Flashback Friday: Surrealism

Liberating the unconscious mind’s creative potential since the early 1900s.
Drawing by Léona Delcourt from 1926, featured in ‘Nadja’ by Andre Breton (Gallimard, Paris, 1928)/ Wikimedia Commons

From the April, 1977 issue of High Times comes Rex Weiner’s interesting take on a 20th-century avant-garde movement.

Dada was a defiant No to every thing but Me.

If history may be seen as a metronome swinging between periods of cultivation (chaos) and civilization [order], then surrealism was the civilization of dada culture.

Surrealism, as it was properly practiced by its inventors in the 1920s and 1930s, was a brave forging of art and philosophy into a potent social force.

Today, the word often serves as a cover-up for charlatans, puerile no-talents and cowards. But that’s all right, because surrealism is irrelevant any way. So let’s talk about it.

Life is a pun,” said Tristan Tzara, summing up dadaism, precursor of surrealism. During the years that surrounded the First World War, life in Europe seemed to have little more meaning than a word game in which old men declared war and young men died of poison gas in muddy trenches.

Dada visionary Jacques Vaché once attended a concert dressed in a military uniform the left side of which was French and the right side, German. He pulled a revolver, threatened to shoot randomly into the audience and had to be restrained by admiring dadaist comrades.

Vaché liked American films, especially Westerns. Often he would simply walk into a theater without knowing what film was playing, sit down, watch until he got bored and leave. Vaché neither shook hands nor bid people goodby—terrible manners in France. He claimed he had never made love to his young mistress Louise. He forced her to sit in a corner for hours while he conversed with André Breton; yet he would bow and kiss her hand when she served them tea. Vaché became a dadaist saint after a fatal opium OD.

Tristan Tzara, who died only recently recalls a dada performance: “Marcel Duchamp exhibited a number of pictures, one of which was a drawing done in chalk on a blackboard and erased on the stage; that is to say, the picture was valid for only two hours. As for me, I was announced as Dada and I read aloud a newspaper article while an electric bell kept ringing so that no one could hear what I said. The public became exasperated and shouted, ‘Enough! Enough!’ At the Salle Gaveau, at the Dada Festival, the scandal was also great. For the first time in the of the world, people threw at not only eggs, salads and pennies, but beefsteaks as well. It was a very great success.”

Black humor was a penchant of the dadaists. René Crevel was found dead with a note pinned to his shirt: “Disgusted.”

The dadaists insisted on the supremacy of private visionary experience over art, politics, everything. They had to. Their time was one of fierce destruction for individuals.

It is difficult for us to imagine the impact the dadaists had on their world. We have witnessed atom bombs, underground movies, happenings, instant T-shirts and Donald Duck. But in those days the variety of visual aids was limited. The camera was still a huge event. People had not seen a television test pattern and could be shocked at Francis Picabia’s totally abstract assemblages of painted colors. They were paintings of “nothing.”


Dadaists were fascinated by automatic writing, the totally spontaneous outpouring of words direct from the unconscious mind. Using automatic writing, Jean Arp described the art of Max Ernst: “alarm clocks replaced by earthquakes showers of jordan almonds by showers of hail, the shadow of a man encountering the shadow of a fly causes a flood, thus it is a man who has taught horses to embrace one another like presidents kings or emperors sucking each others beards licking each other’s snouts plunging their tongues into patriotic profundities.”


Opium was a great favorite with the surrealists. They used it to bypass the ego and release the pure art of the inner self. Jean Cocteau on his opium habit: “It is difficult to live without opium after having known it, because it is difficult, after knowing opium, to take earth seriously. And unless one is a saint, it is difficult to live without taking the earth seriously.” If LSD had been invented in the 1920s, the surrealists would surely have preferred it.


The Caesar of surrealism was André Breton. He issued the manifestoes defining surrealism and decided who was in the movement and who was out. Breton’s ex-communications and resurrections were frequent. He was not beyond physical violence, often assaulting those who disagreed with or criticized him or his friends. The history of the surrealist movement is a list of feuds and alliances, all swirling around Breton. It was a serious business, a matter of life and death.

The first surrealist manifesto was issued by Breton in Paris in 1924. From their Bureau of Surrealist Research at 15 Rue de Grenelle, the surrealists sent out batches of bulletins called “butterflies” to all parts of the city: “If you like love, you’ll like surrealism.” “Parents! Tell your dreams to your children.”


Surrealism. noun. Pure psychic automatism by which one intends to express verbally, in writing or by any other method the real functioning of the mind. Dictation by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason and beyond any esthetic or moral preoccupation.

“Philosophically, surrealism is based on a belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of dreams, in the undirected play of thought.”
The First Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton

The Surrealist Dogma

  1. Dreams and the subconscious mind reveal Truth. Drugs, automatic writing, hypnosis and sensory stimulation are means by which we reach this truth.
  2. “There is a certain point for the mind from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low cease being perceived as contradictions.” (Breton)
  3. The division of humanity and “nature” is only appearance. We glimpse their union in the action of “chance” or “coincidence.”
  4. Formal rules of art must be destroyed.
  5. Once freed from the ego, we are able to contact the primeval myths of mankind which live permanently within the self, a place where love and death wage constant battle for possession of the soul.

The early surrealists went through a phase known as l’époque des sommeils (“sleep period”) when there was a great interest in dreams as a source of strange new images for art and poetry. Robert Desnos learned to fall asleep at will and to recall his adventures in brilliant detail.

Desnos had a heavy opium habit and was obsessed with death and suicide. In 1923, he swore he’d kill Jean Cocteau. He heard his enemy would be at a dinner party honoring Ezra Pound at the Place de l’Odéon. Not finding Cocteau there, Desnos whipped out a large knife to kill Pound instead.

During the epoque des sommeils, Andre Breton held large parties where everyone was hypnotized. At one such affair, he awoke at 2 a.m. to find the guests had disappeared. He searched the house, and in the dining room he discovered René Crevel urging two entranced young women with wires tied around their necks to hang themselves from a chandelier. In the kitchen he had to subdue Desnos, who was chasing his best friend, Paul Eluard, around the table with a meat cleaver. After that night, there was no more hypnotism at parties.


Picasso said, “I don’t look for it, I find it.”


Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault started a craze for Nick Carter mystery novels among the surrealists, while the novel as an art form underwent attack because the surrealists saw the logical structure of novelistic realism as a restriction of the imagination. Time and space, in surrealist philosophy, were fluid, not linear. When France’s greatest and most loved novelist, Anatole France, died in 1924, Breton and his circle issued The Cadaver, a scathing and vicious pamphlet about him that shocked the nation.


Surrealist writer Jacques Rigaut used to carry a tiny scissors everywhere. While talking to the doorman at the Ritz Hotel, Rigaut would quietly snip off a uniform button for his collection. He had hundreds of buttons from generals, politicians, dukes and beggars he chanced to meet along the Seine. Rigaut also was an opium fiend.


The opening line of André Breton’s Nadja, the first surrealist antinovel, is “Who am I?”

By 1928, surrealism was a fullblown movement. Its poets, Eluard and Aragon, were published and read. Art dealers sold the works of de Chirico, Ernst, Masson. But another intellectual movement diametrically opposed surrealism: a popular return to Catholicism. Many French writers and artists—Maritain, Massis, even Cocteau—were showing up at Mass. The surrealists attacked this religious revival as a false solution to modern problems.


“The next step from dadaism was communism,” says critic Edmund Wilson. Indeed, Breton sought for many years to reconcile the two. While staying at the house of Diego Rivera in 1938, Breton met Leon Trotsky. They collaborated on a manifesto titled “Toward an Independent Revolutionary Art,” but Trotsky would not allow his signature on it. Ten years later, Breton’s old friend Tristan Tzara was lecturing at the Sorbonne on surrealism. When Breton heard Tzara condemn the movement they had created together and extol instead the cause of communism and the virtues of art engagé, Breton disrupted the lecture and led a walkout.


The entrance of Salvador Dali into the surrealist movement in 1928 was hailed by Breton and the others. Later, Dali would be expelled from the movement by Breton, who anagrammatized the flamboyant Spaniard’s name into “Avida Dollars.” But Dali had entered surrealism through its soft, white underbelly.

“The only difference between me and a madman,” said Dali, “is that I am not mad.” Yet Dali, costumed as a madman, forever crystallized the myth of the “crazy artist.” He defined his “paranoiac-critical method” as the “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based upon the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations.” He claimed his art was the product of a transcendent self in the throes of temporary insanity. Dali’s effort was at first sincere, but gradually his images and symbols became cloying and cliche. He perused textbooks on abnormal psychology in search of way-out subjects for his paintings. For a time, Dali bested Breton and his minions at their own studied game. They caught on when he began making money like crazy.


Dali visited Freud in London shortly before the great man’s death. Freud said, “It is not the unconscious I seek in your pictures, but the conscious. While in the pictures of the masters—Leonardo, or Ingres—that which interests me, that which seems mysterious and troubling to me, is precisely the search for unconscious ideas, of an enigmatic order, hidden in the picture, your mystery is manifested outright. The picture is a mechanism to reveal it.”


Sexual liberation was important to surrealists. They issued a pamphlet entitled Hands Off Love in support of Charlie Chaplin during the actor’s prosecution in a paternity case.


Like the great coke-snorting psychologist, Dali is obsessed with sexual repression. Confronted in the late Thirties by Breton, Dali explained his increasingly fascist iconography and his personal fascination with Hitler with a solid surrealist defense: he could not help it if he dreamed of Hitler, if his unconscious self produced such images. Is not the unconscious the surrealist’s paint, brush and canvas?


Surrealism is, by definition, an active antiauthoritarianism. It makes a spectacle of personal liberation but rarely goes beyond it.


Marcel Duchamp declared in 1920 that he had reincarnated himself as a woman named Rrose Selavy (playing on the French c’est la vie), and he often appeared at surrealist functions in drag. The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven used to parade down the streets of Paris dressed in rags, her head ornamented with sardine tins. Bare-bosomed and wearing an Easter bonnet, the baroness is pictured in painter Man Ray’s New York Dada.


The most famous surrealist object—a fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—was produced by Méret Oppenheim.


In the last decade, the Vietnam War and a rigid Establishment provoked an outpouring of spontaneous surrealism in the psychedelic, yippie and women’s movements. André Breton must have laughed in his grave as yippies burned money at the Stock Exchange, feminists burned bras on TV and zippies held a “piss-in“ during a national Democratic convention.

But surrealism has no place in the 1970s, for its lessons have been learned too well. Gurus, est, winning through intimidation, conceptual art, performance art, occult cults, I’m OK-You’re OK, the Polaroid SX70, outcall massage and Dial-a-Joke—all make the old surrealists look tame. The truth is, surrealism is irrelevant today. But in ten years it will happen all over again.

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