Visual Arts Director for the Kurilpa Institute of Creativity, Shane Kneipp, preps us for the Kurilpa Poets 27th April tribute to the Surrealist Classics of yesteryear with this learned discourse..
the Poetry of the Id
Although Surrealism in many ways grew out of the earlier Dada movement, it had wildly different aims and objectives.
Dada had largely been a reaction to the cretinous slaughter of the First World War. Its practitioners engaged in a joyous anarchic chaos, firmly convinced that nothing could be more chaotic or senseless than the meaningless carnage of an entire generation of Europe’s young.
Dada largely attempted to avoid any specifically official line on the grounds that it was open to individual interpretation. The one country where Dada did get politically involved was Germany, where, in the political chaos at the end of WW1, there was a strong polarity between left and right, and it was virtually impossible to avoid taking sides.
The official leftist parties however viewed Dada as a pack of raving ratbags and largely distanced themselves. Despite this the Dadaists became the most trenchant visual critics of Weimar Germany, as can be seen in the works of such artists as George Grosz, Hannah Hoch, Otto Dix and John Heartman. Hannah Hoch, Montage
Surrealism was from the start a much more focussed movement than Dada. It had a specific aim, no less than total human liberation, both spiritual and physical. Unlike Dada, which eschewed the very concept of leaders, Surrealism had at its head a man who was so very much in charge that he has often been referred to as “the Surrealist Pope”, André Breton.
During WW1 he worked as a medical orderly in a neurological ward in Nantes, which treated victims of shell-shock. Many of these poor wretches reacted to the hell of the trenches by retreating into imaginary worlds. Acquainted with the theories of Sigmund Freud, Breton was greatly impressed by what he saw as the unconscious mind’s attempt to gain control over the conscious world.
This would lead to a rather unfortunate tendency among the Surrealists to romanticise the state of mind of people perceived as insane while overlooking the fact that mental instability is generally far from romantic for those suffering from it.
Toward the end of the war, Breton became involved with the Paris Dada group, whose leading lights included the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and the artists Francis Picabia and Man Ray. Breton however became increasingly unhappy with Dada’s formlessness. In 1919 he founded a magazine, Littérature with fellow poets Louis Aragon and Phillipe Soupault. Many of their first experiments with surrealism (a term “borrowed” from poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire) were published in this forum.
They began experimenting with “automatic writing” attempting to create unconsciously without the intervention of the conscious mind. (Similar experiments with automatic writing had been undertaken by poets such as William Butler Yeats, but with radically different aims. The Surrealists were attempting to communicate with the unconscious, Yeats, an ardent spiritualist, was attempting to communicate with the dead. All in all, you probably stand a better chance of getting through to the subconscious, but I couldn’t swear to it.)
In 1920 Breton and Soupault published Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) a book written using automatic techniques, in which the chapter divisions are marked by the point where one writer has stopped and the other has taken up the text. A typical paragraph in (an English language version of) Les Champs Magnetiques is:
It was the end of sorrow lies.
The rail stations were dead, flowing like bees stung from honeysuckle.
The people hung back and watched the ocean, animals flew in and out of focus. The time had come.
Yet king dogs never grow old – they stay young and fit, and someday they might come to the beach
and have a few drinks, a few laughs, and get on with it.
But not now.
The time had come;
we all knew it.
But who would go first?
Although seemingly disjointed, one suspects that the authors had not entirely surrendered full conscious control.
Another huge influence on Surrealist technique was a 19th century poet, Isidore Ducasse who wrote under the name le Comte de Lautréamont. In 1869 Ducasse published the first segment of his most notorious work, a long, rather murky prose poem entitled Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror).
(Amongst other adventurings, at one point he leaps into the ocean and fucks a shark, say what you like about evil, it definitely has balls!) The only known photograph of le Compte de Lautréamont. After Ducasse’s death Les Chants de Maldoror sank into obscurity until 1919, when Phillipe Soupault came across a copy at a Paris bookstall. For the Surrealists the book immediately became canonical.
One phrase in particular enthralled them –
As beautiful as the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.
(Some translations say operating table.) Regardless of the variety of table involved, this quickly became the Surrealist’s visual ideal, the chance meeting of disparate objects on a neutral plane. The first person to fully realise this ideal however, was Italian, and he had done so long before he ever heard of Les Chants de Maldoror.
Part2 of this essay will appear next week…