Why Surrealism Matters 
by Mark Polizzotti.
Yale, 232 pp., £16.99, March, 978 0 300 25709 0
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Although​ André Breton wasn’t the first to use the term ‘surrealism’, he made it his own with his first Manifesto in 1924. There he defined the fledgling movement as a ‘quest’ to discover ‘the marvellous’ in the mundane and to work towards the ‘future resolution’ of dreaming and waking. While this lofty goal was new enough, the means applied to it, such as playful operations of chance and sudden collisions of disparate words or images, were prepared by Dada. And Breton did start out, along with fellow poets Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, in the Dadaist camp, won over by its charismatic leaders, Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia, who had converged on Paris as soon as possible after the First World War. Despite the internationalism of the moment, Breton gave the Surrealist movement a national cast in the Manifesto. From the Marquis de Sade through Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Alfred Jarry and Raymond Roussel, most of the antecedents he named were French, and he credited the ur-method of Surrealism to two compatriots, Isidore Ducasse (aka Lautréamont), whose line about ‘the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’ was already talismanic, and Pierre Reverdy, who turned this line into a directive that images be born from ‘a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities’. Abrupt encounters – between texts, pictures, things, places and people – became the staple of Surrealist production, including its greatest novels, Nadja and Le Paysan de Paris.

Dada was one essential prompt for Surrealism; the other was psychoanalysis. In his initial definition in the Manifesto, Breton took the idea of psychic automatism directly from Pierre Janet: ‘Surrealism, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought … in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’ The Surrealists also borrowed freely from Charcot and Freud, unconcerned about the methodological divide between Charcot’s visual theatrics and Freud’s talking cure. Charcot inspired the Surrealists to investigate hypnosis, which they practised in group sessions, as well as hysteria, which they celebrated in 1928, on the fiftieth anniversary of its ‘discovery’, with photographs of the ‘passionate attitudes’ that Charcot had elicited from his young female patients. The debt to Freud ran deeper still: without free association there was no automatic writing, which Breton explored with Philippe Soupault as early as 1920 in Les Champs magnétiques, and both the interpretation of dreams and the analysis of parapraxes were central to Surrealist discussions and surveys in the journal La Révolution surréaliste. It was around these activities, Breton later remarked, that the ‘true collectivisation’ of the movement occurred.

Breton visited Freud early, in Vienna in 1921, and Salvador Dalí met him late, in London in 1938, but Freud, a conservative in aesthetic matters, was sceptical from start to finish. ‘I was inclined to look upon the Surrealists,’ he wrote to Stefan Zweig, ‘as absolute (let us say 95 per cent, like alcohol) cranks.’ One difficulty, perhaps the difficulty, is already apparent in the definition of Surrealist creation as produced ‘in the absence of any control exercised by reason’. If the primary aim was somehow to express the unconscious, how could one do so in such studied forms as poetry, painting and sculpture? (This question was especially vexed in visual art, which became more prominent as the movement attracted more members.) Along with chance operations, collaborative experiments – writing, drawing, wandering and demonstrating together – helped, but only so much. In the end a lot of Surrealism suffers from the scripting of manifest content with latent meaning: the artist encodes, the viewer decodes, and the old machinery of symbolic interpretation turns over, only now with a homemade version of psychoanalysis, rather than the Bible or the classics, as the iconographic key.

Left to right, André Breton, Robert Desnos, Joseph Delteil, Simone Breton, Paul and Gala Éluard, Max Morise and Max Ernst, Paris (c.1924).

The Surrealists knew early texts by Freud, such as The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, but because of delays in translation not later ones like ‘The Uncanny’ and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. As celebrants of eros, they might have stayed clear of this thanatotic side of psychoanalysis in any case, yet such concepts as the compulsion to repeat and the death drive are very pertinent to Surrealism. Certainly a current of trauma courses through the movement. A one-time medical student, Breton tended to shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War, and a recurring trope in his writing is a ‘man cut in two by the window’, the very figure of a divided subject. Max Ernst, the most traumatophilic of Surrealists, read Freud in the original German and related the layering of his early collages to the working over of primal fantasies and other traumatic scenes. These images, which astonished the Surrealists-to-be when they were first shown in Paris in May 1921, provided the basic template for the Surrealist picture, even for painters as visually different as René Magritte. While Surrealist images were sometimes patterned on screen memories, Surrealist objects were often modelled on sexual fetishes, which, in the Freudian account, are also traumatic in origin, keyed to the unwelcome discovery of gender difference. This connection is most charged in the ‘disagreeable objects’ of Alberto Giacometti from the early 1930s; his Suspended Ball, a cleft globe hung by a string just above a phallic wedge, retains its ambivalent force to this day.

Surrealism had an equally complicated relation to politics. For Breton, subjective liberation was the necessary complement to social revolution: ‘“Transform the world,” Marx said; “Change life,” Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are but one for us.’ In a review of Trotsky’s Lenin from 1925, Breton presented communism in Surrealist terms as ‘the most marvellous agent ever for the substitution of one world for another’, and in 1929, in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism, he framed the movement in communist terms as devoted to ‘the total elimination of the claims of a class to which we belong in spite of ourselves’. The French Communist Party saw matters differently. ‘If you’re a Marxist,’ Breton overheard one party official bawl at an applicant, ‘you have no need to be a Surrealist.’ It was also in 1929 that Benjamin characterised the Surrealists as anarchists who, however much they might disquiet the bourgeoisie (‘to which we belong’), retained ‘a liberal-moral-humanistic concept of freedom’ that required the discipline of the Party. This was an injunction that Breton couldn’t abide, all the more so after Zhdanov and Gorky declared the supremacy of Socialist Realism in 1934 and the Moscow Trials began in 1936, and it led to his estrangement from Aragon and Éluard, who remained in the Party despite difficulties of their own with its demands. It also led Breton, in a further affront to the Stalinists, to travel to Mexico City in 1938 to meet with Trotsky. There Breton stayed with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and worked with Trotsky on a manifesto titled ‘For an Independent Revolutionary Art’, which Rivera also signed. It finished with a flourish that recalled the prior conjoining of Marx and Rimbaud: ‘Our aims: The independence of art – for the revolution; The revolution – for the complete liberation of art.’ At least rhetorically, at least momentarily, aesthetic autonomy and political commitment were held together. After the next world war, they would diverge again, with the celebrated debate between Adorno and Sartre only one indication of the gap.

The internal politics of Surrealism were also fraught. Although purges are as common in artistic movements as in political ones, in this case they were excessive. Breton relished the role of excommunicating pope. The decisive split, which came relatively early, featured dissidents led by Georges Bataille and grouped around the journal Documents, and it cut to the philosophical heart of Surrealism. In the Second Manifesto Breton recommitted the movement to the reconciliation of opposed states:

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may, one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point.

Breton understood this dialectical resolution in explicitly Hegelian terms: the sur in Surrealism was dedicated to the above and the beyond, to a transcendence of the real which was also, for him, the desired effect of imagistic collage and film montage. Adamantly opposed to such idealism, Bataille argued for the sub in his Surrealism, which he framed as a subversion of the real from below: hence his concept of a ‘base materialism’ that undercuts traditional delusions about human nobility (all big toes are gross, even beautiful mouths are connected to awful anuses and so on). The conflict was in full force at the time of the Second Manifesto, in which Breton championed ‘sublimation’ and pinned ‘regression’ on Bataille. Yet Bataille was happy to take up the banner of desublimation: ‘I challenge any art lover,’ he wrote in 1930, ‘to love a painting as much as a fetishist loves a shoe.’ From our vantage point each man seems right about the other. With its ‘quest’ for mystical beloveds and magical objects there was a semi-risible courtliness in Bretonian Surrealism, while Bataille was often, as Breton remarked, an ‘excrement philosopher’.

In Why Surrealism Matters, Mark Polizzotti, a biographer of Breton and translator of many Surrealist texts, makes a good case for the varied influence of the movement, especially regarding sexual politics and anticolonial struggles. He also points to its many complicities. While communists shunned Surrealism, capitalists exploited it, and several artists met them halfway. Advertising looked to Surrealism for techniques of subliminal persuasion (Magritte had a small publicity firm; Man Ray was a renowned fashion photographer), and the movies tapped Surrealism for ideas about fanciful décor (Dalí advised Hitchcock as well as Disney). With Pop this surreal aspect of commercial culture was cycled back into art – think of the lush bits of cited advertisements in paintings by Richard Hamilton or James Rosenquist – and the two-way traffic has continued ever since. Then, too, there is the notion of the artist as showman. Art-world impresarios existed before Surrealism – Marinetti qualifies, as does Tzara, not to mention, say, Courbet – but Dalí took the role of artist-as-provocateur to a new level, one on which Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan and others perform to this day. Breton sensed the danger here; though he first embraced Dalí as new blood for the movement, he later dubbed him, anagrammatically, ‘Avida Dollars’ (Dalí also praised Hitler in a pseudo-scandalous way that amused no one). But then Breton was hardly innocent of the market either; he bought and sold art for the couturier Jacques Doucet (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was one purchase) and traded on his own superb collection of tribal art as well.

Influence comes through dissemination, which is sometimes assisted rather than impeded by the harshest of historical realities. The Surrealists sought dépaysement, only to suffer it literally in the Second World War. While some, like Aragon and Éluard, joined the Resistance, others including Breton left for the United States or Mexico. Although Breton never penetrated the New York art world as fully as Duchamp (his English remained scant), his presence made it the effective capital of Surrealism during the war years (he also launched a journal there, with Duchamp, Ernst and David Hare, called VVV). And though Bretonian Surrealism was opposed to abstraction, it helped American artists like Jackson Pollock develop an automatist gesturalism that was more expressive of the unconscious than any Surrealist dreamscape. Such was also its effect on postwar artists in Europe like the Cobra painters, who were influenced by Surrealism even as they resisted it, especially after the paternalistic Breton returned in 1946.

The Situationists, some of whom, like Asger Jorn and Constant, came out of Cobra, chafed even more under what was now the old guard. ‘There was the father we hated, Surrealism,’ Michèle Bernstein stated simply. ‘And there was the father we loved, Dada.’ Her partner, Guy Debord, gave this triangulation a dialectical flourish in The Society of the Spectacle: ‘Dadaism sought to abolish art without realising it; Surrealism sought to realise art without abolishing it. The critical position since developed by the Situationists demonstrates that the abolition and the realisation of art are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence of art.’ In this move to leapfrog Surrealism, however, Situationism depended on both its camps. The Situationist practices of détournement and dérive drew from Bretonian Surrealism – from its reinscription of found images and objects, and its resistance to a Paris given over to commercial homogeneity and bureaucratic routine. Meanwhile, the Situationist search for a relation to the object-world not dominated by the commodity form drew on Bataillean Surrealism – on its elaboration of ideas about the gift and the potlatch that it had developed in turn from Marcel Mauss. Finally, the concern with the everyday and the vécu, which pervaded French thinking in the 1950s, was also indebted to Surrealism, even if the key theorist of the quotidien, Henri Lefebvre, had no love for Breton either.

As Polizzotti notes, Surrealists had a role in anticolonial politics too. In 1931, when a colonial exhibition was staged in Paris with great fanfare, they mounted a small counter-show called The Truth about the Colonies, and in collective tracts they railed against the French occupation of Vietnam and Algeria throughout the 1940s and 1950s. On a personal level Breton was close to the Afro-Cuban-Chinese artist Wifredo Lam in Paris, and on his way to New York in 1941 he spent several weeks in Martinique, where he met with Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, key figures in the négritude movement (Aimé had published his great Cahier d’un retour au pays natal in 1939). Yet sometimes there was a primitivist dimension to these relationships. Lam once remarked that he felt like an ‘exotic creature’ among the Surrealists, and the very enthusiasm for Oceanic, Mexican and Indigenous American arts promoted by Breton, Ernst and others was also a way not to attend to contemporary racisms. In the end ‘ethnographic Surrealism’ (to borrow a term from James Clifford) aimed to estrange the self rather than to understand the other; in L’Afrique fantôme, for example, we learn far more about its author, Michel Leiris, than we do about Africa. Contemporary exhibitions such as Surrealism beyond Borders at Tate Modern and Surrealism and Us: Caribbean and African Diasporic Artists since 1940 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas suggest that the movement does have a part to play in the current project to decolonise art history, however.*

Breton died in 1966 at the age of seventy, and his appointed successor, Jean Schuster, disbanded the group in 1969; as one late recruit remarked after the events of May 1968, the Surrealists had been ‘passed on the left’. Yet Surrealism lived on beyond its heyday in a number of ways. Breton once referred to Marx and Freud as ‘communicating vessels’, and Surrealism does count as an early Freudo-Marxism, a synthesis sought by many others, including Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, some well into the 1960s. By that time, however, structuralism was dominant in France and, despite the friendship Lévi-Strauss and Breton forged in New York, it was no ally to Surrealism. Poststructuralism was even less so. Yet Surrealist traces persist even there. Although Lacan reread Freud through structural linguistics, he was formed in the milieu of Surrealism (he completed his doctoral thesis on one of its favourite subjects, paranoia, in 1932), and some of his signature ideas – desire is founded in lack, language ‘insists’ in the unconscious, the gaze holds a threat of castration – have a Surrealist orientation. Even Foucault and Deleuze alluded to the movement. In the late 1960s they looked back on Surrealism as the moment when ‘the simulacrum’ – an image that is neither representational nor abstract but which retains a resemblance to the world even as it affirms no reality at all – was released into the culture. They did so in the context of Pop (they refer explicitly to Warhol), which is even more simulacral than Surrealism, and so carries on Surrealism in its own way too.

For many other​ artists and critics, though, Surrealism was a bad object. According to strict advocates of abstract painting such as Clement Greenberg, it was too illusionistic and literary, not formally rigorous or specific enough, to count as properly modernist. And this anti-Surrealist posture, which was also anti-subjective, was carried forward by Minimalists and Conceptualists, who otherwise broke with the formalist model of modernism. Soon cracks appeared in this front. The ‘eccentric abstraction’ of artists such as Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois recalled the fetishistic dimension of the Bretonian object even as it reshaped it to feminist ends, and the base materialism advocated by Bataille made a partial comeback in the ‘abject art’ of the 1990s. Today, with modernist proscriptions long proscribed in turn, Surrealism can be seen everywhere in art – imagistic, subjective and erotic as it so often is. This is not to suggest that the sexual politics of Surrealism are now resolved. As Polizzotti reminds us, there were more women in this movement than in most others, but they featured as objects more than subjects, muses more than makers. At the same time, if there were any hysterics in Surrealism, they were the men of the movement, and this ‘male trouble’ has had a paradoxical benefit. The fascination with ‘convulsive beauty’ (Breton), the drive to disturb ‘the principle of identity’ (Ernst), might be the most important legacy of Surrealism for feminist art and theory, which took up the question of ‘sexuality in the field of vision’ in the 1980s (as Jacqueline Rose referred to it then). In any case, today the women of Surrealism are esteemed as much as the men, if not more. Meret Oppenheim received a major retrospective last year, and women Surrealists featured prominently in the 2022 Venice Biennale, whose title, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, was borrowed from Leonora Carrington.

Surrealism also persisted in literature, clearly in magical realism and less obviously in other forms. The French celebration of écriture in the 1960s recalled, in its assertion that language is its own motive force, the Surrealist experiment with automatic writing, whether the association was desired or not. And in the Anglophone world a connection might be made between the ‘paranoid-critical method’ of Dalí, defined as the ‘systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations’, and the crazy-enough-to-be-true projections of Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard (who wrote incisively about Surrealism). The afterlife of Surrealism is more active in poetry, as in the New York School of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and others: ‘We all “grew up Surrealist”,’ Ashbery once remarked, ‘without even being aware of it.’ Surrealist directives – to suspend rational control as much as possible, to let language dictate, to hold to the first thought as the best thought – often guided these poets. Yet the juxtapositions of an Ashbery poem are not produced to shock; often the affect is more fluid or flat than charged. It is a Surrealism without the unconscious (if that still qualifies), or perhaps an unconscious that is now seen to be loose in the world (which is the way Ballard conceived his version of Surrealism).

Certainly surreal juxtapositions are everywhere around us today; our urban environments are immersive panoramas of habituated collisions. Breton ended his first Manifesto with fragments of newspaper headlines offered up as marvellous found poetry: ‘A burst of laughter/of sapphire in the island of Ceylon’. When I asked a friend about the Surrealist dimension in contemporary poetry, he texted me a photo of a sign in an elevator he happened to be in: ‘When fire hat is lit, return cab to lobby.’ Today the fire hat is always lit, the cab simply rumbles on, and almost no one notices. It is normal.

This points to the greatest difference between Surrealism then and now. In its first decade ‘transgression’ was the watchword: Breton advocated it, at least in principle, and Bataille both practised and theorised it. There was a residual bourgeois order with more or less clear lines to violate. Luis Buñuel transgressed them in his great Surrealist films of the late 1920s, Un Chien Andalou and L’Âge d’Or, both made with Dalí: images such as the eyeball sliced by a razor blade in Un Chien Andalou can’t be unseen. Yet the conditions of law and transgression changed after the Second World War, the years of reconstruction in Europe. In an interview from the early 1950s, Breton put it like this: ‘The spirit was then [in the 1920s] threatened by congealing whereas today it is threatened by dissolution.’ Buñuel also viewed the situation differently by the 1960s. In The Exterminating Angel he has his bourgeois protagonists dine together but fail to depart, and in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie things only get worse: they attempt to dine together but fail each time. ‘Buñuel himself is not outside the world he criticises, he is part of it, and so are his friends and family,’ Michael Wood wrote in the LRB of 7 September 2000: ‘Social arrangements are foolish and apparently fragile, because they are arbitrary and groundless. Everything about them could be different, and is different in other times and places … And yet it is because these arrangements are arbitrary and groundless that we have so little purchase on them, and they seem so strangely unchangeable.’ In effect, the bourgeoisie failed to exit the historical stage, or to be given the hook by another class strong enough to displace it. And in this state, both stalled and chaotic, the bourgeoisie (or whatever counts as the bourgeoisie) carries on to this day, now bolstered by a disruptive economy of finance capital. In short, law and order are hardly what they were when Surrealism was summoned into being, and neither is transgression. In fact, in our nihilistic phase of neoliberalism, transgression is the domain of the King Ubus of the world, like Donald Trump. Surrealism has been passed on the right.

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Vol. 46 No. 13 · 4 July 2024

Hal Foster writes that in Paris ‘Breton was close to the Afro-Cuban-Chinese artist Wifredo Lam’ (LRB, 6 June). What’s more, the two were among the hundreds of passengers at risk aboard Le Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, which Victor Serge called ‘a cargo boat converted into an ersatz concentration camp of the sea’. It left Marseille for Mexico on 25 March 1941; the journey included the stopover in Martinique that Foster mentions. Other passengers included the Romanian cartoonist Saul Steinberg, Austria’s ‘raging reporter’ Egon Kisch, Anna Seghers and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Aboard ship, Lévi-Strauss and Breton carried on a lively discussion concerning ‘the relationships between aesthetic beauty and absolute originality’. Lévi-Strauss noted that the Surrealist ‘was very much out of place dans cette galère, [striding] up and down the few empty spaces left on deck; wrapped in his thick nap overcoat, he looked like a blue bear.’

Jacob Boas
Portland, Oregon

Vol. 46 No. 12 · 20 June 2024

As I luxuriated in Hal Foster’s quest to discover the marvellous in the mundanity of Georges Bataille’s big toe, I wondered if Foster was aware of two of the meanings of the French substantive incarnation – the fact or assumption of God in Christ made flesh in human form, and an ingrowing toenail (LRB, 6 June).

Glyn Thompson
Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria

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