Pre-Surrealism: History of Art Article


(This article is from The History of Art)


Surrealism aimed to revolutionize life through art. It succeeded in revolutionizing the history of modern art by opening new doors of perception, but this was neither a simple nor a linear development.

The general histories we have come to accept as the pathways of the radically new in the history of modern art were generally rejected by the Surrealists as irrelevant if not downright stupid. They countered with a different construction of history from selections bounded by their particular desires. To study those histories and selections is to learn a great deal about the nature of Surrealism.

Men Adoring Beast with Two Horns. From  Commentary on the Apocalypse. Belgium, 3d quarter of 15th century.

The New History

In the late nineteenth century, young radicals in the visual arts across Europe agitated for their art and ideas as direct descendants from the early part of the century. In Paris, they wrote a new history that ran from the broken brushwork, "modern" subject matter, and brightened outdoor colors of the painter Eugene Delacroix, through the experiments in light and atmosphere of Impressionists like Claude Monet in the 1870s and '80s, to arrive at their own Post-Impressionist easels and Symbolist ideas. They constructed a new and progressively "modern" historical lineage outside the approved channels of recognition and support, government-sponsored salons, and academies of art. This was the avant-garde art, and it is this history that is widely accepted today as the origin of modern art.

In the early twentieth century, artists and commentators alike recognized that their concerns and styles were directly related to this line of avant-garde art. The now "scientifically" systematized colors and compositions of Georges Seurat's quiet scenes were said to correct the lack of structure in Impressionism while maintaining its bright palette and concerns for outdoor effects. Paul Cezanne's structural slabs of paint also were proclaimed to lead out of the lessons of Impressionism through a revitalized concern for surface structure, and into the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Concurrently, the lessons learned from the Impressionists led Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin through a revitalized concern for expression and a symbolism located less in subject matter and more in the newly modern language of colors and lines.

The two accepted roots of twentieth-century art— structure and expression—were formed with a newly modern pedigree accepted by today's "academy of the new." But to understand Surrealism is to know there neither was nor is a single history of modern art or the avant-garde. The Surrealists chose from a far less restricted understanding of art, and rejected or rewrote much of what was to be "modern" within their own history of modernism.

The New Old History

On one hand, Andre Breton considered labels such as "Cubism"—and even "Surrealism"—too restrictive to encompass the true powers of creativity: To worry "whether X or Y succeeds in passing himself off as a surrealist, are matters for grocers' assistants." Art history was for clerks; Surrealism was beyond that. On the other hand, Breton spent great energy clerking—by claiming, proclaiming, and eliminating various artists from the lists of Surrealism.

Breton was convinced that the issues Surrealism addressed were age-old. He asked in 1928, "Am I to believe then that everything began with myself? There were so many others, heedful of the dash of gold lances under a black sky—but where are Uccello's Battles? And what is left of them for us?" Uccello serves as a good example to demonstrate both the historical perspective of Surrealism and the idiosyncrasies of its approach.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was a Renaissance artist preoccupied with geometry and elements of the newly invented linear perspective, to a degree recognized in his own time as excessive. His three versions of a battle scene show the lances Breton mentioned, but it is not the clash of armies Breton's words were meant to evoke. Rather, the Surrealists saw the battle as being between the real and the unreal, for Uccello's excessive use of a technique applied to the natural world gave an unnatural look to his figures. In this way, Paolo Uccello was part of the Surrealists' history, just as excess was considered surrealist wherever and whenever it existed.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

Uccello, an Italian painter of the early-Renaissance, was the only historical figure mentioned in the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Like Bosch, he was admired because he was obsessed by a particular vision which used—but perverted—"normal" vision.

The Surrealists used the same criteria to sift through the immediate past of art. Where they rejected Seurat's art as an advance in the scientific study of optics, they admired the "magic" and confusion of his lighting, which gave "disturbing" effects. Gauguin may have developed decorative flat colors that affected Henri Matisse, but this was art history of no interest. It was Gauguin's attempts at primitive innocence and reimpowering myths that the Surrealists felt brought him close to their own aims. Seurat and Gauguin were accepted as part of modern art but rewritten as a new history, equivalent to poets like Arthur Rimbaud and the Count of Lautreamont, who attacked the world of appearance.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

The Problem of the Visual

The roll call of visual artists active in the Surrealist movement is a list of many of the most visually powerful and disturbing creators in the twentieth century. So it comes as a surprise and even a problem that Breton and the Surrealist poets were, at first, not at ease with the issue of visual arts or many of its ideas in Surrealism. It was a movement begun by poets within literature; there were no illustrations in their first, transitional journal, Litterature. In his first manifesto in 1924, Breton makes exceedingly limited reference to the visual arts, except in one place. To a list of writers, all of whom he calls Surrealist for one or another reasons, he attached a footnote as if an afterthought:
I could say the same of a number of philosophers and painters, including, among the latter, Uccello, from painters of the past, and, in the modern era, Seurat, Gustaves Moreau, Matisse (in "La Musique," for example), Derain, Picasso (by far the most pure), Braque, Duchamp, Picabia, Chirico (so admirable for so long), Klee, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and, one so close to us, Andre Masson.

Art is Not the Issue
As late as 1953 Breton restated the case that everyone who argued for an "aesthetic" component for Surrealism placed its history "in a false light." For Breton, anyone concerned with "art" was bound to be misguided. Art took you into illusion and away from the "real." Surrealism had been born into a relation to language, but it was a search for the "prime matter" of language. This search led to the regions of the human unconscious where desires arose unbidden and unconstrained. This was the proper domain for art in a new understanding, and anything accepted as "art" needed to lead to the "real" by way of this path.

Those visual artists who had felt such a compulsion— and compulsion is the key concept here—and given it concrete form throughout history were admitted to the Surrealist pantheon. Surrealism constructed their "modern" history from those driven by compulsion, not from those who used colors and lines in innovative ways. As late as their 1947 international group exhibition, they planned to present from history several such "Surrealists despite themselves" alongside their own work, such as the Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, famous for his grotesque figures composed from fruits, vegetables, and animals.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Another such artist is Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), whose strange vision and grotesque sense of fantasy has long appealed to modern audiences. Despite his devout religious beliefs and otherwise normal life, Bosch's vision existed outside the main line of development for the rest of the Low Countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even his painted themes are normal, most based on the life of Christ. But it is in the marginalia that his imagination created a world of demons, half-animal, half-human creatures doing fantastic things set within imaginary landscape and architecture.

Bosch's superbly realistic painting style rendered images that fit Breton's criteria of clarity and concreteness but they also were part of a history Breton saw of a primitive vision made manifest, one which included a number of naturalistic artists. Bosch as an artist was able to impose simultaneously the reality of his images on the beholder while also altering normal relationships to the images. By means of images he created the real, but the real now included, by necessity, the unreal.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) details
Rethinking the Visual
Breton expressed his opinion about Bosch in the 1928 essay "Surrealism and Painting," in which the poet wanted to do for visual language what he had done for poetic language in 1924—call visual art to task, disclose its real goals, and outline those who had done so in the past, like Bosch, or in the present, like Picasso. The central argument Breton used was an important and widely shared one for Surrealists.

The visual arts are based on the most powerful of physical faculties. It is vision that allows us control over the world, and the Surrealists took it seriously because they valued reality, or their own definition of it. Breton recognized that a "few lines" and "blobs of color" could give immediate power. The formal elements of painting lent a power to painted objects that compelled us to move into the illusion of the world represented. This happens through all visual art and the subject does not matter. We could therefore conclude that any work that so transported us would do. But the Surrealists wanted something more specific, and not all works either called to them or answered their call. Visual art must give a sense of following an internal vision or model more than an external one, yet never abandon one for the other.

This makes a great deal of Surrealist writing about the nature of art confusing, especially with its insistence on reality. The Surrealists wrote a variation on the theme of "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" but purposefully avoided prescribing a formula for its accomplishment. It was a revision of reality, one which moved to include what had been excluded, what was "invisible" to the normal, conscious eye. It was a different vision—the ability to see a primitive world—that they desired. In a sense, they were opposed to vision, but only as it had been used merely as an organ of perception.

The Savage Eye 
Breton opened his major defense of the visual arts, "Surrealism and Painting," with the assertion: "The eye exists in its savage state." The only possible witness to the "marvels" of the world is the "wild eye." But this eye could not be inscribed within any one arena or category. It existed in academic painting as well as in the avant-garde; in some but not all fantasy art; most certainly in art from "primitive" cultures; in the art of those considered to be untrained; and especially in those psychologically displaced from the mainstream of society. But perhaps the greatest challenge was to locate it in those working in the world at the moment and to develop it within themselves. In either case Breton possessed a secular-made-holy priestly power to select, bless, and excommunicate those moments, artists, and works.

When Breton was sixteen he visited the Gustaves Moreau museum in Paris and found in the women and mythology of this nineteenth-century French academic artist both a temple and a magical brothel whose luxuriant tones evoked the forbidden sensuality so adored by the Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire. That Breton, like Baudelaire and Moreau, should write his fantasy onto the body of woman as simultaneously saintly and erotic tells us much about the orientation of Surrealism. Indebted to the Symbolist femme fatale, woman was adored but served the male libido as sensuous muse, an embodiment of eros to which the Surrealists would attach the constructions of madness and pornography.

Gustaves Moreau (1826 - 1898)

When Moreau's liberal teaching methods were later praised by his more radical students, such as Matisse, Breton chastised their inability to see him also as "a great visionary and magician." The issue of "vision" was taken in a primal sense in Surrealism, since only the "wild eye" of the visionary could see into the abyss. Indeed, one of Breton's central criteria for painting was that it be a "way of thought directed entirely toward the inner life." This was a thin paraphrase of Moreau's own statement about art. Yet interiority had to reveal itself in nonliteral ways. Many artists who apparently painted internal fantasies, such as Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), were provocative but finally too direct, too literary in their symbols. However, the breadth and diversity of the artists associated with Surrealism guaranteed appreciation for the broad current of fantastic painters. While Bocklin seems to have escaped Breton's list, he was admired by Max Ernst and by the most often cited and important precursor to Surrealism, Giorgio de Chirico.

Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901)

Famous for his moody landscapes peopled by mythological and symbolic figures, this Swiss painter is mostly absent from Breton's lists, although admired by others.

The Unconscious

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) derived his visions from his dreams and was perhaps the first artist to openly accept the role of the subconscious in creativity. Breton embraced Freud's dream therapy and ranked Redon among those who waged the battle against the "retinal" painters. Redon's source was the eye turned inward, so admired by many Surrealists. That Redon was far more conscious of the plastic values of art set him apart from many Surrealists but his compulsion and biologically derived dream world of weird amoeboid creatures with symbolic titles—admired by his poet friends, such as Stephane Mallarme—made him an important precursor. In a black-and-white lithograph Redon has an eye move toward the infinity of the abyss; a perfect image for Surrealist intentions.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
The Surrealists placed Redon with Seurat and Gauguin as those working against "retinal" modern painting, which propagated "utterly superficial values." Redon's mysterious symbolism and poetic sensibility separated him from the Romantics, who merely illustrated dreams.

The Naive

Vision was best that came unbidden, hence compulsively defeating the process of will—from Redon's dreams, for example. Those who were untrained were often less restricted and more open to this type of vision. The Surrealists were not the first to celebrate the naive artist. For instance, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), the French poet and spokesperson for much of the Paris avant-garde, was a great defender of art from outside the mainstream of Western culture. And his example was closely followed by Breton and others, who were most vocal in support of the naive.

The greatest of the untaught modern so-called primitive painters was Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), best known as "Le Douanier Rousseau." He began painting part-time after his retirement from the Paris civil service as a gatekeeper and his "naive" visions were much admired by leading artists of the day. Rousseau wanted to be like the academic painters, not the avant-garde. Yet contrary to an academic belief in an objective world he made no such rational distinctions between phantoms and reality. It was in such an arena, where the possible and impossible could meet, that marked him for admiration. Rousseau's works, like the man, were enigmatic, even to those in the avant-garde, and thus an inspiration to the poetic sensibility.

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

The Primitive
Nowhere is the primitive or savage eye more readily apparent than outside Western culture, which we assume in our own naivete to be unmarked by the restrictions of rational discourse. Interest in "primitive" art was marked by the development of ethnographic collections in the 1880s and '90s. And it has been justly remarked that "modern" art, no matter how one defines it, is impossible without the influences of non-Western art and traditions. The specific sources and their uses varied according to the ideas and programs of modern Western artists. Many painters, such as Picasso and Matisse, were taken with the structural simplifications of broad planes seen in figures and masks from Africa, Oceana, and prehistoric Spain. In addition, both used the mask as a metaphor for their excursion into the primitive. Others, such as the early twentieth century German Expressionists and the influential forerunners to Surrealism, the Dadaists, were moved by the power and cadences of African forms and music.

The Surrealists were interested both in the general visionary quality of the so-called primitive state, and with a far more specific, even scientific, ethnographic attitude. Many had large collections of primitive art, ranging with knowledgeable distinction through Africa, Oceana, and the First Peoples of North America. Writers such as Michel Leiris published learned volumes on languages and customs of African peoples. Despite the wide-ranging debates as to which culture was more important to the Surrealists, they generally valued the earlier cultures for their ability to accept in concrete ways the forces in the world invisible to and excluded by the civilized eye.

Alternative Visions
The Surrealists embraced not only naive and primitive art but that from mediums, compulsive visionaries, and those judged psychotic. Although Breton developed his concept of the interior model for art in 1928 without making reference to the art of the insane, he spent much of his time developing an aesthetic whose cornerstone was madness ("la folie"). Much of this stemmed from his and Max Ernst's early interest and training in medicine and psychology. But the Surrealists were also part of the parallel interests of a larger community. Apollinaire had certainly been interested in psychotic art, as he had that of the naive and native peoples, and there had been French surveys of psychotic art circulating in Paris. Principle for the Surrealists was the collection of images produced by institutionalized psychiatric patients across Europe published by the art historian and physician Hans Prinzhorn in 1922, The Artistry of the Mentally III. Commentators have remarked that it was the images in this text, alongside their own predispositions, that turned the Surrealists from a concentration on art produced by mediums and visionaries to those of the clinically insane. One of the best known cases of psychopathological art was that of the schizophrenic Adolph Wolfli, whose drawings Breton collected as they circulated through Paris and whom he praised in his last published work (1961) as having produced one of the several most important bodies of work in the twentieth century. By 1925 the Surrealists had penned an open letter under the editorship of the playwright Antonin Artaud (himself interned in an asylum decades later) to the directors of lunatic asylums, proclaiming their patients social victims rather than victims of mental disease. With it we understand how much they romanticized reality in their desire to forge links with unreality.

The Here and Now
The Surrealists admired what they desired but recognized that they did and could not possess it without special effort. Once they accessed their unconsciousness, they felt they could actualize it in the material world, a world in need, so they believed, of a more systematic and positive "vision" than was present in the here and now. By this reasoning the Surrealists claimed two artists as their own, one a famous painter, another an unknown photographer, both quite unrelated except through a Surrealist viewpoint.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) was an Italian painter who developed the basic ideas of a philosophy toward painting he called "Metaphysical Painting." De Chirico's ideas exerted the most direct and strongest single influence on Surrealism and he is often considered, wrongly, as a member of the Surrealist movement. His ideas were formed by 1911 and solidified by 1915, almost a decade before the advent of Surrealism. His paintings were purposefully "enigmatic." He made them inexplicable by creating scenes using common objects placed in empty spaces with strange perspectives, intended to strip away the common associations which give viewers a context for meaning. In place of the ordinary now stood the unexplainable, a place he felt was prehistoric; a time that presaged that of conscious recording.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)

The Enigma of a Day 1914

The net result was the construction of a type of spatial theater within the painting, which became a staging arena for dreams. Many Surrealists utilized de Chirico's visual stage of dreams and the value he placed on exploring the enigmatic relationships that are possible within the everyday sense of the world. Even as the Surrealists recognized that de Chirico's creative powers were lost in the 1920s, they admitted that "often have we found ourselves in that square where everything seems so close to existence and yet bears so little resemblance to what really exists! It was here, more than anywhere else, that we held our invisible meetings. It was here that we were to be found . . ."

Far more naive was the photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927), who taught himself photography in his early forties in order to make a living by providing visual documentation of the older and disappearing architecture and avenues in Paris. With no pretensions to art, Atget seemed single-mindedly devoted to recording the real and was accepted for that. But the Surrealists in the 1920s—particularly Man Ray's assistant, the American Berenice Abbott, later to be quite renowned herself as a photographer—recognized in Atget's works a vision that went well beyond description, to pass into a disturbing, hence profoundly more real, interpretation of the world. The Surrealists published several of Atget's photographs and at his death, Abbott rescued Atget's ten thousand plates for posterity.

Eugene Atget (1857-1927)

Magasin, avenue des Gobelins 1925

The Real
For the Surrealists, the real had to be maintained as a platform for both departure and return, just as dreams and desires were grounded in discoveries made in the world. Photography had the inherent strength of creating a sense of actuality in the world; it began as a document of reality and could continue to use reality as a reference point. This opened up many possibilities for the Surrealists, who employed photography more so than any previous art movment. The academicized painting style of de Chirico offered a similar reference to reality. Eugene Atget and de Chirico, from a Surrealist point of view, shared the ability to dislocate normal conventions of time and space by reference to the real. Once dislocated, a viewer was more open to a less linear and rational, more suggestive, or poetic, sense of presence.

Site Map | Printable View | © 2008 - 2024 Your Company | Powered by mojoPortal | XHTML 1.0 | CSS | Design by styleshout