The painter, writer and occultist Ithell Colquhoun became acquainted with the Surrealist movement in 1938 and it was to forever change her direction as an artist, even though she was only formally a member of the British Surrealist Group for one brief year before being expelled for her refusal to quit several secret societies that she belonged to.
After her encounter with Surrealism Colquhoun would experiment with several Surrealist automatic techniques including decalcomania, fumage, frottage and collage, as well as inventing new techniques such as entopic graphomania and parsemage. Her painting Scylla makes use of Dali’s paranoiac-critical method, resulting in a double image that is both a painting that references the Greek legend of the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis and a phantasmagorical vision of Colquhoun taking a bath.
In 1922 Rene Crevel told his friend and mentor Andre Breton about a visit he had made to a Spiritualist seance. It was the time of the mouvementflou, the increasingly nihilistic Dada had negated itself out of existence and Surrealism was yet to come into being. Breton was intrigued and arranged an event with his friends. The results were startling; and this was the beginning of the Period of the Sleeping Fits. Crevel and Robert Desnos were particularly susceptible to falling into the trance state and answering questions that was put to them by the group, sometimes with unnerving effect. Each day they would spend longer in a trance, Desnos even had the ability to write while asleep. Both Crevel and Desnos began to rapidly lose weight and Desnos became convinced that he was possessed by Rrose Selavy, Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, even though he had never met Duchamp. Events began to spiral out of control and the experiment with trance states was abandoned completely when Crevel led a group suicide attempt.
Desnos loved to sleep (most photographs show him asleep) and his poetry vividly evokes that universal yet nebulous state Below is his 1926 poem SleepSpaces, translation by Mary Ann Caws.
In the night there are naturally the seven marvels of the world and greatness and the tragic and enchantment.
Confusedly, forests mingle with legendary creatures hidden in the thickets.
You are there.
In the night there is the nightwalker’s step and the murderer’s and the policeman’s and the streetlight and the ragman’s lantern.
You are there.
In the night pass trains and ships and the mirage of countries where it is daylight. The last breaths of twilight and the first shivers of dawn.
You are there.
A tune on the piano, a cry.
A door slams,
And not just beings and things and material noises.
But still myself chasing myself or going on beyond.
You are there, immolated one, you for whom I wait.
Sometimes strange figures are born at the instant of sleep and disappear.
When I close my eyes, phosphorescent blooms appear and fade and are reborn like carnal fireworks.
Unknown countries I traverse with creatures for company.
You are there most probably, oh beautiful discreet spy.
And the palpable soul of the reaches.
And the perfumes of the sky and the stars and the cock’s crow from two thousand years ago and the peacock’s scream in the parks aflame and kisses.
Handshakes sinister in a sickly light and axles screeching on hypnotic roads.
You are most probably there, whom I do not know, whom on the contrary I know.
But who, present in my dreams, insist on being sensed there without appearing.
You who remain out of reach in reality and in dream.
You who belong to me by my will to possess you in illusion but whose face approaches mine if my eyes are closed to dream as well as to reality.
You in spite of an easy rhetoric where the waves die on the beaches, where the crow flies in ruined factories, where wood rots cracking under a leaden sky.
You who are at the depths of my dreams, arousing my mind full of metamorphoses and leaving me your glove when I kiss your hand.
In the night there are stars and the tenebral motion of the sea, rivers, forests, towns, grass, the lungs of millions and millions of being.
In the night there are the marvels of the world.
In the night there are no guardian angels but there is sleep.
In the night you are there.
In the day also.
In the late thirties the Chilean Surrealist artist Roberto Matta painted a series of large canvases that he called inscapes: imaginary landscapes that were a projection of the internal psyche. Using the techniques of surrealist automatism and displaying his interest in non-Euclidean geometry Matta’s inscapes are vast, visionary cosmic dramas.
Along with many other Surrealists he emigrated to the United States in 1939 to escape WWII and would live there until 1948. While in New York he would, along with his fellow Surrealist Arshile Gorky (see Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia) influence an emerging generation of young American artists, the Abstract Expressionists, including the pioneers Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollack. Matta would be expelled from the Surrealists due to his affair with Gorky’s wife, which the Surrealist believed contributed to Gorky’s tragic suicide.
The cosmic dimension of Matta’s painting evokes certain elements of science fiction. His influence can definitely be felt and is in fact name-checked (along with many other Surrealist artists) by the great English writer J.G Ballard, who said that science fiction should concentrate, not on outer space, but on the inner space of the mind.
In 1929 the young Spaniard Luis Bunuel, who was working in Paris as assistant director to Jean Epstein met with his compatriot and Madrid University friend, the painter Salvador Dali. Over lunch Luis Bunuel recounted a dream he had about a cloud slicing through the moon like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali in turn told about his dream of a hand crawling with ants. Instantly inspired Bunuel stated to Dali, “There’s the film, let’s go make it.”
While they worked on the script, Bunuel and Dali had only one rule: “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.” The resulting film Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) has been called the most famous silent movie ever by Roger Ebert. Its influence upon music videos and low budget independent films is immeasurable.
UnChien Andalou was immediately successful, (though it led to an irreparable break with their friend, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who took the title and the movie as a personal affront). Both Bunuel and Dali were admitted to the Surrealist movement who enthusiastically welcomed the film’s Sadean shock tactics and unfettered automatism, which were in keeping with the stated aims of the movement. Georges Bataille unsurprisingly, given his own obsession with the symbolism of eyes recounted at length in the elegantly horrific L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye), mentioned the controversial opening scene in his article on Eyes in Documents, under the subtitle Cannibal Delicacy. On a more practical level Bunuel and Dali gained the financing for their next movie from the Vicomte and Vicomtesse De Noailles, two of the most important avant garde art patrons of the interwar period. The resulting film L’Age D’or was even more of a succès de scandale, leading to right wing riots in protest and its withdrawal from commercial distribution and public exhibition for over forty years. Most of the shocked reaction was to the infamous coda featuring Jesus Christ as one of the four libertines of the Chateau de Silling, the setting of the Marquis De Sade darkest novel, 120 Days in Sodom. Incidentally the Vicomtesse De Noailles was a descendant of the Marquis and the couple possessed the original manuscript of 120 Days which they kept in a specially designed phallus shaped box.
Here is a link to the complete movie with the original score featuring two tangos and Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Interpretations are always welcome.
Quite by accident (a happy accident, I hope) this site has been mainly concerned with Surrealism. There have been detours into Decadence, Symbolism and the Situationists and I have occasionally veered into original fiction, poetry and the esoteric; but on the whole Surrealism has always been hovering in the wings when it hasn’t been firmly centre-stage.
There is one name that recurs more than any other in my posts and yet not one post (until now) has been sorely concerned with Andre Breton. The authoritarian and charismatic Andre Bretonis inseparable from Surrealism. Surrealism as a movement was the creation of Breton and the terminus of ‘official’ Surrealism is always given as the time of his death in 1966. He laid down the theoretical premises of the movement in the First Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, organised the publications, provocations and exhibitions that made Surrealism a truly international phenomenon; recruited and cultivated many bright artistic talents who, although they may have left or been expelled never really ceased being Surrealists. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930 he maintained the ideological purity of Surrealism by a mass purge of members who showed a lack of sufficient zeal for the cause, earning Breton the dubious honorific ‘The Pope of Surrealism’. It was Breton, and Breton alone, who determined whether a poem, painting or person was Surrealist.
A full biography of the eventful life of such a forceful personality, who was at the centre of the international avant-garde for over four decades is beyond the scope of a short post. Apart from the Manifestos he published the Surrealist novel Nadja, a collection of automatic writings The Magnetic Fields (with Phillippe Soupault), numerous volumes of poetry including the magnificent Free Union and the book of art criticism Surrealism and Painting. He owned galleries and was a dealer in art and artefacts as well as being a keen and discerning collector.
It is only fitting that I close with Breton’s definition of Surrealism from the First Manifesto. Whatever his personal faults and the ultimate failure of his vision, Breton never wavered in his commitment to the movement that he originated:
SURREALISM, noun. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word or in any other manner-the actual function of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.