PRINT September 1966

1. Notes on Surrealism and Fantasy Art

“SURREALIST PAINTING” IS TO SOME extent a contradiction in terms, for, as defined in the First Manifesto, Surrealist activity is ideally “beyond any esthetic . . . preoccupation.”1 Since all art—whatever non-formal or iconographic charge it may carry—necessarily involves some degree of esthetic structuring, there can be no such thing as Surrealist painting if we take the Manifesto’s statement at face value. This is precisely what Pierre Naville did when, in 1925 in the movement’s pioneer magazine, La Revolution surréaliste, (which he edited) he insisted that “every body knows” there is “no such thing as Surrealist Painting: neither pencil lines made as a result of accidental gesturing, nor images tracing dream figures, nor imaginative fantasies can qualify as such.” André Breton and most other leaders of the movement were unwilling to take their own Manifesto so literally; esthetic values were in them selves beside the point, yet they existed and might possibly be useful. Painting was a “lamentable expedient” but an expedient nevertheless. The automatic drawings of André Masson, reproduced in the first numbers of La Revolution surréaliste, were Surrealist in inspiration, yet unquestionably art; the same was true of Miró’s fantasies and Max Ernst’s disturbing oneiric images of that period. Though, at the moment of the First Manifesto, Surrealist art was more an idea than an actuality, Breton was able by 1928 (in Le Surrealisme et la peinture) to describe (but not define) it by its entelechy.

Despite the “Naville crisis,” it was generally agreed that the mere presence of form did not prevent paintings from being Surrealist. Art would be a means of expression, an instrument of self-discovery, not an end to be savored. Surrealist identity would hinge on the methodological and iconographic relevance of the picture to the main ideas of the movement, i.e., automatism and the “dream image.” Actually, it depended also on André Breton’s personal attitude toward the painter in question. Such painters as Masson, Ernst and Matta were at times dropped from the ranks of Surrealism not because of changes in their art but simply because they had fallen out with Breton.

Inasmuch as Surrealism was devoted primarily to literary, psychological, and philosophical problems, it was not destined to foster a “school” of painters sharing a common style. We cannot formulate a definition of Surrealist painting comparable in clarity with the meanings of Impressionism and Cubism (which began, and remained, movements in the plastic arts). During the twenties, thirties, and early forties, however, there came into being a body of painting and sculpture which was in varying degrees related to the concerns of the Surrealist group, and which was exhibited under their auspices. Though stylistically heterogeneous (Miró and Magritte, for example), the works involved did have certain common denominators in aims, character, and iconography. And it is only on the basis of this historical body of work—at first glance so diverse and contradictory in character—that one can attempt to formulate a comprehensive intrinsic definition of Surrealist painting. Here is the first such definition ever proposed:

The two poles of Surrealist painting—the automatist—abstract and the academic-illusionist—correspond roughly to the Freudian twin props of Surrealist theory, automatism (free association) and dreams. Both kinds of painting were usually carried on within the movement to some degree, but the automatist-abstract vein dominated the pioneer years of 1924–29 and then again the years just before and during the Second World War. In between, surreal illusionism held sway. Miró, and Masson with him during most of the time, defined the “abstract” pole—we think of both these artists basically as peintres. Dali and Magritte defined the other pole—and we think of them essentially as imagiers. All other Surrealist painters occupied positions somewhere along the continuum between these poles, but Max Ernst, the “compleat” Surrealist, ranged from one end to the other.

What ever their place in the continuum of style, all Surrealists were creators of peinture-poésie (as opposed to “pure painting” or peinture-peinture as it is known in the French tradition). Hence their pictures are always metaphoric, whether the image is conjured in the mind and set down illusionistically, or derived improvisationally through automatism from “abstract” (usually biomorphic) shapes in a shallow (Cubist derived) space. Unlike the Cubists, or Matisse, who work away from the motif which is the visual starting point of the picture, all Surrealist painters (eschewing perceptual motifs) proceed toward an interior, imaginative image. The image, or subject—which reveals unconscious experience assumed heretofore inaccessible and now attainable by means of automatism and dream recall—may be entirely personal or may be inspired by the literature of interest to Surrealism. But however “abstract” its iconography, the Surrealist picture will contain those “irrational” juxtapositions of image-elements common to free association and dreaming.

Now let me go back to the problem of painting as it appeared to Breton in 1922–23 at the time of the so-called mouvement flou which accompanied the demise of Dada. Surrealism had not yet been launched as a movement; there was no Surrealist art as yet, and consequently no problem of finding antecedents for it or of placing it in history. But the time had arrived, Breton felt, to question Dada’s peremptory rejection of the tradition of modern painting. Just as the Littérature circle2 had insisted on the viability of certain poets in the Symbolist tradition, despite their dismissal by Dada, so, in an article entitled “Distances,” Breton sought to “rehabilitate” the reputations of various painters—Moreau, Gauguin, Seurat, Redon, and Picasso in particular. With the exception of Moreau, none of these, of course, needed rehabilitation beyond the very narrow circles of the Parisian Dadaists. Breton also stressed the importance of de Chirico (largely over looked by Dada) and Max Ernst. Not long after, in the First Surrealist Manifesto, he added a footnote on painters of interest to Surrealism in which we find the above list extended to include one Old Master (Uccello) as well as Matisse (“in the Music Lesson, for example”), Derain, Braque, Duchamp, Picabia, Klee, Man Ray, and (“so close to us”) André Masson.

Obviously, at the moment of the First Manifesto Breton had only the vaguest ideas about the relation of Surrealism to the plastic arts. His list of names (he presented them with no comment or elaboration) is curious even as a general list of fantasy painters. If the presence of Picasso and Braque can be justified by their invention of collage, the same cannot be said for Derain (who happened at that moment to be very friendly with Breton) or for Matisse (who, four years later, was to be dismissed as “an old lion, discouraged and discouraging”). Also, how explain the absence of Henri Rousseau, so celebrated by Apollinaire (and only much later admitted into Breton’s pantheon)? Even at the end of the 1920s, when Breton’s ideas on painting were elaborated and published, it was still impossible to derive from them any comprehensive view of painting or a definition of Surrealist art. And this although Breton was identified more than any other critic with new developments in European painting between the two world wars.

Probably no other critic of art has made a reputation on the basis of as little critical writing as Breton. His articles on painting were in frequent, and usually they focused more on literature and mysticism than the pictures themselves. When he confronted the latter directly, he was anything but critical. Almost without exception, Breton wrote about painters he loved (“criticism can exist only as a form of love”), and his identification with them was so complete that he rarely found it possible to speak of their shortcomings (if he was aware of them). His writing deals more with painters than with painting and is so personal, so lyrically effusive, that his occasional remarks about the works themselves remain obscure.

Breton rarely addressed himself to the formal aspects of painting; he remained almost totally involved with the subject of the picture. He admits to being incapable of considering a painting “except as a window, about which my first concern is to know what it looks out on.” This single-mindedness tended to make him write about all image-makers with almost equal conviction, regardless of their pictorial qualities proper.

In any case, only a small part of Breton’s critical writing is devoted to painting and sculpture. The two Surrealist Manifestoes barely mention either. His remarks on painting that appeared in magazines are buried among lengthier texts dealing with literature, psychoanalysis, and politics. To collate his art criticism, therefore, one must rely largely on the booklet Le Surréalisme el la peinture (1928) and on an even shorter text, “Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism,” which first appeared in English as a preface to Peggy Guggenheim’s catalog, Art of This Century, in 1942. To these may be added a number of eulogistic catalog prefaces and random remarks made in interviews or in the course of writing on other subjects.

There emerges no fully defined view of painting, no clearly predictable taste from this material, but rather a remarkable intuition for quality, especially when it comes to fantasy painting. Despite the praise Breton accorded many painters now rightfully forgotten, there was not a single new contributor to the artistic adventure of the interwar period whose art did not immediately move him. He championed Miró, Masson, Ernst, Tanguy, Arp, and Giacometti long before they achieved public recognition. Later, he was one of the first to appreciate developments among the younger painters in war-time America, where he wrote pioneer articles on Matta and Gorky.

As we have seen, Breton’s lists of Surrealist precursors leave much to be desired, and the art historian finds he must develop the prehistory of the movement without relying on documentation by the Surrealists themselves. One approach, adopted by Marcel Jean in his History of Surrealist Painting) takes the form of short expository discussions of all imaginative painting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first section of Jean’s book, entitled “Surrealist Painting before Surrealism,” is in effect a capsule history of modern painting with special emphasis on the Pre-Raphaelites, Moreau, Bücklin, Redon, photography, “Negro art,” Rousseau, de Chirico, and Cubism. The difficulty here is that, while Jean’s discussion offers valuable insights into the works of these various artists, some of them had no influence at all on Surrealist painting, and in the case of others, such as Redon, the auth or does not distinguish, in his general description, the particular aspects that were assimilated by one or another of the Surrealist painters. At the same time, the effort to appropriate primarily formal painters, like Cézanne, as iconographic precursors of Surreal ism leads to distorted emphases. Jean, for example, accepts Breton’s ill-advised description of Cézanne’s The House of the Hanged Man as expressing specifically the relation between “the sudden fall of a hum an body, a cord around its neck, and the very spot where the fall takes place.”

Nevertheless, Jean’s treating modern fantasy art within the context of modern painting as a whole is quite correct. Though he never states it this way, the implication is that fantastic art must be analyzed within the context of the particular cultural outlook and plastic conventions of its time. A different position is taken by such writers as Claude Roy4 and Marcel Brians who treat Surrealism as a late phase of a continuous (that is, “vertical") historical tradition of fantasy art that goes back to medieval times and even earlier. But fantasy art, in its sporadic appearances, created no history of its own; it always depended for its very definition as fantasy on what was considered unusual or unbelievable at the time it was created.

Meyer Schapiro has observed that what we would now call the fantasy art of previous periods is of a piece with the other art of its time and unlike modern fantasy. The imaging of a fantastic scene was based on a text or tradition that was the collective property of the culture in question. The image thus had a directly given quality and in this respect was analogous to a street scene or landscape. The contemporary artist—fantasist or abstractionist—paints what he alone feels, without taking his image from what everybody around him recognizes as the immediately visible, or from material offered by history, religion or myth. Insofar as he invents images that are personal and unique, the Surrealist is closer to the Cubist than to the older fantasy painters.

If the medieval world believed in the reality of the winged lion of St. Mark as firmly as it did in that of its streets and houses, the winged lion cannot really be called a fantasy. The same is true of the syncretistic Egyptian gods, the Greek centaurs, the Babylonian Zöe, the monsters of the bestiaries, and countless other visions. Accepting this formulation of Schapiro forces us to go further and ask what if any older art may truly be called fantastic in the context of its own period. The answer was provided by Alfred Barr when he organized the Museum of Modern Art’s “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” in 1936: only marginalia—those infrequent, aberrational images that propose something outside the limits of collective belief—unique inventions by artists with special bent. These might include, for example, certain pictures by Giovanni di Paolo, Hans Baldung Grien, Bracelli, Arcimboldo and Larmessin. The bounds of such a definition cannot be sharply drawn, of course, for if the illustrators of the medieval bestiaries should not in our sense be called fantasy painters, they did, from time to time, add details—or even whole conceptions—that derived from their own imagination rather than from the text or some related folkloristic tradition. The matter is one of degree: One might still call Bosch a fantasy painter even if, as Fraenger has tried to prove, the general structure and many details of his iconography depend upon the program of the heretical Adamite sect; it remains that the majority of his pictorial ideas (in such works as the Garden of Earthly Delights) are with out precedent even among the Adamites.

While it is possible to speak of a more or less continuous unfolding of Western art as a whole, there is no comparable historical dialectic for fantasy painting, the coordinates of which are horizontal (that is, dependent upon their relation to their moment in history) and form no continuum. The history of style is cumulative; at any given moment (at least in relatively modern times), the artist has available to him the sum of the discoveries of the past. But such similarity as exists in the imagery of fantasy painters who are separated in time and space derives from constants in human psychology, from the commonly shared symbols of reverie and dreams, rather than from contact with a body of specifically fantastic art.

The inventiveness of the fantasy artist operates on the iconographic rather than on the formal level. He is a creator of new images; but whether Renaissance or medieval, Italian or Flemish, he uses the same plastic structures as his more conventional colleagues. With the advent of modern art, however, the distinction between plastic structure and iconography becomes more difficult to maintain. The iconographies of Ernst collages grow from the collage materials themselves; the same is true of a sand painting by Masson or an object-sculpture by Miró. Yet even in these cases, where a personal iconography issues from a plastic device, it is still a plastic device common to the painter’s own period.

However, with Dali and—to a lesser extent—Magritte, in whose work plastic structure is only marginally influenced by modern painting, we have a situation that never existed in older art: fantasy artists who dissociate themselves stylistically from their age. Dali understood his adaptation of a “retrograde technique” (his own term) as, in effect, a kind of anti-art which bypassed “plastic considerations and other conneries.” In The Conquest of the Irrational he perfectly characterized one extreme of Surrealist image-making when he wrote:

My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialize images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision.—In order that the world of the imagination and of concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident, of the same consistency, of the same durability, of the same persuasive, cognoscitive and communicable thickness as that of the exterior world of phenomenal reality. The illusionism of the most arriviste art . . . the familiar paralyzing tricks of trompe l’oeil, the most . . . discredited academicism, can all transmute into sublime hierarchies of thought.

William Rubin