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A CRITICAL HISTORY
OF 20TH-CENTURY ART

by Donald Kuspit
 
Chapter 3, Part 1
Subjectivity and Society: The Third Decade

From childhood memories, and from a few others, there emanates a sentiment of being unintegrated, and then later of having gone astray, which I hold to be the most fertile that exists. It is perhaps childhood that comes closest to one's "real life"; childhood beyond which man has at his disposal, aside from his laissez-passer, only a few complimentary tickets; childhood where everything nevertheless conspires to bring about the effective, risk-free possession of oneself. Thanks to Surrealism, it seems that opportunity knocks a second time.        

André Breton, The First Surrealist Manifesto, 1924

It is in fact from the disgusting cauldron of these meaningless mental images that the desire to proceed beyond the insufficient, the absurd, distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, true and false, good and evil, is born and sustained. And, as it is the degree of resistance that this choice idea meets with which determines the more or less certain flight of the mind toward a world at last inhabitable, one can understand why Surrealism was not afraid to make for itself a tenet of total revolt, complete insubordination, of sabotage according to rule, and why it still expects nothing save from violence.        
André Breton, The Second Surrealist Manifesto, 1929

I am "filled with inner images." Is that no longer right, no longer permissible? Or should the "inner image" be transformed into reality? Forsake the idea of "image" and make tables, boxes, jugs for the sake of a principle, a demand, existential necessity. Existential necessity in the sense that I proffer a favorite glass in        order to repair a window. . . . Was art ever as much free play as it is now? So aimless? Art always used to serve an idea, everything was simply a vehicle for the idea.
Oskar Schlemmer, Diary, Oct. 25, 1922

There is objectivity in the air.

Refrain of a 1920s Berlin cabaret song

. . . the fact that so much is pre-ordained means that one's originality is noticeably restricted.

Otto Dix, reflecting on his Verist paintings of the 1920s, 1965

Art has always been employed by the different social classes who hold the balance of power as one instrument of domination -- hence, as a political Instrument. . . . What is it then that we really need? An art extremely pure, precise, profoundly human. . . . An art with revolution as its subject: because the principal interest in the worker's life has to be touched first.

Diego Rivera, 1929
1
For me, two of the most pungent, original works of the 1920s -- if one has to single out works that epitomize its contradictory artistic concerns -- are Max Ernst's Oedipus Rex (1922) and Otto Dix's 1924 portfolio of 50 engravings dealing with War in all its stunning terror. On the one hand, we have a painting whose meaning is somewhat obscure -- but not entirely, for Oedipus Rex is the hero of Sophocles' tragedy -- and on the other hand we have an avalanche of images whose meaning is horrifically clear. Dix surrounds us with the violence of war -- the trench warfare of the First World War, in which he served, and whose brutality he witnessed first-hand. His images are as fantastic as they are factual -- expressionistically fierce and journalistically precise -- making them all the more nightmarish. There is an air of uncanniness to Dix's pictures that makes them more than records of an inhumane event. He takes us behind the scene of war -- the parades and speeches and rationalizations -- putting us right in the trenches, where the obscene ugliness of battle becomes self-evident. We are attacked by storm troopers wearing gas masks, encounter corpses, almost become entangled in barbed wire, and sit knee-deep in mud and filth: "you are there, whether or not you want to be," Dix's confrontational, morbid images shout. They document a highly contagious social pathology which can claim us as its victim at any moment. The gloom of his scenes -- they are marvels of black and white, and above all acid gray -- conveys a hopeless state of mind as well as the atmosphere of a society bent on destroying itself.

Ernst's less immediately intelligible painting is also violent, as the pierced fingers and walnut indicate. The fingers are penetrated by a bow-like device used to puncture the feet of birds -- there is one in the box -- so that they cannot fly. Was it also used to shoot the arrow stuck in the walnut? The fingers do not bleed, but their wound must be painful. It is as though they stoically accept their suffering. Ernst's violence is more subtle than Dix's, just as his picture is more cryptic than the images in Dix's series, but it is equally bitter and relentless. The sense of ruin is as irreparable as it is in Dix's work, though more of a puzzle: A casual pinprick turns into permanent mutilation for no apparent reason. But the point is that a clever game has become self-destructive -- masochistic as well as sadistic.

Dix's soldiers may be sadistic, and sometimes seem masochistically resigned to their fate, but the point is that they are trapped in a situation beyond their control, making it all the more traumatic. His anguished skulls convey their excruciating pain, a suffering so great it does not even end with death. His War is a traditional German Triumph of Death with a modern content, like its predecessor The Trench (1923).  That famous painting toured Germany in an exhibition to protest war, and was apparently destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War, as though to deny that they had committed the atrocities Dix depicted. Yet, the individuality of Dix's soldier is submerged in his social role, and his suffering is caused and sanctioned by a public reality, suggesting that it is not innate and inevitable. That is, his suffering, however intense, is not the result of inner conflict inseparable from psychic development -- the hermetic situation that Ernst represents -- but rather a matter of politics and history. 

One may recall that Sophocles's Oedipus Rex is about violence -- not the impersonal, anonymous violence of war, but the equally traumatic and much more intimate and intricate emotional violence of the family. It is just as stark and devastating as war, and, unlike it, impossible to escape. It eventually erupts into physical violence -- Oedipus Rex ends with death and destruction. (Dix shows that the physical violence of war does emotional violence, and may cause permanent emotional as well as physical damage, as suggested by his notorious portraits of its wrecked survivors, such as the 1920 Beggar and the 1923 Two Sacrifices of Capitalism.) One may also recall that Sophocles's Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, and blinded himself out of guilt when he realized what he had done -- violated the prohibition against incest that is basic to society and sanity -- gave his name to Sigmund Freud's "Oedipus Complex." Ernst's picture stages the Complex, using a cast of strange symbols, each with many meanings. To understand the picture one must excavate layer upon layer of hidden meaning, the way Freud said one must excavate the unconscious to find the meanings hidden in the psyche.

Ernst's bizarre painting -- it certainly doesn't conform to ordinary standards of rationality -- is a "portrait of Oedipus," as Elizabeth Legge notes. Or, as I would say, it is an artistically manufactured dream of Oedipus. "Each motif. . . sets up lines of association that all lead, ultimately, to different aspects of the oedipal predicament."(1) The picture is a riddle, resembling a rebus -- the Sphinx's riddle, the answer of which Oedipus correctly guessed to be "man," ironically turns out to refer to Oedipus himself, as Legge points out. She notes the abundance of literary as well as personal references in Ernst's painting, giving it a conceptual depth and richness. For example, the nut alludes to Hamlet's statement "O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams" (Hamlet, II.2.247). Hamlet is not only Oedipus' social twin -- equally royal (Freud notes that the infant acts in an "imperial" manner) -- but his "psychological twin," for he had similar unconscious incestuous wishes. The bird refers to the pet cockatoo Ernst had when he was a child. It happened to die the same night his sister was born, confirming the treachery of woman and leading him to identify with his lost bird in the allegorical person of Loplop the Bird Superior, the omnipotent subject of many paintings. Thus Oedipus Rex is also Ernst's self-portrait, that is, a portrait of the Oedipal child in Ernst's psyche -- the child that remains alive in his unconscious and whose conflicts he has encoded in his dream picture. It is also necessarily a portrait of the Oedipal child in every person, for the complex is universal.

Legge concludes by noting that Ernst's uncanny work is not only an "enactment of Freudian descriptions of the dream mechanism" -- it certainly involves displacement and condensation -- but becomes a "picture-manifesto dealing with image-creation itself." It was born of "the uterus of methodical madness" that Ernst regarded as the unfailing source of creativity, and is itself a visual statement in which Ernst feigns madness, the way Hamlet did in one of his speeches (II.2.247). The picture is as absurd and mad as a dream's manifest content, to use Freud's language, the latent content of which is a forbidden but quite natural wish. The punishment for this wish is castration, which is what both Oedipus's blindness and Ernst's bird-clipper symbolize. This is a very bad dream indeed -- an arrow shot through one's brain, as it were (the walnut is also a symbol of the brain, for its irregular surface resembles that of the brain). Ernst's painting is a private dream that mocks the spectator with its incomprehensibility and incoherence, even as it tantalizes him with hidden meanings that imply it could be his own. 

Whatever else it may be, Ernst's picture deals with personal tragedy -- the Oedipal tragedy -- while Dix's images deal with social tragedy -- the tragedy of Germany in the First World War. The former is part of every individual's history, and as such universal; the latter is rooted in a particular social history, although war also is universal. Both works are nightmares, but Ernst depicts a personal nightmare, while Dix renders a social nightmare. Both works deal with the atrocity that is life --emotional life in the case of Ernst, social life in the case of Dix. Both works are also didactic and illustrative, however different the lessons to be drawn from them and the reality illustrated. Ernst's work portends the fascination with subjectivity that became dominant in Surrealism -- in fact, as Legge points out, André Breton, the so-called Pope of Surrealism, was close friends with Ernst, and discussed Freud with him while on holiday in 1921, the same year the painting was begun and that Breton visited Freud in Vienna -- while Dix's work is the climax of the German New Objectivity, which traced all evil and suffering back to society. Both take an equally hard look at what they regard as the "master reality." They seem to have little to do with one another: They have different ideas of human nature -- their common subject matter -- and of art. There seems no way to reconcile Ernst's Freudianism and Dix's Marxism. (He was a member of the Communist Party.)

But there is a certain relationship between them. Ernst served in the First World War, as did Dix, noting that he "died" the day it was begun (Aug. 1, 1914), and "was resuscitated" the day it ended (Nov. 11, 1918), when he aspired "to find the myth of his time." This could describe Dix as well, but Dix had no wish to become a "magician," as Ernst did -- the magic of art promised Ernst personal salvation and the illusion of omnipotence (magical thinking being wish fulfillment, as Freud said, like dream thinking) -- but only to record what was pre-ordained by history. Art had to submit to what was objectively the case rather than go off on a subjective tangent, deluding itself with fantasies of originality. More crucially, Ernst and Dix meet in their radicality, and in fact share the same dialectical outlook: Surrealism was as responsive to society as the New Objectivity was sensitive to the subjective suffering it caused. Despite himself, Dix was psychologically minded -- he made it clear that the First World War was as much a personal as social disaster, a terrible waste of life as well as a colossal act of social stupidity -- just as, despite himself, Ernst became a sociologist of the modern apocalypse, a myth which acquired substance in the First World War.

These ideas were seamlessly united in the psychosocial art of Max Beckmann, which has as many surreal as realistic features, and mythologizes the socially observed.  That is, it conveys the unconscious forces that put their indelible stamp on human life as well as the competing social forces that shape it.

2
In the first Surrealist manifesto Breton defined Surrealism, "once and for all," as "[p]sychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any esthetic or moral concern."

Liberated from reason, esthetics and morality, Surrealism seemed consummately free expression. But it was a perverse kind of freedom, as Breton made clear in a further elaboration: "Surrealism is based on the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought."(2) This language is straight out of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900), if with an added literary flair and, more important, a certain difference in emphasis, from which more decisive differences derive. Where the dream is "regressive, asocial and autistic," for Freud, as well as a universal expression that has certain typical features -- even if no two dreams are exactly the same -- for Breton, the dream was artistically atypical and unusual, indeed, the ultimate artistic marvel. The most commonplace dream is artistically unique, indeed, inherently novel. Where Freud emphasized the resemblance between dreams, Breton emphasized the difference between them -- their individuality rather than their likeness. For Breton, the dream became the cutting-edge and frontier of avant-garde progress, even the climax -- the idea that all art was essentially a waking dream -- toward which the avant-garde had been heading since Romanticism: Ironically, to regress emotionally was the means of progressing artistically -- a necessary means of renewal and survival in the situation of artistic stagnation and uncertainty that existed in the period after the First World War. The dream was the motor to restart the School of Paris, which seemed passé after its pre-war heyday. Thus, the disinterested play of thought in free association -- which Freud showed is neither disinterested nor free, but, as he said, emotionally determined in every detail -- is for Breton the fountainhead and catalyst of artistic creativity as such and avant-garde innovation in particular. In short, while for Freud the dream was, as he famously said, "the royal road to the unconscious," for Breton it was the royal road to art -- in fact, to especially ingenious and authentic art.  

Freud doesn't entirely disagree. As he famously wrote in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" (1907), which Breton probably read, as his remarks about childhood suggest, "[m]ight we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, re-arranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real. In spite of all the emotion with which he cathects his world of play, the child distinguishes it quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child's 'play' from 'phantasying.' The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously -- that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion -- while separating it sharply from reality."(2) But Breton doesn't want to make this sharp separation. He wants, as he declares, the "resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality." The task of art is to effect the resolution -- to synthesize phantasizing and the tangible and visible things of the real world, to use Freud's words.

Breton's rather ambitious program for Surrealism led him to diverge from Freud, and finally led Freud to break with Breton, and reject Surrealism as a gross misunderstanding -- not to say misappropriation -- of his ideas. For Freud, the dream made no sense without the dreamer's associations and the circumstances under which these occurred, as he wrote in a letter to Breton, who had asked him to contribute an introduction to a book of dreams by Surrealists. Freud refused to do so; the dream, however important, was not "omnipotent" for him -- not an absolute.  As he wrote to Breton, he couldn't imagine what meaning a dream would have to anyone without its interpretation. Interpretation breaks its spell by clarifying its meaning, and thus destroys its mystery and dissolves it, showing it to be transient -- for Freud, the dream was simply a delivery system for an unconscious content, not a goal in itself -- and, above all, Breton wanted mystery and the elusiveness it entailed, embodied in a permanent work of intriguing art. Later, in a similar vein of skepticism about Surrealism, Freud remarked to Salvador Dalí, who had come to visit him -- and who made some marvelous drawings of a surreal-looking Freud on the occasion -- that he was more interested in Dali's conscious and brilliant craft or artistic control than in his unconscious fantasies.

There was another difference in the use Breton wanted to make of the dream and the use Freud made of it -- another difference in their attitudes towards dreams.  Breton claimed to share Freud's view that the dream was esthetically indifferent, that is, beyond considerations of beauty and ugliness. But he in fact thought it was inherently beautiful, for "the marvelous is always beautiful," as Breton declared, and there is nothing more marvelous than a dream, especially compared to ordinary reality, that is, the world as it exists in the "waking state," as he said. For Breton, the Surreal work of art, verbal or visual, is essentially a dream made in rebellion against ordinary reality and consciousness. He thus contradicted himself, that is, contradicted his conception of surreality: He elevated the dream over reality. He did so in the name of the familiar romantic idea that art, rooted in the innate creativity of the unconscious, was extraordinary and profound compared to reality as it was consciously perceived and conceived. Consciousness was shallow compared to the unconscious, which is why it tends to banalize reality into everyday familiarity rather than appreciate its strangeness, realizing how unfamiliar with it we are. In short, for Breton, the unconscious, and the Surreal work of art that is its instrument, is another weapon in the ongoing romantic war against the so-called "bourgeois" view of reality, which standardizes and sanitizes life. 

According to Breton, Surrealism, the modern standard-bearer of the romantic vision of reality, was always about to win the battle against the conventional bourgeois version of reality. It never quite did. The Surreal work of art was a representation of a dream state, but it never completely triumphed over the waking state, which defended itself by interpreting the dream. This was a sign of what Freud later called ego strength, an expression of what he had called the instinct of self-preservation.  Breton wanted to abolish the ego -- despite the egotism, not to say egomania, of his own writings. The Surreal work of art was supposed to abolish the audience's ego -- drive it insane, as it were, or "entrance" it -- and thus afford a certain measure of relief from wakefulness and the misery and stupidity of ordinary reality. Surrealism was presumably helped by the fact that, as Breton argued, the "balance" of consciousness was somewhat shaky or "relative." (This was an exaggeration, not to say distortion, of Freud's early view of its limited and vulnerable character.)  Consciousness was always in danger of becoming unbalanced -- of being invaded, undermined and finally overwhelmed by "suggestions" from the unconscious. Breton was a male nurse during the First World War, and had seen this occur in shell-shocked soldiers, whose apparent insanity he never forgot. He seemed to regard their psychotic break with reality as a rebellion against it, and, indeed, there was good reason to rebel against the traumatic reality of war, and a society that accepted it as "normal."

Throughout his career, Breton remained fascinated with the idea of the mad artist -- the shell-shocked artist, as it were, traumatized by everyday social reality, from Arthur Rimbaud to Lautremont to Alfred Jarry to Arthur Craven -- whom he turned into an avant-garde hero. For Breton, the most exemplary mad avant-garde artist was his friend Jacques Vaché, who died of an overdose of opium in January 1919, a "victim of modern inevitability. . . attached to nothing." "He became convinced that Vaché had willfully orchestrated his own suicide," and "in a sense, Breton never stopped writing Vaché's obituary," citing his "superb indifference" and "humor," that is, black humor, as models for Surrealism.(3) Vaché was the model Surrealist en avant Surrealism.

Just as Freud seemed to think that psychoanalysis could solve all "the principal problems of life," to use Breton's words, so he thought that Surrealism could do so.  The parallels between psychoanalysis and Surrealism are striking, but it is the differences, outlined above, that seemed especially influential on Surrealist art. Most decisively, Surrealism came to regard the dream as prophetic of the future -- a kind of Delphic oracle, as it were, if also a Cassandra -- a Jungian idea which Freud dismissed as "mystic mud." Even further, as Breton's Second Surrealist Manifesto suggests, Surrealism came to regard the dream as an incitement to political revolution, or at least tried to enlist its particular dream of art in the service of social revolutionary forces, such as the Communist Party. Breton applied for membership in the party (1927), but eventually became disaffected with it, after realizing that its version of socially realistic art to educate the proletariat was inimical to, not to say suppressive of, the Surrealist ideal of an art that takes it cues from the dream -- an aristocratic, cryptic, hyper-individualistic idea of art from the point of view of a revolutionary cause determined to make the masses conscious of their oppression with the help of schematic, not to say simplistic and stereotyped, images of social reality. The Communists, in fact, regarded the Surrealists as anarchists, incapable of submitting to party discipline and obedience -- a not-altogether incorrect perception.  Surrealist art, after all, was not social action, nor exactly a social cause, and Communism, after all, was just another orthodoxy -- not bourgeois, but just as banal. Surrealism was addressed to the individual, not the collective. It sought to liberate the individual, not society as a whole.

Indeed, Surrealism sought to help the individual hold his own against society -- to sidestep the collective -- by going underground, as it were. While Breton never entirely lost his belief that Surrealism, like Communism, was a matter of "moral commitment," and while he tried to give the Surrealist Revolution a future by attaching it to the Communist Revolution, which claimed to know the future (inevitably Communist), the deepest motivation -- probably completely unconscious -- for his flirtation with Communism was the seductiveness of its sweeping, pretentious claims, as grandiose as those of Surrealism. Breton was drawn to Communism for emotional reasons, and he eventually had a rude awakening when Communism itself disowned him.

3
While Breton officially began Surrealism with his 1924 manifesto, he in fact found many anticipations of what might be called the Surrealist mentality or attitude in remote as well as recent visual art. The "metaphysical" painter Giorgio de Chirico, the Dadaists Duchamp and Picabia, and Picasso -- not the Picasso who became conspicuously Surrealist in the 1920s and 1930s, but the Picasso who, "towards the end of 1909," was suddenly inspired "to give materiality to what had hitherto remained in the domain of pure fantasy. . . advancing deep into unknown territory"(4) -- all fit comfortably under the Surrealist umbrella. So did Piero di Cosimo and Leonardo da Vinci. Breton was fascinated by their recommendation that, in Breton's words, "one should allow one's attention to become absorbed in the contemplation of streaks of dried spittle or the surface of an old wall until the eye is able to distinguish an alternative world which painting is capable of revealing."(5)  "Leonardo's paranoiac ancient wall" is an "ideal field of interpretation," as Breton said, for it has "extraordinary power of suggestion."(6) Surrealist painting is "this wall perfected. All you need do now is study the resulting image long enough for you to find a title that conveys the reality you have discovered in it, and you can be quite sure of having expressed yourself in the most completely personal and valid manner."(7) 

An obscure, formless, very material -- and "dirty" -- surface unexpectedly becomes a source of inspiration. The dirt on the wall -- and it is important for Breton and the Surrealists that the wall be "dirty," covered with spittle or decaying, that is, peculiarly obscene -- is the catalyst of creativity, much as a grain of sand or other foreign matter stimulates or "provokes" an oyster to grow a pearl. According to Breton, the wall is "a recipe" for creativity that is "within everybody's grasp," even as it is "among the 'Secrets of the magical surrealist art'," suggesting that everyone is secretly a Surrealist.(8) Everyone is potentially a "seer," able to spontaneously "see" in the surface of the wall what otherwise remains unseen and hidden in the self. The surface of the wall becomes a screen on which one projects, with a kind of involuntary wisdom, one's innermost feelings in the form of fantastic images, which may be meaningful to no one else but which are as emotionally seductive or evocative.

(It is worth noting that Leonardo says nothing about spittle or the wall's age, which Breton, with typical Surrealist extravagance and provocativeness, added to Leonardo's statement. For Leonardo, " [g]azing fixedly at the spot on the wall, the coals in the grate, the clouds, the flowing stream" were equally stimulating of the imagination. However, it is the case, as Vasari relates, that Piero sometimes intensely studied a wall on which sick people regularly spat, finding in the spit stains all kinds of fantastic scenes, including beautiful landscapes. Breton no doubt appreciated the irony of this, that is, the fact that creativity was inspired by pathology, however indirectly. Piero's "alchemical" transformation of putrid matter into refined art shows that he was a Surrealist, and understood the basic imaginative task and uncanniness of art.)

This whole imaginative process, the core of creativity, is what Breton called "automatism," a term "inherited from the mediums,"(9) that is, people who can make contact with the "alternative world" and even sometimes seem to live in it -- the other world of unconscious fantasy. Automatism involves self-hypnosis and hallucinatory "revelation," as the Surrealists sometimes called it. Breton thought it was involuntary - nature's gift -- but he knew it also had to be willed. That is, one had to deliberately alter one's consciousness by attending to something that one ordinarily is unconscious of -- such as a dirty and decaying wall, which one barely notices in passing, and never looks at twice, let alone carefully -- in order to discover the visionary in oneself. The point is to get oneself into an unfocused, indeterminate state of mind - Leonardo's mysterious wall symbolized the state -- in which "surreal" things begin to happen, as though by chance, that is, involuntarily. Automatism is in effect a sure-fire way of becoming an artist, whether or not one's art conformed to conventional, socially approved ideas of what art should be. Clearly, the result is not consciously made art, but an overflow of unconscious images, as in a dream. For Breton, it involved "total spontaneity of expression" -- a difficult but not impossible goal, which he believed was the only one worthy of life as well as art.  What he neglected to note was the compulsive element in automatist spontaneity. 

Automatism "almost literally gave wings to the artist's hand," Breton wrote. "This hand" became "enamored of its own movement and of that alone. . . . Indeed, the essential discovery of surrealism is that, without preconceived intention, the pen that flows in order to write and the pencil that runs in order to draw spin an infinitely precious substance which, even if not always possessing an exchange value, none the less appears charged with all the emotional intensity stored up within the poet or painter at a given moment."(10) In automatist art, there is no differentiation "between sympathetic and formal qualities" and "between sensory and intellectual functions," which is also the case in the mind, which is why "automatism is uniquely able to satisfy [its] demands. . . . In the field of art, a work can be considered surrealist only in proportion to the efforts the artist has made to encompass the whole psychophysical field (in which the field of consciousness constitutes only a very small segment). Freud has demonstrated that at these unfathomable depths there reigns the absence of contradiction, the relaxation of emotional tensions due to repression, a lack of the sense of time, and the replacement of external reality by a psychic reality obeying the pleasure principle alone. Automatism leads us in a straight line to this region."(11)

It is worth noting that there is nothing new about Breton's technique of automatism; what is new is Freud's therapeutic use of it and understanding of its regressive character -- and even that is not completely new, but rather simply the fruit of a more thorough and systematic understanding -- which Breton accepted and appropriated for Surrealism. Automatism, which involves articulating one's random thinking, that is, communicating one's "associated ideas," as Francis Galton called them, was in fact familiar to the ancients, as Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds makes clear. Socrates, consulted by a farmer on the best way of cheating his creditors, asks the farmer to recline on a couch and speak his thoughts as they occurred to him, in order to better understand himself, with Socrates' interpretive aid. Both Plotinus and Leibniz acknowledged the existence of an unconscious stream of thoughts. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651), remarked on a "Trayn of Thoughts" that is "Unguided, without Design, and inconstant. . . the thoughts are said to wander, and seem impertinent one to another, as in a Dream." Even before Freud, as Freud himself noted, thinkers realized that creativity was rooted in free association. Thus, he cites a 1788 letter by the poet Friedrich Schiller, Ludwig Boerne's 1823 article "The Art  of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days" and Dr. J. J. Garth Wilkinson's 1857 publication "A New Method" of writing poetry, all of which describe and recommend the use of free association to achieve poetic originality and "conviction." I mention all this to indicate that Surrealism is a revival and continuation of age-old ideas of creativity -- now called "romantic," as distinct from the "classical" idea that creativity is conscious invention and construction -- rather than an altogether unheard of innovation. In a sense, Surrealism is a romantic rebellion against the "classicism" of Cubism, which Breton in fact suggests was, for its greatest practitioners, Picasso and Braque, not at all classical in import, but a romantic "adventure." In fact, Braque's idea that Cubism is "perpetual revelation," in which "objects don't exist. . . except insofar as a rapport exists between them and myself,"(12) is quintessentially romantic.

For Breton, automatism is "one of surrealism's two great directions." Max Ernst and André Masson were visual Surrealism's most exemplary automatists, although Breton also acknowledged the innovative automatism of Oscar Dominguez, and seemed to have respected Kandinsky as one of the first automatists, and thus "one of the most exceptional, one of the greatest, revolutionaries of vision."(13) It was Ernst who particularly counted, because his technique of frottage (rubbing) resurrected Leonardo's visionary wall. In his 1936 essay "On Frottage," which in fact begins with Leonardo's remarks about the wall (from his Treatise on Painting), Ernst notes his rediscovery of it, as it were, on Aug. 10, 1925, in the well-worn floor-boards of a seaside inn. "I made from the boards a series of drawings by placing on them, at random, sheets of paper which I undertook to rub with black lead. In gazing attentively at the drawings thus obtained, 'the dark passages and those of a gently lighted penumbra,' I was surprised by the sudden intensification of my visionary capacities and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other, with the persistence and rapidity characteristic of amorous memories."(14) Leonardo mentions nothing about "amorous memories"; this derives from Freud's idea of the dream as a wish-fulfillment, often a forbidden or repressed or denied sexual wish. Frottage, which has the connotation of rubbing up against an object or person for the purpose of sexual discharge, is Ernst's witty, ironical way of building perverse sexuality into the automatist process.   

Ernst, who was as much if not more of an intellectual than Breton, first read Freud in 1911, when he was a student at the University of Bonn, where he studied psychology and psychiatry, including criminal, experimental and speech psychology, as well as mental illness in children and the etiology and meaning of psychosis. All of these went into his conception of what it meant to be an artist: The archetypal artist was part criminal, part child, part psychotic, someone who, like all of these types, transgressively enacted unconscious reality -- the deepest subjectivity -- with no comprehension of it and no regard for polite society. Like all of them, he was a self-obsessed deviant -- his self-obsession made him a deviant. And like all of them, the artist was constantly experimenting with uninhibited self-expression, realizing "through a series of suggestions and transmutations that offered themselves spontaneously -- in the manner of that which passes for hypnagogic visions -- the character of the material interrogated."

Ernst, in fact, "began to experiment indifferently and to question, utilizing the same [automatist] means, all sorts of materials to be found in my visual field: leaves and their veins, the ragged edges of a bit of linen, the brushstrokes of a 'modern' painting, the unwound thread from a spool, etc. There my eyes discovered human heads, animals, a battle that ended with a kiss (the bride of the wind), rocks, the sea and the rain, earthquakes, the sphinx in her stable, the little tables around the earth, the palette of Caesar, false positions, a shawl of frost flowers, the pampas. . . ."  Ernst was quite explicit about the fact that "the role of the painter is to pick out and project that which sees itself in him," just as "the role of the poet, since the celebrated lettre de voyant of Rimbaud, consists in writing according to the dictates of that which articulates itself in him." Notice that the painter and poet disown the contents of their own psyche, as though it was impersonal and universal rather than historical and personal, that is, primordial rather than particular to an individual's life. One only knows the contents of one's psyche after the fact of their projection into an alien material -- their ironic objectification, as it were. The author of the work of art is no more than a spectator at its birth, or at best an experimental midwife, Ernst declared. Whether "indifferent or passionate," he simply "watches the phases of its development." It emerges magically, as it were, from the marriage of the unconscious and matter. The less interference by its apparent author -- who should remain a curious witness -- the more convincing the result.  

The work of art's magical character goes hand in hand with its mythical status. It is more of a clue to the times, Ernst insists, than to the person who dreams and "makes" it. On one level, this shows Ernst's wish to make an art that is generally valid, not simply personally poignant -- an art that is intellectually cosmopolitan rather than emotionally provincial. On another level, it is somewhat defensive; by rationalizing himself, in a schizoid fashion, as a detached observer of irrational processes deeper than himself, he doesn't have to face his own irrationality and deal with his own feelings. The processes are no doubt deeper than himself, but he ignores the fact that they are also particular to his life. He can't escape their effect on his feelings by pretending to stand above them. Freud compared psychoanalysis to archaeology, with free association the digging tool; Ernst seems to have thought of his psychoanalytically oriented art the same way, with automatism the digging tool. But where Freud tried to understand the personal as well as general relevance of the shards of psyche excavated in dreaming, Ernst thought their significance was essentially archetypal, however personal the dream which uncovered them.

But even as he deceived himself by intellectualizing his art as offering insight into his life-world, he acknowledged that the automatist process was not altogether impersonal. It began "with a memory of childhood" which had become an "obsession." The private importance of the automatist process of artistic free association was that it "revealed the first cause of the obsession, or produced a simulacrum of that cause." In other words, its purpose was therapeutic. Ernst was not indulging in it only for artistic reasons, but to save himself. It was not simply an artistic lark, but a way of psychoanalyzing himself. Ernst, it seemed, had wanted to be a psychiatrist before the war broke his spirit; afterwards he used his psychoanalytic art and knowledge to restore his mental health. The times couldn't be cured, but the self could be. The spell of the obsession was lifted when it was represented in the simulacrum of the hypnogogic vision. But a problem remained:  Ernst didn't want to give up his hypnagogic visions, for to do so would be to give up being an artist. He had to stay obsessed, which eventually led him to become repetitive. His later hypnogogic visions became tedious and predictable, however variable their detail. "I have seen. And I was surprised and enamored of what I saw, wishing to identify myself with it." Doing so, he turned Surrealist magic, and with it frottage and automatism, into cliché, no longer capable of intensifying the mind's "irritability."

Automatism was not the only "road available to surrealism to reach its objective."  There was also "the stabilizing of dream images in the kind of still-life deception known as trompe-l'oeil (and the very word 'deception' betrays the weakness of the process)." But for Breton, it "has been proved by experience to be far less reliable and even presents very real risks of the traveler losing his way altogether."(15)  Breton was thinking of de Chirico and Salvador Dalí, whose ironic trompe-l'oeil works he initially celebrated, but who both eventually lost their way altogether, and whom he excommunicated, as it were. De Chirico disavowed his "original quests," as Breton said, surrendering to "vulgar temptations," "shameless cynicism," and "greed."(16)  In 1925, de Chirico began to make neo-Classical images, which Breton thought "very poor," and began to forge his earlier "metaphysical" works, which had become famous, so that he could sell them twice. He later mass reproduced certain works, mechanically copying them, as though to show that they were not so mysterious.  This repudiation of uniqueness later made him famous among Pop artists, postmodernists and deconstructionists, who disbelieved in creativity and originality.  But for Breton, it was a dismal suicide -- a steep decline from his pre-war "visual conundrums." Similarly, Breton turned against Dalí, who also forsook his earlier Surrealism for "the artistic ideals of the Renaissance," became a "fashionable portraitist" and "converted to the Catholic faith." Most of all, Breton despised Dalí's commercialism, which led Breton to give him the anagrammatic nickname "Avida Dollars." Dalí replied that "[t]hat's the only truly brilliant intuition Breton ever had in his life."(17) But Marcel Jean thinks that Dalí's "definitive break" with Surrealism had to do with his unexpected "pro-Nazi attitude," evident in the eulogizing of the swastika in Dalí's essay "Honor to the Object!"(18) 

Whatever the reason -- the dictatorial pursuit of power, the desire to uphold the true Surrealist faith, personal animosity -- Breton was constantly falling out with other Surrealists, who were in general a quarrelsome, high-strung lot, each claiming to be more authentic -- more in touch with the unconscious -- than the other. They were simply too individualistic and rebellious to sustain a group relationship. Surrealism was a heresy, and, like the Protestant heresy, it split into numerous sects, often with only one member. But an art based on the unconscious was in fact inherently unstable, and after a while the contradictoriness of dreams became predictable, and it became easy to manufacture their incongruities. Many Surrealists eventually repudiated Surrealism as "infantile" -- Alberto Giacometti's word -- and came to think of it as the decadent dead-end of avant-garde art, returning to tradition in search of a richer sense of esthetics, that is, esthetics based on conscious perception not simply unconscious expression. They wanted a more fully human, coherent art.  They no longer believed Breton's dictum that "the plastic work of art will either refer to a purely internal model or will cease to exist."(19) There were, in fact, many other artists who were not Surrealists -- however much they dipped into Surrealism when it became fashionable -- who thought that Breton's "total revision of real values" had discarded what was of real artistic and human value. These were not necessarily reactionaries, but rather an alternative avant-garde, transforming tradition in the light of modern experience. Thus, where de Chirico and Dalí regressed to the Renaissance, to recover an obsolete integrity and authenticity, Giacometti and Francis Bacon used the traditional figure to create a new sense of existential integrity and authenticity -- ironically, by showing its isolation, alienation and self-torment, to the point of disintegration.

In 1912, in "Meditations of a Painter," de Chirico declared: "I believe that as from a certain point of view the sight of someone in a dream is a proof of his metaphysical reality, so, from the same point of view, the revelation of a work of art is the proof of the metaphysical reality of certain chance occurrences that we sometimes experience in the way and manner that something appears to us and provokes in us the image of a work of art, an image, which in our souls awakens surprise -- sometimes, meditation -- often, and always, the joy of creation."(20) Thus, a dozen years before Breton wrote the first Surrealist manifesto, de Chirico stated the core Surrealist idea of the work of art as a dream composed of seemingly arbitrary, chance associations, that is, as a "metaphysical" phenomenon. The moment of metaphysical revelation is "enigmatic" and "inexplicable," de Chirico wrote, and what his paintings did was to fix or stabilize it so that it seemed to exist stably without losing its mystery. For de Chirico, creativity was rooted in the so-called defamiliarization effect, as his quotation of Schopenhauer makes clear: "[T]o have original, extraordinary and perhaps even immortal ideas, one has but to isolate oneself from the world for a few moments so completely that the most commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar." Creativity is rooted in a related kind of estrangement for Dalí: "[P]aranoia uses the external world in order to assert its dominating idea and has the disturbing characteristic of making others accept this idea's reality. The reality of the external world is used for illustration and proof, and so comes to serve the reality of the mind."(21) Dalí's "paranoiac-critical method" produced hallucinatory images full of "dream objects" that had the "tangibility" of "everydayness," but that "operate symbolically," that is, embody the "immovable shape of desire."(22) Dalí's ambition was to represent the dream in as photographically precise and clear way as possible, so that it seemed ironically real -- literally the case, however strange -- but also visually compelling and seductive enough to be one's own. 

The deceptive, hypnotic verisimilitude of the trompe-l'oeil imagery of de Chirico and Dalí is fraught with "surreal drama" and tension, to employ the term Apollinaire used to describe his play The Breasts of Tiresias (ca. 1914), first performed 1917 (apparently the first mention of "surreal"), that is, the sense of uncanniness and enchantment generated by the clash of incommensurates. But I think that Breton finally repudiated the metaphysical paranoia -- to bring de Chirico and Dalí under one emotional umbrella, where they belong -- of Surrealist trompe-l'oeil art because it seemed too close to Renaissance art, however different in appearance. It was not simply the narcissistic antics of de Chirico and Dalí that bothered Breton, but the anti-Surrealism implicit in their ostensibly Surrealist work. However distorted, it was too well-crafted -- conscientiously constructed -- to be authentically unconsciously "inspired." It was too reflective, that is, appealed to consciousness rather than irritated and terrorized the unconscious, breaking through the barrier of repression. In short, trompe-l'oeil Surrealism seemed, in Breton's ultimate analysis, more realistic than surrealistic, and, like all realism, it seemed one-dimensional, that is, it implied there was only the shared reality we know from everyday experience. In its effort to make the unfamiliar familiar, it became all too familiar. Thus, its impact was limited, however intriguing its deceptiveness. And even that was problematic, for it suggested that trompe-l'oeil Surrealism was more interested in creating the illusion of perceived reality than in conveying the emotional tensions and obsessions of unconscious reality.

Without the violence of the moment of convulsive spontaneity and disruptive revelation, art was emotionally worthless for Breton. I think that his growing suspicion that de Chirico and Dalí were imposters -- that their biggest product was their persona, as their pursuit of publicity suggests -- was confirmed the moment they began to make, not simply Renaissance art (Breton, after all, admired Leonardo), but insipid, lifeless Renaissance art.

Notes
    (1) Elizabeth M. Legge, Max Ernst: The Psychoanalytic Sources (Ann Arbor
and London: UMI Research Press, 1989), p. 36
    (2) Sigmund Freud, "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" (1907), Standard
Edition (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1959),
vol. 9, pp. 143-44
    (3) Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), pp. 71, 87
    (4) André Breton, "Surrealism and Painting" (1928), Surrealism and
Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 5
    (5) André Breton, "Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism"
(1941), Surrealism and Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 74
    (6) André Breton, "Oscar Dominguez," ibid., p. 129
    (7) Ibid.
    (8) Ibid.
    (9) Breton, "Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism," ibid., p. 68
    (10) Ibid.
    (11) Ibid., p. 70
    (12) Quoted in John Golding, Visions of the Modern (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1994), p. 76
    (13) André Breton, "Kandinsky," ibid., p. 286
    (14) Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1968), p. 429
    (15) Breton, "Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism," p. 70
    (16) Breton, "Surrealism and Painting," pp. 15-16
    (17) Quoted in Polizzotti, p. 471
    (18) Marcel Jean, ed., The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York:
Viking, 1980), p. 302
    (19) Breton, "Surrealism and Painting," p. 5
    (20) Quoted in Chipp, p. 389
    (21) Quoted in Chipp, p. 415
    (22) Quoted in Chipp, pp. 425-26

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here



 



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