PRINT September 1966

3. A Post-Cubist Morphology

IT IS ONLY AS ONE follows the development of Dada artists into the Surrealist decades that the apparent anarchy of Dada styles begins in retrospect to resolve itself into several basic directions. Though the Surrealists strove to distinguish their work from Dada, the evolutionary continuity could not be disguised; this continuity was particularly apparent in painting, if only because of the continuity of the personalities involved. Arp and Ernst became pioneer Surrealists, and Picabia, while formally rejecting association with the movement, produced work not unrelated to it. Duchamp, though he had long since given up painting, was active in the Surrealist movement in other ways.

The tradition of peinture-poésie in the years between the World Wars depended on two main sources, both of which were established in the second decade of the century: the biomorphism of Arp, and the poetic spatial illusionism of de Chirico. The de Chirico style, which lent it self to the surreal dream image, was much discussed by the Surrealists; the biomorphic or organic form, perhaps too plastic an element to appeal to the Surrealist poet-critics was passed over in silence. And yet it represents a major common denominator—perhaps the only one—which allows us to draw together the stylistic in novations of the Surrealist years. If there is a characteristic formal element that runs like a leitmotif through the stylistic innovations of 1915–47, it is surely this biomorphology. Studying the period in these terms allows us to set its styles off more dearly against the Cubism that preceded it and the New American Painting—or, less accurately named, Abstract Expressionism—(and its counterparts abroad) which succeeded it.

While de Chirico’s influence on Surrealism was broad, it left much of the best Surrealist painting untouched. Miró, Arp, and Masson, all charter Surrealists of the twenties13, explored the possibilities of biomorphism but rejected the three-dimensional scaffolding of de Chirico. At the same time Surrealist painters like Dalí and Tanguy, whose space, light, and (to a lesser extent) modeling derived from de Chirico, made great use of the biomorphic shape. Only certain illusionist extremists—Magritte and Delvaux, for example—abstained from biomorphism (and in the early works of Magritte there are exceptions like The Acrobat’s Ideas of 1928). So far as the plastic development of (non-Cubist) Dada and, more particularly, Surrealist art is concerned, I venture the thesis that it is, above all other determinants, the saga of biomorphism. It is a measure of their immersion in iconography and their lack of concern with plastic values that Breton and the other Surrealist writers never even raise this question.

The curvilinear style of fin-de-siècle painting (Lautrec and the Nabis) had provided some vague anticipations of the organic morphology but pointed more directly to the arabesqued lyricism of Matisse and the Fauves than to Arp or Miró. The art of Redon played a certain role (his forms were limited by their literalness) but it is in the decorative arts rather than in painting that the most significant adumbrations of biomorphism are to be found. Art Nouveau, particularly the work of Henry Van de Velde, Victor Horta, and Hector Guimard, was rich in convoluted organic shapes of botanical derivation. But as an essentially linear style, Art Nouveau provided few instances of the large, solid, and massed biomorphic forms that we find later in Arp, while the insistently floral connotations of most art Nouveau shapes precluded the anthropomorphic allusions which were central to the poe try of the painters who later explored biomorphism. Nonetheless, the indirect influence of Art Nouveau was widely felt; it was the style of the childhood years of the Dada and first Surrealist generations, and echoes of it are scattered through their works, particularly in those of the linearists like Miró, on whom the work of Gaudí had an unquestionable influence. Dada and Surrealist criticism was for the most part silent on Art Nouveau; only Dalí championed it, but his article in Minotaure in 1937 dealt with its fantasy rather than its form.

The first adumbration in painting of the new counter Cubist morphology is found in Marcel Duchamp’s canvases of 1912. It accompanied his shift from an external (and essentially Futurist) view of the human mechanism (Nude Descending a Staircase) to his suggestion of an internal event expressed in ambiguous psychological and physiological terms (The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride). In such pictures Duchamp overcame the Cubist-Futurist insistence on locking the arabesque in the vertical-horizontal grid, but only a few of his curvilinear shapes really approached the organic; the forms hung ambivalently between the images of the body as machine and as organism. By 1913 the machine idea had triumphed in Duchamp’s art, and two years later the new biomorphism was clearly and firmly established by Arp.

The Stag (1914–15), Terrestrial Forms (1916) and subsequent Dada reliefs and woodcuts constitute Arp’s point of departure and represent the high-water mark of Zürich Dada. While in many instances influenced by de Chirico (as in Fiat Modes) and the machine scaffolding of Picabia (as in Winter Landscape), Ernst’s Dada works only occasionally display biomorphic forms (The Gramineous Bicycle) while introducing a taste for ornamental richness, elaborately whimsical iconography, and more literal detail than we see in Arp. In later years Ernst was to return to this morphology from time to time, but in his exceedingly rich catalog of styles the organic form is to be found less than in the work of any other pioneer Surrealist.

The adoption of biomorphism marked the transition of both Miró and Masson from Cubism to Surrealism in the early twenties. From Harlequin’s Carnival (begun 1924 ) to Miró’s work of the present day, it has been the fundamental constituent in the vocabulary of his pictures, and from the point of view of both quality and quantity, no painter has put it to better service. Miró retained Arp’s flatness and rejected Ernst’s illusionistic modeling and spatial tricks. He endowed biomorphism with far greater variety and richness than we find in Arp, and put it at the service of a sense of color second only to Matisse’s and Bonnard’s. Masson used the new morphology less consistently, abandoning it almost completely at times and pressing it too far toward the literally visceral at others. It is nevertheless common to his best work: the extraordinary sand paintings of 1927 and the dark pictures of his American period.

Starting in 1927 and using an increasingly academic dry technique, Tanguy turned the biomorphic shape into an illusion of a three-dimensional object of crystalline hardness, and set it within a Chiricoesque space. Not long after Tanguy began thus depicting sculptural forms, Arp set the biomorphic form in a context of greater plastic directness, by producing his first sculptures in the round. Dalí’s earliest Surrealist pictures of the very late twenties are indebted to Tanguy, whose biomorphism he transmuted by grafting it to a style of Pre-Raphaelite literalness and fussiness. Then, in 1938, Matta put the biomorphic shape in motion, metamorphosing it endlessly through what appeared to be vaporous, liquid, and crystalline states, to create what Meyer Schapiro has aptly called “the futurism of the organic.”

The last Surrealist painter in whose work biomorphism played a crucial role is Arshile Gorky, who kept it close to the world of nature and endowed it with an unexpected pathos and urgency. Strictly within the Surrealist line as regards most of his forms (in his mature, post-1940 works), Gorky painted with a love for paint that set him apart from the Dada-Surrealist tradition, which disdained the medium as such. While Gorky was thought for a time to have been the initiator of the New American Painting, he appears in retrospect much more tied to the European tradition and, plastically speaking, to Surrealism. And it is with him that the adventure of the biomorphic form comes to a virtual end. Its final appearance as a formal device in painting of quality (apart from its extension in Baziotes) is in the late forties works of de Kooning, who at the time was somewhat influenced—morphologically—by Gorky. De Kooning further “agonized” the biomorphic form, tearing it open to give it an angular, Expressionist character. In making it his own he obliterated it; not long after, its remaining fragments were absorbed into the Cubist-derived grid which has since provided the underpinning for de Kooning’s compositions.

While most of the founders of the New American Painting used organic forms in one way or another during the transitional years of the early forties, they dropped these in their later and more independent work. In Europe, Picasso alone among the pre-World War I masters (and Kandinsky in a very limited way) exploited this new form-language. Matisse and Bonnard spent the years between the wars cultivating their own gardens, disdaining novelties like biomorphism and being largely disdained by the young painters of the avant-garde. At the very end of their careers, they were resurrected as models by the first post-Surrealist generation, which matured just after World War II. With this reinstatement of their reputations, fostered not a little by the fact that in their old age they produced some of their most glorious works, came a wholesale return to the principles of peinture-peinture by the younger generation both in Europe and in America.14

That biomorphism is a formal common denominator of a variety of styles still leaves open the question of its particular expressive character. Some light may be thrown here by contrasting biomorphism with the form-language or morphology of Analytic Cubist painting, its immediate historical predecessor. The Analytic Cubist picture in its most developed state (for example, Picasso’s Ma Jolie (1911–12) and Braque’s Man with a Guitar (1911) consists of an “architectural” (that is, vertical and horizontal) scaffolding seen through a sprinkle of Neo-Impressionist brushstrokes. Emerging and submerging in the myriad touches of pigment that provide the painting’s luminosity, the fragmentary shapes tend to align themselves with the verticals and horizontals of the frame as if by magnetism. Diagonals are not infrequent but are subordinated to the prevailing grid, while arabesques are rarer and almost invariably enclosed with straight lines. The result is a composition whose stability is continuously reinforced by our perception of the smaller and more subtle aspects of the grid. The main anti-architectural element in the composition—the dissolution of the scaffolding towards the edges of the canvas—is a vestige of the figure-ground relationship in older center-dominated illusionistic pictures; but this “weakness” was soon to be overcome by the Cubists in their so-called “synthetic” phase, and by the later Mondrian, who carried certain implications of Cubism to what seems retrospectively an inevitable conclusion. The subject which was the artist’s starting point (a woman with a guitar, in the case of Ma Jolie) makes little difference in the advanced Cubist picture of 1911–12 owing to the extreme to which the process of abstraction and reorganization is carried. All subjects, whether inherently architectural or not, end as architecture.

Verticality and horizontality are not so much the properties of man as of the man-made world, the environment that man creates in order to function with maximum stability. The Cubist picture speaks of this external world—one that man constructs and upon which he meditates—abstractly, from a position once removed. To the Dada and Surrealist generations this attitude of reserve seemed too detached, too disengaged from a man’s psyche and passions, from his need for movement and change. In creating an art that would “return to man” (Tzara) it is not surprising that the Dadaists and Surrealists should have developed a form-language with properties evoking the inwardness—both physiological and psychological—of man and ideally suited to improvisational, “automatic” styles. The very terms organic and biomorphic testify to the new humanism. Compare Picasso’s Ma Jolie and Arp’s Terrestrial Forms illustrated here. The former is balanced and stabilized, and unfolds with a pictorial logic, though not predictability, which makes its stasis seem classically definitive; the latter might almost be turned any way (Arp allowed for this in some cases), its contours unwind in a free and meandering manner implying growth and change. In the Arp we no longer have the sober, well-anchored classical scaffolding of the collective external world of architecture but ambiguous shapes which, while describing nothing specifically, multiply associations to nature, to the physiological processes, to sexuality, and (in other examples) through ambiguity, to humor. Its shapes turn man’s speculation in on himself and away from the transcendent and impersonal order of Cubism.15

Although biomorphism opened the way to a new vocabulary of forms, it did not in itself constitute a style (in the sense that Impressionism or Cubism did). Rather it provided constituent shapes for paintings in a variety of styles, and it did not determine or generate any new comprehensive principle of design or distribution of the total surface—or of the illusion of space—in pictures. On the contrary, when more than a few such shapes are used by the more abstract Surrealists, we almost always find them disposed in relation to one another and to the frame in a manner analogous to Cubist compositions. Thus, while we may speak of the form-language or morphology of Arp, Masson and Miró as anti-Cubist, this does not apply to the overall structure of their compositions, since these painters cling on that level to organizational principles assimilated from Cubism (which all had practiced earlier).

This is most easily illustrated by an extreme example, Miró’s Harlequin’s Carnival (1924–25 ) which should be compared with his “Cubistic” pictures of the early twenties. The Harlequin’s Carnival is full-blown Surrealist work, its iconography related to (Miró’s own) poetry and its forms almost entirely biomorphic. But despite the suppression of the straight lines and vertical and horizontal accents, the multitude of little organic forms are distributed over an underlying Cubist grid—the picture’s infrastructure—as if constrained by some rectilinear magnetism. We see the distillation of this particular design principle in Miró’s late “Constellations” (The Poetess, for example )16 which caused such excitement when they arrived in New York after the Second World War. With the Mondrians of 1913–14 and certain Surrealist works of 1925–27, such compositions as these constitute the bridge from Analytic Cubism to the “all-over” patterning of Pollock, Tomlin and others in the late forties.17

William Rubin



In the Spring of 1968 the Museum of Modern Art will present an exhibition, organized by Professor Rubin, tentatively entitled “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage.” The exhibition will be related to the research from which the articles above have been extracted.

1. André Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme. Poisson soluble. Paris, Simon Kra, 1924:
“SURREALISM, noun, masculine. Pure psychic automatism through which one expresses verbally, in writing, or by any other method, the real functioning of the mind. Dictated by one’s thoughts, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, and beyond any esthetic or moral preoccupation.
ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on tile belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of dreams, in the undirected play of thought . . .
I believe in the future resolution of the states of dream and reality—in appearance so contradictory—in a sort of absolute reality, or surréalité, if I may so call it.”

2. The Magazine Littérature (title ironic) was founded in Paris in 1919 by Breton, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault (Gide and Valery were house heroes). By May, 1920 it had become a Dada organ but it never fully accepted the literary nihilism proclaimed in some Dada quarters. In 1922, Littérature began a second series, directed by Breton, in which the point of view diverged markedly from then moribund Dada and reflected the concerns which would culminate two years later in the First Surrealist Manifesto.

3. Marcel Jean (with Arpad Mezei). A History of Surrealist Painting, New York, 1960. Original French edition, Paris, 1959.

4. Claude Roy, Art fantastiques, Editions Robert Delpire, Paris, 1960.

5. Marcel Brion, Art fantastiques, Editions Alban Michel, Paris, 1961.

6. In my forthcoming book I detail the affinities—such as they are—between Gustave Moreau, Redon, Rousseau, Seurat (and others) and the Surrealists.

7. The discussion presented here is excerpted from a general account of the background of Surrealist painting. It does not include descriptions of specific influences of de Chirico paintings on Ernst, Magritte, Tanguy, Dalí and others. These are dispersed throughout my book and I have not found it practicable to present them here.

8. James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, Museum of Modern Art, New York, n.d. pages 38–42, 79.

9. André Breton, “Genesis and Artistic Perspective of Surrealism.” Original French text in Le Surrealisme et la peinture, New York and Paris, Brentano’s, 1945.

10. André Breton, Les Pas Perdus, Paris, N.R.F., 1924.

11. André Breton, Le Surréalisme et la peinture (A collection of mostly previously printed texts.) Paris, N.R.F., 1928. For Lautréamont, see foot note 12.

12. The Surrealists particularly celebrated the work of the late 19th-century poet Isidore Ducasse, who called himself the Count of Lautréamont. His reference to the beauty of a chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table provided the literary prototype for Max Ernst’s redefinition of collage as “a meeting of two distant realities on a plane foreign to them both.”

13. It is remarkable how lack of historical knowledge has led critics who should know better to disassociate the non-illusionist Surrealists from the movement. Lawrence Alloway, for example (“The Biomorphic Forties” in Artforum v. IV no. 1) speaks of Miró and Arp as “Shanghai-ed” into Surrealism (we suppose by misinformed writers, or by the Surrealists themselves). “Masson alone, for much of his career,” he continues, “was an official Surrealist.” This is simply incorrect. Miró joined the Surrealist movement in 1924 at the moment of his transition from Cubism to an art of biomorphic fantasy. Not only was he an “official member” (this meant signing manifestoes, participating in meetings and “manifestations,” exhibiting in Surrealist group shows etc.—all of which he did) but he never officially broke with Breton or the movement as Masson did in the schism of 1929, though in the thirties he drifted somewhat away from its milieu. Even then, however, he refused to participate in the exhibitions of the formalist “Abstraction-Creation” group. As late as 1949, by which time even Max Ernst had broken with the movement, Miró still considered himself a Surrealist in good standing (and has since collaborated with Breton, who wrote the preface for the album of his “Constellations”). Miró was an active Surrealist longer than Masson—or for that matter, Dalí.

Arp had, of course, established his style during the Dada period, and it under went no appreciable change in the twenties when he joined the Surrealist movement (participating in most of its activities and being particularly active in this regard as a poet).

14. By 1950 the reaction of the pioneers of the New American Painting against their own earlier work and against the ambience of Surrealism which influenced it appeared to be complete. Except for automatism (which was the main source of what came to be called “action”), the mature styles of these painters seemed to reject out of hand everything Surrealism had stood for. But because of their contact with Surrealism, the American painters produced a type of abstraction markedly different from that to which Cubism and Fauvism alone would have led. These movements had already lost their momentum in Europe in the 1930s, and the American practitioners of flat decorative Cubism in those same years found themselves in a dead end. Only a new spirit could have freed them.

It is certain that the mature styles of the New American Painters descend lineally—in their plastic structure—from Cubism and Fauvism. In fact, their art—once promoted as a total break with the past—depends more directly on such sources (see footnote 17) than most art historians and critics realize. But it was precisely because these American painters had experienced Surrealism in the early and middle forties that it was possible for them to challenge and “open up” the sclerotic traditions of Cubism and Fauvism, and thus preserve what was viable in them. And while it is true that they expunged from their painting the specific imagery that had earlier related it to Surrealism the spirit of their wholly abstract art retained much of Surrealism’s concern with poetry, albeit in a less obvious form (perhaps some day the French will call it peinture-poésie abstraite). The visionary, poetic dimension in the mature art of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Still, Motherwell and Gottlieb (to say no thing of some sculptors) does as much as differences in technique or structure to set their abstraction apart from that of Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian.

In France, where, as the result of the war, painters who came to maturity in the later forties had been deprived of the experience of Surrealism, the impulse toward “informal” abstraction was much weaker, and the visionary, poetic tendency virtually nil. Painters like Jean Bazaine and Alfred Manessier produced only effete forms of late Cubism, and even Ni colas de Stael’s painting led into a blind alley.

15. Regarding Masson’s transition from Cubism to automatist fantasy D. H. Kahnweiler wrote : “The universe of Masson is not a world of forms, like that of the Cubists, but one of forces . . . [His is] an art in which the pulse—the ‘pneuma’—breathes life into the forms, influencing and twisting them. The Cubists lived in an Eden from which unhappiness and death were banished. Masson’s world of forces is shaken by frenzied passions. It is a world where people are born and die, where they are hungry and thirsty, where they love and kill . . .” (Catalog Preface to a Masson exhibition, Curt Valent in Gallery, New York.)

16. The “Constellations” constitute Mira’s last really important invention. Against a modulated ground of diluted tones he placed a labyrinth of tiny, flat shapes linked by tenuous webs of lines. The compactness and complexity of these diaphanous compositions are astonishing. “I would set out with no preconceived idea,“ Miró recalls. ”A few forms suggested here would call for other forms elsewhere to balance them. These in turn demanded others. I would take it (each gouache) up day after day to paint in other tiny spots, stars, washes, infinitesimal dots of colour, in order to achieve a full and complex equilibrium."

The originality of the “Constellations” does not lie in the variety of their forms, which are not particularly inventive. Beyond circles, stars, triangles, and other simple geometrical items, we find relatively few of the meandering biomorphic shapes which gave character to Miró’s most interesting earlier work. However, in the best of the “Constellations” the even spotting of colors and shapes and the close proximity of the many small forms destroy traditional compositional focus and hierarchy, and the piquant variations in density with in the resultant “all-over” dispersal produce an animated flicker punctuated here and there by brief flashes of pure bright color. As an optical experience the “Constellations” were almost entirely unprecedented, having few forerunners even in Mira’s own work beyond Harlequin’s Carnival, where the more diluted coloring and less dense distribution minimize the effect.

17. I have not the space here to detail Pollock’s affinity to Masson in procedural terms (linear automatism ) and in spirit (see footnote 14, and my “Notes on Masson and Pollock,” Arts, November, 1959) both of which relate more to Pollock’s interest in Surrealism in general than in Masson in particular. However, when we turn to the structural character of the classical drip Pollocks we find, not rapports with Surrealism, but the vestiges of Analytic Cubist underpinning (as, indeed, we can see in many Massons which at first appear anti-Cubist). It was Clement Greenberg who first suggested the relationship between the “all-over” Pollock and Analytic Cubism, stating that these pictures “took up Analytic Cubism from the point at which Picasso and Braque had left it when, in their collages of 1912 and 1913, they drew back from the utter abstractness for which Analytic Cubism seemed headed.” (“American-Type Painting” in Art and Culture, Boston, 1961). This thesis, admittedly astonishing at first glance, has been generally overlooked, or rejected, even by such perceptive critics as Michael Fried (“Jackson Pollock” in Artforum Vol. IV, No. 1, fn.).

The “all-over” pattern’s derivation from Cubism might be more easily demonstrated in the rectilinear, grid-like compositions of Tomlin than in the curvilinear drip Pollocks, yet the essentials are the same. These include 1) a comfortable adjustment of the “all-over” compositional fabric to the frame, with the fabric stopping short of, or dissolving near, the frame rather than touching or breaking through it; 2) a shallow, frontal, “painterly” (malerisch) space created by the generally symmetrical and “transparent” paint fabric—with its inherent grid articulation—that is suspended in front of an opaque ground which closes the space in the back. (Thus, these pictures are comparable to those 1911–12 Cubist works which dissolved into a “painterly” condition the illusion of sculptural bas-relief of the Cubism of 1908–10, itself in turn derived from Cézanne); 3) an articulation determined primarily by value—as opposed to hue—relationships.

Greenberg’s brilliant insight has not been convincing because he did not carry his argument far enough (that is, beyond Picasso and Braque in 1911–12) nor reason it in detail. In the Epilogue of my Dada and Surrealist Art, I explore some intervening links, unmentioned by Greenberg, to which I can allude here only briefly:

Essential to the Pollocks, Tomlins (and even Rothkos which are, in this sense, related) is that the dissolution of the frontal, “all-over” pattern (for Rothko, the rectangles) just short of the frame take place equidistantly on all four sides. This does not happen in the characteristic Picassos and Braques of 1911–12 where the scaffolding is still supported by the frame on the bottom. It was Mondrian—I maintain—who in 1913 took this logical and crucial step in pictures like Composition No. 7 (familiar to Pollock an an “anchor” picture in the then Museum of Non-Objective Art) where, in addition, he refi ned the monochromy and carried forward a progression clearly established in Picasso and Braque between 1908 and 1911, which was to make the modular elements of the composition smaller in size and greater in number. If we imagine the rectilinear lattices of the Mondrian transmuted into curvilinear webs, we are virtually confronting Pollock’s structure. Mondrian and Pollock are normally considered polar opposites; yet I am convinced Pollock learned a great deal from the late Analytic Cubist Mondrian, even more perhaps—as far as the drip period is concerned—than from Picasso. Moreover, the “flicker” of the early “plus and minus” Mondrians (which follow Composition No. 7 late in 1913) anticipates the scintillation of spots (ultimately derived from Impressionism in both cases) formed by the criss-crossings of Pollock’s web.

But even between Mondrian and Pollock, certain curvilinear Surrealist compositions of 1925–7 and Mira’s “Constellations” form intervening links. Take, for example, Max Ernst’s 100,000 Doves. Except for the rectilinear-curvilinear transformation we have here a painting ultimately very like the Mondrian in structure. A grid used to create frottage texture atomizes the paint fabric into many small units distributed more or less evenly over the surface (but dissolving at the frame, though this is somewhat obscure in the accompanying reproduction); the composition is essentially a value structure, cream tinted with blue and rose to create a shallow, “painterly,” frontal space.

From the interlacing curvilinear patterns (results of string and other frottage textures used to make this picture) Ernst “envisioned” the doves, which he then “clarified” by contouring birds’ eyes and bodies. This visionary, poetic phase of the painting is its specifically Surrealist side, but the Analytic Cubist infra-structure remains. To see such a picture in juxtaposition with the Mondrian on one side and with certain Massons of the twenties and early forties, and the Miró “Constellations” on the other, is to see the plastic context that lies behind not only Pollock, but other “all-over” painters (though these influences, “in the air” as it were, frequently made themselves felt only indirectly).