Surrealism; Poetry from the Id, Part 2

 KICI Art Director Shane Kneipp winds up his exhumation of the Surrealist movement

surreaalist elephant tuba

SURREALISM- Poetry of the Id. Part2

 

Giorgio di Chirico (1888-1978) was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. At a time when the visual avant-garde was dominated by Cubism, Futurism and abstraction, di Chirico was the person who re-introduced representational art as a major player in the visual language of modernism.

In 1911, di Chirico spent a few days in the northern Italian city of Turin. He was struck, both by the clarity of the autumn light and the staginess of the city’s squares and plazas. As the critic Robert Hughes noted, what impressed him was not the permanence of classical Italian architecture, but its theatricality. At a time when the Italian Futurists were deploring the old Roman, medieval and Renaissance Italy and celebrating everything new, di Chirico’s painting reeked of nostalgia, but it was a nostalgia soaked in dread and melancholy,(a word that bobs up more than once in the titles of his works). . It is art that speaks of alienation and loss, along with a sense of mystery and apprehension.

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The other main theme of di Chirico’s work was the mannequin. Here the recognisable individual has disappeared, replaced by a mute dummy, a composite of objects and mathematical devices, T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men.

Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

Di Chirico’s work was immensely influential and inspired practically every major Surrealist artist with the possible exception of Joan Miró. Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguey, Man Ray, along with many others, all owed (and acknowledged) an enormous debt to di Chirico. In the early 1920’s di Chirico repudiated all his early work and started painting in a more traditional style.

surrealist fish

Although the Surrealists were hailing him rapturously as a Grand Master, he totally spurned their overtures. In later life, when strapped for cash, di Chirico would knock up a copy of one of his earlier metaphysical paintings, and sell it as an old work that he “happened to find under his bed”. Roman art dealers joked that his bed must have been a good two metres off the floor.

There was one artist above all (who also owed a debt to di Chirico) who became totally associated in the public mind with Surrealism and that was a Catalan named Salvador Dali. Dali was a man hell-bent on fame. He was also in the words of Robert Hughes, “… a great embarrassment, with the political views of Torquemada, the greed of a barracuda and the vanity of an old drag queen.”

A typically flaccid Dali painting

A typically flaccid Dali painting

Dali was the Id dragged screaming onto canvas. He had read and absorbed Freud and used him to illustrate his own considerable neuroses. The human body for Dali is an object of disgust, a vehicle of flaccidity and decay. Spanish Catholicism was probably as much an influence as Freud.

In 1929, Dali painted Le Jeu Lugubre (The Lugubrious Game) as his entrée into the Surrealist group. It caused a goodly degree of commotion, the main bone of contention being the man in the foreground with faeces-spattered underpants.

A solemn forum was convened to debate the issue of whether shit was an appropriate image of the subconscious. Dali contended-with a fair degree of right on his side, that you had to take the good with the bad, and lets face it, the subconscious is fairly swimming in shit. Dali won the day, and admittance to the group, but it would certainly not be the last time that the foetid imagery welling up from his turbid mind would create embarrassment and dissension.

 

As well as being a highly talented painter, Dali had a manic genius for publicity and provocation. He set out to fix himself firmly in the public mind as the face of Surrealism and he succeeded. These stunts could on occasion backfire, such as the time in London where he set out to deliver a lecture entitled Fantômes paranoiaques authentiques (Authentic paranoiac phantoms) whilst wearing a deep-sea diving suit. Unfortunately Dali had neglected to arrange to have someone actually supply oxygen to the suit, and he nearly suffocated before the helmet was unscrewed. Never mind, it merely added to the legend.

In 1931 Dali painted a work that was to become the Mona Lisa or Sunflowers of Surrealism, a painting tattooed into the public consciousness. The Persistence of Memory is only a small work, 24×33 centimetres, but its impact was huge. Flaccidity, one of Dali’s favourite themes predominates as the watches hang like “runny Camembert in the sun” to quote Dali himself. One watch is draped over a stylised self-portrait, Dali himself in a state of cheesy surrender. This painting achieved immediate fame and placed Dali firmly on the road to art super stardom.

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Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Dali intended to exploit his notoriety to usurp Breton as leader of the Surrealists, but he underestimated the loyalty of the members of the group to Breton. In 1937, a “trial” was held and Dali was expelled from the group. This was ostensibly as a reaction to Dali’s Fascist leanings, (which were considerable, he supported Franco for a start), but it was equally likely that Breton was alarmed by the threat to his leadership. Breton may have won the battle, but Dali won the war. As far as the public at large was concerned, Dali was Surrealism. As time went by his work lost its former manic intensity and started merely going through the motions. Dali himself could always be counted on to provided good copy.

MEanwhile,Breton was keen to reconcile Surrealism’s message of personal liberation with the revolutionary theories of Karl Marx and in 1927, he joined the French Communist Party, along with other members of the group. It was not a happy relationship.

Socialist Realism was the officially preferred Party art and to achieve this aim Stalin had brutally repressed what had been a thriving and dynamic Russian avant-garde. As far as the Party was concerned Surrealism was the expression of “bourgeois individualism”. Breton was expelled from the Party in 1934. Things got worse the following year. The Surrealists were delegates at at the first “International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture”. The leader of the Soviet delegation was a writer named Ilya Ehrenburg.

Ehrenburg had violently attacked the Surrealists in a pamphlet, amongst other things calling them “pederasts”. Breton quarrelled with Ehrenburg and slapped him several times publicly in the middle of a Parisian street.

.surrealist gold fish bowl

Strong as the desire is to bitch-slap Stalinist hacks, it is hardly the way to win hearts and minds. The Surrealists were expelled from the Congress, completing their total split from the Communist Party. It was not a clean split. One of the Surrealists, the poet René Crevel was an ardent Communist but was also devoted to Breton.

Unable to reconcile this dichotomy and learning he had cancer, he gassed himself to death. In 1938 Breton irreconcilably burned his bridges with the Party. Travelling to Mexico as part of a French cultural mission, he befriended Stalin‘s arch-foe Leon Trotsky.

trotsky and sureealist

Together he and Trotsky wrote a manifesto, Pour un art révolutionnaire indépendent (For an Independent Revolutionary Art), although it was signed by Breton and Mexican artist Diego Rivera. In it they express the need for art to be an integral part of revolution, denounced fascism, Hitler and Stalin and called for a coalition between Marxists and anarchists.

After the Second World War Breton moved towards Anarchism, writing in 1952, “It was in the black mirror of Anarchism that Surrealism first recognised itself.”

Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and André Breton, Mexico 1938

Despite its many strengths, Surrealism had obvious flaws. Although there were many superb female Surrealist artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Toyen and Remedios Varo, Surrealism was very much a boys club. Women existed as sexual and artistic Muses, or were dehumanised as sexual fetishes, such as Hans Bellmer’s the Doll. Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (The Doll), 1936 Dorothea Tanning, The Guest Room, 1952 Toyen, The Shooting Gallery, 1940

The Surrealists were also violently homophobic. (This was obviously one of the main reasons that Ehrenburg’s accusation of pederasty so offended Breton.) It was a resolutely hetero club, which created immense difficulties for members such as the unfortunate René Crevel who was expelled in 1923 because of his bisexuality, before being permitted to rejoin in 1929.

Breton’s homophobia was intensified by his intense hatred of Jean Cocteau, one of the leading gay artists and intellectuals in Paris at that time. Breton saw Cocteau as a dilettante who constantly ripped off Surrealist ideas. With the outbreak of World War 2, many of the leading Surrealists fled France, justifiably fearing their chances of survival under the Nazis.

Breton and others ended up in New York. Surrealist painters such as Roberto Matta and Max Ernst, who both ended up in America, had a considerable influence on such upcoming American artists as Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollack. When Breton returned to Paris after the war he soon found that Surrealism was yesterday’s news.

Sensible as fleeing the Nazis was, people who stayed and resisted such as Albert Camus and Jean- Paul Satre were seen as occupying the moral high ground. Existentialism soon emerged as the leading philosophy of the post-war era. Undaunted, Breton carried on keeping the faith alive until his death in 1966.

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WhatIsSurrealism

Although Surrealism is long dead as a movement, its ghost is still rattling chains in the attic of the Collective Unconscious. From the Sixties on, its ideas are firmly embedded in the fabric of popular culture. Its stylistic influence on film for example can be seen in works is diverse as Yellow Submarine and Eraserhead. In music Acid Rock was obviously influenced by Surrealism and much of the more modern Techno/Trance music’s Sound is the aural equivalent to Dali’s Melting Watches.

What would most have warmed the cockles of Breton’s heart was the influence the spirit of Surrealism played in the popular uprising of workers and students in Paris in May, 1968. There, on the barricades, protesters flourished red and black banners adorned with the old Surrealist slogans –

 

ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION!

And –

 

BE REALISTIC- DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE!

surrel WINDMILLS

***

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