‘Dada and Surrealism reviewed’

by Dawn Ades with an introduction by David Sylvester and a supplementary essay by Elizabeth Cowling, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978


‘André Breton and the first principles of Surrealism’

by Franklin Rosemont, Pluto Press, 1978


‘What is Surrealism? Selected Writings by André Breton’

edited and translated by Franklin Rosemont, Pluto Press, 1978


‘Seven Dada Manifestoes’

by Tristan Tzara, translated by Barbara Wright, John Calder, 1977


‘Collected French Writings’

by Jean Arp, edited by Marcel Jean, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Calder and Boyars, 1974


Margaret Davies


‘Surrealism is dead.’ Even before Breton’s death in 1966 he was having to refute that claim. It would seem to be a question of whether one sees it as the activity of a particular group of richly talented artists and writers which, under Breton’s leadership, flourished in the twenties and early thirties and gradually dispersed from the late thirties on, or—‘Long live surrealism’—whether it stands for a general spirit of revolt, the liberation of the imagination from the constraints of reason and the conscious mind, that is to say an adventure continually to be reinvented. The fact that of recent years so many academics have moved in and not only analysed individual writers (in monumental and admirable studies like Marguerite Bonnet’s on André Breton and Michel Sanouille’s Dada à Paris) but also tabled the day-to-day zig-zags of personal polemics and political alignments, would seem to underline its position as a specific movement in the history of art and literature and ideas and to define its chronological limits—at least in France where one of the pre-requisites for the subject of a Doctorat d’Etat thesis is that he, she or it must be safely dead.


In England, one of the Western countries where it could be and has been said that the Surrealist movement was least alive, the magnificent Arts Council Exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in 1978 served as a splendid obituary. It provided the English public with a unique opportunity of seeing an extraordinarily rich collection of the greatest works of art of this century. Indeed if there was any criticism to be made it was the fact that it contained an ‘embarras de richesses,’ and that even the most enthusiastic of spectators was overwhelmed by what would normally have been the content of three Exhibitions. This, however, is to carp, because the three strands, the literary documents, the works of art, and the Surrealist objects, were beautifully woven together.


The Exhibition was conceived originally as being grouped around the major reviews with their theoretical pronouncements and their original publications of major texts and illustrations. Starting with Les soirées de Paris and thus rightly putting the whole movement under the aegis of Apollinaire, it opened out into the Dada sections of Zürich, Germany and America, and continued with Picabia’s 391, Littérature, and then throughout the twenties with La revolution Surréaliste, the dissident Documents, and Le Surréalisme au service de la revolution (according to Breton the richest of them all) representing those vintage years which also saw the appearance of Nadja, Le paysan de Paris, La vie immédiate, Les vases communicants. The sumptuous Minotaure was the central organ for the movement during the ‘thirties (when its international fame was at its height) before the dispersion caused by the war, the fusion with indigenous talents in America (particularly in evidence in VVV) and the post-war reappearance of Breton in France with mainly La brèche and Le Surréalisme, même. All of this material the collections of actual reviews, the first editions of major works, the manuscripts, the source books—was not only a fascinating and dramatic display in itself, but a veritable treasure trove for literary historians and critics. It has been collated with scrupulous care and understanding by Dawn Ades in the excellent study which forms the basis of the Exhibition’s catalogue, and which will indeed prove to be an indispensable reference book for all future work on the period.


The second strand was in a sense the Exhibition proper, the dazzling deployment within the historical and theoretical framework of the paintings and sculpture of the period. Picabia, Arp, Duchamp, Schwitters, Ernst, Tanguy, Dali, Masson, Klee, Miró, Magritte, Giacometti, Moore, Brancusi, Sutherland, Pollock and many others: apart from the notable absence of Matisse and Braque, it was a roll-call of all the great artists of the century. It certainly highlighted the fact that the visual arts seem to have been more affected by Surrealism than literature. Is it that it is easier to communicate the dream and the patterns of the unconscious in what René Char has called ‘le splendide mutisme de la peinture,’ that language with its universally accepted codes is more the hand-maid of reason than colour, shape and volume: or is it the simple fact that this century will be known more for its artists, more numerous, more creative, than its writers?


The third strand of the Exhibition, although it is quite contrary to the spirit of Surrealism so to separate and divide, was the collection of Surrealist objects, those randomly chosen fetishes which, particularly during the late ‘twenties and ‘thirties were seen to crystallize ‘le hasard objectif,’ and thus to be the numinous ‘point de depart’ for surrealist creation. It was noticeable that these bizarre things, bizarrely juxtaposed, seemed to have a particular fascination for the young. Perhaps it is after all the iconoclastic, subversive, anti-art aspect of Surrealism which has persisted most strongly until today. Significantly it was to Surrealism that the 1968 revolutionaries turned; and as David Sylvester says at the end of his introduction to the catalogue: ‘attitudes to life characteristic of Dada and Surrealism have become commonplace in the subversive moves of those who have grown up in the last decade or two.’ He then allows himself a final ‘boutade’: ‘It may even be that their culture will at long last engender a form of anti-art that will not end up, like all the others, looking like art, but probably not.’


It is to these young people and to them alone, that Franklin Rosemont’s presentation of André Breton is addressed, and ‘Long live Surrealism’ is his battlecry. ‘This epochal achievement’ he writes in his introduction to André Breton and the first principles of Surrealism, ‘comprehensible only within the framework of world revolutionary development is roughly analogous on the poetic plane to the theory of permanent revolution, Freudian psycho-analysis, general relativity theory, quantum mechanics and other revolutionary developments of twentieth-century thought.’ It is in fact the revolutionary and polemical nature of Breton’s writing that he stresses and revolution and surrealism are his own message: ‘Surrealism began as an integral factor of the world revolutionary ferment of which the October Revolution in Russia and the formation of the Third International were the major social repercussions . . . Its current resurgence, finally, is traceable to the global re-emergence of the proletariat as the revolutionary class-for-itself.’ His claim that this edition is intended only for Breton’s pure young people who refuse to knuckle down forestalls any criticism from the rest of us, even when it comes to the spate of vehement invective against ‘religionists, art critics, supporters of bourgeois parties, novelists, “independent” Stalinists, pseudo-Marxist demagogues, literary dilettantes and all varieties of miserabilists,’ not to mention Tel Quel, the Resistance, ‘Such versifiers as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson,’ the British sculptor Henry Moore ‘who apostatized to the extent of designing statuary for churches,’ and worst of all among so many others, the ‘dishonest methods of academic diversion.’ This is of course fighting stuff, and reflects Breton’s own commitment and idealism and intransigence. Rosemont would undoubtedly have castigated the organisers of the Hayward Exhibition for their obituary intent. His Surrealist Exhibition was the Chicago one of 1976, ‘an act of war against all forces of miserabilism,’ which pointed the way to the great things yet to come; and his dedication and enthusiasm for it as a vital force may well have the virtue of attracting and inspiring some English-speaking readers who know little of Surrealism, and of sending them back to the sources. To this end he has edited a companion volume of excerpts from Breton’s theoretical writings in translation. The translations are mainly taken from existing ones and inevitably they vary. Some like those by Beckett, Maria Jolas, David Garscoyne are good, others are of unequal quality.


The choice of texts reflects the central revolutionary concern but it also presents crucial, well known texts such as the ‘Discours sur le peu de réalité,’ excerpts from L’amour fou, the Anthologie de l’humour noir, the Prolegomena to the third manifesto, the Visit with Trotsky and art criticism from Situation du surréalisme. There are others which are not readily available like Art in Australia, the interview by Ford, the Rhodes interview, the address to Yale, and the hitherto unpublished speech to young Haitain poets, after which (whether or not it was the direct cause, as Rosemont claims), they overthrew the dictator. Since the poetry or important works like Nadja could hardly be included, it does not convey the full range of Breton’s imaginative power. Nevertheless it gives a good idea - even for a wider public than Rosemont may have intended - of the constant themes automatism, objective chance, dream, ‘l’amour fou’—and of the single-minded idealism, the intellectual brilliance, the crystal-like optimism in the possibilities of man, which make Breton one of the most important and influential writers of this century.


Tristan Tzara as Dada personified is seen by some as equally influential, and the Seven Dada manifestos here appearing in excellent translation by Barbara Wright are described by the publishers (John Calder) as ‘basic texts of the modern movement and precursors and models for the surrealist manifestos.’ It is indeed for these high-spirited; blackly humorous onthrusts of disgust at the world which had spawned the First World War, that Tzara is chiefly known outside France. And yet he himself was so much more than Dada. For him, unlike many of those who have used his banner, the destruction and negation did prove to be the starting point for positive construction: and now that the dust has died down, one can see an intransigent passion for self-discovery and spiritual spring-cleaning thrusting itself through the series of paradoxes and nihilistic jokes, through the wish ‘to exterminate everything including myself,’ and the denial of the possibility of truth (‘I lie when I lie’), and above all through the obsessive and revealing metaphors of cleaning, sweeping, pruning, and the clearing of cesspools: ‘Each manifesto may well be a cerebral revolver shot but it is also a solemn entry into myself.’


Lampisteries, the collection of articles on art and specific artists which appeared from 1917 to 1924 and which is included in this volume, sets the balance right. The title now celebrates the illuminating qualities of art and the metaphors of disgust give way to images of a newly apprehended cleanliness, the limpidity of water, the purity of crystal. In the Note on art which dates from as early after Dada as 1917, the moment of rebirth is celebrated: ‘The miracle. I open my heart to creation,’ and in each of the artists he writes about it is their joyous, lifeembracing, freeranging and pure qualities that he celebrates. On Negro art: ‘From blackness let us extract light. Simple, rich luminous naivety’; on Apollinaire: ‘Laughter is man’s goodness’; on Arp: ‘The purity of a principle makes one happy’; and on Reverdy an image of wish-fulfilment which would seem to put Dada in rightful perspective: ‘A cascade that seems to fall from on high like a productive conflagration, a great tree with multiple and diverse fruits.’ The Note on poetry of 1919 strikes a splendid note of enthusiasm. The poem is ‘a constellation of order,’ but also, like the cosmos it reflects, it ‘contains its own volcanic impact.’ Intensity is all: ‘The drive of the Word, upright, an image, a unique event, passionate, of dense colour, of intensity, in communion with life.’


Amongst all the paradoxes the burning desire is for the freedom of the creative mind: ‘The creative powers, flamboyant, indefinable, gigantic, are shouting their liberty on the mountains of crystal and prayer.’ And, unlike Breton, Tzara wanted to found no school or movement: ‘I don’t want fences put round what people call principles when what is at stake is freedom.’


Essentially a loner, he went on to develop a range and seriousness which might not have been expected from the double of M. Antipyrine. Intensity is still the keynote of the passionate, tortured, sustained involvement of L’homme approximatif, of the participation in the Resistance, and even right at the end of his life those obsessive researches into the anagrams that are woven into mediaeval poetry. (I well remember spending long evenings listening to him unravel his theories, endlessly, spell-bindingly).

If the late Tzara is not well enough known in the Anglo-Saxon world, then Arp the poet rather than Arp the painter and sculptor, who was indeed one of the stars of the Hayward Exhibition, is even less so. The recent Calder and Boyars translations, again excellently done by Joachim Neugroschel, of Marcel Jean’s edition of his French poems Jours effeuillés, attempts to put this right. Arp is indeed quite a phenomenon. As well as uniting the gifts of poet and painter (to a much more significant extent than Picabia), he also wrote with equal facility in two languages. (The German volume is still to come.) In fact he seems to distil the purest essences of Dada and Surrealism. Not only was he in at the creation of Dada, ‘which tiara and i gave birth to joyfully,’ but all the Surrealist elements pervade his work: the dream, (‘in dreams i learned how to paint’), the humour (in uncharacteristically French, Carroll-like nonsense) the verbal spasms, the onomatopoeia, the working of objective chance in ‘papiers déchirés’ and ‘collage.’ Above all though, as Tzara points out in his article in Lampisteries, he was concerned both in his poetry and in his art with the organic unity of matter; the way one thing is like another and can become the other. It is this fluidity of metamorphosis—implicit in the beautiful biomorphic forms of his sculpture—which also characterizes his use of imagery and gives it its child-like fairy-tale quality; and points up his sense of man’s essential pretensions to happiness:


            in front of the spinning rooms lions

            chase spiders and princes

            marvellous ones of salt and flowers.


Again, as Tzara says of him: ‘The summit sings what is being spoken in the depths.’


The final impression left by this collection of Surrealist texts and the big event of the Exhibition is that if the polemics and jockeyings for position are outdated and have little interest for the general public, the positive, liberating spirit Surrealism is still very much alive, and indeed, as David Sylvester says in his introduction to the catalogue, ‘has come to be diffused into most of the outstanding art of the time.’