Catalog review: Undercover Surrealism

Cover of Un Cadavre, Paris (1930)

Too many bloody idealists. –Georges Bataille (on the “orthodox” Surrealists)

Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and DOCUMENTS was the catalog associated with the exhibition “Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miro, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille,” which showed at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2006. It sought to re-examine the works of many well-known Surrealists (or at least artists admired by Surrealists) and present them in a different light. As evidenced by the title, the exhibition and catalog revolved around Georges Bataille’s eclectic journal DOCUMENTS, of which 15 issues were published between 1929 and 1930. It examined art, ethnography, archaeology, film, photography, and pop culture, with a particular emphasis on “violence, sacrifice and seduction through which art was ‘brought down’ to the level of other kinds of objects” (11). This directly opposed orthodox Surrealism, which saw art and poetry as elevated expressions of unconscious thought and used somewhat roundabout ways (i.e. automatism) to circumvent conscious image-making control.

Georges Bataille, who was decidedly unafraid of confrontational and disturbing imagery, had (somewhat unwittingly) become the leader of the “dissident Surrealists,” which was comprised of people who had either rejected Andre Breton’s idealized version of Surrealism or had been excommunicated by Breton himself for opposing/questioning his doctrines. Unsurprisingly, Bataille himself had become Breton’s arch-nemesis early on in the development of Surrealism because he viewed Breton to be too idealistic, whereas Bataille was all about the base materialism of the genre. He also preferred to see Surrealism address the unconventional– homosexuality, the uber perverse, etc– the exotic, and the macabre; Breton, on the other hand, was more focused on the notions of the ideal, heterosexual love and automatism. Bataille is frequently referred to as “the enemy within Surrealism” in the catalog, and Breton hated Bataille so much that he actually dedicated several scathing pages to him in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism (he also called him a “staid librarian” at some point, referring to Bataille’s day job); Bataille was equally bitchy and took every opportunity in DOCUMENTS and elsewhere to express his distaste with Breton. Continue reading


Ryan Lochte and “Surrealist nature art”

Note: Before everyone yells at me for being “unpatriotic” or anti-Olympics, know that this piece is not a commentary on Ryan Lochte as an athlete, because there is no denying that he is an amazing swimmer. It is rather more of an analysis of what he coins as his “Surrealist nature art” and the implications of declaring oneself (or one’s artwork) as Surrealist.

An example of Ryan Lochte’s “Surrealist nature art”

A couple days ago, posted an article called “10 Reasons Why Ryan Lochte is America’s Sexiest Douchebag,” which was brought to my attention by a fellow grad student. This article makes a pretty convincing argument for his douchebaggery, noting that his signature phrase is “Jeah!” (which is obviously cool because it’s “Yeah!” with a J instead of a Y) and his constant need to wear a bejeweled grill on his teeth when accepting his medals (and which he has been forced to remove because it is not a part of the official Team USA uniform). However, douchey as he may be, what really piqued my interest in this article was the brief discussion of his “Surrealist nature art.” I particularly enjoyed the following quote:

[it] looks a lot like stuff the pothead next to you in psych 101 drew when he was super bored.

I could not have said it better myself. Though the Surrealists certainly enjoyed their recreational drugs on occasion, which helped them access the subconscious, this particular “artwork” has nothing to do with Surrealism. How do I know that? Because Surrealism is so much more than dream imagery– or in this case, drug imagery.  Continue reading

Essay review: Speaking with a Forked Tongue: ‘Male’ Discourse in ‘Female’ Surrealism? by Robert J. Belton

Valentine Hugo, “Untitled (Object of Symbolic Function)” (1931)

… we have discovered the issue of methodology itself to be deeply problematic in such a socially crucial area. It is necessary, in a word, to learn to speak with a forked tongue. And since we have no metalanguage with which to characterize absolutely where the female Surrealists stand, what we must do is remain eternally vigilant to our own psychological social, ideological, and methodological preoccupations. (60)

This essay was included in the anthology Surrealism and Women, which was edited by Surrealist scholar-extraordinaire Mary Ann Caws as well as Rudolf Kuenzli and Gwen Raaberg and deals with various postmodern issues in the study of Surrealism. Belton confronted a big issue in a relatively short paper: how can we objectively discuss the work of female artists in a genre that is dominated by male rhetoric? As we have seen in previous works, Whitney Chadwick, for example, is all for seeing Surrealism as a joyous outlet for women artists. This outlet not only allowed them to finally express themselves in a less restricted way, but also (in Chadwick’s view) paved the way for feminism. Belton was much less optimistic in his views– he wastes no time in mentioning Chadwick’s views, which indicates to me that he clearly wants to refute them– and wants the reader to recognize that women and Surrealism is a difficult combination to discuss. Continue reading

Essay review: No More Play by Rosalind Krauss

Any artist’s work can be seen from the vantage of either two, possibly conflicting, perspectives. One of these looks at the oeuvre from within the totality of the individual. The other regards it, far more impersonally, within a historical dimension, which is to say, comparatively, in relation to the work of others and the collective development of a given medium. Often these two perspectives overlap… In Giacometti’s case this is not so. (73)

Alberto Giacometti, “Invisible Object” (1934)

“No More Play” is an essay in the anthology Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths by Rosalind Krauss. I read this particular essay for one of my major questions that deals with Andre Breton vs. Georges Bataille’s perspectives on Surrealism. In this essay, Krauss looks at the art of Alberto Giacometti, specifically in the years leading up to 1934 when he utilized primitivism in his work. She starts with an account (or rather several) about his sculpture “Invisible Object.” She first begins by recounting a rather orthodox-Surrealist story told by Andre Breton about Giacometti being drawn to a mask at a flea market that helped resolve the conflict he was having with the sculpture he was working on. The finding of this mask functioned as a dream, for the dream frees one from emotional scruples. However, in a 1951 catalog of a survey exhibition of Giacometti’s work, Michel Leiris wrote that the piece was sculpted after “‘a young girl with knees half-bent as though offering herself to the beholder'” (43). This reference to a real-world inspiration goes against Breton’s dream-world assumptions because it puts the object at a transparent level to the observable world, which also reflects the attitude of postwar Paris. Breton’s story is suspicious anyway because the piece alludes so clearly to a figure from the Solomon Islands, evidenced in its posture, jut of the head, and shape of breasts. Krauss uses this sculpture as a springboard to talk about the larger issues of the role of primitivism in Giacometti’s art up until 1934, which freed his work from the classical sculptural tradition and Cubism. This primitivism is in accordance with Georges Bataille’s dissident Surrealism, which was arguably transgressive.  Continue reading

Book review: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick

Leonora Carrington, “The Juggler” (1954)

I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist. (Leonora Carrington)

I have to admit, I was not nearly as impressed with this book as I thought I would be. My anticipation was framed by two factors: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement was the first comprehensive look at the women artists associated with Surrealism (notice that I don’t say “Surrealist women artists,” as not all of the women in the book considered themselves Surrealists. Chadwick makes the distinction that these were women who were at one time affiliated with Surrealism in some capacity and had careers that were not reliant on Breton or Surrealism). Also, this book was one of the primary sources behind the In Wonderland exhibition and catalog, which is unsurprising considering that she was one of the curators/contributors to the catalog.

This book was written between 1980 and 1985. I found Chadwick’s writing to be informative, but poorly structured: I felt like I was following a mostly linear train of thought that she managed to break apart into six chapters, but there was little to no framing. Perhaps an introductory chapter that cohesively explains the book with nice summaries of each chapter is a relatively new requirement of scholarly work. And so are introductions and conclusions to each chapter, for that matter. What does this have to do with the actual content of the book? Not a damn thing, I just thought you all should know that the book was frustrating and that I am going to make sure my master’s thesis has a good abstract, introduction, conclusion, and that I properly frame my chapters.

Chadwick’s aim with her book is to make the women artists associated with Surrealism more accessible to study, and she claims to not want to isolate them as women artists, nor define them solely by their connection to the movement. It is debatable if she actually is successful in either of these aims, as her book ends up being somewhat essentialist and does not go too far outside of Surrealism to discuss the wider work of these artists. Chadwick prefaces her book with the confession that the histories of the women artists affiliated with “first generation” Surrealism were often difficult to distinguish because they were/are overshadowed by the histories of Surrealist men. These women more often than naught were remembered as muses to their male counterparts, but the fact that they continued in their own careers after the original group dissipated nullifies the idea that her role as muse outweighed her role as artist. Furthermore, the light that feminism shed on women artists particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s made it all the more important to address the women artists affiliated with Surrealism (even though Chadwick denies that this is a feminist retelling of the first generation of Surrealism). This book was the first time a woman attempted to address the “real” history of these women. This history is complicated, fragmented, often contradictory, and difficult to relay (which is definitely obvious in her piecemeal retelling of parts of different artist’s stories throughout the chapters).  Continue reading

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)

Continue reading

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