I am writing this near the end of October 2021, a little after the anniversary of Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism, and only three years short of its centenary. In New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the major exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders has opened, and that exhibition will be coming to Tate Modern in London in February 2022.
Such context is important, because if there has been an overarching theme to the approach of the art world – academics, critics, historians, the market system of galleries and auctions and wealthy investors, and most artists themselves – to Surrealism, it is to treat the Surrealist movement as a dead animal. A cadaver to be picked over by vultures. Surrealism Beyond Borders, welcome as it is, and as groundbreaking as it is in showcasing the work of lesser known Surrealists such as the Ethiopian artist Skunder Boghossian, ends up playing the same game. With one exception, Surrealist works created since the late 1970s do not appear to be included (the exception being Ted Joans’ long cadavre exquis, which was still being circulated after his death in 2003). This might be in part, at least, due to the requirements of the art museum; artists and artworks must be recognised by academics, and previously shown, to qualify for inclusion. And of course much, if not all, of contemporary Surrealism exists outside that closed system, still being the perennial outsider.
The fact is, however, that Surrealism does continue as an international movement. At the time of writing there are active Surrealist groups in Paris, the Middle East, London, Leeds, Chicago, Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Athens, Portland, Seattle, St.Louis, and Buenos Aires, just to name the ones that come immediately to mind. There are also many individual Surrealists around the world, as far afield as Wiltshire and India. As active Surrealists, and as Surrealist activists, these comrades constitute a broad body of revolutionary thought, revolutionary action, and above all revolutionary imagination that is both a continuation of a distinct Surrealist tradition and an alchemical laboratory within which Surrealism is being continually renewed.
Surrealism, as a poetic method, sets out to transform society by liberating the human imagination. “Poetic”, in this context, does not merely refer to versification, but to an analogical process that is generally applicable – whether in writing, in painting, or in everyday life – to our understanding and awareness of the world as it is and of the world as it may be. In this sense, Surrealism can be seen as a path of permanent revolution. It is, most importantly, a form of praxis rather than a fixed system.
If Surrealism Beyond Borders has a special value, it lies not so much in the presentation of some interesting artefacts (useful and interesting though that is) as in its highlighting that Surrealism has always been precisely an international movement of revolt, one linked by multiple threads of communication and collective activity. It remains a highly relevant movement in a 21st century world under the triple threats of authoritarianism, war and climate catastrophe.
The “virtual opening” of Surrealism Beyond Borders at the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be viewed below
Further Reading below-
Anti-Trade Union Anti-War Art Book Review Books Capitalism China Climate Emergency Conservative Government Conservative Party COVID-19 Creeping Fascism Economics EcoSocialism Elections Event Video Fascism Film Film Review France Global Police State History Imperialism Italy Keir Starmer Labour Party Leaflet Long Read Marxism Marxist Theory NATO Palestine pandemic Police Protest Resistance Books Russia Solidarity Sport Statement Trade Unionism Transgender Ukraine United States of America War
A friend of mine Rodger Kibble adds (on FB):
Trotsky and Breton co-authored a manifesto Towards a Free Revolutionary Art in 1938, though Diego Rivera’s name was substituted for Trotsky’s when it was published. It’s in the Penguin collection 100 Artists’ Manifestoes.
My comments on sharing:
An excellent and interesting article; however it does leave out the particular contribution of Leonora Carrington, born in England but, after a narrow escape from occupied France in 1941, made it to Mexico where she settled. Her work continued its radical content and she was one of the main leaders of the Mexican Women’s Liberation movement. Unbelievably, she had her first major exhibition in Britain the year before she died, with a retrospective at the Pallant House gallery in Chichester (surely she deserved the Tate!). Stuart Bullen and I did go and see it fortunately
I also think that there is both an implication that Surrealism remains a finished article and that there are no other developments in art that are interesting. Surrealism was itself developed from Dadaism by its founder André Breton. Breton did have an interest in Trotskyism and did go to Mexico and met Trotsky shortly before the latter was murdered by a Stalinist agent. Trotsky showed great interest in Surrealism, even though he was not especially known for his interest in the arts. However, subsequently Surrealism became more supportive of anarchist viewpoints.
Breton retained his radicalism, but he also had quite a rigid hold over what Surrealism was officially supposed to be. Sometimes this was a good thing; some surrealists such as Salvador Dalí moved to the Right (and were expelled for not just that but supporting Franco as well)
Surrealism has mainstream acceptance by the arts establishment which always attempts to smother radical movements (or reject them) in the arts. And it’s of interest that some Surrealist artists’ works, in particular Magritte and Miro, have sold for tens of millions.
More attention should be paid to new movements that arise within the arts, whether developed from Surrealist principles or otherwise. And there were important radical artists such as John Heartfield who were not associated with it.
Surrealism certainly deserves its proper place in art history, but simply to recycle old ideas isn’t necessarily the way forward. Significantly, it seems largely White. Many of the most radical movements in art are coming from waves of Black artists, not just today but going back to the Négritude movement in France in the 1930s (they did at least at times consider themselves Surrealists, but I am not sure if they were recognised by Breton).
This is an enormous subject and what I have to say certainly isn’t the last word!