PRINT September 1966

Surrealist Painting Re-examined

OF ALL THE DECISIVE MOMENTS in the tradition of 20th century painting, only one can be said to burrow still relevantly with in us, and to surface in ambitious works of art that show a sibling connection with the past. Cubism and Expressionism had ground down exhaustedly to an impasse during the fifties. The example of the Bauhaus today sometimes fitfully re-emerges, but then mainly in forms alien to its own pedagogy. Yet Dada, as it is almost axiomatic to say, and its rambunctious outgrowth, Surrealism, surround and confirm a swarm of present avant-garde works reflecting a confusing wealth of idioms. Leaving aside all of Pop art, one has merely to think of artists as diverse stylistically as Helen Frankenthaler and Edward Kienholz (just as earlier there had appeared Miró and Ernst) to validate the lyrical or cancerous urgency of Surrealism in the current esthetic stream. Such is the obvious empirical basis and incentive to scrutinize a movement that has escaped hard critical analysis, if not reams of evocation.

Essential to this overview, surely, is some kind of awareness of why we make it. To re-define or rediscover the pedigree of work that interests us today does not seem a large enough formulation. Rather, the past is here quite consistently regenerated by the present. “How we shape our understanding of history,” wrote Lincoln Johnson (in introducing the Baltimore Museum exhibition 1914), “will be determined by what we find significant in it, and that in turn will be determined not by any potentially accurate view of history, but rather by the tension and balance that exist in our own time.” It is to the credit of Surrealism to have constituted, perhaps, the first epiphany of modern tension. Pictorial inventions, even the most decisive, pale in comparison, or more accurately, tend to be subsumed by the largeness of Surrealism’s anxiety—its sense of dissolution that could be assimilated only as a permanent thrill or menace—or both. Cubism, obviously more than any other movement, had postulated contemporary taste; but Surrealism, viewed under the panoply of its literary, cinematic, theatrical and social extensions or affinities, questioned the stability of consciousness itself. The modern eye has been crucially educated by Cubist spatial structuring and symbolism; the modern sensibility has been compelled by Surrealism, in large part, to turn in upon itself. Rather than out of a crypto-visual order, Surrealism drew energy from a conceptual and psychological deposit in which our condition is still invested. Something far more (and distinctly less) than an esthetic consideration is involved in this phenomenon. And that is why the present stakes in Surrealism are high. It opens up the possibility of a wholeness and personal integration on a behavioral level from which its artistic embodiment will only seem to trail behind. As such, it is participative in a new way, for it simultaneously denies intrinsic significance to mere artifacts like pictures and assemblages, and yet presents them as models of an interior cosmos. (Artists like Miró, not the denying kind, excepted.) This ambivalence is as far as it ever was from being resolved. But there are few cultural, and even perhaps philosophical tasks, more meaningful—or beguiling—than to struggle with its antithesis.

Years ago, in defining the premises of “new art,” Ortega y Gasset said that “preoccupation with the human content of the work is in principle incompatible with esthetic enjoyment proper.” (“The Dehumanization of Art.”) He analogized the esthetic experience as comparable with the optical adjustment necessary in focusing on the window pane instead of the garden seen through the nominally transparent glass. Such pronouncements made, and still make, a good deal of sense to theoreticians of “modernism.” “When we analyze the new style,” wrote Ortega, “we find that it contains certain closely connected tendencies. It tends (1) to dehumanize art, (2) to avoid living forms, (3) to see to it that the work of art is nothing but a work of art.” So far, these are some of the tendencies underlying Cubism. But, continuing with the rest of his list, one reads “(4) to consider art as play and nothing else, (5) to be essentially ironical, (6) to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization, (7) to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence.” And these requirements, though very general, are more in accord with Surrealism.

Leaving aside possibilities of interpreting points 5 and 6 as in conflict with each other, one can see a larger contradiction when juxtaposing some of Ortega’s “tendencies” with artistic actualities. For Surrealism wanted very much to concern the spectator with “the human content of the work,” and to engage itself with living forms. In common with Expressionism, and opposed to Cubism, this attitude grew naturally to anti-art, that is, anti-esthetic proportions. But whereas Expressionism wanted to wrest the viewer’s involvement into the rhythms of violent paint handling, Surrealism, compromising with painting (a “lamentable expedient,” said Breton), sought to engage him with the visualized spectacle of his inner life—its desires and fears. That there were no guidelines to this realm, or rather, that they had to he invented, provided the creative challenge faced by the Surrealist artists. To have mapped and molded an iconography of the subconscious, for which there existed only the sporadic precedents of fantasy art, is a great achievement. It is impossible to evoke, and difficult to minimize, the imaginative resources which it called into being. The purpose of this iconography was not to purge artist or viewer of psychological repressions, but to conjure such a resonant tide of libidinal imagery that passage into a fuller interaction of mind and body might be conceived. “The committed,” writes Julien Levy in 1966, “teach us how to achieve freedom; the Surrealists, how to enjoy it.” Yet, to come to the verge of contemplating something so broad, if you are an artist, is to be ready to sacrifice something specific. In this case, it was the transfer of energy and intensity away from pictorial means to iconic ends: the higher reality (which traces back eventually to Symbolist theory), or sur-reality. Thus was broken the reciprocal identity of form and content, a breakage which was taboo in the modern tradition. Reversing Marianne Moore’s line, the Surrealists, a large segment of them at least, portrayed imaginary to ads in a real garden.

A number of paradoxes leap almost uncontrollably into view. Those of the Surrealist painters springing from the example of de Chirico wanted to discredit the visible world without denying naturalism, or ultimately rejecting illusionistic processes. They would solicit a spectator’s engagement as pornographically, in some instances, as a 19th-century salon painter, but offer him image, that resist rational comprehension. (A side-product was that their work was often erotic without being intrinsically sensuous.) Similarly, they tended to disclaim any initiative as conscious manipulators of messages (an outgrowth of their interest in the liberating values of chance), and yet, once their imagery and vocabulary were determined, left little, or merely the incidental, to accident. Finally, they insisted on legitimizing their own inventiveness by an appeal to a collective subconscious (“All men,” said Dali, “are equal in their madness”) that was problematical in the extreme. If ever there was an art that had to be squinted at, in Ortega’s term, this was one.

Yet, it is not necessary today to see Ernst or Tanguy, Masson or Matta, as prophets of psychosis or secretaries of the subliminal. Nor do the contradictions they embraced diminish the grandeur of their theme. Perhaps the fundamental dualism they, or rather their Dada forbears, instigated was that between action and contemplation, societal reform and personal enchantment. Life was indubitably a greater and more meaningful arena in which to act than art, but art was also a partial and metaphorical re-construction of life, as well as an activity that always siphoned energies hack from life in order to fulfill itself. (Taken to an extreme, in which anti-art means pro-life, and where boundaries between the vicarious and the immediate are made so fluid as not to exist, this issue has become the chief item in the polemics of Allan Kaprow.)

Not for nothing, then, has the major Surrealist preoccupation (as distinct from occupation) been with the dream. In a remarkable article (“Surrealist Intentions,” Transformation, No. 1, Vol. 1, 1950), Nicolas Calas comments that “Surrealism, by using symbols borrowed from the vocabulary of dreams, has indicated that the surrealist messages are concerned with the failure to do . . . In Surrealist art, the artist viewed as a dreamer becomes the subject of art . . .” This, in turn, he goes on, becomes a paradigm in extricably mingling intimations of pleasure and pain. Art itself has no choice but to be an ambivalent pretense. “In all great works of art (writes Calas) there is a combination of joy and grief stemming from the joy of not having to work and the pain of being anxious . . . Just as the artist imitates anxiety through enigmas, so he imitates work in his ‘play.’ The feeling that art is useless heightens the artist’s Hamletian anxiety which can be overcome only by greater devotion to play.”

It would be worth adding, then, that hallucination, metamorphosis, in congruity, and disjunction, among so many other typical devices of Surrealism, seem to be compensatory in function—more so than in any other recent art that did not have to make the results of those devices credible. Chagall and Beckmann, for instance, are not Surrealists because their imagery is not plausible enough, or rather, does not solicit our credulity. Particle by particle, the Surrealist dream world is deposited and accrued, with a diffident scrupulousness. This is as true of those whom Patrick Waldberg calls the “emblematics” (Masson, Miró, etc.), as well as the “naturalists” (e.g. Magritte ) of the imaginary. Automatism itself—programmatically so spontaneous—was always in underground complicity with evocation in one biomorphic guise or another (in fact, worked rather hard at it, in sheer self-justification). Issuing ultimately from Baudelaire’s concept of the dandy, as so many writers have acknowledged, the Surrealist “dreamer” externalized the reality of wish-fulfillment. In relation to life, Surrealist painting is therefore an obvious form of sublimation, differing from other art only, yet importantly, in being explicitly concerned with sublimation itself. But, in relation to previous art, Surrealism became a form of “action” that stripped away much of the symbolism that had earlier screened the id. The dream is a continuum which brackets the creative process—necessarily serious as a method whereby artists may confront their condition; and ironic as the subject of what they themselves do. (Such is probably the basis for so much of the curious talk about “camouflage” in Gorky.) Once articulated, this self-affirming sham not only broke a taboo within its own tradition, but neutralized or assuaged the artist’s latent sense of bad faith, and indelibly opened up the mutational esthetic possibilities that now surround us. Modernity, in this respect, is nothing if not impure and contradictory.

Yet, quite aside from the moral or existential dynamics of the Surrealist orientation, a discussion of which is inevitably speculative, the paintings work upon us in very direct ways. Automatism (“thought’s dictation”: Breton), whether in scribble or doodle, labyrinth or drip, is one of the most readily empathetic processes invented by 20th-century painting. By ostensibly severing various tendons of consciousness, the wrist spools out chimerical tracings that are both testimony of its own motions, and mimetically animistic. Simultaneously “object” and metaphor, automatist line, the wellspring of Surrealism, could take on numberless incarnations. It may well be that Duchamp’s “Three Standard Stoppages,” if any single piece, is the point of origin here. Lines (strings), dropping down from space, and whose limp fluctuations are stopped by a sudden meeting with a plane, now can be seen to betray an unsuspected or alarming life. The earliest Surrealist Tanguys sparingly meld these languorous streamers, that seem resisted only by the air, into the components of an ether landscape (“Water Table,” 1929). And a Miró collage like Spanish Dancer, 1928, actually glues a wriggled string to a surface (as Arp once did more rhythmically), in emulation of some lower muscular activity. Either visceral echo, or graffiti-like scrawl, secretion or shadow (as in a recent work, “Running Self-Portrait,” by Jim Dine), automatism is a transformable agent of organic life, for which pictures sometimes are only ritualized containers.

Above all, automatism gives an impression of “all-at-onceness” which transcends the smaller notion of the spontaneous, and differs, too, from Futurist “simultaneity,” which was a factor of coded interpenetration of forms. One comprehends more or less the entire automatist configuration in one glance, in great measure because it is antithetical to “relationships,” and hence, to the notion of parts within, and making up, a whole. Under this light, it is intended to be grasped as an image in its own right, no matter how complex and involuted its turnings. It was as inevitable that “Ariadne’s thread” (as Otto Hahn referred to it in the work of Masson) should at first shimmy in the biomorphic profiles and torsions of Arp’s sculpture, as it should dissipate finally in the mucoid and lubricious terrains of Gorky’s paintings. A path can be traced from its earliest functions as calligraphy and silhouette, to gradually increasing informational loads and hybrided doublings and ambiguities that teetered on the verge of abstraction. What was lost in iconic clarity (if not allusiveness) was gained for pictorial energy and activation of the surface. It is sufficient merely to recall the post-Gorky work of Pollock to see the destination of that phenomenon first hinted at by Duchamp.

Much earlier, the ancestor of such linearity, at the end of the last century enacted an irresistibly springy, elastic and growth oriented natural force. During the twenties and thirties, line, now far more tenuous, wafted upon a surface and seemed to unweave and outwit direction itself. (How relevant here is Breton’s expression “the adorable dishabille of the water.”) Yet, ultimately, in the forties and fifties, the same impulsion kept crashing into, and being assimilated by the necessity of urgently seismographing nothing but itself. Only the mid-area between the two historical extremes can properly be called Surrealist. For, in its open-ended, decelerated intertwining, its casual, even playful flutterings, motion is somehow distanced, or rather, perceived hypnotically in a de-gravitized, frustratingly translucent and darkening, yet limitless space—the stretches of the dream.

Given these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that direct dream evocation, which had a common origin with automatism in the attempt to reveal repressed imagery, should fasten itself on stasis. For the normative action and interaction of bodies or lights smacked too much of the real world and the medium of the super-ego to satisfy the Surrealist sensibility. With the precursors of this development, Redon and Henri Rousseau, in whose quietude one already notes a desire to stop time, action is frozen in a matrix whose over tones are highly nostalgic. And de Chirico’s work goes so far as to push time back while holding on to, in fact sharpening, the tangibility of every object presented. In the manichini of de Chirico and Carrà, the frontality of Magritte, and the worn bone images of Tanguy, is found an archaic universe which does not so much re-establish ties with past artistic traditions (like a typically revivalist movement) as it probes the memory traces of a dammed up psyche. What automatism sought to do through motor activity, Surrealist “naturalism” also attempted by its special depiction of objects: to invoke an uncensored, primordial state of consciousness—simulating a freedom from “history” comparable to the child’s unawareness of time (Norman O. Brown).

No matter how often it has been accused of being literary, it is obvious that this mode of attack was never narrative. For temporal continuity, or even interval, is broken down by the need to compress chronologically separate and spatially incongruous events into one, inevitably “timeless” format: the picture rectangle. Not merely is immobility an antidote to natural contingency, but space is warped and stretched, as if by some cosmic glandular disturbance, to accommodate impossibly near and far images on one plane and in one focus (e.g. Dali). All this is a pictorial guess, or reconstruction of the way dreams may boggle in the sleeping or narcotized mind: a reconstruction whose primary purpose is to retrieve even the prosaic object from its social placement, and confer upon it a “marvelous” presence. It is a process that tends to make voyeurs of us all.

A de Chirico canvas is a collection of geometrical still points over which there hovers some monstrous imminence. (How contemporary this sensation is may be seen by comparing it with William King’s recent “sliced” cone, which almost seems a refugee from de Chirico’s world.) Pictures by Ernst and Dali, for their part, try to convey the activity of transformation or mental encrustation as it is happening (though profiting from the arrested condition of paint). While the “calcified” Tanguys, and practically all the works of Magritte make of the incredible, a fait accompli. And Matta, finally, portrays a figment of the extra-terrestrial, once prophetic, and now becoming only too mundane. These, then, are the various critical moments that have been distilled by Surrealist painting, the tenses, as it were, of its enigma.

Without doubt this art has developed a syntax of its own, a special form of grammatical irritation by which it achieves its effects. What is extraordinary about it is its mimicry of the patterns of language—not the descriptive, but the conceptual patterns of language. It is as if one had first to report a dream experience in verbal terms (to make it thinkable), and then transpose them back into visual presences. How often does one feel that such images are a vicarious releasing or unburdening of sensorial cargo from the discursive—and conservative—hold of our memory. In her analysis of Surrealist poetic devices, Anna Balakian enumerates the techniques which have scrambled all sense of cause and effect, but have not violated grammatical structure as such. They consist, in part, of “contradictions” or “negations,” in which past, present, and future might be mingled in one phrase, or analogies, like Eluard’s “the earth is blue like an orange,” which cancel themselves out. Others would be lending “to the abstract the mask of the concrete” or “hiding one of the implied terms of an image.” And finally, there is the absence of transitional words or connectives, and the use of the most general and impersonal verbs. Not only is the overall impression of this poetry an accentuation of imagery at the expense of movement or action between images, but of a virtual longing to be cast into pictures, in some final completion of momentum. Utilizing the same illogicalities, or their equivalents, within an entirely readable pictorial apparatus, Surrealist painting, on its side, aspired to the legitimacy of verbal articulation. If words encounter no resistance in evoking miraculous states of being, they fall short of the materialization in sense-data that is now needed to confirm their untoward license. And if visual images can reconstruct the very look of the impossible, they want still to be as tractable and interpretable (that is, comfortably relatable) as verbal thoughts. In both instances, the Surrealist sensibility is obsessed with the “failure to do,” and the final, rather poignant inadequacy of synaesthesia in general. (Here, I exclude the film, whose ideal Surrealist potentialities have already charted a fascinating career.)

Nevertheless, this striving to escape the boundaries of its medium lent Surrealist expression a glitter and vividness that often sidestepped its sacrifices. Crystallized in words or images, what I call “incompatible correlations” so immeasurably enhanced subject matter that a modulation of form subtly, but inevitably followed. To take just one illustration, one might compare Lorca’s arresting line, “With all cracked brained creatures and the tatter of dry footed water,” with one of the more protozoic Tanguys. The sonic and tactile oddness, that extra little twitter and heft of organic life which is the subject, coalesces into a fresh form invention. Indescribable though concrete, its psychological nerve ends open, the result of this inventiveness becomes the Surrealist offering.

“There are objects,” said René Magritte (as quoted in Patrick Waldberg’s new monograph on the artist), “which get along without names.” Uttered rather matter-of-factly, this statement has yet the most radical and subversive implications. For, to cultivate a taste for such objects is to dispense with the mere introspection of the dream-reverie, or possibly to see it as a blind for questioning the epistemological base of knowledge itself. Since names, or nouns are thought’s primitive stock in trade for grasping and ordering the outer world, to accept the nameless is to shrink, or better, demean, the knowable. But, far from being incurious, Magritte’s attitude, with superb tact, respects the inexplicable, and will not truck with any alibi such as private hallucination, in confronting it. “Sometimes,” Magritte says, “a word serves only to designate itself.” If words become only things, stripped of their denotative function, then images, too, can be things, and things (objects) might just as well be conceived of as images—all in a panic roundabout which transcends, though it possibly stems from, Arp’s theory that abstraction equals “concretion.” In labeling his picture of a pipe “Ceci n’est pas un pipe,” Magritte underlines the intolerable yet heuristic reversibility of his processes. Surrealist in the sense that it holds opposites in suspension, Magritte’s ethic, in a final irony, also makes a farce of representation. The windowpane is just a fiction, but our recognition of this “fact” constitutes a suddenly new mode of vision. Rather than words sublimating for images, or vice versa, rather than longing to bridge art and life, Magritte’s work, a moot court of the absurd, represents existence itself as a possible dream.

At this point, however, supposition can get out of hand; or become too facile, which amounts to the same thing. A theory of Surrealist values provides only a prerequisite, not a substitute for a critique of Surrealist art. Though the artists themselves characteristically disavowed criticism as irrelevant to their intentions and results, it is not possible nor even desirable that they should escape it. Leaving aside the usual formal criteria, which might rank its drawing high, and its color only intermittently adequate (in neither case impinging upon a real issue), one can judge Surrealist painting on a far more indigenous count. The two standards which. I suggest here are interlocked: equilibrium between the general and the particular, on one hand, and between disinterestedness and self-consciousness, on the other.

No one knows to what extent the subconscious can really be particularized, or to what degree, or with what applicability it can be decoded. To try to pin man’s oneiric flotsam down to earth, in any single case, is the mark of a psychiatrist or a rhetorician, and rarely that of an artist. For it implies some consideration of the other, an attempt either to treat him, or to manipulate him, or both—and not the indulgence and self-centeredness of the creator capable of getting lost in himself. The best Surrealist painting fulfills Ortega’s description of the esthetic experience by being lost in precisely this way. The picture seems to whirl away from us. The worst Surrealist painting, conversely, has found itself, comes forward, and has a job to do. De Chirico’s work before 1918, Masson’s 1927 sand paintings, Ernst’s production as late as the thirties, Tanguy’s art throughout most of his career, Miró’s paintings, with astonishing frequency, and, of course, the tableaux of Magritte: all these have discovered some vital and unique discretion even in their excesses, and have retained a piquant abstraction even at their most associative. Magritte, for example, as Oscar Wilde quipped earlier in another context, would not “lapse into careless habits of accuracy.” As opposed to this, errors of taste and over-commitment abound in Surrealist art. Interpreting Breton’s injunction to be “convulsive” perhaps too literally, Masson’s work of the last thirty years, an apotheosis of entrails, looks like nothing so much as the ravings of an enthusiastic art director for Preparation H. And Dali, for most of his life some kind of male witch, has produced, with a few exceptions, a vulgarized Surrealism in Mannerist drag. Matta, the creator of masterpieces in the mid-forties, has taken to repeating himself, without any fundamental obsession, as has Ernst. Before all these unfortunate miles of painting, one feels only the coddling effort to explain or to overwhelm, and not that cool, indifferent seduction which persuades that the artist is at one with his vision. As soon as the spectator senses that the painter is half out there with him, is half a spectator himself, looking back upon his own created wonders, the spell is broken. In Surrealism, there can be no hot-line to narcissism.

Perhaps this is the aspect of the movement that has most carried over into our own art. Nothing could be more miraculous and necessary today than the example of a hyper-selfconscious internally divisive mode in which the execution of unselfconscious works of art is still possible. Such an achievement, in the last analysis, is more important than that continuity of an infinite number of techniques (such as the softness of Oldenburg’s giant foodstuffs) which link us with the legatees of Breton.

But, of the figure who was most crucial to Breton himself, Freud, there is no great regard other than the academic. That which the generation of Breton saw in the great doctor is as obsolete as that which the Abstract Expressionists saw in automatism. Largely this is because the physical environment has so changed for the bizarre (unwitting fruit of Surrealist efforts that there is no need to conjure a dreamscape. Additionally, such matters as the Surrealist obsession with nature (larky in Miró or Calder, sinister in Ernst and Masson) have come to seem rather sentimental. This is a skeptical, anti-mystical age, replete, moreover, with such condiments as pot, and LSD, which can furnish a poor man’s Surrealism. There is no longer any such need for self-justification that reference to a collective subconscious has to be made. What Pop art has done, with far less stress and nervousness than the first Surrealists, is to perceive that subconscious blazing away everywhere in society’s commercial artifacts (which comprise a new nature). Nothing can be more banal than the American dream, with the result that when artists occupy themselves with this subject, their work is at once more verist in appearance, but also more abstract in feeling, than their predecessors’. Though Rauschenberg could create a work so recognizably Surrealist as a goat stuffed through attire, he is now antagonistic to this particular kind of obviousness (substitute humanism): “If you do work with known quantities—making puns or dealing symbolically with your material—you are shortening the life of the work.” (quoted recently by Dorothy Seckler.) Along with the viewpoint of Johns, who carries forth Magritte’s semantic disquiet into paint itself, this is in accord with the de-eroticizing of the contemporary world, upon which our most provocative art apparently seems embarked. One now sees the fiberglassing, vacuum forming, or heat-sealing of an eras first liberated by Surrealism. Yet, something of that earlier tension is preserved. What is lacking, in any practical sense of the word, is mainly the Surrealist capacity for enjoyment—and durability be damned.

Max Kozloff



In an extremely beautiful canvas, Magritte situates one’s gaze in a room whose window, its pane broken, looks out upon a sunset landscape. But, upon the broken window fragments, propped against the wall, the same landscape is revealed. The landscape simultaneously “exists,” and is merely painted; the glass is equally opaque and transparent—and from this impossibility, allegorical in its proportions, there is no escape.