Podcast 59: Pablo Picasso and the Making of the Art Market

Pablo Picasso, Part One

Although we accept Picasso as one of the great artists of the twentieth century, he was not born a famous artist, he was “made.” This podcast discusses the role of the Great War and the creation of the post-war market in buying and selling avant-garde art. In order to be successful, Picasso had to be polished as an artist and Cubism had to be tamed as an art market suitable for collectors.

 

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Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part Two

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The Abstract Expressionist artists translated “meaning” from subject matter to the broader and deeper intent of the word. For these artists, “meaning” had to be profound and transcendent so that art could rise above the rather minor role it played during the Thirties as handmaiden to politics. But first, this group of local New York artists had to go through the process of being schooled by the European masters. As mentioned in earlier posts on this website, what was interesting about this apprenticeship was not what was accepted by what was rejected by the New York School. As the critic Harold Rosenberg later explained it in 1972,

“The legacy that New York artists inherited from Paris consisted of the tradition of overthrow of unlimited formal experimentation and parody and fragments of radical ideas. It was on the basis of the consciousness of loss and renunciation of support by the past that a new creative principle was sought by the New York painters.”

The famous expatriate teacher from Germany, Hans Hofmann, presented a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and the works of Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. The abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and the Surrealist techniques of André Masson and Matta were promising but the American artists proceeded cautiously. In addition, they were also wary of abstract or decorative art as being empty.

The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning. The artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence. Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns. Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica (1937) was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion and was shown in the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War. Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. Picasso used the visual language of Cubism and the metaphorical approach of Surrealism and adapted fragmentation and dream to the nightmare of total war.

For each artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement, the journey towards a new, modern and universal meaning had to take them through a journey that cut a path through an American tradition of realism and a European tradition of post-Cubist and post-Expressionsit art. Jackson Pollock denied the folk ways of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton and traveled through a flirtation with Surrealist automatic writing married to vaguely understood Jungian theories. Lee Krasner, the most promising young artist in New York, moved away from her mentors Hoffmann and Mondrian towards a cautious abstraction of her own. Franz Kline shifted his attention from industrial landscapes to the possibilities of making a painting from brushstrokes alone. These, and other odysseys, were slow and sometimes painful and happened over a decade marked by the Second World War.

In order for the experience of a painting to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned. One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Piet Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was at the same time balanced and infinite. But to the American artists, seeking a way out of European modernism, Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked the kind of American spontaneity and improvisation expressed in jazz. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content when compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image, spread all over the surface, implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, as in the way Mondrian brought black lines and primary colors to the end of the canvas.

But the key break from European art was the departure from easel painting for an exploration of the possibilities of mural painting. On a mural scale, the viewer’s peripheral vision could be engaged, rendering a centered composition irrelevant. Part of this severance from old traditions was a paradoxical return to artistic elements that were primal or, as the favorite term of the times expressed it, “primitive.” It was the atavistic that allowed the New York artists to assert their American ways through Native American art. The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb came the closest to understanding the essence of Native American culture. During the Forties, the artist placed inscrutable symbolic forms within a grid with the conviction that symbolic language preceded written language. Unnatural culture was an interruption or an interference with a more universal language. In the same period, Pollock investigated the possibilities of Native American art in paintings such as She Wolf (1943). Art should be able to communicate on the Jungian level of the collective unconscious. As Gottlieb stated,

“If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for the niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”

By the Fifties, as American art took a leading role in international visual culture, Abstract Expressionist art and artists took up new positions in society and new roles in the making of culture. Mythically, the artist became a medium between the mute public and the expression of the need of ordinary people to express their fears and longings. The artist, as a human being, was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of self discovery. The writings of André Breton suggested that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event for the viewer rather than an intellectual act of perception. The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.” This ego-oriented art put the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves. The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As Robert Hobbs pointed out in Abstract Expressionism. The Formative Years, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The painters also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950) by Barnett Newman measured 96 x 216 inches, stretching out horizontally, creating a journey for the overwhelmed viewer who paused here and there at the “zips.” But for Newman, this transit was not simply an aesthetic one but a moral and ethical one as well.

“The self, ” he said, “terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting and sculpture…The artist emphatically does not create form. The artist expresses in a work of art an aesthetic idea which is innovate and eternal.”

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint, followed by the question of what to paint at the time of the end of painting. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

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The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Surrealist Object

SURREALISM AND ITS OBJECTS

ART BECOMES FETISH

Surrealism was initially practiced in written form as textual production, as a means of freeing the literary mind from “writerly” conventions. Just as Sigmund Freud took dictation, so to speak, writing down what his patients told him, the Surrealists would write down the contents of their minds. If only they could awaken that deep level where the subconscious thoughts dwelled. At first, Surrealists resisted the visual in favor of language. Pierre Naville, who aspired to leadership with André Breton, said bluntly,

“Masters, master-crooks, smear your canvases. Everyone knows there is no surrealist painting. Neither the mark of a pencil abandoned to the accident of gesture, nor the image retracing the form of the dream…”

Naville, who edited the first three issues of La Revolution Surrealiste with Benjamin Peret, was eventually purged from the Surrealist group in 1933. With Breton firmly in charge of the journal and of the membership, Surrealism welcomed the visual artists to the ranks, usually by a kind of verbal anointing by the Pope. He gave the nod to such retrospective “Surrealists,” like de Chirico or selected the reluctant Magritte and included the surprised Kahlo. After Breton issued what turned out to be the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 he added his essay, Le Surrealism et la peinture in 1926, to his growing collection of writings on this new art movement. In the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton wrote of the importance of the dream,

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” He continued, “It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession.”

It is here within the surreal fusion between dream and reality that the Surrealist object evolved. Certainly there is a connection between the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealist object, but Duchamp was always concerned with the discourse on the nature of art. Surrealism had other ideas about the object. On the occasion of the Exhibition of Surrealist Objects at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris in 1937, Breton wrote an essay on “The Crisis of the Object.” The installation provocatively showed Surrealist objects and so-called mathematical objects from the Institut Poincaré in glass cabinets, like ethnographic or more precisely, scientific specimens. Photographs of the exhitit show that “primitive” masks, Duchamp’s Bottle Rack and Why not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy were encased along with Alberto Giacometti’s Suspended Object and Oppenheim’s Luncheon in Fur.

Breton understood that the object had been in a state of “crisis” from, as he stated, about 1830 when scientific studies and poetic and artistic experimentations began to develop along parallel courses. On one hand, science studies objects as material things, and on the other hand, the arts manipulated objects for aesthetic purposes. Braque and Picasso actually dissolved the object into its own logical infinitude, thus making clear how acute the crisis had become. Surrealism, in contrast to many of the other avant-garde art movements, was not abstract; instead, Surrealism was a return to the concrete. Breton, a keen student of the French poetic tradition, was aware of the dream of Rimbaud to return to a kind of primitivistic or primal vision that would be free of conventions and the challenge was to link the untutored vision with the imagination.

Surrealist theory sought to re-enchant the universe and thought that the crisis of the object could be overcome if the thing in all its strangeness could be seen as if anew. The strategy was not to make Surreal objects for the sake of shocking the middle class public but to make objects “surreal” by dépayesment or estrangement. The goal was not so much the choice but the hunt and the displacement of the object, removing it from its expected context, which would defamilarize it. Once the object was stranded outside of its normal place, it could be seen without the veil of cultural conventions. L’Objet Insolite’is different from Breton’s dream object, which emerged out of the subconscious and must be created. In his book, Nadja, Breton wandered the side streets of Paris, a city, which, to him was a city haunted with strange never-before seen objects. Wandering with Giacometti, he would haunt the marché aux puces or flea markets, hoping for an encounter with the “Marvelous” which would assuage Breton’s taste for the bizarre.

The Surrealist object was closely related to Freud’s concept of the “fetish.” The ordinary object becomes a fetish because we project our desire upon it, because we look at it and look again until we cannot stop looking. The selection of this object, like any Dada object, is random. And like the Surrealist object, the choice is not as significant as the meaning the human psychology gives to it. The fetish is always a substitute for something else and always has a sexual content, is always a substation for sexual satisfaction. Although not explicitly mentioned, Marx’s commodity fetish not only predates Freud’s sexual fetish but also shares the same cognitive mechanism.

For Marx, the commodity becomes a fetish when it can be exchanged for something else, or acquires a monetary value through its symbolic meaning, which is the “something else” outside and beyond the object itself. In other words, certain objects become commodities because we, the consumer, are willing and able to invest something of emotional selves into the object. Marx was intrigued at how such fetishized objects are exchanged when a concept we translate as “value” becomes monetized. Marx and Freud agreed that whether symbolic commodity or sexual substitution, the fetishized object is never itself and is always the “symptom” for something else. That projection of subconscious desire for an absent entity is what characterizes the Surrealist object. The definition of the object is never a scientific or an objective or a conventional meaning. The symbolic value (meaning) is always personal and subjective to the possessor.

While Breton, the writer and poet, may have played the role of the flâneur searching for the unexpected, visual artists created their own poetic objects and imposed them upon modern art, in competition with traditional sculpture—the Readymade, and with Picasso’s logical assemblages were new conceptual constructions. The Readymades were about language and were frequently visual-verbal puns, such as Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (play on French Window). Picasso’s constructions were physical manifestations of intellectual concepts, such as The Guitar. Surrealism approaches objects in an entirely different manner, irrational rather than rational, poetic rather than intellectual. Duchamp and Picasso play with what is, but the Surrealists evoke the unnamable unspoken.

The fetishization of an otherwise ordinary thing led to a cult of objects without aesthetic or artistic intentions. These Surrealist objects fell into many categories. The Surrealist found object could be a flea market find, an object that had survived long after the knowledge of its use was lost and it had become strange to itself and others. In contrast, the natural object was just that—natural, such as a stone, while the “interpreted” found object was useful utensil converted into bizarre object, such as Man Ray’s Cadeau. Ray’s simple iron was studded with tacks, points out, giving the triangular flat bottom the menacing look of the dreaded “vagina dentate.” And the useful iron becomes useless and strange.

The readymade or the modern mass produced object dragged from contextand becomes thing of the mind. The Surrealist assemblage, such as those created by Joan Miró, who stacked up disparate objects, from a fish to a bowler hat, functioned like a cadaver exquise, forcing the viewer to re-imagine the possible meanings. The incorporated object can be in Max Ernst’s Two Children Frightened by a Nightengale where a hyperreal painting sprouts wooden parts, a miniature gate and a painted knob. The phantom object is merely suggested by a gesture of the hands—a feint seen in Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (1934).

Perhaps the most familiar Surrealist object and the most famous object of desire is the Dream object invented by Meret Oppenheim, Luncheon in Fur (1934). Humble and familiar, the dream object is given sumptuous appearance by caprice or desire. Oppenheim appropriated a simple set of crockery made for café au lait, meaning that the object is not fine china or dainty high-class specimens of fine porcelain. Large in scale, as is necessary for café au lait, the cup, saucer and spoon sprout the fur of the rabbit, an equally humble animal. Not only have the crockery set become useless, it has become sexually suggestive. Oppenheim created a disjuncture between tea and fur and the hairy object metamorphosized into a metaphor, “fur for lunch.” For Freud, fur and velvet had sexual connotations, claiming that “the sight of pubic hair” triggered desire, based on the longing to see “the female member.” This male fixation is based on the visual, which is given a position or primacy and this fixation becomes a fetish.

There are many other categories for the Surrealist object, such as the box, seen in the work of Joseph Cornell, the optical machine creating an optical illusion, such as Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, the poème-objet, made by Breton himself. Writing on the occasion of the exhibition of Surrealist objects, Breton stated,

“The objects that form part of the Surrealist exhibition of May 1936 are of a kind calculated primarily to raise the interdict resulting from the stultifying proliferation of those objects that impinge on our senses every day and attempt to pursue us that anything might exist independently of these mundane objects must be illusionary…”

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Surrealism and Freudian Theory

SURREALIST THEORY

The Marvelous Mind of Surrealism

In the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, André Breton wrote,I believe in the future resolution of these two states — outwardly so contradictory — which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak, I am aiming for its conquest, certain that I myself shall not attain it, but too indifferent to my death not to calculate the joys of such possession.” He continued, “For the time being, “my intention has been to see that justice was done to that hatred of the marvellous which rages in certain men, that ridicule under which they would like to crush it. Let us resolve, therefore: the Marvellous is always beautiful, everything marvellous is beautiful. Nothing but the Marvellous is beautiful.”

The question was how find this “superior reality,” how to get to the unconscious part of the mind, always guarded by the waking disciplined mind. Often with the aid of drugs or alcohol, Surrealists poets and writers would play games to bring the unconscious mind to the surface. They tried to write “automatically” to be free of the constraints of tradition in art and they drew exquisite corpses, cadaver exquise, or composite drawings to create new thoughts for the resulting figures that could not be imagined under ordinary circumstances. There is much in Surrealism that is manifestation of the exercise of free association from Sigmund Freud but there are visual precedents for the movement.

Artists had long used dreams, visions and their own inner reality as a source for making art. Gustave Moreau, a contemporary of Gustave Courbet, presented an alternative to the relentless realism of an age of materialism. At the turn of the century Edvard Munch expressed the ache of alienation and the fear of abandonment that would be so indicative of his time. Henri Rousseau, an amateur painter, unabashedly recreated his dreams and desires to the bemused admiration of his avant-garde peers. Odilon Redon imagined the eye as a great balloon, floating over a landscape like a giant surveillance camera. But the most significant influence was an Italian painter, Giorgio De Chirico whose strange paintings would be classified as pittura metafisica.

Although he returned to the “classical” in 1919, De Chirico was an early member of the cult of the Strange and the Marvelous. Based on the paintings he did from 1913 on, his method of conceiving of content seemed to resemble a practice of assemblage, a gathering together of unlikely elements. As if they had met on Lautréaumont’s dissecting table, de Chirico’s objects in Song of Love, 1914, come together and create a mystery. His paintings, like those of many artists who came after him, could be appropriated by Breton and enfolded into the theories of Surrealism.

Surrealist Theory was based on a simplistic understanding of the writings of Sigmund Freud recrafted for the use of poets and visual artists. Thanks to Surrealism, Freud became popularized by the 1930s and his impact upon the artists in Paris in the 1920s. For the artists, the mind or human psychology, could be a source of artistic inspiration. For Freud, the unconscious is structured like a language that cannot speak its name. Due to the rigors of socialization, primal desires are suppressed and base instincts are repressed. However, the mind has its own economy and that which has been buried must be expressed through displacement and transference, or through substitution. This part of the mind is doomed to indirectness but is compensated by a surplus of poetry and metaphors. The result is a transformation of the unreachable primal script into a metamorphosis, which collapses reality and dream.

The paintings of Salvador Dali, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931), are crafted with the precision and dedication of the Dutch still lives to which the artist paid homage. The dream becomes manifested in the flesh of the pigments and becomes more alive and intense and more memorable than reality which pales in comparison. While Dali asserted the dream, which would be translated by the viewer, René Magritte, a philosopher who painted, undermined perceived reality with word games and visual puns. Personal Values (1952) is especially rich in conceptual play: an indoor room is crowded with outdoor clouds surrounding a bed to scale but the bed is surmounted by an erect comb, seeing eye to eye with an empty glass standing in front of a to scale wardrobe with doors that mirror the clouds floating by in the blue sky and an unseen window. “Oriental” rugs overlap each other on the floor and serve as the resting place for a mid-sized pencil and an overlarge oval bar of soap. What brings all of these found objects together in this inverted room?

Like an undeveloped photograph, the contents of the mind are latent, speaking in a secret language that is wholly private and individual. Surrealism sought this secret language through the fixing of the dream images into works of art. But there was another element of Freudian theory that found its way into Surrealist art, the concept of automatic writing: “…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 or spin an infinitely precious substance.” Resembling doodling or idle scribbling, écriture automatique was a loosening of control of conscious thought on the part of the poet. For the painter, such as Joan Miró, or the assemblage artist, such as Max Ernst, the result was a combination of free association and stream of consciousness “writing.”

Despite the implication of giving free rein to the unconscious mind, the artists who “practiced” automatic writing were actually quite careful and selective in the use of shapes (Miró) and the object (Ernst). Certainly Miró was inspired by the possibility of creating free-form biomorhphic shapes but he developed these shapes into a coherent composition that hovered between a dream world and an abstract composition. In Europe After the Rain (1940-41), Max Ernst may have practiced frottage but he used his rubbings to good effect and aided and prodded the metamorphosis into the recognizable. Nevertheless, the viewer is disoriented. The collapse of distinctions between a finished work and a work in process, between the familiar and the strange, between the fragment and the macrocosm forbids a purchase on reality and creates a mirroring or doubling.

By basing its raison d’être upon a combination of elements of Dada and Freudian theory, Surrealism repudiated the traditional idea of aesthetics or the connection between art and beauty. Stating that “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all,” Breton rewrote the definition of “beauty.” He echoed Baudelaire who declared that the beautiful is always “strange.” The Surrealist beauty is a “convulsive beauty,” a beauty born of the non-form that reforms itself. This “informe” produces an unexpected misrecognition or an inability to recognize as the image is torn from its intended context. All that is left is the “savage state” of the eye, giving primacy to the powers of the visual: the viewer is left with only what s/he sees in an almost primal fashion. The unformed or uninformed sight convulses itself into a condition of revelation as the underlying workings of the mind are revealed through the Surrealist work of art.

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Surrealism in Context

THE MAKING OF SURREALISM

SURREALISM

1924 – 1939

Wounded and home from the Front, the dying poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, went to a play by Diaghilev, Parade. The sets had been made by his good friend, Pablo Picasso, the music was by Erik Satie, the by Leonide Massine, and the scenario was written by Jean Cocteau. The poet had written the program notes for the play which opened on May 18,1917. Apollinaire had been using a new term, “surrealism,” one that he had coined in preference to “supernaturalisme” for several years. According to Robert Mazzocco and Cecily Mackworth, the poet had already decided on his term months before he saw the play: “After thinking over the question carefully, I prefer to adopt the word Surréalisme, rather than the Surnaturalisme I used at first. Surréalisme does not yet exist in the dictionary and will be easier to manipulate than Surnaturalisme, which has already been used by philosophers.” After the play, the poet was ready to unleash his new term, which would be picked up by his friend André Breton.

Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of madness and terror. After the Great War, the writings of an obscure psychologist in Vienna, Sigmund Freud suddenly seemed relevant. Soldiers had experienced what was called “shell shock” in the early twentieth century ever since war was invented. The Great War produced such numbers of afflicted soldiers that no excuses of cowardice or treason, no amount of executions could make vanish the effects of war on the mind. As a wartime nurse, André Breton had observed the power of the wounded mind over the helpless body and in 1921, he visited Freud to learn more of what the doctor called the “unconscious mind.”

For Freud, dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious,” meaning the mind was capable of communicating at various levels, and perhaps the least of which was the conscious level. The deeper buried layer of the mind “spoke” in codes, whether linguistic or visual, and these clues had to be decoded by the psychologist who could translate the obscured messages. What he learned from Freud gestated in the mind of Breton and his fellow poets while he joined forces with the Dada artists. Dada, in Paris, was not nearly as cohesive as the Berlin group and for a poet with different ideas, wartime Dada was not the mindset needed for a new decade.

For an artist and poet, this subterranean mind, was a site of untapped potential for art making. The poets of Littérature, founded 1919, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Jean Paulhan, Paul Eluard, Georges Robemont-Dessaignes, were more and more out of sympathy with Dada. Dada wanted to sweep the slate clean to create a tabula rasa, but the teachings of Freud stated that there could be no such thing. The mind, far from being erasable, was like an archaeological dig, buried under layers and layers of repressed memories. By of spring, 1920, Dada had outlived is usefulness as an anti-war movement, and Littérature was independent of its parent and was moving towards “surrealism.” In this same year, Breton and Souplault experimented with automatic writing or écriture automatique, published as “Les Champs magnétiques” in Littérataire. It was time to move on.

Breton announced, “Leave everything. Leave Dada. Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the road.” André Breton believed that “If there is to be an attempt at subversion, it will have to be sought on terrain other than Dada.” For Breton rebuilding the future of art into something positive was the goal of post-war artists. For the next three years, Breton attempted a “dialectical transformation” of Dada into Surrealism. With the stated goal of Surrealism being the polar opposite of Dada, Surrealism looked back to the fin-de-siecle period at the poetry of the Romantic-Symbolist tradition, reviving the deeply nuanced subjectivism of Symbolist poetry.

With its adherence to Symbolism, one could question if Surrealism was regressively looking back but one could also argue that Symbolism was a poetic movement unfulfilled and deferred by the Great War. Symbolism was not “expressionistic” in the way that the German movements were personal and emotional. A largely literary movement, Symbolism demanded reader response by using language as a raw material to evoke rather than describe, to suggest rather than create atmosphere or mood. The founding poet of Symbolism, Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Nature is a temple in which living pillars/ Sometimes give voice to confused words;/ Man passes there through forests of symbols/ Which look at him with understanding eyes.”

In this poem, Correspondences, Baudelaire indicated that communication was symbolic and that one acquired a deeper and denser understanding through symbols, so much richer than mere words. Word should be assembled to indicate something beyond. A contemporary of Baudelaire, Isidore Ducasse was also fascinated with the romance of evil in Maldoror but, unlike Baudelaire, Ducasse lived and died—less than then years after Baudelaire—in relative obscurity. Revived by Breton known under his nom de plume, Comte de Lautréamont, the novelist was best know for his signature phrase and the slogan of Surrealism: “As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!”

While Symbolism sought to activate the mind of the reader through suggestive language, for Surrealism, the unconscious mind was an important source for art that could not be imagined by the conscious mind. By 1924, André Breton was ready to release the Surrealist Manifesto. This manifesto both nodded to its predecessor, Dada, and laid out its distinct philosophy, based on Freudian ideas. “If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them; first to capture them and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason,” Breton wrote.

The phrase, “control of reason” separated Dada from Surrealism. Breton concluded his manifesto by giving the reader two definitions of Surrealism, first as a word: “Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations,” and next as a philosophy: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.”

According to Breton, the question of the meaning of life should be changed from the expressionist solipsistic, “Who am I?” to “Whom shall I haunt?” While Dada was a political and social art of anger and social protest, Surrealism was concerned with art as a means of expressing the buried or as an instrument of self-discovery, not as an end in itself. Surrealism, then, put to itself a task and a purpose. Although placed within the ranks of the avant-garde, Surrealism should not be relegated to art-for-art’s-sake, for this movement had a job and this mission was to heal the torn fabric of society through private introspection.

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Comparison of Dada and Surrealism

DADA AND SURREALISM

1916-1920

1924-1939

Although Surrealism supposedly grew out of or outgrew Dada in Paris, the two movements come from very different time periods and cultural contexts. Dada was a wartime movement, founded in the midst of an international slaughter of young men, led by a deluded and incompetent class of elites. Although the Dada artists advertised themselves as being “anti-art,” the exiles in Zurich were against traditional art and its vaunted ideals. Far from being opposed to the basic idea of art, the Dada artists strove to find new ways to make new art in a new ways.

Being deliberately anti-authoritarian, Dada could not, by definition, have leaders. The movement had spokespersons but no one took a position of guidance. Aside from philosophy, Dada artists scattered across Europe after the Great War ended. None of the many centers of Dada had a leader and Dada, perhaps as a result, dissolved in a few years into other movements. Surrealism had a leader, indeed, a “Pope,” André Breton. It was possible for Surrealism to be led simply because the group was self-contained in Paris. Breton was somewhat iron-fisted for a leader of an avant-garde movement, expelling members who displeased him, but he held the group together for twenty years, an astonishing longevity.

The lack of deference to commanders of any kind on the part of Dada came directly out of a world un-made by the Great War. As Robert L. Herbert pointed out in “The Arrival of the Machine: Modernist Art in Europe,” the Great War brought about a belated acceptance of modern technology. After this war, the artists reacted to machines as benign and beneficent. Le Corbusier called the home “a machine for living.” But Dada’s swerve to impersonal means of making art could be linked to the way in which impersonal machines were killing young people at random. Chance and randomness decided the fate of civilians and soldiers alike—all were at the mercy of a cultural clash between Old World notions of heroism and New World technology. There is a defiance and anger to Dada practices that links the artists and their attitudes to the War.

Surrealism, on the other hand, emerged in a decade of peace and prosperity. The wounds left behind by the War were either ignored—as in the neglect of the surviving veterans—or celebrated—as in the erections of many memorials. Surrealism is essentially a cerebral retreat of survivors who do not want to look back. The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage an psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious. Dada was inherently reality-based and overtly political. Surrealism, on the other hand, shifted away from an oppositional stance towards a more theoretical position.

The extent to which the Surrealist artists understood the theories of Sigmund Freud is debatable but their interest in Freud should be distinguished from Dada’s anti-rational stance. Although Surrealism supposedly celebrated the irrational, their ideas were based upon Freud’s very rational model of the human mind, bisected into the conscious and the unconscious mind and mapped into the id, the ego, and the superego. Surrealism also rejected the Dada disgust with self-indulgent expressionism but returning to individual vision, but the site of this vision was the untapped unconscious mind. In contrast to the deliberately disruptive and antagonistic tactics of the Dada artists, the Surrealists sought what they called “the Marvelous,” or that magically unexpected encounter when the ordinary suddenly became extraordinary.

Dada and Surrealism were both movements of writers and poets, with visual artists as being part of the larger intellectual group, but in Surrealism the artists were somewhat less innovative than those in the Dada movement. Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dali and René Magritte all painted in a very traditional manner, using old-fashioned techniques and subverting realism by painting dreams as if they were real. That said, both movements work with Chance. Dada’s use of chance was radical, a complete giving over of the artist to the oxymoronic “laws” of happenstance. Whether it is throwing pieces of paper to (not)create a collage by chance or assembling random word and reconvening them as poetry, Dada artists were anarchic when it came to giving up the creative thought process for process itself. In contrast, Surrealist artists deployed a variety of games, from automatic writing or the exquisite corpse, to approach chance from another position.

The Surrealist poets and artists sought a new way of writing “automatically,” without conscious control and a new way of finding unexpected images or ideas that would occur with collective group contributions. One could use the term “objective chance” to characterize and distinguish Surrealism because these artists use the already there, the already seen and then de-familiarizes the familiar through juxtaposition and metamorphosis. Note that the Dada photomontage may have used the technique of putting one randomly found image next to another, but the intent was to undermine meaning. Surrealism seeks new meaning, another meaning, an unexpected meaning, a sur-real meaning, but always, Surrealism wants live to mean something. And here it the crucial difference between Dada and Surrealism. For Dada, life has no meaning, no reason, no purpose, and no logic. For Surrealism, life has meaning; one has to find its logic by unlocking visual and verbal codes secreted in the chambers of the unconscious mind where one finds Freud’s “uncanny.”

The Found Object, or the oject trouvé, was the special domain of Marcel Duchamp who was preceded the Dada artists in his rejection of traditional art. Duchamp’s appropriation of anonymous factory made items was narrow and programmatic to his specific intentions, but the Surrealists were more open to the found object. Like Duchamp, the Surrealists bent the concept of a supposedly ordinary item to their own purposes, which was the search for the “Marvelous.” For Duchamp, the found object was “encountered” randomly and viewed with detachment and indifference, but for the Surrealists, the found object was the object of passion. Indeed, the object was poetic; implying a metaphor, indicating the item in question meant more or something else—-“the Marvelous.”

Duchamp’s rigorous intellectualism was hermetic but because of the theory of the “talking cure” based on hearing clues and reading codes, Surrealism expected audience participation. Duchamp himself had no aesthetic intentions, even when he “assisted” or “rectified” his Readymades, but the Surrealists returned to the aestheticism of art, making desirous and desiring works to be looked at and into. Although inherently conservative, Surrealism dominated the Parisian art scene until the next war broke out, scattering the already dated movement to distant shores where, like Dada, Surrealism would find a different and new destiny. As André Breton said, “Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe it will survive me.”

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