What stands between us and the wholehearted enjoyment of Surrealism today? For it was surely once more enjoyable than it is now—more shocking, more absorbing, less shock-absorbed. That an art might fall victim to its own success is a familiar possibility, yet we do not turn away from all painting that has been cursed with immense popularity. Rembrandt remains unprofaned. Botticelli, seen whole, turns spikey and unfamiliar. Impressionism, as a subject of inquiry, proves abundantly fruitful: it “returns our calls” and it accedes to our various requests. We ask it to be realism. It becomes realism: it documents a society. We ask it, per contra, to herald that moment when the artist self-consciously applies his paint to the canvas in such a way as to emphasize the two-dimensional picture plane. Very well, it replies, I will herald that moment. We ask it to prophesy abstraction, and sure enough Monet’s Haystacks, seen the wrong way up, set Kandinsky’s thoughts racing. All in all, taken as a movement, it is most obliging.

But then at the heart of Impressionism there are artists who, in their superb way, do not so complaisantly return our calls, who are not so easily co-opted for some grand conceptual scheme. It is enough to mention the names of Degas and Manet, for, in either case, such is our faith in their exellence, when we come upon one of their works which seems at first puzzling or unsatisfactory, we know better—or we certainly should by now know better—than to reach for the tag “failure.” If a certain painting or (more usually) sketch seems at first sight to be a failure, we should like to know what the pursuit was that led the artist down this apparent impasse. Why did he stop? Was it something he saw, or something he failed to see? And how can this failure be a failure if it so commands our respect?

Surrealism resembles its rough contemporary Expressionism in this: that it gave a multitude of artists (painters, poets, photographers, and so forth) the opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves. It handed out badges that were gleefully worn. It also tore the stripes off its perceived renegades, for it was clamorously factional, politicized in the worst sense. Of all movements it should have been most free (it was antibourgeois, it dealt with an unruly subconscious), but it had phases of willed instrumentality. It wanted, in such moments, to be good for society. It should have stuck with wanting to be bad for society.

Surrealism in poetry had a wide and lasting influence, which spread into popular culture and was welcomed as a kind of licensed insanity. But something of the kind had always lurked in certain backwaters of the vernacular. People may have begun by shaking their heads, but they did not shake them for long, when the Beatles sang “I Am the Walrus”:

Yellow matter custard
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Parliamentary priestess
Singing Hare Krishna
Man you should have seen him
Kicking Edgar Allan Poe

and so on. Surrealism itself had not invented nonsense verse, and in this lyric the first line is taken from a familiar school playground rhyme (designed exclusively to disgust):

Yellow matter custard,
Green snot pie,
All mixed together
With a dead dog’s eye.
Spread it on thin,
Spread it on thick,
And wash it all down
With a cup of cold sick.

That the yellow matter custard was elevated from this context and made to climb the Eiffel Tower was a gesture by John Lennon in the direction of Paris and Surrealism. One could easily imagine that Dalí had some influence here as well, as he had on the popularization of the idea that the irreproachably solid might, viewed in a certain light, be soft (or vice versa). But again the lyric is both inspired by, and a contribution to, popular culture, which at the time abounded in jokes featuring a range of paradoxical custards: stereophonic custard, shark-infested custard, and so forth.

Now if we turn from this popular and this later vernacular Surrealism to the thing itself, what do we find?

She stoops at the stream’s edge She sings
She runs She shouts up to the sky
Her dress opens on paradise
Her charm is infinite
She flutters hoop-wood over little waves
Slowly she passes her white hand over her pure forehead
Between her feet the weasels flee
In her hat sits heaven’s blue

This is Louis Aragon’s “The approach of love and a kiss,” as translated by Mary Ann Caws and chosen by her to open a small anthology of Surrealist love poetry. And where would the poem be, where would its Surrealism be, without the fleeing weasels?

And what about “Love” by René Char, which reads in its entirety:


To be
The first to come.

Or these lines from the same poet’s “The climate of the hunt or how poetry is made”:

The archaic dead horses in the shape of a bathtub
pass by and fade out. Only the
manure speaks to reassure us.

This, whatever it is, is awkwardly expressed. Is it, and are innumerable other such passages, badly translated? I should not think so. Most of the poems in the volume are translated by Caws herself. But, for instance, the extract from “Clear Night” by Octavio Paz (by another translator) addresses the city, whose face is the face of the speaker’s love, and whose legs are the legs of a woman. “Your armpits are night but your breasts are day,” says Paz, and “your laughter is the sun buried in the suburbs” and “your belly is the breath of the sea and the pulse of day.” Really one can go on and on like this, if one has enough tolerance for cliché—in this case, the trope that the city is a woman of infinite fascination.

If you look at “The 1934 Dialogue” between Marcelle Ferry and André Breton, reprinted in the catalog of the current New York show Surrealism: Desire Unbound, in which questions and answers are paired supposedly at random, you will find an interesting demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of the Surrealist method. The beginning is banal enough:

B. What is beauty?
M. It is an ethereal cry.
M. What is mystery?
B. It is the proud wind through a suburb.

But the third coupling begins to come alive, and to remind us of the world of the early Giacometti and Max Ernst:

M. What is solitude?
B. It is the queen sitting at the base of the throne.

An authentic note, the hermetic definition, is struck further on:

M. What is jealousy?
B. It is a bugle on a laid table.

And I think there is genuine poetic value in the following:

M. What is debauchery?
B. It is the place in a meadow where the grass suddenly becomes thicker. It can be seen from a long way off.

But there is a trick to all this, and the trick is to pair a certain genre of question with a corresponding genre of answer, so that, though the element of the aleatoric may well be genuinely present, the die that is being thrown in the case of each coupling is only deciding a matter of the placing of entirely generic elements. The bugle on the laid table, for instance, could equally well stand for solitude, or mystery, or indeed beauty. Surrealist poetics remind me of a beautiful old game I was once given, in which a pack of cards, laid side by side, was said to be capable of generating an astonishing number of different landscapes. And the claim was evidently true, since the horizon at the left of each card always fitted the horizon at the right of another, and the color of the sky was constant throughout. So each newly generated landscape very much resembled the last, and one soon tired of these combinations of elements.

M. What is saying farewell never to meet again?
B. It is a slave market stretching as far as the eye can see.

Yes, this question sits well with this answer, but jealousy too is a slave market stretching as far as the eye can see, and so is debauchery.

What would one say of the conversations given by Jennifer Mundy in her catalog essay in Surrealism: Desire Unbound, which come from the Researches into Sexuality (beginning in 1928), were the names of certain participants not so prestigious?

MAX ERNST: Are you monogamous? That’s to say, do you believe there is a woman who is your destiny, to the exclusion of all others?
ANDRÉ BRETON: Naturally.
PIERRE UNIK: Yes. (Doubtful)
RAYMOND QUENEAU: No, never. (Becomes heated.) No woman could satisfy me or make me monogamous. And I don’t give a shit!
ANDRÉ BRETON: I protest at that last word.
MAX ERNST: And so do I.

Surely even in Bloomsbury there were better conversations to be had over tea. (Dawn Ades, further on in the catalog, gives us the hint that the tone of these exchanges was set by a desire to win approval from the Communist Party.)

We learn that the Surrealists were to a wholesome degree monogamous, that generally speaking they preferred to link sexual desire to love, that Breton castigated a professed Don Juanism of Eluard’s:

PAUL ÉLUARD: Desire gives me as much mental satisfaction as the satisfaction of that desire.
ANDRÉ BRETON: Well then! Why satisfy that desire?
PAUL ÉLUARD: To renew it.
ANDRÉ BRETON: With one person after another?
PAUL ÉLUARD: Or with the same person, it doesn’t make any difference…
ANDRÉ BRETON: That idea tends to elevate the idea of love over the being whom one loves or wants to love, that is to say, to turn them into a means. I love women too much, and I believe I am too susceptible to loving a woman, not to object to such an attitude.

So they could be boastful as well as wholesome and banal. One begins to wonder where the fetishism fitted in.


Neither sexuality nor the subconscious was the discovery of the Surrealists, nor was even their discovery as a theme for art. One does not ask of them, in astonishment, how it was that they knew what they knew, in the way that one asks of proleptic writers such as Ibsen and Strindberg, in the way that one asks of Maeterlinck how much he knew, how much he intended or meant by his striking invention of the deceitful child in Pelléas et Mélisande—the “ignoble” son, as his creator called him, who drives his father into a rage of sexual jealousy with his obvious lying. They are not artists or writers “out of their period,” in the manner of the author of Wozzeck. They are called revolutionaries, but, if I may use the term without disrespect, they are much better considered as popularizers. They were not extraordinary creators in themselves—in the way that Kafka was—but they had very good antennae for the extraordinary. Of Kafka we may say—as I said earlier of Degas and Manet—that what may have seemed to him like failure commands our abiding interest and respect. But of how many Surrealist painters can we say the same thing?

The failures of the Surrealists arise from their being “beasts who repeat themselves.” Or who repeat each other. But this was the nature of the movement, exactly as it was with Expressionism. The movement carried its weaker brethren along with it. It handed them the badges and allowed them a prestige by association that lasts to this day, although one supposes that there must in the end be some winnowing of the chaff. A shameless professional repeater such as Paul Delvaux, who rates two canvases in New York, is snubbed completely by the Paris exhibition.

Conversely Picasso, who plays a minor role in the New York exhibition, has more than forty items in Paris, many of them from the city’s Picasso Museum, including a series of eight sand-strewn collages, in most of which the action takes place in the recessed space created by the reverse of the canvas and frame. It is as if the reverse has been considered as a secret space, from which strange sand creatures attempt to emerge and perhaps escape. Other Picasso works in Paris include an intriguing plaster sculpture, Femme au feuillage (1934), a hieratic figure somewhat reminiscent of Ernst, carrying a bouquet created by impressed leaves, and a collage, Composition au papillon, using string, a dead leaf, and a real butterfly (a Large White—no doubt a nightmare for the conservation department). Three fine pen and gouache studies feature the combat, a familiar Picasso theme, involving woman, horse, and Minotaur. Miró too is allowed a far more extensive representation in Paris than in the New York show, with three dozen items from the Twenties and Thirties, mostly canvases and collages, but including a reconstruction of a mannequin (one of a group by several artists) devised for an international exhibition in Paris in 1938.

But if Picasso and Miró are the most important artists in either show, they are not typical Surrealists. Typical Surrealists are the creators of those images by which the movement is remembered: Dalí, Ernst, and Magritte in painting, Ernst and the young Giacometti in sculpture, and, in the realm of graphic art, Ernst for his heliogravures and his collage engravings. Indeed the Paris show contains a creditable Ernst exhibition in itself, with well over a hundred items.

Dalí, Ernst, Magritte—of the three, Magritte’s is the clearest case of an art that does well in reproduction (because, like much commercial art, it benefits from a process of slight reduction), and one is tempted to say that he was a great designer of posters. Would this be a gross insult? His handling of paint, which seems to pose few problems for the photographic laboratory, is deliberately simplistic, and it is the image, rather than its execution, that counts for everything. And it is a great gift, this ability to produce striking, popular, and enduring images. Dalí, whose painting, by contrast, has a trick of suggesting in reproduction that the original is much larger than it turns out to be, was a serious painter, of great technical gifts, whose art leads him in the direction of a hideousness from which one would like to turn away—not a hideousness of the image, but a ghastly harmonization of the palette, an extrusion of surfaces, a glazed finish. What a relief it is, after such paintings by Dalí and, in his larger works, by Ernst, to turn to something rougher, smaller, something without that smug finish.

That eye for the extraordinary object, so characteristic of the shared aesthetic of painters, collectors, and photographers of the period, is well illustrated in both the New York and the Paris exhibitions. In Paris we are shown an arrangement of items which used to occupy a wall of André Breton’s atelier, including fetishes, carved ceremonial implements from the South Seas, pre-Columbian ceramics, stools, paddles, shields, mineral samples, and a glass dome containing stuffed hummingbirds, as well as the paintings of his contemporaries. Elsewhere in the show there is an interesting collection of old novelty bottles (in the shape of a violin and so forth), and a South American crucifixion-in-a-bottle, reminding us of the one that so fascinated Elizabeth Bishop. Joseph Cornell’s Chinese Bottle (1933) goes well in this context. And Man Ray’s photograph of the exhibition of Surrealist objects at the Charles Ratton Gallery in 1936 shows us what the vitrine looked like that contained Marcel Duchamp’s bottle-rack, along with pre-Columbian art, a warped-plane construction, and other ready-mades and found objects.

Such collections of disparate objects remind us of the aesthetic of juxtaposition, often traced back from Surrealism to one of those extraordinary authors who come to us “out of their period” (he died in 1870), Lautréamont. The famous phrase that appealed to some Surrealists appears at the end of a paragraph celebrating the beauty of a fictional sixteen-year-old English boy, about to be seduced into an assignation with a male admirer, by whom he will be thrown into a sack and handed over to a passing butcher to be slaughtered like a mangy dog. (He escapes, but the author’s glee is shocking.)

He is fair as the retractility of the claws of birds of prey; or again, as the uncertainty of the muscular movements in wounds in the soft parts of the lower cervical region; or rather as that perpetual rat-trap always reset by the trapped animal, which by itself can catch rodents indefinitely and work even when hidden under straw; and above all, as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.

The beauty of the young boy victim is like all these things, not only the sewing machine and umbrella in their conjunction, but also the perpetual rat-trap, the raptor’s claw, and the movement of the wounds of the cervix. It was hard for the Surrealists always to aspire to such a pitch of inventive nastiness.

Also in Paris is a large selection of “exquisite corpses,” those collective drawings made by folding a piece of paper over and passing it around the group, so that in principle each player is adding a new section to a drawing of whose nature he is unaware (although in practice it is quite clear that the best results were had when the participants in this game knew the kind of thing the other artists were thinking of: the elements in the aleatoric mix are generic, just as they are in the poetry). The Paris exhibition in general is stronger on documentation, and this in part because it is more of a conscious overview. The New York show, which began at the Tate in London, concentrates on its theme of desire, love, the erotic. Wholesomeness, with just a touch of heroic lesbianism, and a disturbing (but recurrent) sideline in sadism: this is the Surrealist erotic as it comes across in New York. In Paris, I noticed on sale a richly illustrated children’s book of Surrealist poetry and thought it evidence that the beast had been well tamed.

This Issue

May 23, 2002