Quantcast

Seeking 'Convulsive Beauty' | The Nation

  •  

Seeking 'Convulsive Beauty'

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The legendary Surrealist exhibitions of the late 1930s and early 1940s were Surrealist in spirit and secondarily Surrealist in content. In 1942, for example, an exhibition called "The First Papers of Surrealism" was installed at the Whitelaw Reid mansion on Madison Avenue in New York, and those that attended it were far more likely to remember the show itself than any of the works on display. It was designed by Marcel Duchamp, using one mile of string to weave a sort of spider's web from floor to walls to ceiling, which visitors had to climb through to look at the art hung on temporary display panels. Moreover, they had to put up with a crowd of schoolchildren, boisterously playing ball or skipping rope or chasing one another through the show. The children were instructed to say that Mr. Duchamp said it was OK for them to play there, if anyone raised the question. It was an ideal way to subvert any propensity to seek a rich aesthetic experience in contemplating the art, and by indirection to demonstrate that it was not the point of Surrealist art to be an object of aesthetic contemplation in the first place. Duchamp disdained aesthetic response--"That retinal shudder!" as he dismissed it in a late interview.

Duchamp had also installed the legendary International Exposition of Surrealism at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris four years earlier. There he arranged to have the ceiling hung with 1,200 coal sacks that, though empty, showered residual coal dust on the throngs below, who were supplied with flashlights to see the paintings hung in shadows. Upon entering the show, visitors encountered Rainy Taxi by Salvador Dali--an ancient taxicab on which water poured down from the ceiling. The driver and passenger were both mannequins, the former equipped with a shark's head and wearing goggles, the latter a frump covered with escargots, and both placed on a bed of lettuce.

These exhibitions achieved the same shock of incongruity that was intended to characterize what one might think of as Surrealist experience in general, as expressed in one of their favorite paradigms from a text by Isidore Ducasse, a k a le Comte de Lautréamont: "The chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." There is a 1920 photograph by Man Ray of a mysterious object, wrapped in a heavy blanket and bound with rope. It was used as the frontispiece of the first issue of a magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, the readers of which would immediately have inferred from its title--"The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse"--that the wrapped object must be a sewing machine. Visitors to non-Surrealist exhibitions of Surrealist art--such as "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 12--might be let in on the secret by a wall label reading: "sewing machine, wood, fabric, card." But without knowing the identity of Ducasse or the text alluded to, the point of the work would be lost on them.

Surrealism was essentially a literary movement, whose primary products were books, magazines, poems, letters and manifestoes. These in fact form a considerable part of "Desire Unbound," which, together with the many aging snapshots of groups of smiling Surrealists, could with equal suitability have made up a show at the Morgan Library or some comparable venue. Art itself was largely peripheral to the movement, serving, like Man Ray's photograph, to illustrate the essentially philosophical ideas of the writers, who were chiefly poets and what one might term aesthetic ideologists, tirelessly taken up with defining what we might term "Surrealist correctness." At least in the early stages of the movement, one of their questions was whether painting was even a Surrealist possibility. Ironically, the writers have become the subject of scholarly specialization, while Surrealism itself is widely identified with a body of paintings, pre-eminently those of Dali--desert landscapes in acute perspective, on the floor of which various objects, often teeming with ants, cast sharp shadows. It was Dali who designed the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's film Spellbound--and it is his idiom that has been universally appropriated for the representation of dreams.

It is with reference to dreams that Surrealism was initially formulated in André Breton's First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. What excited Breton about dreams was the fact that what happens in them defies reason and certainly common sense. But for just the reason that dreams cannot be captured in the discourse we use in our waking lives, they were, until Freud, relegated to parentheses that we felt no need to incorporate into the narrative of our lives. Breton was convinced that this was, in effect, throwing away something of inestimable value, and in the Manifesto he described a method of writing that makes the dream accessible to our waking consciousness. This, in effect, is a kind of automatic writing--writing that as far as possible is uncontrolled by our critical faculties. The resulting pages will be impossible to appreciate in the ways in which ordinary writing is appreciated. "Poetically speaking," Breton says, "they are especially endowed with a high degree of immediate absurdity." Nevertheless, what we have done has somehow brought the dream before our conscious minds, and what we have is at once reality and dream, hence a kind of "absolute reality." Surrealism is then the method through which this absolute or "sur-" reality is made available to us as a resource to be used. Here is Breton's definition:

SURREALISM, noun, masc. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

I have italicized "either verbally or in writing" to emphasize that Breton does not mention either singing or playing, or drawing or painting. There is little if any Surrealist music, though one might think that jazz would exemplify psychic automatism to perfection. Breton thought Surrealist music was impossible, probably because music lacks the dimension of realism that is a precondition for sur-realism--an objection that would be overcome in the case of opera, and indeed my musical informant, Lydia Goehr, has told me of a Surrealist opera, Julietta, by a Czech composer. Painting, on the other hand, met the criterion of realism, but as far as the Surrealists were concerned, it lacked the spontaneity of writing or speech. Dali painted like an old master, using perspective and chiaroscuro, building up glazes, creating illusions. There is no way it could have been done automatically, or without rational control. So by definition, his painting cannot be Surrealist. It would be like transcribing a dream in rhymed verse. The most that can be said is that he illustrates strange conjunctions and encounters, directed, as it were, by a strong artistic will.

One might say that the visual arts became admitted to Surrealism only when artists found ways of working more fluidly. Max Ernst's marvelous collage narratives, in which he clipped and pasted images from old engravings, recommended themselves to the Surrealists. Miró, who actually used writing in his paintings together with images, was also accepted. When Breton encountered the sculpture of Giacometti, it was as though he at last found someone who seemed to dream while awake, in the medium of clay and plaster.

In truth, it was mainly the painter Matta who found a way of drawing automatically and hence surrealistically. And Matta taught the New York painters--especially Pollock and Motherwell--how to do this. Psychic automatism evolved spectacularly into what we now think of as Abstract Expressionism, and it was through the chance encounter of Right Bank Poets and rednecks like Pollock on the dissecting table of Manhattan that American artists were able to produce work that Motherwell describes as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime"--adding that "no Parisian is a sublime painter, nor a monumental one, not even Miró." But Abstract Expression was never "Surrealist" in the sense in which Dali's images were. It was as though there were two dimensions to Surrealism--psychic automatism and absurdity. The latter does not figure in Breton's definition, but it certainly figures in what we might call Surrealist sensibility.

I learned a certain amount about what it would have been like to be a Surrealist from Robert Motherwell, who as a young artist in New York in the early 1940s became a kind of guide to Breton and a cadre of other Surrealists, then in exile in New York, where they endeavored so far as possible to re-create the form of life they'd lived in Paris. Twice a week they would gather for lunch at Larre's, an inexpensive French bistro on West 55th Street, and proceed afterward to Third Avenue, at that time lined with all sorts of secondhand stores and antiques shops. The activity for the afternoon was to decide which of the objects on display were Surrealist and which were not. It was a fairly serious matter to be wrong about this. Matta would have been disgraced when he misidentified as Surrealist a certain gargoyle head--until Duchamp intervened, saying that maybe he had a point. Duchamp, listed as Generateur-Arbitre (producer and arbitrator) in the catalogue for the 1938 exhibition, was not officially a Surrealist, but Breton regarded him as having perfect pitch when it came to what possessed surreality and what did not.

A famous such object was a curious wooden spoon Breton and Giacometti had found at the flea market in Paris. A little shoe was carved just under the spoon's handle. It struck Breton that the whole spoon could be seen as itself a shoe, with the little shoe as its heel. He then imagined the possibility that its heel was another shoe, with a heel of its own, which itself was a shoe...and that this could go on to infinity. The spoon he saw as an example of "convulsive beauty" in the sense that it revealed through its structure a state of mind, which consisted in a desire for love. There is a photograph, again by Man Ray, of this found object with the descriptive title "From the height of a little slipper making a body with it..." which was published in Breton's book L'Amour fou. There would be no way of telling from the photograph--or from the spoon itself--that it had convulsive beauty, or the evasive property of surreality. And I am uncertain whether it has either of these intrinsically, or only for the individual to whom it reveals, the way a verbal lapse does in Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a state of mind that would otherwise have remained unconscious. At the very least, some fairly elaborate chain of interpretation--as again in the The Psychopathology of Everyday Life--has to be supplied. Surrealism was a taxing and fully absorbing form of mental activity.

In the First Surrealist Manifesto, Breton mentions having become aware of a certain "bizarre sentence" that came to him "bearing no trace of the events with which I was involved at the time." He was unable to remember the exact wording, but it generated the writing he subsequently identified as Surrealist. The little spoon, as it happens, helped unpack a different such phrase, one that had been obsessively running through his mind--"Cendrier-Cendrillon"--which means "Ashtray-Cinderella." Breton refused to learn English, not so much, I believe, out of the vanity that is threatened when we lose the fluency of our native tongue but because we dream in our own language. The terms "ashtray" and "Cinderella" have no obvious connection, but "cendrier" and "Cendrillon" have a common root--the French word for cinders or ashes, which enables them to be conjoined in free association. Breton went so far as to ask Giacometti to make an ashtray in the form of Cinderella's slipper. But he remained baffled by "Cendrier-Cendrillon," and somehow the slipper spoon helped clarify the emotional state that expressed itself through the conjunction. But you have to read L'amour fou to find out how.

L'amour fou brings us to "Desire Unbound"--since unbound desire is exactly what L'amour fou is. Desire--and in particular erotic desire--is the theme of the Metropolitan exhibition. With qualifications, everything in the show possesses surreality--or convulsive beauty--providing we understand how to unlock it. The most helpful thing to understand is that aesthetics was never a central Surrealist preoccupation, so looking for an aesthetic experience here will not get you to first base. You have to look at the exhibits the way those displaced Surrealists looked at the objects on view in shop windows sixty years ago, trying to decide which were the Surrealist objects. Motherwell told me that his problem in playing that game lay in the fact that he had been brought up to look at antiques aesthetically. His mother was an antiques collector. But he got a kind of education surréaliste in those afternoons spent peering through dusty shop windows, tutored by Breton and Duchamp. With a sigh of what I felt was despair, he said, on one occasion, that the whole world was beginning to look surrealistic to him. But that, as he of course knew very deeply, was a metaphorical truth. The world seemed pretty crazy when the International Exposition of Surrealism took place in Paris in 1938. France was falling apart, German planes were bombing Barcelona, Germany was poised for conquest. The Surrealists were not aiming for the kind of experience that could be had from reading the headlines.

But neither did they think that the creation of the surrealistic was their unique contribution to art. The surrealistic existed avant la lettre. The Surrealists found it present throughout the history of art--in Hieronymus Bosch and in Hans Baldung Grien for obvious reasons, in Seurat's La Grande Jatte for less obvious ones. The first gallery in the show is given over toGiorgio de Chirico, whom the Surrealists took as a predecessor, and the second one to Dada, many of whose members, especially Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, were to make substantial contributions to Surrealism when it emerged as a movement in the 1920s. But the first object one encounters in entering the show--Venus aux tiroirs, 1936--a plaster Venus in whose torso Dali had placed a number of small drawers, as in a jewelry case, each with a fur-covered knob--is self-consciously Surrealist. Fur seemed by itself to confer surreality when adjoined to any object, the use of which seemed to rule fur out as a material--like a teacup, for example. No survey of Surrealism would be complete without Meret Oppenheim's 1936 fur-lined teacup, which somehow is like a dream object rendered concrete. One can see why. The last thing one expects, lifting a teacup to take a sip, would be the feeling of fur on one's lips. It happens only in dreams, where it would seem to disguise an obvious reference and a no-less-obvious repressed wish. Oppenheim had a genius for finding ways to express genital references through everyday objects, and much of Surrealism was taken up with such disclosures. There is a photograph by Man Ray of an unidentified woman, her head thrown back so that we see the lines of her jaw from below. But then, with the irresistibility of an optical illusion, the neck convulses into the shaft of a thick penis, with the jaw becoming the glans--and the image looks like a huge penis coming out of a woman's shoulders. Surrealist objects are displacements of the objects of desire with which the world around and within us abounds--though a lot of good it does us so far as the gratification of desire is concerned. Perhaps that is why it seems to constitute the constant preoccupation of mental life, which surfaces distortedly in our dream life.

The great emblem of unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable desire is Duchamp's 1915 masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, usually referred to as The Large Glass. A display case here holds notations and sketches for the work, and there is a painting of the bride in Duchamp's Cubist manner. The stripping has gone so far that the flesh has been taken away, and what we see looks like her reproductive system, including a schematized uterus. She is suspended in an upper chamber, separated by a glass shelf from her "bachelors"--a chorus of "malic forms" in the lower chamber. The two chambers are united and separated by an erotic desire that leaves everyone at once unsatisfied and inseparable. Duchamp, as is well-known, took a female identity for himself as Rrose Sélavy--Eros, c'est la vie--and was photographed wearing a woman's hat, makeup and furs by--who else?--Man Ray. In one of his most famous works--a postcard of the Mona Lisa on which he drew a mustache and goatee--Duchamp sought a reverse transgendrification. Magritte showed the female torso as a readymade pun on a male face, with the nipples as goggle eyes, and the pubis as beard. In Surrealist thought, male and female are often transcriptions of each other, as in the myth of Aristophanes that once upon a time we were a single being, male and female at once, and that ever since we have longed, in futility, for our other half. In Surrealism, though, the split was not clean--each of us bears something that belongs to our sexually opposite number.

The Surrealists did have robust love lives, and the heart of the show--no pun intended--exhibits the cat's cradle of their relationships: Gala with Paul Eluard, Man Ray and finally Dali; Max Ernst with Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning; Eluard with Nusch; Man Ray with Meret Oppenheim and Lee Miller; Louis Aragon with Elsa Triolet; Breton with Nadja and Jacqueline Lamba. And there were plenty of secondary loves as well. Many of the women were artists in their own right, and it is a merit of the show that a lot of their work is shown. I'll end with one of my favorite lines from a Surrealist poet, Robert Desnos, bound to two women--Yvonne George and Youki Foujita--by l'amour fou: J'ai tant rêvé de toi que tu perds ta réalité. ("I have dreamt of you so much that you have lost your reality.") The line is logically equivalent to: "I have dreamt of you so much that you have gained surreality." The beauty of the objects of Surrealist desire became convulsive through dreams. May this become true for us all!

Subscriber Log In:

Subscribe Now!
The only way to read this article and the full contents of each week's issue of The Nation online on the day the print magazine is published is by subscribing. Subscribe now and read this article—and every article published since 1865 in our 148 year digital archive—right now.
There's no obligation—try The Nation for four weeks free.

 

 
  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size