Book review: TGGoS by Annette Shandler Levitt

Leonora Carrington, “The Inn of the Dawn Horse” (1937)

Apologies for abbreviating the title– The Genres and Genders of Surrealism— but it is kind of long for a post title in addition to a three-part author’s name. This was the first book I read as part of my comps studying and has been a crucial source in forming my ideas about “non-traditional” Surrealism (and by non-traditional I mean outside of the scope of Breton’s vision: a vision that largely excludes women as active contributors and looks largely at literature and art as being the only media capable of being Surrealist).

Annette Shandler Levitt comes from a different perspective than many Surrealist scholars because one of her specialties is Modern theatre, an area that Andre Breton did not seriously acknowledge. Levitt’s questioning of Breton really makes up the core of the book: she believes that Guillaume Apollinaire was the true founder of Surrealism, that 1917 is its actual starting date, and that Breton took Apollinaire’s ideas and manipulated them under a dictatorial stance that eliminated coherency and joy from the genre. Breton was (initially) so fixated on automatism as the defining characteristic of Surrealism that he could not see the even richer potential of broader dream imagery (though I should note that Rene Magritte seems to have changed his mind somewhat on this factor). Furthermore, though Breton may have been relatively open-minded when it came to not adhering to a specific aesthetic to define Surrealism, he was very closed-minded when it came to Surrealist theatre, which Levitt believes is the most rich (Breton also believed that poetry was the strongest genre in Surrealism, whereas Levitt believes it is the weakest). Her own scholarly point of view is extremely clear because she is so opinionated in her writing. 

The book is broken down into four parts: an argument for Apollinaire and other seminal figures (such as Cocteau) shunned by Breton as being the true creators of Surrealism; Surrealism in the theatre and popular media (i.e. television, film); women in Surrealism (Nadja vs. Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, and Dorothea Tanning); and the state of Surrealism today. I focused mainly on women in Surrealism and “contemporary Surrealism,” as theatre is not relevant to any of my own studies. I am going to focus most of this post on these subjects, except for Nadja, as I already referenced Levitt’s stance on the novel heavily in a previous post.

Apollinaire saw magic in everyday life. He invented the term “sur-realisme” (or super-realism) in 1917 and defined it as: “[a] new spirit… this union of painting and dance– of plastic and mime– which heralds the advent of a more complete art” (11). Levitt differentiates this “other” Surrealism by referring to it as Ur-Surrealism. Jean Cocteau’s play “Parade” was a very controversial ballet-Vaudeville hybrid that caused a lot of uproar that year, shocking viewers with its mixing of genres. According to Levitt, shock allows viewers to “transcend the normal separation between conscious and unconscious (or dream) perception/vision in order to reach– if only for an instant– the surreal” (12).  Apollinaire was a bit mentally and emotionally unstable due to needing trapanation from shrapnel in his skull; this eventually killed him in 1918, which gave Breton 6 years to mull over his ideas and transform it into the Surrealism we largely acknowledge today.

My favorite quote from the book comes from the introduction (which is, of course, the most important part of any scholarly work because it nicely summarizes the entire book): “… Surrealism is neither Breton’s creation nor his creature. It has greater breadth and depth than he envisioned; it involves the arts of more creators than those who met Breton’s approval” (4). There are those who believe that Surrealism began in 1924 with Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism, that Surrealism faded after World War II, and that it completely died as a movement with Breton in 1966. Some of my professors, who shall remain nameless, also believe this stance. I don’t believe it at all, and not just because my thesis revolves around a contemporary Surrealist artist. There is too much evidence that it never died, not only through its continuing influence in artists like Cindy Sherman and Louise Bourgeois, but also because there are artists who are still active in creating Surrealist work. Surrealism is international, has embedded itself in contemporary art, and is universal. This quote also pertains to the contributions of women Surrealists, whom Breton did not take seriously until the height of the movement began to wane during WWII.

Dorothea Tanning, “Birthday” (1942)

Levitt believes that the most exciting creators in Surrealism were those who were exiled by Breton, self-exiled, or did not want to be classified as Surrealists. In her view, some of the best creators were the female Surrealists, who were their own muses (as opposed to men, who needed women to inspire their work). In a way, they have dual identities. The work of these women is self-referential, either directly or indirectly, and they took great liberties with the ideas that Breton had proposed by using dream imagery to find themselves. Leonora Carrington utilized themes and imagery from Irish folklore, which had been recounted to her as a child. Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning were very interested in ideas of transformation and metamorphoses. As Levitt most aptly states: “The women artists of Surrealism teach us as they themselves learn about connection, communication, transformation– not in naive, romanticized ways but with sophisticated and challenging ideas and techniques– offering us a wisdom that may provide deeper mythologies and vaster cultures” (111).

Levitt concludes her book with a bit of a diatribe on how Surrealist work needs to be political and evoke a strong emotional response through its shock-value, which is what defined Surrealism in the first place. She claims that most “Surrealist” works today are “feeble copyists… But both the shame and the few truly Surrealist works of more recent years attest to the continuation of the philosophical/artistic bent of the originals and– far more disturbingly– to the conditions of a world that continues to require such a response” (132). She believes that art today is too watered down because artists are afraid of pushing the envelope.

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