Where is Surrealism Now?
Fields of Dream: The Surrealist Landscape
October 29 – December 18, 2015 | Di Donna Gallery
Rare are the pictures of André Breton lying down. This time he is reclining before Giorgio de Chirico’s Enigma of a Day (1933),as if indeed he himself were to be posing as one of those reclining Roman statues within the piazza, observing us observing him. He owned this enigmatic work—imagine owning an enigma!—we might think of Man Ray’s Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920) that thing all bundled up to imitate Ducasse/Lautréamont’s dictum “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table, “for we seem to see under the bundle a machine.” But Breton was the owning sort. And loved the super-serious playing of games, particularly in front of this de Chirico mystery: “What would you place on the building to the left? “ the gathering of surrealists would ask. That’s the first question.
Sigmund Freud had his own pictorial obsession, since Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead, hung above his desk, offering no explanation. Dreamscape, lifeanddeathscape, a trance to make time different in its flow. Dora Maar’s Father Ubu, that armadillo fetus she left mysterious, looks as monstrous as any dream picture. De Chirico’s own remarkable dream-prose text of a poem, Hebdomeros, haunts his opening work for us, with its statues and piazza and noble nostalgia penetrating every question and answer. Breton now poses another question, this one rhetorical: “How often have we found ourselves in that square [. . . ]?”
It is likely to be noon, with everything stilled into somnolence, proper to the daydream. There would be Robert Desnos, that greatest poet of surrealism, in the middle of his celebrated ambivalent-titled novel: La Liberté ou l’amour! Some unmoving spectacle! This cityscape announces a so far unexamined issue with which Ara Merijian’s revelatory catalogue essay for the superbly crafted and hung surrealist exhibition at the Di Donna Gallery in the Carlyle Hotel: it is graced by yet another question, the most relevant: “Where is Surrealism? Painted Spaces from Dreamscape to Inscape.” When we hear of “inscape,” we are likely to think of the very poetic reflections of the very religious Gerard Manley Hopkins, but this time the question is crucial, the central issue being that surrealism as a movement discussed not at all the paintings of landscape, concentrating instead on the object, whether visible or lost. Might this stem from the absence of architects in the surrealist movement, asks the author?
Clearly, as transparent as Les Grands Transparents, objects rule, in essays and texts and paintings. We hear Breton describing Magritte’s spatial paintings as “object lessons,” as if the space mattered less than the thinghood, the objecthood. We read about the “Surrealist Situation of the Object,” and think back to the 1936 Exhibition of Surrealist Objects; there is certainly a “crisis of the object” and there is—never let’s forget it—the,all-important objective chance.
For that very reason, and this is not by chance but by elegant design, the extraordinary abundance of extensive first-rate spatial images in this exhibition of them compensates for whatever we had been missing in landscape and seascape views. Of course, there was always the exceptional couple of surrealist painters Yves Tanguy, he of the low-lying horizon and the small curved figures, and Kay Sage, creator of tall buildings and mysterious natural forces—these were landscapes of a very particular kind. And surrealism delights in the particular, the peculiar, the mysterious part of dreamscapes. They are what open up possibilities, waking, sleeping, and above all, seeing. The eyes of Desnos, the celebrated trance-man, focused strangely, and Breton’s eyes in that first image are open, to chance, the objective sort, and the typographic sort, Stéphane Mallarmé’s One Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.
Pierre Naville, in 1925, early on,famously declared there could be no surrealist painting, because of the too-rigid format, “but there are spectacles [. . .]The street, kiosks, cars, screeching doors, street lamps bursting against the sky.”(“Existe-t-il une peinture ‘surréaliste’?” La Révolution Surréaliste no. 3, April 1925. ) There were certainly, as Merijian points out, elective places, such as all those arcades beloved by de Chirico and passageways like “le passage de l’Opéra,” celebrated precisely because of their disuse, to say nothing of ruins and Gothic architecture, romantic in themselves. No less so are the metaphysical scenes of de Chirico, widely acclaimed by Apollinaire, manifesting a magnificent “ambivalence of time and space” with their trains, clocks, and passing sea vessels. The urban modern of 1910 and ancient ritual mingle in metaphysical canvasses: shop windows put on show altars with votive objects, mannequins preside over city spaces, and these summon to our mind Dora Maar’s surrealist photographs of the 1930’s. All these sights make part of the “modern mythology” so superbly pictured in Breton’s Nadja and in Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris. Nostalgia for the marvelous still abides.
It was certainly not as if aesthetic depictions had no effect on what we think of as reality. We are not, in the world of surrealism, betting on art for art’s sake. Rather the contrary: Rearrangements of space “whether in the city square or the shop window, the forest or the strophe of verse—entailed a more far-reaching intervention into the world order”.
The essay concludes with a reference back to Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, “a fitting burial ground for Surrealist dreams.” Yet it seems to me, particularly after this exhibition, that landscape, cityscape, mindscape can, as here, work alongside each other imperishably.
ContributorMary Ann Caws
MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.