The Case for Surrealism | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

The Case for Surrealism | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


Melting clocks, bowler hats, peculiar household objects, dream sequences, but also uncanny incidents. Dorm room posters, more dream sequences, and according to Merriam-Webster, the year 2016. The word ‘surrealism’ has become a catch-all for the bizarre, the irrational, the hallucinatory; but when it emerged in Europe during the tenuous turbulent years following World War One and leading up to World War Two, surrealism positions itself not as an escape from life but as a revolutionary force within it: a movement aimed at the wholesale liberation of the individual. Aesthetic as well as political; literary as well as visual. Originating in Paris but ultimately international, freed from the constraints of a singular style or medium yet driven by a charismatic leader. Surrealism was ambitious, contradictory, and complex and it has a history you might not guess from how the word is used today. This is the case for surrealism. The term ‘surrealism’ first appeared in the writings of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire who used it in 1917 to describe Jean Cocteau’s ballet parade and his own play ‘The Breasts of Tiresias’. For Apollinaire, surrealism meant the fruits of the human imagination freed from the task of imitating nature. Its roots lay in the ethos of Romanticism, an eccentric 19th century figures like the symbolist fantasist Gustave Moreau, the self-taught artist and customs agent Henri Rousseau, the disquieting visionary Arnold Böcklin and writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Surrealism also emerged out of the riotous spirit of Dada: a movement originating in Zurich and Berlin which sought to abandon artistic traditions and disrupt the conventionality of modern life: weaponising nonsense against the institutions that had brought about the catastrophe that was World War One. Yet, the Surrealists were after not just disrupting the world order through nonsense, but reinventing it through experimental tactics. The first of these is automatism, or involuntary unwilled action. In 1924, a young poet named Andre Breton published the ‘Surrealist Manifesto’, defining surrealism as”psychic automatism in its pure state dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by a reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Breton had been experimenting with this pure state since 1919 when he co-authored a book length stream-of-consciousness poem called the ‘Magnetic Fields’. Breton’s automatism is based on the work of Sigmund Freud, who theorized that human subjects are divided between our conscious minds, dominated by reason and restrained by social manners; and the unconscious are hidden reservoir of instincts, desires, and unprocessed experiences that our conscious mind works hard to repress. To unleash the unconscious, surrealist did things like transcribing dreams and recording trance states under the auspices of their Bureau of Surrealist Research. The Surrealists insisted that our repression was not just psychic but social, and that liberating the unconscious would have collective politically revolutionary consequences. ‘Transform the world!’ said Marx, ‘Change life’ said Rilke. ‘For us, it’s one in the same,’ Breton wrote. Surrealist magazines were filled with dream accounts, stream of consciousness writings, automatic drawing exercises, even rapid-fire questionnaires; all serving to unleash the unconscious by circumventing the control of the conscious mind. One of the first two surrealist films made by Germaine Dulac and Antonin Artaud explored the consciousness of a clergyman afflicted with impure thoughts it was advertised as a dream on the screen and set up a parallel between films and dreams, both being spaces of fantasy and automatized imagination. The surrealist engaged in chance operations in pursuit of automatism, often outsourcing creative control to their materials. André Masson poured sand over stains of glue to produce turbulent landscapes or mythological beasts. Man Ray illuminated objects on light-sensitive paper to create unpredictable compositions from their shadows. Others employed frottage, or rubbings, brûlant, or the burning of photographic negatives, and decalcomania. In each case surrendering control to the process and aspiring to what Breton called the marvelous or that part of the self that lies beyond the reach of reason. They also outsource creative control to each other. Playing literary and drawing games, such as the famous ‘exquisite corpse’ where the final poem or image was the product of their collective imagination. ‘Chance’ for the surrealist also meant long directionless walks recorded in the novels ‘Paris Peasant’ and ‘Nadja’. It included chance encounters with so-called found objects such as the ones Breton described seeing in flea markets which he claimed could have resolved both psychological disturbances and artistic blocks. The famous line of the poet Comte De Lautréamont “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” became a kind of catchphrase for the movement encapsulating its pursuit of the unexpected. Many of these found objects made their way into surrealist work in the 1930s: arranged in compositions that resembled reliquaries or mysterious erotic contraptions, seeking the marvellous through the unexpected juxtaposition of objects Meret Oppenheim, shown here posing for Man Ray, created one of the most enduringly evocative surrealist objects. It was inspired by a conversation with Picasso and Dora Maar at a cafe where Picasso admired Oppenheim’s fur bracelet and remarked that one could cover anything with fur. She replied, so the story goes, “even this cup and saucer.” And then she brought this object into being. Found objects could be images too. In the collage books of the German artist Max Ernst, images clipped from pamphlets and ads populate his narratives with chimera or swim up through layers of gouache like steeping scraps of childhood memories. Other works include forms of ethnographic photographs such as the ‘konkombwa’ corn silo that Ernst transformed into part elephant part war machine. A photograph of an African village turned on its side and misinterpreted as an image of a Picasso portrait catalyzed Salvador Dali’s so-called ‘paranoiac critical method’, a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena, or in other words, umm, make a science of your madness? Like other avant-gardes before it, surrealism drew inspiration from non-western or so-called primitive cultures which for them provided an alternative set of aesthetic and social values. Surrealist exhibitions often incorporated objects from other cultures alongside their own inventions. But for the Surrealists these cultures were not simply a timeless other they identified their movement as anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist. Mounting an anti-colonial exhibition and publishing pamphlets to protest the racist and imperial presumptions of the 1931 colonial exhibition in Paris. The surrealist interest in the uncanny is a key ingredient in the persistence of and why we just can’t forget many of these images. Freud explained it as something that seems both familiar and strange at the same time. For the surrealist, this meant combining ordinary things in extraordinary ways, but it also meant the appearance of ghosts, masks, robots, and dolls. These were doubles for the living, human-like but not human. It also meant this pipe which may look like a pipe but it’s also not a pipe. It’s a double or a depiction of a pipe. Photography, which can itself be seen as a process of doubling, was especially good at generating the uncanny effect. It could be manipulated with multiple exposures and infinitely reproduced. Claude Cahun’s photos often engaged in uncanny doubling while also playing on the performance and fluidity of identity, often in collaboration with her partner Marcel Moore. This practice would prove handy during the forthcoming war when they disguise themselves to sneak into German gatherings and distribute anti-Nazi propaganda. As the threat of national socialism grew and a second world war approached, surrealist in Western Europe dispersed, some going into hiding, others into exile. Breton fled to New York where a critical mass of exiled members staged, in 1942, an exhibition they called ‘First Papers of Surrealism’, referring to the bureaucratic applications of the emigrating artists. Marcel Duchamp strung several hundred feet of twine through the installation ensuring that both the newly arrived artists and those who came to see their work would be confronted by their displaced status. Back in Europe, Juan Miro began a series of paintings on paper just as the war broke out and he fled Paris. Constellations maps a complex network of nodes that appear simultaneously to coalesce into forms and disperse into vectors, testifying to a network that must sustain itself with only traces of absent bodies. While the core European surrealists disbanded, new and related movements emerged abroad. From Mexico City to the Caribbean to New York, where a new generation of artists would soon take up the charge of liberating psychic energies. So the movement largely concluded with World War Two. Many of the tactics of the surrealist bled out into wider culture and began to be used toward commercial ends, leaving behind much of the revolutionary consciousness transforming energy that birthed it. Surrealism left in its wake a wide range of techniques that artists still used today: integrating found objects, experimenting with automatism, or the disorienting effects of collage, and summoning the uncanny body to socially critical ends. Ultimately, the Surrealists believe that if we could find meanings that exist beyond the rational mind, we might be freed from the tyranny of the mundane, of logic, and that we might discover truths more real than reality. What’s more, surrealism gives us a way to think about the connection between individual creative freedom and collective liberation. Even as it reminds us how fragile that connection can be under the rise of fascism, breaking down the boundaries between dreams and waking life, between cultures and between each other, surrealism remains an example of how reimagining ourselves can be the definitive step toward changing our world. In retrospect it may seem naive, but then again, in retrospect everyone looks naive. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.

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