Observer Review: History Of The Surrealist Movement By Gérard Durozoi Essay, Research Paper
A century of twisted fire startersHistory of the Surrealist MovementGérard DurozoiUniversity of Chicago Press ?60, pp816Surrealism, as we can now see, was the commanding style of the twentieth century. The other isms – cubism, futurism, expressionism – quickly fizzled. Surrealism lasted longer, surviving the factitious scandals and showy outrages of exhibitionists like Dalí, because it was more than a pictorial style. It offered a way of seeing the world, redefining its supposed reality. How else was it possible to conceive of a universe which, as DH Lawrence said in a tribute to Einstein, had been knocked off its axis?’The surrealists,’ according to Gérard Durozoi’s doggedly encyclopaedic history, ‘wanted to change life.’ Their presiding ideologue, André Breton, went further in a 1923 manifesto: for him the aim was ‘to escape from the human species’. They acclaimed what others called mental illness as a state of unspoilt moral health, and laughingly set free the perverse or dissident instincts that civilisation attempts to suppress.Dalí, who thought that surrealist images existed to ‘cretinise mankind’, honoured ‘the phenomenological swastika’ and indulged in sexual fantasies about Hitler. He was also elated by the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, which promised to inaugurate an era of ‘nuclear mysticism’: the flammable, molten watch in his painting The Persistence of Memory might be suffering from radiation sickness.Breton, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon were acclaimed by Paul Valéry as ‘the three musketeers’. In fact, rather than contenting themselves with derring-do, the surrealists were agents of apocalypse. Their fiercest creative glory lay in acts of destruction. Breton and Soupault warned the world in 1920 to ‘get ready for some explosions’; Durozoi has also unearthed an obscure surrealist periodical, published in London in 1942, with the proud title Arson.These were artists with no special regard for art itself. Why bother making art when you could find it hidden in reality, lurking in flea markets or greasy cafés or sex shops? The surrealists were intrepid urban explorers, whose trips to musty arcades or to eccentric man-made landscapes such as the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris were defined as ’spiritual hunting’.But after many hundreds of pages chronicling their radical effrontery, Durozoi disappointingly concludes that the surrealists failed to alter society. His sympathies are left-wing, and throughout the book he emphasises the fractious alliance between surrealism and communism, describing a French campaign against the colonial war in Vietnam in 1947 or a quixotic hymn to Castro’s Cuba as a romantic outpost of resistance to ‘the methodical destruction of the inner man’; he therefore sees the movement as a muddled, aborted revolution, which lost its conscience and its will to collective action after Breton’s death in 1966.I am not so sure. His volume’s lavish, startling, uncontrollably prolific illustrations are enough to disprove his doomy, self-defeating thesis. The most eye-opening images represent surrealistic pornography, sometimes soft but occasionally hard, which rather embarrasses Durozoi’s prim Marxist rectitude.Man Ray was thrilled by the Marquis de Sade’s cult of ‘total liberty’: man was to be liberated by surrender to erotic fantasy, not by political protest. Marcel Duchamp, designing a Paris exhibition in 1959, wanted to ease visitors in through an entrance which was to be shaped like a rubber vagina, opening into a velvety, uterine grotto resounding with the taped squeals of lovers. The same year he manufactured a pair of peekaboo plaid aprons that would not have looked out of place in the novelty shops that used to tout their tacky wares on 42nd Street in New York.For all his thoroughness, Durozoi is not omniscient. He sees the world as a suburb of Paris. Though there are a few pages on surrealism in Quebec, he ignores the movement’s popular success in the United States, and does not mention Hollywood’s adoption of the style in the late Forties: Dalí designed a neurotic nightmare for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and Orson Welles personally painted a surrealistic ‘crazy house’ in a San Francisco funfair for the conclusion of The Lady from Shanghai.Durozoi becomes uncomfortable as soon as his narrative reaches the Fifties, when – as the French xenophobically believe – America stole modern art and transferred its headquarters to New York. He is reluctant to admit that Pop Art inherited the surrealist vision, and argues that consumerism, extolled by Warhol with such blissed-out zeal, weakened the force of desire by commercially gratifying our every wish.The story, however, is not quite over, and has begotten new sequels since Durozoi’s book was first published in French in 1997. In an early manifesto, Breton preached ‘a dogma of absolute rebellion’, total insubordination and outright sabotage’, daring surrealists to go ‘down into the street, pistol in hand, and shoot at random into the crowd’. Terrorists who menace us now have accepted the challenge, and think of explosions as their artistic masterpieces. It’s still a surrealistic world; the equivocal triumph of the movement has been to take away our faith in the safe, solid, grounded support of reality itself.