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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