke …
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