Book review: Surrealism and Painting by Andre Breton

Note: This is not the first book that I read as part of my comps studying, but it is a standard Surrealist text and a good foundation to begin talking about issues in the genre.

Surrealism and Painting is not a single scholarly text, but rather many essays written by Breton from 1928 to 1962. The first two essays are the largest: “Surrealism and Painting” and “Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism.” The rest of the essays are much shorter and were featured either in catalogs or journals of the period. Breton was the so-called founder of Surrealism, which was initially a literary movement. “Surrealism and Painting” was initially a rebuttal against the claim made by the first editor of La révolution surréaliste (the first Surrealist journal) that Surrealism simply cannot exist visually. Breton did not like people treading on his toes and took it upon himself to correct anyone who said something he didn’t like. Childish? Maybe.

“Surrealism and Painting” is the first major essay that Breton wrote in 1928, which set the first outlines of Surrealism in painting, as there had been some doubt that Surrealism could exist outside of the poetic and literary realms. It is important to note, as Mark Polizzotti did in the introduction, that Breton does not define “Surrealist painting,” but rather Surrealism IN painting. His “definition” is additionally vague and leaves it open-ended as to who could or couldn’t be considered Surrealist (which I think he did intentionally so that he alone could reserve the right to declare who HE though was Surrealist. More on his narcissism later). The most important thing to remember is that the European tyranny of the traditionalist, realistic portrayal in art was limiting (or, as I wrote in my notes, “mere imitation is the pansy choice”), and Breton wanted to turn to a purely internal model. It is one’s inner vision that let’s one see what cannot be seen. There was no set aesthetic—the visual aesthetic did not matter to Breton. Ideally, this internal model would be accessed through automatic techniques: unconscious application of paint that (again) revealed something that cannot ordinarily be seen in reality.

He spends much of “Surrealism and Painting” talking about the various artists he believed exemplified Surrealist aims, though you can definitely tell which ones had angered him already and which ones hadn’t: for example, he points out that a great debt is owed to Giorgio di Chirico, but only his works made between 1912 to 1917/18 (after this point, he had begun recycling ideas and “sold himself out.” Breton particularly hated people who concerned themselves with money and day jobs, which he believed took people away from what was important: discovering the inner self). On the opposite side, he is absolute enamored with Max Ernst, who admittedly embodied all of the original tenants of Surrealism (and Dadaism, for that matter).

“Surrealism and Painting”’s follow-up essay is “Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism,” which was written in 1945—after Surrealism became more or less global (which means that it jumped the pond with World War II and landed in the US and Mexico. There was also a small following in Japan, but not during WWII, as Japan reverted back to a patriotic, nationalist aesthetic). “Artistic Genesis” more or less recalls what he said in the first essay, but the roster of artists changed somewhat. Breton reserved the right to declare whom he thought was a Surrealist, and he also reserved the right to excommunicate anyone (in mock trials, no less) who went against his ideas. Dalí, for example, was excommunicated in 1939 because he became a sell-out.

Breton also analyzes how previous modern movements such as Futurism and Cubism contributed to breaking past the confines of reality, though he clearly holds Cubism (specifically Picasso) in much more esteem than Futurism. And then Dada, which he was also a part of, REALLY went against traditionalism. But it was Surrealism that broke through. One of my favorite quotes in this essay is: “The powers of the imagination can never be harnessed, and they resist all attempts to reduce them to mere advertising slogans. Whoever yields himself wholeheartedly to these powers very soon takes pride in things other than the little vanities of immediate ‘success’” (76). Much to my relief, he finally concedes that automatism is not unsullied by pre-meditation, though he still prefers it to other artistic techniques. However, he holds Magritte in a special place, who definitely did not utilize automatism, but rather juxtaposed unlike objects and creating a dreamlike state. This seems to almost foreshadow Post-Surrealism.

Frida Kahlo, “What the Water Gave Me.” Breton said he was “seduced” by this painting… SERIOUSLY? That’s ALL he can see about it– that it’s seductive??

The rest of the book is full of essays on artists and the state of the movement itself. Throughout all of them—“Surrealism and Painting” and “Artistic Genesis” included—he clearly LOVES to read his own words. He constantly muses about his feelings, attitudes, and interpretations. In the essay on Frida Kahlo (de Rivera), he spends half of the essay talking about his view of Mexico being this mystical place that is imbued with a magic from the indigenous “primitives,” who are more in touch with the unconscious through their rituals and spirituality (clearly, he didn’t know anything about colonialism). And, like the original movement itself, he is extraordinarily sexist. Again in Frida’s essay, the primary value he sees in her work is its ability to be “seductive” as well as “primitive.” Women to him (and original Surrealism as well) are muses: their sexuality and “naïveté” embody the rawness of Surrealism itself. He rarely ever took women Surrealists seriously until 1939, when the original group began dispersing (and even then, “seriously” is still full of misogynistic scruples). No wonder Kahlo never wanted to refer to herself as a Surrealist…

Perhaps I am a bit biased against Breton because of feminism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and Annette Shandler Levitt (whom I will review soon). His ideas and mentality are clearly a testament to the time and culture in which he was a part of. Personally, I think things get a lot more interesting once Surrealism takes on a life of its own outside of his remarkably overbearing control.

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