I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane. These people are honest to a fault, and their naïveté has no peer but my own. Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen. And note how this madness has taken shape, and endured.
—André Breton, 1st Surrealist Manifesto (1924)
It’s become something of a common expression to refer to anything peculiar or odd as “surreal”, but most people have no real clue what the people who originated the idea had in mind. André Breton and his cohorts conceived of themselves as part of a revolutionary movement, revolutionaries who sought to explode old and new myths of every stripe, puncturing the self-satisfied bourgeois bubble that had come to characterize society in post–WWI France. They were avant-gardists in the purest sense of that term, artists and poets who fervently believed in the capacity for—and necessity of—forging real social change through their artwork. A significant exhibition of Surrealist works on paper is now on view at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center through March 14.
For Breton, the key to this revolution lay in the insights of Sigmund Freud. He’d become acquainted with the practice of psychoanalysis while working as an attendant in a French hospital that treated shell shock victims. (We’d probably call it post-traumatic stress nowadays.) The very idea that locked inside each of us is an inexhaustible well of libidinal desire, imagination, and dreams (what Freud called the id) gave rise to Breton’s inspiration that the path to liberation from bourgeois propriety lay in provoking the expression of the id, breaking through the straitjacket of social rules and regulations that we’re raised with.
But how to create that breakthrough? Taking another clue from Freud, whose first noteworthy book had been The Interpretation of Dreams, the Surrealists focused on the power of the image. While most people immediately recall Salvador Dali’s melting watches at the mention of the word “Surrealism”, it began at first in language, a language always devoted to delirious images, as in the opening to Benjamin Peret’s love poem “Wink”: “Parakeets fly through my head when I see you in profile / and the greasy sky streaks with blue flashes / tracing your name in all directions.”
The power of the dream image comes from its tendency to either condense two significant images into one (a great source of hybrid figures) or to displace an otherwise unmentionable idea or object with another (you dream of a seashell instead of your mother’s vagina). The genius of the Surrealists was to use these ideas communally, exchanging dreams and ideas, breaking out of the prison of individual complacency by actively disturbing the equilibrium of the status quo as a group.
They sought to scandalize, and they succeeded. (See Paul Eluard’s postcard collage in the Vassar show, Untitled (Nun chaperoning two lovers in a wheat field), for an example of direct provocation.) Peret was notorious for going out of his way to spit on priests passing by in the street, while the movement as a whole made a point of partaking in “free love,” passing partners around like bonbons.
When the Nazis invaded France and occupied Paris in 1940, the politically, socially, and artistically radical Surrealists cleared out for the most part, having seen the writing on the wall. (Hitler was no fan of the avant-garde.) Most made their way to the United States for the duration of the war, “a boatload of madmen,” as a recent book on this sojourn is titled. Following the war, the movement found itself supplanted in France by Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, but the memory of its surreal reign between the wars hangs on, and with a bit of luck perhaps some of the works in the Vassar show will serve as unexploded bombs—hidden depth charges still waiting to rock the world of the visitor caught unawares.
I was intrigued, a few months ago, when Linda Mussman of Time and Space Limited put out a call for manifesto art. The show she has curated, called “SHOUT!”, began when she inherited a collection of activist poster art dating back to the 1960s. “Poster art was part of my daily view when I was growing up,” Mussman wrote in the press release for the show. “All these declarations were crucial to understanding art and politics…. It’s time to bring the manifestos back. To be bold. To mix art and politics.”
Over 40 artists responded to her call, in a magnificent cacophony of voices now on view in a large exhibition at tsl in Hudson. It seems that we’ve moved somewhere beyond the clarion declaration of the manifesto—relatively few statements of that sort were submitted—but there is an enormous amount of work dedicated to a broad panoply of causes. The “historical” pieces include anti-Vietnam war posters, condemnation of the killers of Black Panther Fred Hampton, and recognition of Native American rights, while the more contemporary work addresses everything from the St. Lawrence cement plant to Catholic clergy sexual abuse and the recent war in Iraq (and quite a few other things in between).
One high point of the exhibition is a mini-retrospective of posters, stencils, drawings, and other seeming ephemera by Sam Sebren. (His series of barf bags, each screened with an image of Dick Cheney, are my favorite.) The work doesn’t carry the finished air of museum pieces; to the contrary, each is an intensely diy engagement with the here and now. He says that if an artist doesn’t find enough outrage in what’s going on in the world now, “then they’re just not paying attention.” True to the original avant-garde idea, he feels himself compelled to use his talents as an artist to craft memorable visual statements that use the power of images to change something about the way we perceive the world—an undertaking that would have been quite familiar to the Surrealists.
Or, in the more poetic expression of Gerald Stoddard’s Slave Manifesto, also in the show:
Most of us have not been aware that we have been sleeping through this life, that we are slaves, but only because we have chosen to, once we become aware, it spreads like wild fire throughout our whole bodies, the universe inside of us wakes up, and then we wake up, the world is anew….
I will not continue sleepwalking in slavery.
“the invisible revealed: Surrealist Drawings from the Drukier Collection,” through March 14 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie. (845) 432-5632 or http://fllac.vassar.edu.“shout!” Through March 1 at Time and Space Limited, 434 Columbia St., Hudson. (518) 822-8448 or www.timeandspace.org.