SESSION ONE: CHANCE
In this first session of the course Chance-Dream-Desire-Taboo we addressed two key questions:
What is Surrealism? and Why did the Surrealists so value chance?
Recapitulating the early history of Surrealism, we began with words before moving on to images. We opened by playing ‘exquisite corpse’: a game beloved of the Surrealists and an apparently chance way of generating a sentence. It was dubbed ‘exquisite corpse’ after the memorable sentence an early round of the game produced’
‘The exquisite corpse willdrink the new wine’
Here are some of the sentences we created on Friday:
The fabulous bird examines the sad house
The ancient car kisses the purple breast
The unimaginable storm eats the handsome cow
The red piano races the random mansion
The bright shoe grows the shining moon
Any of these could be the first line of a Surrealist poem, or a stimulus for a Surrealist painting.
For the Surrealists this game (and many others too) served a serious aim. Simon Kahn recollected Surrealists playing exquisite corpse in the early 1920s:
‘…the suggestive power of those arbitrary meetings of words was so astounding, so dazzling and verified surrealism’s theses and outlook so strikingly, that the game became a system, a method of research, a means of exaltation as well as stimulation, and even, perhaps, a kind of drug’
From the verbal game, they quickly moved on to visual versions. There is more on exquisite corpse including a gallery of the results of the visual version here.
What is Surrealism?
If someone asks ‘What is Surrealism?’ we could point to a game of exquisite corpse and say ‘that is Surrealism’. This would be a kind of ostensive definition: you answer a ‘what is x?’ question by pointing to some examples of x, leaving it up to the viewer to work out what, if anything, the examples of x have in common.
Another approach would be to list some of the features commonly found but in Surrealist works, such as a dreamlike quality, an intention to shock, biomorphic forms, bizarre juxtaposition, sexual symbolism and so on. Perhaps there is a family resemblance between the appearance, or perhaps the manner of making all the things we call Surrealist: a pattern of overlapping resemblances, but no single defining quality that makes them all Surrealist. This fits with a loose use of the term Surrealist which makes artists like Bill Brandt [there is a bit about Brandt and Surrealism in my downloadable essay 'Brandt's Pictorialism'] and Louise Bourgeois [subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern this Autumn] Surrealists even though they were never officially part of the movement: their works share overlapping common features with paradigmatic works of Surrealism. André Breton’s ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1924 included the following definition that isolates some key features of Surrealism:
‘SURREALISM n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’
A third approach is to concentrate on the historical movement Surrealism, with André Breton’s decision of whether or not an artist was a Surrealist as the main determining factor. On this view there is always a right or wrong answer to the question ‘Was such-and-such an artist a Surrealist?’ De Chirico wasn’t a Surrealist; nor was Bill Brandt; nor Louise Bourgeois. But Max Ernst was and so was Eileen Agar. This approach focuses on the decision that was historically taken rather than the grounds on which it was taken.
The question ‘Is this work of art Surreal?’ can, then have a right answer (when this is a question about the historical movement, the third sense above). But there is also a looser sense of ‘Surreal’ which makes this question an invitation to assess the patterns of overlapping resemblances (visual and other) between this and paradigm Surreal works, and then a judgement to be made (without there being a straightforward right or wrong answer).
One important feature of the early history of Surrealism was its focus on automatism, by which was meant automatic, unreflective creation. This was first manifest in the Surrealists’ interest in automatic writing: uncensored free-flowing writing. The visual equivalent was a drawn version of exquisite corpse.
Max Ernst found a way to come closer to automatism in visual art, known as frottage (from the French frotter – to rub - it also has a sexual meaning). Inspired by childhood memories of fake mahoghany in his bedroom and by the story of Leonardo da Vinci advocating throwing a paint-filled sponge against a bare wall as a way of generating the patterns of an imaginary landscape, Ernst placed a sheet of paper on the coarse floorboard, and rubbed it with graphite, producing an image of the grain. In a quasi- hallucinatory state he began to see shapes and beings within the textures on the page, and drew these. He also developed grattage, an approach which allowed a similar effect in paint. The chance patterns on the page triggered chance associations. There is a short free video clip of Max Ernst demonstrating frottage and talking about it here [scroll down to 'click here to watch a free film clip']. There is also an interesting article about Ernst's continuing significance here.
Ernst wrote in Beyond Painting (1936):
‘The procedure of frottage, relying on nothing but the irritability of the mind by appropriate technical means, excluding any conscious mental direction (of reason, taste, morals), reducing to the extreme the active part of the person who had been, until then, ‘the author’ of works; this procedure revealed itself subsequently to be the real equivalent of what was already known under the term automatic writing’
The underlying justfication for the technique of frottage was that it offered a reasonably direct route to the unconscious. Perhaps it is wrong to describe these techniques as involving ‘chance’, since as David Hume pointed out in the Eighteenth Century, what we call ‘chance’ is really ignorance of causes… A number of Freud’s works were translated into French in the early 1920s. The Surrealists revered Freud (though the feeling wasn’t mutual - Breton received a cold welcome on a visit to his hero in Vienna): like Freud, they believed that the most substantial aspect of the human psyche is inaccessible, particularly to reason. This was a result of Freud’s Third Revolution. The first revolution was the discovery that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, the so-called Copernican Revolution (after one of its discoverers, Copernicus); the second was the Darwinian revolution that recognized that we had descended from apes. The third great revolution was that caused by the recognition that I may not be in charge of my destiny: in a deep sense I am a stranger to myself because so much of what is me is not accessible to conscious thought. There is a summary of this position here... (More on Freud in relation to dreams next time…)
What was apparent in looking at the Ernst frottage works in the exhibition, Oscar Dominguez’s Decalcomania (the smeared painting) and the Brassai ‘Sculptures Involontaires’ and Eileen Agar’s ‘Bum-Thumb-Rock’ was that although each has a found or unchosen element each also has some aspect that is shaped by the artist in the traditional manner (e.g. through choice of angle, treatment, etc.).
Next week: DREAM...