Book review: Arcanum 17 by Andre Breton

The Star (17th card in the Major Arcana)

And this light can only be known by way of three paths: poetry, liberty, and love, which should inspire the same zeal and converge to form the very cup of eternal youth, at the least explored and most illuminable spot in the human heart. (97)

As far as I can currently tell, Arcanum 17 is a shockingly undervalued text in the Surrealist canon of literature. My own proctor for my comps, who regularly teaches undergraduate classes in Dada and Surrealism, did not know about this book. It was a major turning point in Andre Breton’s life and in Surrealism, which was largely because his own hot head was finally cooled by WWII and his wife’s departure. This novel is a beautiful mixture of love letter, political pamphlet, myth, and meditation. It is part prose and part poetry, though in keeping with Breton’s transition away from automatic writing to instead rely on verbal imagery to disrupt traditional narrative structure, it is pushed more in the poetry direction. It is therefore difficult to actually read: it is like following his constantly-changing train of thought as he moves from one topic to the next, but all thoughts tie into certain central themes.

This book is about discovering love through loss: his newfound love of the woman who would become his third wife, Elisa, after his second wife, Jacqueline Lamba, left him along with their eight-year-old daughter; also the terrible destruction and darkness in Europe resulting from World War II (from which Breton had fled). Perhaps the most amazing thing about this book is that it is something of a Bretonian pre-feminist manifesto. It the first time that he not only acknowledges women as being as capable as men as artists (which he had never done before, as he had only seen women primarily as muses), but in fact superior:

I say that the time is past when we can be satisfied on this point by mere whims, by more or less shameful concessions; instead, those of us in the arts must pronounce ourselves unequivocally against man and for woman, bring man down from a position of power which, it has been sufficiently demonstrated, he has misused, restore this power to the hands of woman, dismiss all of man’s pleas so long as woman has not yet succeeded in taking back her fair share of that power, not only in art but in life. (62)

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Book review: Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Natalya Lusty

Leonora Carrington, “Green Tea (La Dame Ovale),” 1942

Natalya Lusty takes on three major and somewhat disparate topics in her book Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. However, she brilliantly ties them together through their very disparateness: as a marginal movement (or at least that is how it was regarded/it regarded itself during the throes of Modernism), Surrealism positioned itself to examine other areas of marginality, i.e. the people outside of the bourgeoisie. Politically, feminism was originally a marginal movement and prided itself on being on the outside, as being in such a position allowed a more thorough critique of the (masculine) “norm.” Psychoanalysis, while at the heart of Surrealism, did not necessarily “jibe” with Surrealism (Freud once expressed to Andre Breton that he did not get what the genre wanted), and Surrealism’s tie to psychoanalysis was often tenuous. According to Lusty, “… Surrealism found in psychoanalysis a model on which to develop a theory of creative bound up in the mystery of unconscious desires and associations, a move which sealed the trope of the enigmatic woman as its most potent erotic symbol” (13). Unsurprisingly, feminism outright rejected psychoanalysis. So how does she tie everything together? She looks through the lenses of social and artistic inquiry to find common themes such as violence, parody, and transgression. It is through the tension between these areas that we see their relationships and how they analyze one another.

The book does not limit itself just to the years in which Surrealism was predominant, but rather spans the line dividing Modern and Contemporary art, which inevitably highlights the on-going feminist debates. Lusty spans her arguments from Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) to Cindy Sherman (1954- ), and though feminism did not officially exist when Carrington was creating much of her work, Lusty declares Carrington’s book The Hearing Trumpet as a precursor to feminist revisionist literature. Sherman’s work, which is believed to contain Surrealist overtones and references, has been both admired and chastised by feminist scholars for its treatment (objectification?) of the female body. I did not spend too much time reading about Sherman, as she is outside my area of study. I also did not spend too much time on her discussion of Claude Cahun’s photographic work. I instead focused on Lusty’s chapters comparing The Hearing Trumpet to our favorite work by Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye; I also looked at her analysis of psychoanalyst Joan Riviere’s essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” to Carrington’s story, “The Debutante.”  Continue reading

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.  Continue reading

Book review: Nadja by Andre Breton

A “self-portrait” of Nadja

Andre? Andre? … You will write a novel about me. I’m sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us… (100)

Andre Breton may be many things– hyper-masculine, self-absorbed, controlling, and a bit of a womanizer– but the following must be conceded: he is a beautiful writer. The best contemporary comparative description I have for his writing style is “cinematic”: in his sequences in which he is walking around Paris, you are full of feeling and almost forget that you are reading words. It is almost as though you are with him and are drinking in the sights and sounds of 1926 Paris. I was irresistibly reminded of how I feel when I watch “Amelie,” with its warm colors, intriguing characters, and quirky situations. But I digress.

Nadja is somewhere between an autobiography and historical fiction with a hint of magical realism. It is first and foremost a love story, but the big question is whom the object of affection is. The simple answer is the titular character, Nadja, a beautiful and intriguing woman whom Breton (writing both as the narrator and playing a main character) becomes obsessively infatuated with for 10 days. However, Nadja is full of many Surrealist ideas, thus raising the question if she is Surrealism itself. When Breton first meets her, he asks, “Who are you?” to which she answers, “I am the soul in limbo.” Nadja lives by intuition and sees the world differently than even Breton, who is arguably logical and reliant on reality (and if you’ve read the First Manifesto of Surrealism, you know that “reality” represents everything that is wrong with people. Lots of irony right there). The two contradictory ways of thinking lend to an interesting revelation about Breton himself, whom the book REALLY is about, making Nadja more of a secondary character and a conduit to the author/character’s own self-knowledge (of which he is both welcoming and terrified). Continue reading

Exhibition/Catalog review: In Wonderland (LACMA)

An innovative way to help corral patrons while referencing Marcel Duchamp’s installation in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition.

I saw this exhibition– its complete title being “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States“– at LACMA in late March. However, if you want to see it now, it is in Quebec until September 3, 2012. According to the catalog, this is the first exhibition of its kind that looks at how Surrealism inspired women artists in America and Mexico in the mid-20th century. My primary motivations in going to the exhibition were to see how its proposed ideas could inform my thesis and buy the catalog for my bibliography. Plus, I wanted to see the work of so many of my artist-heroes in one place!

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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. Continue reading