Several odd features immediately strike the viewer of this 1929 map first published in a special issue of the Belgian magazine Variétés. As this is a Surrealist Map of the World perhaps this is to be expected.
The most obvious of the divergences is the equatorial line that instead of holding to a straight line wavers and snakes all over the place. Then there is the fact that the Pacific Ocean is the centre of the map instead of the traditional Atlantic. However these changes are only scratching the surface. On closer inspection we find an even more radical re-invention of the world.
Looking at the place names we find that North America now consists of four countries, Alaska, Labrador, the Charlotte Islands and Mexico. The United States and Canada have simply vanished. A smaller South America is reduced to a single country: Peru. Greenland survives pretty much as is. Moving over to Europe a picture begins to emerge of the purpose behind the map. Ireland looms menacingly over a Britain which is now little more than a speck. France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, those colonial powerhouses have been wiped clean away from the map. Paris survives, (one of only two cities mentioned, the other being Constantinople) ironically as the capital of Germany. Germany and Austro-Hungarian Empire divide up Western Europe, Eastern Europe has been absorbed into a truly gigantic Russia. In Asia we find that India has dwindled and Afghanistan, that graveyard of imperial ambition, then and now, has doubled in size. The rest of the map is mainly populated by oversized Polynesian and Pacific islands, most notably a rather cute bear shaped Easter Island, home of the statues so beloved by the surrealists, that is almost the size of South America. In contrast the continents of Africa and Australia have shrunk in proportion.
At first glance the Surrealist Map of the World may seem an innocuous piece of whimsy, however a careful study soon reveals it’s political purpose, re-envisioning the world as if Western civilisation had never been exported to every corner of the globe Preference is given to indigenous cultures, especially to the native cultures that Surrealism felt a special affinity towards, Polynesia and the Americas, and to countries that had experienced recent revolutions, notable Russia and Mexico.
Criticism has been levelled at the Surrealist movement from both the right and the left, and this map of what orthodox Surrealism conceived as the ideal world is certainly no exception. Taken in conjuration with quotes like the following, it is not hard to see why the map has drawn the shocked ire of conservatives:
“Even more than patriotism – which is a quite commonplace sort of hysteria, though emptier and shorter-lived than most – we are disgusted by the idea of belonging to a country at all, which is the most bestial and least philosophic of the concepts to which we are all subjected.. Wherever Western civilization is dominant, all human contact has disappeared, except contact from which money can be made – payment in hard cash.”
Whereas the left has criticized the Orientalizing and romanticizing tendencies of Surrealist doctrine towards native and indigenous people. Frida Kahlo’s annoyance at Andre Breton’s attempts to co-opt her as a Surrealist while she was struggling to forge a recognizable Mexican artistic identity is more than understandable.
However none of the charges against Surrealism take into account the genuine commitment to internationalism and anti-colonialism that most of the major Surrealist showed throughout their careers, and the impact it was to have in the Caribbean and on the Négritude movement.
Surrealism had many flaws and of course it failed in many of its major objectives, however as they wanted nothing less than a completely redrawn map and re-invented reality what chance did they have in succeeding?