Posts From March, 2009

La Carte d'après nature- June 1954 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 1:31:11 PM


Here is a response from editor Rene Magritte in his art review "La Carte d'après nature," June 1954:

Response to the question "Does thought enlighten both us and our actions with the same indifference as the sun, or, what is our hope, and what is its value?", in La Carte d'après nature, June 1954 (special issue edited by René Magritte).


This world was born of indifference, but indifference has no place in it. Thought is valuable only to the extent that it awakens demands, and compels their realization.

Those revolutionary students who demonstrated naked in Canton in 1927 were dying the following year in locomotive boiler rooms. Here the celebration of thought comes to an end. If we take some small satisfaction in the intelligence generally attributed to us, it is thanks to the means which that intelligence places in the service of a willfully-chosen extremism.

It is time to impose a new human condition. Economic restrictions and their moral corollaries are anyway destined to be destroyed through universal social harmony. The problems which we are still obliged to take into account will be overcome, along with today's contradictions, for the ancient myths will lose their force as we come to live more violent ones.

A complete civilization will have to be built: one in which all forms of activity tend perpetually towards an affective unsettling of life.

We have begun to address the problem of leisure -- which is already being discussed, despite the fact that the working classes have only recently escaped the burden of uninterrupted labor -- and which tomorrow will be the only problem.

The great civilization which is on its way will construct situations and adventures. A science of life is possible. The adventurer seeks out and creates adventure, rather than wait for it to come. The conscious use of environments will condition constantly renewed behaviors. The role of those small flights of chance which we call fate will continue to fade. An architecture, an urban planning and a mood-affecting form of plastic expression -- the first principles of which exist today -- will work in concert toward this end.

The practice of disorientation/displacement (dépaysement) and the choice of encounters, the sense of incompleteness and ephemerality, the love of speed transposed onto the plane of the mind, together with inventiveness and forgetting are among the elements of an ethics of drifting (éthique de la dérive) which we have already begun to test in the poverty of the cities of our time.

A science of relations and ambiances, which we call psychogeography, is being developed. It will give collective play (le jeu de société1) its true meaning: a society founded upon play. Nothing is more serious. Amusement is the royal privilege that must be made available to everyone.

Happiness, Saint-Just proclaimed, is a new idea in Europe. This program is only now becoming realizable.

Sovereign attraction, which Charles Fourier discovered in the free play of passions, must be ceaselessly reinvented. We will work to create new desires, and will spare no effort in promoting them.

We will be the ones to infuse social conflict with the only authentic rage. Revolution isn't made by demanding 25,216 francs per month. Now is the time to seize control of life (gagner sa vie2), a completely material life in which everything is achievable:

Very little is to be expected of the strength and power of the mind.

Paris, May 5, 1954

For the Lettrist International:
Henry de BEARN, André CONORD, Mohamed DAHOU,
Guy-Ernest DEBORD, Jacques FILLON,

1 the parlor game.
2 to earn a living.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009 2:05:39 AM

Here's an excellent article on Surrealism's first five years from The History of Art:


The Surrealist movement was begun officially late in 1924 with the publication of Andre Breton's first Surrealist manifesto, but not without the intercession of several tumultuous years.

Paris Coalescence
With the end of World War I the Surrealists benefited from the gathering in Paris of those Dada artists earlier sequestered in isolated cities. The emergence of Surrealism can be viewed as a physical coalescence of the Dadaists. Picabia and Duchamp were in Paris in 1917 and 1919 with intermittent visits; Man Ray made a permanent move in 1921; Tzara moved in 1920, with Arp and Taeuber arriving the same year; Ernst followed from Cologne in 1922. In addition, the so-called School of Paris was an amalgam of pre- and postwar avant-garde movements. Until the worldwide Depression in 1929 it was a glorious and fateful period, and Breton was to be its maestro.

Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, the founders in 1919 of the avant-garde magazine Litterature, had served in the war but had remained in contact with the vocal and active literary avant-garde figures in Paris. The more nihilistic figures—such as the enigmatic dandy Jacques Vache and the outrageous English artist-writer-dancer-boxer known as an American, Arthur Cravan— joined with the equally avant-garde but more moderate voices aligned before the war with the development of "modern" visual art, such as Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Andre Salmon, and Blaise Cendrars. This was a complex and volatile mix.

Although Dadaism was "officially" founded in Paris at the moment of Tristan Tzara's first public lecture in 1919, there was a "proto-Dadaist" movement already established. Taken as a unit and to momentarily ignore their differences, they maintained the idea of "a permanent revolt of the individual against art, against morality, against society." In the words of art historian and curator William Rubin, both Dadaism and Surrealism were heirs to something much broader, "a kind of creative activity already in the air" since about 1912.

The parallels and the divergences, which make a clear history so difficult to trace, were demonstrated at the 1917 performance of Apollinaire's play Les Mamelles de Tiresias ("The Breasts of Tiresias"), a farce already designed in the best of the avant-garde tradition to shock and provoke the sensibilities of the middle class. By this time Guillaume Apollinaire was one of the most important French poets and art critics of the early twentieth century. Serving and becoming wounded in the war, he had been the first to champion the work of emerging artists like Picasso and Matisse, was a friend of the Futurists, and was in fact the first to coin the word "surrealist," which appeared as the subtitle to his

Play-Yet the opening was "one-upped" by Jacques Vache, who, excited by the play, began waving a pistol. Threatening to fire it into the audience, he had to be forcibly stopped. This was a dada event before Dada, but equally significant is that the same "gesture" had been made several years earlier by Cravan—who had so insulted modern artists and Apollinaire that the latter challenged him to a duel. Breton, appropriating the story years later, used it unattributed to describe what it meant to possess a Surrealist sensibility.

Andre Breton (Poem-Object) 1941

Developed in the 1930s by Breton, the poem-object combined images and text. Fragments of words and visual objects were sectioned off from one another, but intended to accidentally exert an influence on each other; a case of "reciprocal exaltation," wrote Breton.
From Dada to Surrealism
The group of young poets around Litterature aligned themselves with Dadaism by mid-1920 and participated in Dada manifestations or soirees and wrote Dada declarations—just as the movement imploded. Picabia publicly declared Dada dead in 1921 and attacked other Dadaists in 1922, including Tzara, because it had become too organized a movement. For the opposite reason, in 1922 Breton called for an international conference to lay out a program for the "modern spirit," a concept widely shared and variously defined across Paris at this time. Dada had brought them to this point but something more lucid, programmatic, and progressive was now needed. This departure from the anarchism of Dada marks the beginnings of Surrealism.

The conference was rejected publicly by many of the Dadaists, who called Breton to task for insulting them and Tzara. In revenge, Breton waylaid Tristan Tzara in public during a 1923 performance. A full-scale riot ensued and police action was brought against Breton. The lines were finally drawn and many have presented that night as the passing of leadership from Tzara to Breton. The word "surrealism" had been appropriated from Apollinaire, who never defined it, and put into circulation during 1921-23, as Breton and his colleagues began "crystallizing" the tenets of the movement. In October of 1924 Breton published his manifesto.
Rene Magritte (The False Mirror) 1935

The image of the closed eye became a secret sign among Surrealists for the subversion of reality by drawing on
interior states. Thus the image of the open eye, ordinarily interpreted as access between the individual and the
world, was a false vision or mirror. Reality lay elsewhere.

The Meaning of Breton's Surrealism
In the first manifesto Breton pointedly declared his definition of Surrealism to be different from that of Apollinaire's. What Breton ignored was the faction of more radical Dadaists who had already rejected Apollinaire and his love of art as too conservative. Breton's real genius was that of a politician. He laid claim to positions both more radical, like Vache, and more conservative, like Apollinaire, while ignoring his own differences with them. He felt his program for art differed from both positions and as a good promoter he knew one must herald newness rather than synthesis. Nevertheless, an important part of the Surrealist movement would always side with the more radical position and suspect "art" work as irrelevant; even Breton would argue against art in its traditional meaning.

Breton declared "surrealism" a "new mode of pure expression" and admitted they could have used the word su-pernaturalism just as easily. But he wanted a special sense of the word:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which we propose to express—verbally, in writing, or in any other manner—the real process of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason and outside any aesthetic or moral concerns.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to destroy definitively all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principle problems of life.

The definition was followed by Breton's list of writers and poets, essentially members of his own circle, who had already "performed acts of Absolute Surrealism." And immediately Breton began his lifelong cultural archaeology by listing those now past who could pass for Surrealists: Dante, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Vache, Рое, among others. However, these men could never be Surrealists at all times because they suffered from "preconceived ideas." Their great talents were, Breton suggests, perhaps lessened because they filtered their works in order to produce them. True Surrealists have no talent, he argued, thus they need no filters; they are able ideally to speak their own thoughts just as they have them. In fact, the best Surrealist is one who never stops long enough to record words at all since that would undo the pure "state," or channel that Breton demands in the identity of Surrealism. This means, as Breton would later try to show, that virtually anyone can be a Surrealist, if and when they develop this clear channel between thought and act. Indeed, the manifesto taken as a whole is an argument for the removal of those blocks, an argument to liberate human creativity in its fullest capacity.

The first manifesto argued for a poetic and not a visual form of Surrealism. Following the lead of the European avant-garde in general, Breton argued Surrealism as an aesthetics of liberation. He inverted the original Dada conception of life as insane to life as overly rationalized, but his solution differed only in degree. Both movements held faith in the creative act and moment, insisting on absolute freedom and on the site of art as the mind rather than in its physical form. The major difference was Breton's insistence on a systematic program and his public address to an audience over time. The Dada moment was an act not meant to survive; the audience could participate but merely in the carnage of the moment. The Surrealists claimed a concern for permanent change, or, to take a page from Leon Trotsky, the Russian political theorist later supported by Breton, the Surrealists wanted to establish a "permanent revolution." To sustain the concept of moment to moment revolution was their ultimate dream.

Yves Tanguy (The Storm) 1926

Tanguy's early works created a habitat for abstraction, a place where dismembered elements of form took on a sense of life, appearing to be at home in a primordial soup.
The Psychoanalytic—My Way
A major point of separation between Dadaism and Surrealism was the Surrealists' enthusiastic embrace of the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Breton had studied medicine, served as an orderly in an army mental clinic during the war, and, in 1921, paid homage to Freud with a visit. Freud was flattered by the artists' professed belief in his work, especially since so little of it had reached France in translation, but overall the meeting was a bit of a disaster as Breton left without Freud's support. Freud considered the realm of the unconscious to be inaccessible except through the indirect method of dream analysis and apparently random associations. To him, easy or even direct access to the unconscious was impossible.

The influence of Freudian psychology was crucial and it is imbedded in the basic understanding and work of the Surrealist movement. But in reading Breton we are struck by his lack of particulars regarding psychology or Freud. He raised the issue of psychology in his 1924 manifesto as an area that provides an alternative to "living under the reign of logic" where only logical methods of description and analysis are applied to solving problems. Sounding more like a romantic symbolist from the late nineteenth century than a true modern supposedly knowledgeable in psychology, he argued the significance of fancy, imagination, and superstition.

Apparently what he had learned from Freud, whose name and general orientation to the importance of dreams he publicly praises, was simply that there were "strange forces" below the surface of our waking state, important forces we rarely admit into normal consciousness, and the key to them lies in the state of dreaming. He observed that not even the "analysts" have worked out all the means of investigation and application of this knowledge. And, in what is likely a veiled reference to his rebuff by Freud, Breton proclaims that this area can now be "the provinces of the poet as well as the scholar."

Breton did provide a powerful argument for the authority of artists and their creativity: They now equal the scientists, the Surrealists declared, and can lead the exploration into new areas and methods of investigation.


Andre Breton, Cadavre Exquis, Valentine Hugo, Greta Knutson and Tristan Tzara (Exquisite Corpse) 1933

Exquisite Corpse was the most famous of several games developed by the Surrealists. It was a strategy of chance used to generate disjunctive images from collective participation.

Automatism, which is the free flow of associations, was to be the process or state of mental existence whereby control of reason was purposefully lost in favor of "the real process of thought." Most interpreters of Surrealism have accepted Breton's assertion that "pure psychic automatism" was the single most important principle of Surrealism. The Dadaists had spoken for the abolition of rationality and logic in favor of new art processes and forms developed through chance and irrational association. For the Surrealists, chance remained a valid external force, but because of their interest in psychiatry the automatic was equated with the unconscious in all its manifestations. In 1922 Breton wrote specifically of this state of psychic automatism as "a near equivalent to the dream state," a place where one could hear the "murmur" of the "unconscious." In 1919 he had recognized that fragmentary sentences emerged from unknown origins into his conscious perception when his mind was "in total solitude, when sleep is near." These fragments were "first-rate poetic material," and he and others began to contemplate how to induce such material into existence voluntarily.

At first he and Soupault practiced a purposeful forgetfulness of the outside world which produced their first "automatic" book in 1920, Les Champs magnetiques ("Magnetic Fields"), written in daily and disconnected fragments that Breton called "magical dictation." From this they moved to "periods of sleep," which was their form of the trance state mediums used when contacting spirits. The process was successful to varying degrees, depending upon the individuals involved. Robert Desnos was the most extreme in his ability to speak in poetic Alexandrines, twelve-syllable phrases correctly accented in rhyme, while "asleep." Hypnosis, a technique generally rejected by Freud, was used extensively with many of the results transcribed and published. The experiments among the Surrealist poets in hypnotic sleep were a general attempt to implement Freud's ideas and link them to the process of creativity, to open the doors of psychic perception. However, the Surrealists ignored the diagnostic and therapeutic particulars of psychoanalysis to create a synthesis that served their own ends and belief in poetic production.

Poets concentrated on speaking and writing automatically, i.e., by means which bypassed rational control. Some editing would occur after the fact. Visual artists such as Andre Masson sometimes used the same technique, premise, and editing. Masson's 1944 pen and ink drawing Bison on the Brink of a Chasm is one of many produced by a process of "automatic" drawing. The title seems to make an oblique reference to life lived in this state—as one may on the brink of a chasm. Both writers and visual artists also developed a number of other techniques to bypass control. Many, like Max Ernst, relied too on the principle of chance as developed in Dada.

Games, especially word games, and gamesmanship were popular among all the Surrealists for reasons of chance. Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and the New York circle of patrons were major exponents of such gaming well before the advent of Surrealism. Perhaps the best known Surrealist game was the one titled "exquisite corpse" (cadavres exquis), developed in 1925. Like many of their games it was designed for group participation and relied on the chance encounter as a disruption of rationality and a product of the shared, oceanic unconscious in which the Surrealists believed. Each player would write a word on a section of paper, then fold it so the next player could not see what had been created. The next player had to add to it. The game began with words but was immediately adapted to images or combinations of words and images.

Many a Surrealist painting was born from the juxtaposition of such disjunctive images. A phrase—celebrated among Surrealists—borrowed from the nineteenth-century Symbolist poet Lautreamont (Isidore Ducasse) summarized the desire for an entire aesthetic based on disjunction and displacement: "The chance encounter of a sewing machine and umbrella on an ironing board." The image seemingly makes no sense and is the more frustrating or disjunctive simply because it decontextualizes normal objects in the world. Their reliance on elements of disjunction and displacement, first developed with Cubist collage of 1912, then modified by the Dadaists, had intriguing parallels to many of Freud's theories of psychological mechanisms. It also led to the marvelous.

Andre Masson (Bison on the Brink of a Chasm) 1944

Few were as adept at the transformations of automatic drawing as Masson, prompting Breton to praise him with Goethe's phrase, "What is within is also without."
The Marvelous
Introduced in the first manifesto, the concept of the marvelous grew in importance if not in clarity for Breton over the years. Scholar of Surrealism Hal Foster has argued that the marvelous eventually replaced automatism as the basic principle of Surrealism. The 1924 understanding of Surrealism was defined as a resolution of the states of dream and reality into "a sort of absolute reality, a surreality" This rare state, one considered natural in children before they are weaned from it, Breton calls by another name—the marvelous.

As the Surrealists came to value more greatly internal necessity or compulsion over choice, the marvelous became a state of possession. It visited you or you sensed its possession of another. The marvelous and beauty could now be restricted to that which was compulsive.

Jackson Pollock (One- Number 31, 1950) 1950

The automatism of Surrealism and a belief in primal psychic forces are at the fore in Pollock's mature style, which shifts away from the earlier, more raw mythology of Masson and the Surrealists.
The Crisis in Consciousness: Politics & Mysticism
Politics, from a Dadaist viewpoint, was simply one more rational system contributing to the general cultural insanity and thus to be rejected. There was to be liberation, but for the individual soul and moment. The Surrealists began with a Dada-like position, then developed a more systematic and engaged attitude to politics. But also typical of the Surrealists, everything was filtered through Breton and his own desire to maintain a coherent movement, even if it meant equivocation in the face of demands for resoluteness.

From automatism, a liberation in physical fact was assumed to follow. This claim has been made by many avant-garde movements and often remains the case today. Few movements supported direct or overt alliances with politics. This was certainly the position of the Surrealists until about 1929. Their first consistent journal, La Revolution surrealiste ("Surrealist Revolution"), published from 1924 until 1929, was in sympathy with the political left, especially the Russian Revolution carried off under the banner of Marxism, but not its overt action. By 1929 their position became a self-proclaimed "crisis of consciousness."

The relation between art for itself (what Ernst called the pursuit of pure Surrealist activity) and politics was precipitated by personal battles of power, French injustices against indigenous peoples in Morocco, and Joseph Stalin's 1929 exile of the Russian revolutionist and writer Leon Trotsky, whom Breton greatly admired. In a conference called in 1930 by Breton to form a unified response, the many factions broke with his leadership. This led to a second manifesto for Surrealism and a purification of the movement, with Breton excommunicating those who held positions different from his own. But, as usual, his position was equivocal and ignored its own contradictions. Of course, as he clearly noted, a good Surrealist knows no contradictions.

In 1929 Breton attacked the move of colleagues into direct alignment with the Communist Party. Then he exiled some of those who believed too strongly in art for its own sake and aligned the movement with the French Communist Party—only to move Surrealism away from it by 1934. The Second Manifesto in 1929 distanced itself from automatism and discussed the inadequacies of dreams. Surrealism would no longer use art for an "alibi" but push toward a philosophy of political commitment. The new journal would not be simply the "Surrealist Revolution" but now, in 1930, labeled "Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution" (Le Surrealisme аu service de la revolution). Yet at the same time Breton introduced the "occult," adopted the language of alchemy, and endorsed a mystical stance, all of which are antithetical to direct political action. This, however, did set the tone for later Surrealism to explore the mystery of the unseen, and of the strange, uncanny power of inanimate objects. Also at this time Louis Aragon, speaking for the Breton wing, publicly introduced the importance of love for the Surrealists.

Breton's authoritarian tactics and equivocations were met by published counter-attacks of him as a "false revolutionary" and a second group of Surrealists, aligned with Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille, among others, split off. Breton had already attacked Bataille with great venom for supporting extreme concepts which Breton considered pathological, separating them from an overriding ethics. Later, the Bataille circle of Surrealism was to produce some of the most dramatic and controversial forms whose "limits" remain a debated topic today. Overall, the ranks of the Surrealist movement were pruned, but simultaneously several new and important members joined up as the life of Surrealism entered a second, more international phase.


Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929) 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 1:21:34 AM


This is the third and last blog on Andre Breton's writings. This is the 1929 "Second Manifesto of Surrealism" published 5 years after the First Manfesto:

Second  Manifesto  of Surrealism (1929)

We combat, in whatever form they may appear, poetic indifference, the distraction of art, scholarly research, pure speculation; we want nothing whatever to do with those, either large or small, who use their minds as they would a savings bank. All the forsaken acquaintances, all the abdications, all the betrayals in the book will not prevent us from putting an end to this damn nonsense. It is noteworthy, moreover, that when they are left to their own devices, and to nothing else, the people who one day made it necessary for us to do without them have straightway lost their footing, have been immediately forced to resort to the most miserable expedients in order to reingratiate themselves with the defenders of law and order, all proud partisans of leveling via the head. This is because unflagging fidelity to the commitments of Surreal-ism presupposes a disinterestedness, a contempt for risk, a refusal to compromise, of which very few men prove, in the long run, to be capable. Were there to remain not a single one, from among all those who were the first to measure by its standards their chance for significance and their desire for truth, yet would Surrealism continue to live. In any event, it is too late for the seed not to sprout and grow in infinite abundance in the human field, with fear and the other varieties of weeds that must prevail over all. This is in fact why I had promised myself, as the preface for the new edition of the Manifesto of Surrealism (1929) indicates, to abandon silently to their sad fate a certain number of individuals who, in my opinion, had given themselves enough credit: this was the case for Messrs. Artaud, Carrive, Delteil, Gérard, Limbour, Masson, Soupault, and Vitrac, cited in the Manifesto (1924), and for several others since. The first of these gentlemen having been so brazen as to complain about it, I have decided to reconsider my intentions on this subject:

"There is," writes M. Artaud to the Intransigeant, on September 1o, 1929, "there is in the article about the Manifesto of Surrealism which appeared in l'Intran last August 24, a sentence which awakens too many things: 'M. Breton has not judged it necessary to make any corrections —especially of names—in this new edition of his work, and this is all to his credit, but the rectifications are made by themselves.' " That M. Breton calls upon honor to judge a certain number of people to whom the above-named rec­tifications apply is a matter involving a sectarian morality with which only a literary minority was hitherto infected. But we must leave to the Surrealists these games of little papers. Moreover, anyone who was involved in the affair of The Dream a year ago is hardly in a position to talk about honor.

Far be it from me to debate with the signatory of this letter the very precise meaning I understand by the term "honor." That an actor, looking for lucre and notoriety, undertakes to stage a sumptuous production of a play by one Strindberg to which he himself attaches not thhe slightest importance, would of course be neither here nor there to me were it not for the fact that this actor had upon oc­casion claimed to be a man of thought, of anger, of blood, were he not the same person who, in certain pages of La Révolution surréaliste, burned, if we can believe his words, to burn everything, who claimed that he expected nothing save from "this cry of the mind which turns back toward itself fully determined desperately to break its restraining bonds." Alas! that was for him a role, like any other; he was "staging" Strindberg's The Dream, having heard that the Swedish ambassador would pay (M. Artaud knows that I can prove what I say), and it cannot escape him that that is a judgment of the moral value of his undertaking; but never mind. It is M. Artaud, whom I will always see in my mind's eye flanked by two cops, at the door of the Alfred Jarry Theatre, sicking twenty others on the only friends he admitted having as lately as the night before, having previously negotiated their arrests at the commis­sariat, it is M. Artaud, naturally, who finds me out of place speaking of honor.

Aragon and I were able to note, by the reception given our critical collaboration in the special number of Varietés, "Le Surréalisme en 1929," that the lack of inhi­bition that we feel in appraising, from day to day, the de­gree of moral qualification of various people, the ease with which Surrealism, at the first sign of compromise, prides itself in bidding a fond farewell to this person or that, is less than ever to the liking of a few journalistic jerks, for whom the dignity of man is at the very most a subject for derisive laughter. Has it really ever occurred to anyone to ask as much of people in the domain—aside from a few romantic exceptions, suicides and others—here­tofore the least closely watched! Why should we go on playing the role of those who are fed up and disgusted? A policeman, a few gay dogs, two or three pen pimps, several mentally unbalanced persons, a cretin, to whose number no one would mind our adding a few sensible, stable, and upright souls who could be termed energumens: is this not the making of an amusing, innocuous team, a faithful replica of life, a team of men paid piecework, winning on points?

What is Surrealism? André Breton- 1934 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 1:11:26 AM


This blog contains the complete text of Andre Breton's 1934 article "What is Surrealism?"

What is Surrealism? André Breton- 1934

(A lecture given in Brussels on 1st June 1934 at a public meeting organised by the Belgian Surrealists, and issued as a pamphlet immediately afterwards)

The activity of our surrealist comrades in Belgium is closely allied with our own activity, and I am happy to be in their company this evening. Magritte, Mesens, Nougé, Scutenaire and Souris are among those whose revolutionary will—outside of all consideration of their agreement or disagreement with us on particular points—has been for us in Paris a constant reason for thinking that the surrealist project, beyond the limitations of space and time, can contribute to the efficacious reunification of all those who do not despair of the transformation of the world and who wish this transformation to be as radical as possible.


At the beginning of the war of 1870 (he was to die four months later, aged twenty-four), the author of the Chants de Maldoror and of Poésies, Isidore Ducasse, better known by the name of Comte de Lautréamont, whose thought has been of the very greatest help and encouragement to myself and my friends throughout the fifteen years during which we have succeeded in carrying a common activity, made the following remark, among many others which were to electrify us fifty years later: "At the hour in which I write, new tremors are running through the intellectual atmosphere; it is only a matter of having the courage to face them."

1868-75: it is impossible, looking back upon the past, to perceive an epoch so poetically rich, so victorious, so revolutionary and so charged with distant meaning as that which stretches from the separate publication of the Premier Chant de Maldoror to the insertion in a letter to Ernest Delahaye of Rimbaud's last poem, Rêve, which has not so far been included in his Complete Works. It is not an idle hope to wish to see the works of Lautréamont and Rimbaud restored to their correct historical background: the coming and the immediate results of the war of 1870. Other and analogous cataclysms could not have failed to rise out of that military and social cataclysm whose final episode was to be the atrocious crushing of the Paris Commune; the last in date caught many of us at the very age when Lautréamont and Rimbaud found themselves thrown into the preceding one, and by way of revenge has had as its consequence—and this is the new and important fact—the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution.

I should say that to people socially and politically uneducated as we then were—we who, on one hand, came for the most part from the petite-bourgeoisie, and on the other, were all by vocation possessed with the desire to intervene upon the artistic plane—the days of October, which only the passing of the years and the subsequent appearance of a large number of works within the reach of all were fully to illumine, could not there and then have appeared to turn so decisive a page in history. We were, I repeat, ill-prepared and ill-informed. Above all, we were exclusively preoccupied with a campaign of systematic refusal, exasperated by the conditions under which, in such an age, we were forced to live. But our refusal did not stop there; it was insatiable and knew no bounds. Apart from the incredible stupidity of the arguments which attempted to legitimize our participation in an enterprise such as the war, whose issue left us completely indifferent, this refusal was directed—and having been brought up in such a school, we are not capable of changing so much that is no longer so directed—against the whole series of intellectual, moral and social obligations that continually and from all sides weigh down upon man and crush him. Intellectually, it was vulgar rationalism and chop logic that more than anything else formed the causes of our horror and our destructive impulse; morally, it was all duties: religious, civic and of the family; socially, it was work (did not Rimbaud say: "Jamais je ne travaillerai, ô flots de feu!" and also: "La main à plume vaut la main à charrue. Quel siècle à mains! Je n'aurai jamais ma main!" [Never will I work, O torrents of flame! The hand that writes is worth the hand that ploughs! What a century of hands! I will never lift my hand!]).

The more I think about it, the more certain I become that nothing was to our minds worth saving, unless it was... unless it was, at last "l'amour la poésie," to take the bright and trembling title of one of Paul Eluard's books, "l'amour la poésie," considered as inseparable in their essence and as the sole good. Between the negation of this good, a negation brought to its climax by the war, and its full and total affirmation ("Poetry should be made by all, not one"), the field was not, to our minds, open to anything but a Revolution truly extended into all domains, improbably radical, to the highest degree impractical and tragically destroying within itself the whole time the feeling that it brought with it both of desirability and of absurdity.

Many of you, no doubt, would put this down to a certain youthful exaltation and to the general savagery of the time; I must, however, insist on this attitude, common to particular men and manifesting itself at periods nearly half a century distant from one another. I should affirm that in ignorance of this attitude one can form no idea of what surrealism really stands for. This attitude alone can account, and very sufficiently at that, for all the excesses that may be attributed to us but which cannot be deplored unless one gratuitously supposes that we could have started from any other point. The ill-sounding remarks, that are imputed to us, the so-called inconsiderate attacks, the insults, the quarrels, the scandals—all things that we are so much reproached with—turned up on the same road as the surrealist poems. From the very beginning, the surrealist attitude has had that in common with Lautréamont and Rimbaud which once and for all binds our lot to theirs, and that is wartime defeatism.

I am not afraid to say that this defeatism seems to be more relevant than ever. "New tremors are running through the intellectual atmosphere; it is only a matter of having the courage to face them." They are, in fact, always running through the intellectual atmosphere: the problem of their propagation and interpretation remains the same and, as far as we are concerned, remains to be solved. But, paraphrasing Lautréamont, I cannot refrain from adding that at the hour in which I speak, old and mortal shivers are trying to substitute themselves for those which are the very shivers of knowledge and of life. They come to announce a frightful disease, a disease followed by the deprivation of all rights; it is only a matter of having the courage to face them also. This disease is called fascism.

Let us be careful today not to underestimate the peril: the shadow has greatly advanced over Europe recently. Hitler, Dolfuss and Mussolini have either drowned in blood or subjected to corporal humiliation everything that formed the effort of generations straining towards a more tolerable and more worthy form of existence. The other day I noticed on the front page of a Paris newspaper a photograph of the surroundings of the Lambrechies mine on the day after the catastrophe. This photograph illustrated an article titled, in quotation marks, 'Only Our Chagrin Remains'. On the same page was another photograph—this one of the unemployed of your country standing in front of a hovel in the Parisian 'poor zone'—with the caption Poverty is not a crime. "How delightful!" I said to myself, glancing from one picture to the other. Thus the bourgeois public in France is able to console itself with the knowledge that the miners of your country were not necessarily criminals just because they got themselves killed for 35 francs a day. And doubtless the miners, our comrades, will be happy to learn that the committee of the Belgian Coal Association intends to postpone till the day after tomorrow the application of the wage cut set for 20 May. In capitalist society, hypocrisy and cynicism have now lost all sense of proportion and are becoming more outrageous every day. Without making exaggerated sacrifices to humanitarianism, which always involves impossible reconciliations and truces to the advantage of the stronger, I should say that in this atmosphere, thought cannot consider the exterior world without an immediate shudder. Everything we know about fascism shows that it is precisely the confirmation of this state of affairs, aggravated to its furthest point by the lasting resignation that it seeks to obtain from those who suffer. Is not the evident role of fascism to re-establish for the time being the tottering supremacy of finance-capital? Such a role is of itself sufficient to make it worthy of all our hatred; we continue to consider this feigned resignation as one of the greatest evils that can possibly be inflicted upon beings of our kind, and those who would inflict it deserve, in our opinion, to be beaten like dogs. Yet it is impossible to conceal the fact that this immense danger is there, lurking at our doors, that it has made its appearance within our walls, and that it would be pure byzantinism to dispute too long, as in Germany, over the choice of the barrier to be set up against it, when all the while, under several aspects, it is creeping nearer and nearer to us.

During the course of taking various steps with a view to contributing, in so far as I am capable, to the organization in Paris of the anti-fascist struggle, I have noticed that already a certain doubt has crept into the intellectual circles of the left as to the possibility of successfully combating fascism, a doubt which has unfortunately infected even those elements whom one might have thought it possible to rely on and who had come to the fore in this struggle. Some of them have even begun to make excuses for the loss of the battle already. Such dispositions seem to me to be so dismaying that I should not care to be speaking here without first having made clear my position in relation to them, or without anticipating a whole series of remarks that are to follow, affirming that today, more than ever before, the liberation of the mind, demands as primary condition, in the opinion of the surrealists, the express aim of surrealism, the liberation of man, which implies that we must struggle with our fetters with all the energy of despair; that today more than ever before the surrealists entirely rely for the bringing about of the liberation of man upon the proletarian Revolution.

I now feel free to turn to the object of this pamphlet, which is to attempt to explain what surrealism is. A certain immediate ambiguity contained in the word surrealism, is, in fact, capable of leading one to suppose that it designates I know not what transcendental attitude, while, on the contrary it expresses—and always has expressed for us—a desire to deepen the foundations of the real, to bring about an even clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses. The whole evolution of surrealism, from its origins to the present day, which I am about to retrace, shows that our unceasing wish, growing more and more urgent from day to day, has been at all costs to avoid considering a system of thought as a refuge, to pursue our investigations with eyes wide open to their outside consequences, and to assure ourselves that the results of these investigations would be capable of facing the breath of the street. At the limits, for many years past—or more exactly, since the conclusion of what one may term the purely intuitive epoch of surrealism (1919-25)—at the limits, I say, we have attempted to present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification, or finally becoming one. This final unification is the supreme aim of surrealism: interior reality and exterior reality being, in the present form of society, in contradiction (and in this contradiction we see the very cause of man's unhappiness, but also the source of his movement), we have assigned to ourselves the task of confronting these two realities with one another on every possible occasion, of refusing to allow the preeminence of the one over the other, yet not of acting on the one and on the other both at once, for that would be to suppose that they are less apart from one another than they are (and I believe that those who pretend that they are acting on both simultaneously are either deceiving us or are a prey to a disquieting illusion); of acting on these two realities not both at once, then, but one after the other, in a systematic manner, allowing us to observe their reciprocal attraction and interpenetration and to give to this interplay of forces all the extension necessary for the trend of these two adjoining realities to become one and the same thing.

As I have just mentioned in passing, I consider that one can distinguish two epochs in the surrealist movement, of equal duration, from its origins (1919, year of the publication of Champs Magnétiques) until today; a purely intuitive epoch, and a reasoning epoch. The first can summarily be characterized by the belief expressed during this time in the all-powerfulness of thought, considered capable of freeing itself by means of its own resources. This belief witnesses to a prevailing view that I look upon today as being extremely mistaken, the view that thought is supreme over matter. The definition of surrealism that has passed into the dictionary, a definition taken from the Manifesto of 1924, takes account only of this entirely idealist disposition and (for voluntary reasons of simplification and amplification destined to influence in my mind the future of this definition) does so in terms that suggest that I deceived myself at the time in advocating the use of an automatic thought not only removed from all control exercised by the reason but also disengaged from "all aesthetic or moral preoccupations." It should at least have been said: conscious aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

During the period under review, in the absence, of course, of all seriously discouraging exterior events, surrealist activity remained strictly confined to its first theoretical premise, continuing all the while to be the vehicle of that total "non-conformism" which, as we have seen, was the binding feature in the coming together of those who took part in it, and the cause, during the first few years after the war, of an uninterrupted series of adhesions. No coherent political or social attitude, however, made its appearance until 1925, that is to say (and it is important to stress this), until the outbreak of the Moroccan war, which, re-arousing in us our particular hostility to the way armed conflicts affect man, abruptly placed before us the necessity of making a public protest. This protest, which, under the title La Révolution d'Abord et Toujours (October 1925 [Revolution Now and Forever]), joined the name of the surrealists proper to those of thirty other intellectuals, was undoubtedly rather confused ideologically; it none the less marked the breaking away from a whole way of thinking; it none the less created a precedent that was to determine the whole future direction of the movement. Surrealist activity, faced with a brutal, revolting, unthinkable fact, was forced to ask itself what were its proper resources and to determine their limits; it was forced to adopt a precise attitude, exterior to itself, in order to continue to face whatever exceeded these limits.
Surrealist activity at this moment entered into its reasoning phase. It suddenly experienced the necessity of crossing over the gap that separates absolute idealism from dialectical materialism. This necessity made its appearance in so urgent a manner that we had to consider the problem in the clearest possible light, with the result that for some months we devoted our entire attention to the means of bringing about this change of front once and for all. If I do not today feel any retrospective embarrassment in explaining this change, that is because it seems to me quite natural that surrealist thought, before coming to rest in dialectical materialism and insisting, as today, on the supremacy of matter over mind, should have been condemned to pass, in a few years, through the whole historic development of modern thought. It came normally to Marx through Hegel, just as it came normally to Hegel through Berkeley and Hume. These latter influences offer a certain particularity in that, contrary to certain poetic influences undergone in the same way, and accommodated to those of the French materialists of the eighteenth century, they yielded a residuum of practical action. To try and hide these influences would be contrary to my desire to show that surrealism has not been drawn up as an abstract system, that is to say, safeguarded against all contradictions. It is also my desire to show how surrealist activity, driven, as I have said, to ask itself what were its proper resources, had in some way or another to reflect upon itself its realization, in 1925, of its relative insufficiency; how surrealist activity had to cease being content with the results (automatic texts, the recital of dreams, improvised speeches, spontaneous poems, drawings and actions) which it had originally planned; and how it came to consider these first results as being simply so much material, starting from which the problem of knowledge inevitably arose again under quite a new form.

As a living movement, that is to say a movement undergoing a constant process of becoming and, what is more, solidly relying on concrete facts, surrealism has brought together and is still bringing together diverse temperaments individually obeying or resisting a variety of bents. The determinant of their enduring or short-lived adherence is not to be considered as a blind concession to an inert stock of ideas held in common, but as a continuous sequence of acts which, propelling the doer to more or less distant points, forces him for each fresh start to return to the same starting-line. These exercises not being without peril, one man may break a limb or—for which there is no precedent—his head, another may peaceably submerge himself in a quagmire or report himself dying of fatigue. Unable as yet to treat itself to an ambulance, surrealism simply leaves these individuals by the wayside. Those who continue in the ranks are aware of course of the casualties left behind them. But what of it? The essential is always to look ahead, to remain sure that one has not forfeited the burning desire for beauty, truth and justice, toilingly to go onwards towards the discovery, one by one, of fresh landscapes, and to continue doing so indefinitely and without coercion to the end, that others may afterwards travel the same spiritual road, unhindered and in all security. Penetration, to be sure, has not been as deep as one would have wished. Poetically speaking, a few wild, or shall we say charming, beasts whose cries fill the air and bar access to a domain as yet only surmised, are still far from being exorcized. But for all that, the piercing of the thicket would have proceeded less tortuously, and those who are doing the pioneering would have acquitted themselves with unabating tenacity in the service of the cause, if, between the beginning and the end of the spectacle which they provide for themselves and would be glad to provide for others, a change had not taken place.

In 1934, more than ever before, surrealism owes it to itself to defend the postulate of the necessity of change. It is amusing, indeed, to see how the more spiteful and silly of our adversaries affect to triumph whenever they stumble on some old statement we may have made and which now sounds more or less discordantly in the midst of others intended to render comprehensible our present conduct. This insidious manoeuvre, which is calculated to cast a doubt on our good faith, or at least on the genuineness of our principles, can easily be defeated. The development of surrealism throughout the decade of its existence is, we take it, a function of the unrolling of historical realities as these may be speeded up between the period of relief which follows the conclusion of a peace and the fresh outbreak of war. It is also a function of the process of seeking after new values in order to confirm or invalidate existing ones.

The fact that certain of the first participants in surrealist activity have thrown in the sponge and have been discarded has brought about the retiring from circulation of some ways of thinking and the putting into circulation of others in which there were implicit certain general dissents on the one hand and certain general assents on the other. Hence it is that this activity has been fashioned by the events. At the present moment, contrary to current biased rumour according to which surrealism itself is supposed, in its cruelty of disposition, to have sacrificed nearly all the blood first vivifying it, it is heartening to be able to point out that it has never ceased to avail itself of the perfect teamwork of René Crevel, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Benjamin Péret, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, and the present writer, all of whom can attest that from the inception of the movement—which is also the date of our enlistment in it—until now, the initial principle of their covenant has never been violated. If there have occurred differences on some points, it was essentially within the rhythmic scope of the integral whole, in itself a least disputable element of objective value.

The others, they whom we no longer meet, can they say as much? They cannot, for the simple reason that since they separated from us they have been incapable of achieving a single concerted action that had any definite form of its own, and they have confined themselves, instead, to a reaction against surrealism with the greatest wastage to themselves—a fate always overtaking those who go back on their past. The history of their apostasy and denials will ultimately be read into the great limbo of human failings, without profit to any observer—ideal yesterday, but real today—who, called upon to make a pronouncement, will decide whether they or ourselves have brought the more appreciable efforts to bear upon a rational solution of the many problems surrealism has propounded.

Although there can be no question here of going through the history of the surrealist movement—its history has been told many a time and sometimes told fairly well; moreover, I prefer to pass on as quickly as possible to the exposition of its present attitude—I think I ought briefly to recall, for the benefit of those of you who were unaware of the fact, that there is no doubt that before the surrealist movement properly so called, there existed among the promoters of the movement and others who later rallied round it, very active, not merely dissenting but also antagonistic dispositions which, between 1915 and 1920, were willing to align themselves under the signboard of Dada. Post-war disorder, a state of mind essentially anarchic that guided that cycle's many manifestations, a deliberate refusal to judge—for lack, it was said, of criteria—the actual qualifications of individuals, and, perhaps, in the last analysis, a certain spirit of negation which was making itself conspicuous, had brought about a dissolution of the group as yet inchoate, one might say, by reason of its dispersed and heterogeneous character, a group whose germinating force has nevertheless been decisive and, by the general consent of present-day critics, has greatly influenced the course of ideas. It may be proper before passing rapidly—as I must—over this period, to apportion by far the handsomest share to Marcel Duchamp (canvases and glass objects still to be seen in New York), to Francis Picabia (reviews "291" and "391"), Jacques Vaché (Lettres de Guerre) and Tristan Tzara (Twenty-five Poems, Dada Manifesto 1918).

Strangely enough, it was round a discovery of language that there was seeking to organize itself in 1920 what—as yet on a basis of confidential exchange—assumed the name of surrealism, a word fallen from the lips of Apollinaire, which we had diverted from the rather general and very confusing connotation he had given it. What was at first no more than a new method of poetic writing broke away after several years from the much too general theses which had come to be expounded in the Surrealist Manifesto—Soluble Fish, 1924, the Second Manifesto adding others to them, whereby the whole was raised to a vaster ideological plane; and so there had to be revision.
In an article, "Enter the Mediums," published in Littérature, 1922, reprinted in Les Pas Perdus, 1924, and subsequently in the Surrealist Manifesto, I explained the circumstance that had originally put us, my friends and myself, on the track of the surrealist activity we still follow and for which we are hopeful of gaining ever more numerous new adherents in order to extend it further than we have so far succeeded in doing. It reads:
It was in 1919, in complete solitude and at the approach of sleep, that my attention was arrested by sentences more or less complete, which became perceptible to my mind without my being able to discover (even by very meticulous analysis) any possible previous volitional effort. One evening in particular, as I was about to fall asleep, I became aware of a sentence articulated clearly to a point excluding all possibility of alteration and stripped of all quality of vocal sound; a curious sort of sentence which came to me bearing—in sober truth—not a trace of any relation whatever to any incidents I may at that time have been involved in; an insistent sentence, it seemed to me, a sentence I might say, that knocked at the window.

I was prepared to pay no further attention to it when the organic character of the sentence detained me. I was really bewildered. Unfortunately, I am unable to remember the exact sentence at this distance, but it ran approximately like this: "A man is cut in half by the window." What made it plainer was the fact that it was accompanied by a feeble visual representation of a man in the process of walking, but cloven, at half his height, by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body. Definitely, there was the form, re-erected against space, of a man leaning out of a window. But the window following the man's locomotion, I understood that I was dealing with an image of great rarity. Instantly the idea came to me to use it as material for poetic construction. I had no sooner invested it with that quality, than it had given place to a succession of all but intermittent sentences which left me no less astonished, but in a state, I would say, of extreme detachment.

Preoccupied as I still was at that time with Freud, and familiar with his methods of investigation, which I had practised occasionally upon the sick during the War, I resolved to obtain from myself what one seeks to obtain from patients, namely a monologue poured out as rapidly as possible, over which the subject's critical faculty has no control—the subject himself throwing reticence to the winds—and which as much as possible represents spoken thought. It seemed and still seems to me that the speed of thought is no greater than that of words, and hence does not exceed the flow of either tongue or pen.

It was in such circumstances that, together with Philippe Soupault, whom I had told about my first ideas on the subject, I began to cover sheets of paper with writing, feeling a praiseworthy contempt for whatever the literary result might be. Ease of achievement brought about the rest. By the end of the first day of the experiment we were able to read to one another about fifty pages obtained in this manner and to compare the results we had achieved. The likeness was on the whole striking. There were similar faults of construction, the same hesitant manner, and also, in both cases, an illusion of extraordinary verve, much emotion, a considerable assortment of images of a quality such as we should never have been able to obtain in the normal way of writing, a very special sense of the picturesque, and, here and there, a few pieces of out and out buffoonery.

The only differences which our two texts presented appeared to me to be due essentially to our respective temperaments, Soupault's being less static than mine, and, if he will allow me to make this slight criticism, to his having scattered about at the top of certain pages—doubtlessly in a spirit of mystification—various words under the guise of titles. I must give him credit, on the other hand, for having always forcibly opposed the least correction of any passage that did not seem to me to be quite the thing. In that he was most certainly right.
It is of course difficult in these cases to appreciate at their just value the various elements in the result obtained; one may even say that it is entirely impossible to appreciate them at a first reading. To you who may be writing them, these elements are, in appearance, as strange as to anyone else, and you are yourself naturally distrustful of them. Poetically speaking, they are distinguished chiefly by a very high degree of immediate absurdity, the peculiar quality of that absurdity being, on close examination, their yielding to whatever is most admissible and legitimate in the world: divulgation of a given number of facts and properties on the whole not less objectionable than the others.

The word "surrealism" having thereupon become descriptive of the generalizable undertaking to which we had devoted ourselves, I thought it indispensable, in 1924, to define this word once and for all:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought's dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism rests in the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected heretofore; in the omnipotence of the dream and in the disinterested play of thought. It tends definitely to do away with all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in the solution of the principal problems of life. Have professed absolute surrealism: Messrs. Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Eluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac.

These till now appear to be the only ones.... Were one to consider their output only superficially, a goodly number of poets might well have passed for surrealists, beginning with Dante and Shakespeare at his best. In the course of many attempts I have made towards an analysis of what, under false pretences, is called genius, I have found nothing that could in the end be attributed to any other process than this.

There followed an enumeration that will gain, I think, by being clearly set out thus:
Young's Night Thoughts are surrealist from cover to cover. Unfortunately, it is a priest who speaks; a bad priest, to be sure, yet a priest.

Heraclitus is surrealist in dialectic.
Lully is surrealist in definition.
Flamel is surrealist in the night of gold.
Swift is surrealist in malice.
Sade is surrealist in sadism.
Carrier is surrealist in drowning.
Monk Lewis is surrealist in the beauty of evil.
Achim von Arnim is surrealist absolutely, in space and time
Rabbe is surrealist in death.
Baudelaire is surrealist in morals.
Rimbaud is surrealist in life and elsewhere.
Hervey Saint-Denys is surrealist in the directed dream.
Carroll is surrealist in nonsense.
Huysmans is surrealist in pessimism.
Seurat is surrealist in design.
Picasso is surrealist in cubism.
Vaché is surrealist in me.
Roussel is surrealist in anecdote. Etc.

They were not always surrealists—on this I insist—in the sense that one can disentangle in each of them a number of preconceived notions to which—very naively!—they clung. And they clung to them so because they had not heard the surrealist voice, the voice that exhorts on the eve of death and in the roaring storm, and because they were unwilling to dedicate themselves to the task of no more than orchestrating the score replete with marvellous things. They were proud instruments; hence the sounds they produced were not always harmonious sounds.
We, on the contrary, who have not given ourselves to processes of filtering, who through the medium of our work have been content to be the silent receptacles of so many echoes, modest registering machines that are not hypnotized by the pattern that they trace, we are perhaps serving a yet much nobler cause. So we honestly give back the talent lent to us. You may talk of the "talent" of this yard of platinum, of this mirror, of this door and of this sky, if you wish.

We have no talent...
The Manifesto also contained a certain number of practical recipes, entitled: "Secrets of the Magic Surrealist Art," such as the following:

Written Surrealist Composition or First and Last Draft
Having settled down in some spot most conducive to the mind's concentration upon itself, order writing material to be brought to you. Let your state of mind be as passive and receptive as possible. Forget your genius, talents, as well as the genius and talents of others. Repeat to yourself that literature is pretty well the sorriest road that leads to everywhere. Write quickly without any previously chosen subject, quickly enough not to dwell on, and not to be tempted to read over, what you have written. The first sentence will come of itself; and this is self-evidently true, because there is never a moment but some sentence alien to our conscious thought clamours for outward expression. It is rather difficult to speak of the sentence to follow, since it doubtless comes in for a share of our conscious activity and so the other sentences, if it is conceded that the writing of the first sentence must have involved even a minimum of consciousness. But that should in the long run matter little, because therein precisely lies the greatest interest in the surrealist exercise. Punctuation of course necessarily hinders the stream of absolute continuity which preoccupies us. But you should particularly distrust the prompting whisper. If through a fault ever so trifling there is a forewarning of silence to come, a fault let us say, of inattention, break off unhesitatingly the line that has become too lucid. After the word whose origin seems suspect you should place a letter, any letter, l for example, always the letter l, and restore the arbitrary flux by making that letter the initial of the word to follow.

I shall pass over the more or less correlated considerations which the Manifesto discussed in their bearing on the possibilities of plastic expression in surrealism. These considerations did not assume a relatively dogmatic turn with me till afterwards in Surrealism and Painting (1928).

I believe that the real interest of the Manifesto—there was no lack of people who were good enough to concede interest, for which no particular credit is due to me because I have no more than given expression to sentiments shared with friends, present and former—rests only subordinately on the formula above given. It is rather confirmatory of a turn of thought which, for good or ill, is peculiarly distinctive of our time. The defence originally attempted of that turn of thought still seems valid to me in what follows:

We still live under the reign of logic... But the methods of logic are applied nowadays only to the resolution of problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism which is still the fashion does not permit consideration of any facts but those strictly relevant to our experience. Logical ends, on the other hand, escape us. Needless to say that even experience has had limits assigned to it. It revolves in a cage from which it becomes more and more difficult to release it. Even experience is dependent on immediate utility, and common sense is its keeper. Under colour of civilization, under pretext of progress, all that rightly or wrongly may be regarded as fantasy or superstition has been banished from the mind, all uncustomary searching after truth has been proscribed. It is only by what must seem sheer luck that there has recently been brought to light an aspect of mental life—to my belief by far the most important—with which it was supposed that we no longer had any concern. All credit for these discoveries must go to Freud. Based on these discoveries a current of opinion is forming that will enable the explorer of the human mind to continue his investigations, justified as he will be in taking into account more than mere summary realities. The imagination is perhaps on the point of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our minds harbour strange forces capable of increasing those on the surface, or of successfully contending with them, then it is all in our interest to canalize them, to canalize them first in order to submit them later, if necessary, to the control of the reason. The analysts themselves have nothing to lose by such a proceeding. But it should be observed that there are no means designed a priori for the bringing about of such an enterprise, that until the coming of the new order it might just as well be considered the affair of poets and scientists, and that its success will not depend on the more or less capricious means that will be employed.

I am resolved to deal severely with that hatred of the marvellous which is so rampant among certain people, that ridicule to which they are so eager to expose it. Let us speak plainly: The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful; indeed, nothing but the marvellous is beautiful.

What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer a fantastic; there is only the real.

Interesting in a different way from the future of surrealist technics (theatrical, philosophical, scientific, critical) appears to me the application of surrealism to action. Whatever reservations I might be inclined to make with regard to responsibility in general, I should quite particularly like to know how the first misdemeanours whose surrealist character is indubitable will be judged. When surrealist methods extend from writing to action, there will certainly arise the need of a new morality to take the place of the current one, the cause of all our woes.
The Manifesto of Surrealism has improved on the Rimbaud principle that the poet must turn seer. Man in general is going to be summoned to manifest through life those new sentiments which the gift of vision will so suddenly have placed within his reach:

Surrealism, as I envisage it, asserts our absolute nonconformism so clearly that there can be no question of claiming it as witness when the real world comes up for trial. On the contrary, it can but testify to the complete state of distraction which we hope to attain here below... Surrealism is the "invisible ray" that shall enable us one day to triumph over our enemies. "You tremble no more, carcass." This summer the roses are blue; the wood is made of glass. The earth wrapped in its foliage has as little effect on me as a ghost. Living and ceasing to live are imaginary solutions. Existence lies elsewhere.

Surrealism then was securing expression in all its purity and force. The freedom it possesses is a perfect freedom in the sense that it recognizes no limitations exterior to itself. As it was said on the cover of the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, "it will be necessary to draw up a new declaration of the Rights of Man." The concept of surreality, concerning which quarrels have been sought with us repeatedly and which it was attempted to turn into a metaphysical or mystic rope to be placed afterwards round our necks, lends itself no longer to misconstruction, nowhere does it declare itself opposed to the need of transforming the world which henceforth will more and more definitely yield to it.

As I said in the Manifesto
I believe in the future transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak. I am looking forward to its consummation, certain that I shall never share in it, but death would matter little to me could I but taste the joy it will yield ultimately.

Aragon expressed himself in very much the same way in Une Vague de rêves (1924):
It should be understood that the real is a relation like any other; the essence of things is by no means linked to their reality, there are other relations besides reality, which the mind is capable of grasping and which also are primary, like chance, illusion, the fantastic, the dream. These various groups are united and brought into harmony in one single order, surreality... This surreality—a relation in which all notions are merged together—is the common horizon of religions, magic, poetry, intoxications, and of all life that is lowly—that trembling honeysuckle you deem sufficient to populate the sky with for us.

And René Creval, in L'Esprit contre la raison (1928):
The poet does not put the wild animals to sleep in order to play the tamer, but, the cages wide open, the keys thrown to the winds, he journeys forth, a traveller who thinks not of himself but of the voyage, of dream beaches, forests of hands, soul-endowed animals, all undeniable surreality.

I was to sum up the idea in Surrealism and Painting (1928):
All that I love, all that I think and feel inclines me towards a particular philosophy of immanence according to which surreality will reside in reality itself and will be neither superior nor exterior to it. And conversely, because the container shall be also the contained. One might almost say that it will be a communicating vessel placed between the container and the contained. That is to say, I resist with all my strength temptations which, in painting and literature, might have the immediate tendency to withdraw thought from life as well as place life under the aegis of thought.

After years of endeavour and perplexities, when a variety of opinions had disputed amongst themselves the direction of the craft in which a number of persons of unequal ability and varying powers of resistance had originally embarked together, the surrealist idea recovered in the Second Manifesto all the brilliancy of which events had vainly conspired to despoil it. It should be emphasized that the First Manifesto of 1924 did no more than sum up the conclusions we had drawn during what one may call the heroic epoch of surrealism, which stretches from 1919 to 1923. The concerted elaboration of the first automatic texts and our excited reading of them, the first results obtained by Max Ernst in the domain of "collage" and of painting, the practice of surrealist "speaking" during the hypnotic experiments introduced among us by René Crevel and repeated every evening for over a year, uncontrovertibly mark the decisive stages of surrealist exploration during this first phase. After that, up till the taking into account of the social aspect of the problem round about 1925 (though not formally sanctioned until 1930), surrealism began to find itself a prey to characteristic wranglings. These wranglings account very clearly for the expulsion orders and tickets-of-leave which, as we went along, we had to deal out to certain of our companions of the first and second hour. Some people have quite gratuitously concluded from this that we are apt to overestimate personal questions.

During the last ten years, surrealism has almost unceasingly been obliged to defend itself against deviations to the right and to the left. On the one hand we have had to struggle against the will of those who would maintain surrealism on a purely speculative level and treasonably transfer it on to an artistic and literary plane (Artaud, Desnos, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Vitrac) at the cost of all the hope for subversion we have placed in it; on the other, against the will of those who would place it on a purely practical basis, available at any moment to be sacrificed to an ill-conceived political militancy (Naville, Aragon)—at the cost, this time, of what constitutes the originality and reality of its researches, at the cost of the autonomous risk that it has to run. Agitated though it was, the epoch that separates the two Manifestos was none the less a rich one, since it saw the publication of so many works in which the vital principles of surrealism were amply accounted for. It suffices to recall particularly Le Paysan de Paris and Traité du style by Aragon, L'Esprit contre la raison and Etes-vous fous by René Creval, Deuil pour deuil by Desnos, Capitale de la douleur and L'Amour la poésie by Eluard, La Femme 100 têtes by Ernst, La Révolution et les intellectuels by Naville, Le Grand Jeu by Péret, and my own Nadja. The poetic activity of Tzara, although claiming until 1930 no connection with surrealism, is in perfect accord with ours.
We were forced to agree with Pierre Naville when he wrote:

Surrealism is at the crossroads of several thought movements. We assume that it affirms the possibility of a certain steady downward readjustment of the mind's rational (and not simply conscious) activity towards more absolutely coherent thought, irrespective of what direction that thought may take; that is to say, that it proposes, or would at least like to propose, a new solution of all problems but chiefly moral. In that sense, indeed, it is epoch-making. That is why one may express the essential characteristic of surrealism by saying that it seeks to calculate the quotient of the unconscious by the conscious.

It should be pointed out that in a number of declarations in La Révolution et les Intellectuels. Que peuvent faire les surréalistes? (1926), [Pierre Naville] demonstrated the utter vanity of intellectual bickerings in the face of the human exploitation which results from the wage-earning system. These declarations gave rise amongst us to considerable anxiety and, at tempting for the first time to justify surrealism's social implications, I desired to put an end to it in Légitime Défense. This pamphlet set out to demonstrate that there is no fundamental antinomy in the basis of surrealist thought.

In reality, we are faced with two problems, one of which is the problem raised, at the beginning of the twentieth century, by the discovery of the relations between the conscious and the unconscious. That was how the problem chose to present itself to us. We were the first to apply to its resolution a particular method, which we have not ceased to consider both the most suitable and the most likely to be brought to perfection; there is no reason why we should renounce it. The other problem we are faced with is that of the social action we should pursue. We consider that this action has its own method in dialectical materialism, and we can all the less afford to ignore this action since, I repeat, we hold the liberation of man to be the sine qua non condition of the liberation of the mind, and we can expect this liberation of man to result only from the proletarian revolution.

These two problems are essentially distinct and we deplore their becoming confused by not remaining so. There is good reason, then, to take up a stand against all attempts to weld them together and, more especially, against the urge to abandon all such researches as ours in order to devote ourselves to the poetry and art of propaganda. Surrealism, which has been the object of brutal and repeated summonses in this respect, now feels the need of making some kind of counter-attack. Let me recall the fact that its very definition holds that it must escape, in its written manifestations, or any others, from all control exercised by the reason. Apart from the puerility of wishing to bring a supposedly Marxist control to bear on the immediate aspect of such manifestations, this control cannot be envisaged in principle. And how ill-boding does this distrust seem, coming as it does from men who declare themselves Marxists, that is to say possessed not only of a strict line in revolutionary matters, but also of a marvellously open mind and an insatiable curiosity!

This brings us to the eve of the Second Manifesto. These objections had to be put an end to, and for that purpose it was indispensable that we should proceed to liquidate certain individualist elements amongst us, more or less openly hostile to one another, whose intentions did not, in the final analysis, appear as irreproachable, nor their motives as disinterested, as might have been desired. An important part of the work was devoted to a statement of the reasons which moved surrealism to dispense for the future with certain collaborators. It was attempted, on the same occasion, to complete the specific method of creation proposed six years earlier, and, as thoroughly as possible, to set surrealist ideas in order.

In spite of the particular courses followed by former or present adherents of surrealism, everyone must admit that the drift of surrealism has always and chiefly been towards a general and emphatic crisis in consciousness and that only to the extent to which this is or is not accomplished can decide the historical success or failure of the movement.

From the intellectual point of view, it was and still is a question of exposing by every available means, and to learn at all costs to identify, the facticious character of the old antinomies hypocritically calculated to hinder any unusual agitation on the part of man, were it only a faint understanding of the means at his dispocal and to inspire him to free himself somewhat from the universal fetters. The horror of death, the pantomime of the beyond, the shipwreck of the most beautiful reason in sleep, the overpowering curtain of the future, the towers of Babel, the mirrors of inconstancy, the insuperable silver wall splashed with brains, all these startling images of human catastrophe are perhaps, after all, no more than images.

Everything leads to the belief that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are not perceived as contradictions. It would be vain to attribute to surrealism any other motive than the hope of determining this point. It is clear, moreover, that it would be absurd to ascribe to surrealism either a purely destructive or a purely constructive character—the point at issue being precisely this: that construction and destruction can no longer be brandished against each other. It becomes clear also that surrealism is not at all interested in taking into account what passes alongside it under the guise of art or even antiart; of philosophy or antiphilosophy; of anything, in a word, that has not for its ultimate end the conversion of being into a jewel, internal and unseeing, with a soul that is neither of ice nor of fire. What, indeed, could they expect of surrealism, who are still anxious about the position they may occupy? On this mental plane from which one may for oneself alone embark on the perilous, but, we think, supreme reconnaissance—on this plane the footsteps of those who come or go are no longer of any importance, because these steps occur in a region where, by definition, surrealism possesses no listening ear. It is not desirable that surrealism should be dependent on the whim of this or that group of persons. If it declares itself capable of uprooting thought from an increasingly cruel serfdom, of bringing it back to the path of total comprehension, of restoring to its original purity, it is indeed no more than right that it should be judged only by what it has done and by what it has still to do in the fulfilment of its promise...

From 1930 until today the history of surrealism is that of successful efforts to restore to it its proper becoming by gradually removing from it every trace both of political opportunism and of artistic opportunism. The review La Révolution Surréaliste, (12 issues) has been succeeded by another, Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution (6 issues). Owing particularly to influences brought to bear by new elements, surrealist experimenting. which had for too long been erratic, has been unreservedly resumed; its perspectives and its aims have been made perfectly clear; I may say that it has not ceased to be carried on in a continuous and enthusiastic manner. This experimenting has regained momentum under the master-impulse given to it by Salvador Dali, whose exceptional interior "boiling" has been for surrealism, during the whole of this period, an invaluable ferment. As Guy Mangeot has very rightly pointed out in his History of Surrealism, published recently by René Henriquez, Dali has endowed surrealism with an instrument of primary importance, in particular the paranoiac-critical method, which has immediately shown itself capable of being applied with equal success to painting, poetry, the cinema, to the construction of typical surrealist objects, to fashions, to sculpture and even, if necessary, to all manner of exegesis.

He first announced his convictions to us in La Femme Visible (1930):

I believe the moment is at hand when, by a paranoiac and active advance of the mind, it will be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematize confusion and thus to help to discredit completely the world of reality.

In order to cut short all possible misunderstandings, it should perhaps be said: "immediate" reality.
Paranoia uses the external world in order to assert its dominating idea and has the disturbing characteristic of making others accept this idea's reality. The reality of the external world is used for illustration and proof, and so comes to serve the reality of one's mind.

In the special 'Surrealist Intervention' number of Documents 34, under the title 'Philosophic Provocations', Dali undertakes today to give his thought a didactic turn. All uncertainty as to his real intentions seems to me to be swept away by these definitions:

Paranoia: Delirium of interpretation bearing a systematic structure.
Paranoiac-critical activity: Spontaneous method of "irrational knowledge" based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations.
Painting: Handmade colour "photography" of "concrete irrationality" and of the imaginative world in general.
Sculpture: Modelling by hand of "concrete irrationality" and of the imaginative world in general.

In order to form a concise idea of Dali's undertaking, one must take into account the property of uninterrupted becoming of any object of paranoiac activity, in other words of the ultra-confusing activity rising out of the obsessing idea. This uninterrupted becoming allows the paranoiac who is the witness to consider the images of the external world unstable and transitory, or suspect; and what is so disturbing is that he is able to make other people believe in the reality of his impressions. One aspect, for instance, of the multiple image occupying our attention being a putrefied donkey, the 'cruel' putrefaction of the donkey can be considered as 'the hard and blinding flash of new gems'. Here we find ourselves confronted by a new affirmation, accompanied by formal proofs, of the omnipotence of desire, which has remained, since the beginning, surrealism's sole act of faith. At the point where surrealism has taken up the problem, its only guide has been Rimbaud's sibylline pronouncement: "I say that one must be a seer, one must make oneself a seer". As you know, this was Rimbaud's only means of reaching the unknown. Surrealism can flatter itself today that it has discovered and rendered practicable many other ways leading to the unknown. The abandonment to verbal or graphic impulses and the resort to paranoiac-critical activity are not the only ones, and one may say that, during the last four years of surrealist activity, the many others that have made their appearance allow us to affirm that the automatism from which we started and to which we have unfailingly returned does in fact constitute the crossroads where these various paths meet. Among those we have partly explored, and on which we are only just beginning to see ahead, I should single out simulation of mental diseases (acute mania, general paralysis, dementia praecox), which Paul Eluard and I practised in The Immaculate Conception (1930), undertaking to prove that the normal man can have access to the provisorily condemned places of the human mind; the manufacture of objects functioning symbolically, started in 1931 by the very particular and quite new emotion aroused by Giocometti's object 'The Hour of Traces'; the analysis of the interpenetration of the states of sleep and waking, tending to make them depend entirely on one another and even condition one another in certain affective states, which I undertook in The Communicating Vessels; and finally, the taking into consideration of the recent researches of the Marburg school (to which I drew attention in an article published in Minotaure, 'The Automatic Message') whose aim is to cultivate the remarkable sensorial dispositions of children, enabling them to change any object whatever, into no matter what, simply by looking at it fixedly.

Nothing could be more coherent, more systematic or more richly yielding of results, than this last phase of surrealist activity, which has seen the production of two films by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'or; the poems of René Char; L'Homme approximatif, où boivent les loups and L'Antitête by Tristan Tzara; Le Clavecin de Diderot and Les Pieds dans le plat by René Crevel; La Vie immédiate by Eluard; the very precious visual commentaries by Valentine Hugo on the works of Arnim and Rimbaud; the most intense part of the work of Yves Tanguy; the inspired sculpture of Alberto Giocometti; the coming together of Georges Hugnet, Gui Rosey, Pierre Yoyotte, Roger Caillois, Victor Brauner and Balthus. Never has so precise a common will united us. I think I can most clearly express this will by saying that today it applies itself to "bring about the state where the distinction between the subjective and the objective loses its necessity and its value".
Surrealism, starting fifteen years ago with a discovery that seemed only to involve poetic language, has spread like wildfire, on pursuing its course, not only in art but in life. It has provoked new states of consciousness and overthrown the walls beyond which it was immemorially supposed to be impossible to see; it has—as is being more and more generally recognized—modified the sensibility, and taken a decisive step towards the unification of the personality, which it found threatened by an ever more profound dissociation. Without attempting to judge what direction it will ultimately take, for the lands it fertilizes as it flows are those of surprise itself, I should like to draw your attention to the fact that its most recent advance is producing a fundamental crisis of the "object." It is essentially upon the object that surrealism has thrown most light in recent years. Only the very close examination of the many recent speculations to which the object has publicly given rise (the oneiric object, the object functioning symbolically, the real and virtual object, the moving but silent object, the phantom object, the discovered object, etc.), can give one a proper grasp of the experiments that surrealism is engaged in now. In order to continue to understand the movement, it is indispensable to focus one's attention on this point.


I must crave your indulgence for speaking so technically, from the inside. But there could be no question of concealing any aspect of the persuasions to which surrealism has been and is still exposed. I say that there exists a lyrical element that conditions for one part the psychological and moral structure of human society, that has conditioned it at all times and that will continue to condition it. This lyrical element has until now, even though in spite of them, remained the fact and the sole fact of specialists. In the state of extreme tension to which class antagonisms have led the society to which we belong and which we tend with all our strength to reject, it is natural and it is fated that this solicitation should continue, that it should assume for us a thousand faces, imploring, tempting and eager by turns. It is not within our power, it would be unworthy of our historic role to give way to this solicitation. By surrealism we intend to account for nothing less than the manner in which it is possible today to make use of the magnificent and overwhelming spiritual legacy that has been handed down to us. We have accepted this legacy from the past, and surrealism can well say that the use to which it has been put has been to turn it to the routing of capitalist society. I consider that for that purpose it was and is still necessary for us to stand where we are, to beware against breaking the thread of our researches and to continue these researches, not as literary men and artists, certainly, but rather as chemists and the various other kinds of technicians.

To pass on to the poetry and art called (doubtless in anticipation) proletarian: No. The forces we have been able to bring together and which for fifteen years we have never found lacking, have arrived at a particular point of application: the question is not to know whether this point of application is the best, but simply to point out that the application of our forces at this point has given us up to an activity that has proved itself valuable and fruitful on the plane on which it was undertaken and has also been of a kind to engage us more and more on the revolutionary plane. What it is essential to realize is that no other activity could have produced such rich results, nor could any other similar activity have been so effective in combating the present form of society. On that point we have history on our side.
A comrade, Claude Cahun, in a striking pamphlet published recently: Les Paris Sont Ouverts, a pamphlet that attempts to predict the future of poetry by taking account both of its own laws and of the social bases of its existence, takes Aragon to task for the lack of rigour in his present position (I do not think anyone can contest the fact that Aragon's poetry has perceptibly weakened since he abandoned surrealism and undertook to place him self directly at the service of the proletarian cause, which leads one to suppose that such an undertaking has defeated him and is proportionately more or less unfavourable to the Revolution).... It is of particular interest that the author of Les Paris Sont Ouverts has taken the opportunity of expressing himself from the "historic" point of view. His appreciation is as follows:

The most revolutionary experiment in poetry under the capitalist regime having been incontestably, for France and perhaps for Europe the Dadaist-surrealist experiment, in that it has tended to destroy all the myths about art that for centuries have permitted the ideologic as well as economic exploitation of painting, sculpture, literature, etc. (e.g. the frottages of Max Ernst, which, among other things, have been able to upset the scale of values of art-critics and experts, values based chiefly on technical perfection, personal touch and the lastingness of the materials employed), this experiment can and should serve the cause of the liberation of the proletariat. It is only when the proletariat has become aware of the myths on which capitalist culture depends, when they have become aware of what these myths and this culture mean for them and have destroyed them, that they will be able to pass on to their own proper development. The positive lesson of this negating experiment, that is to say its transfusion among the proletariat, constitutes the only valid revolutionary poetic propaganda.

Surrealism could not ask for anything better. Once the cause of the movement is understood, there is perhaps some hope that, on the plane of revolutionary militantism proper, our turbulence, our small capacity for adaptation, until now, to the necessary rules of a party (which certain people have thought proper to call our "blanquism"), may be excused us. It is only too certain that an activity such as ours, owing to its particularization, cannot be pursued within the limits of any one of the existing revolutionary organizations: it would be forced to come to a halt on the very threshold of that organization. If we are agreed that such an activity has above all tended to detach the intellectual creator from the illusions with which bourgeois society has sought to surround him, I for my part can only see in that tendency a further reason for continuing our activity.
None the less, the right that we demand and our desire to make use of it depend, as I said at the beginning, on our remaining able to continue our investigations without having to reckon, as for the last few months we have had to do, with a sudden attack from the forces of criminal imbecility. Let it be clearly understood that for us, surrealists, the interests of thought can not cease to go hand in hand with the interests of the working class, and that all attacks on liberty, all fetters on the emancipation of the working class and all armed attacks on it cannot fail to be considered by us as attacks on thought likewise.

I repeat, the danger is far from having been removed. The surrealists cannot be accused of having been slow to recognize the fact, since, on the very next day after the first fascist coup in France, it was they amongst the intellectual circles who had the honour of taking the initiative in sending out an Appel à la lutte [a call to struggle], which appeared on February 10th, 1934, furnished with twenty-four signatures. You may rest assured, comrades, that they will not confine themselves, that already they have not confined themselves, to this single act.

Andre Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism 1924 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 12:50:09 AM


This blog contains Andre Breton's complete Manifesto of Surrealism, published in October 1924. This is a must read for those who want to really understand surrealism.

Andre Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism- 1924

So strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life--real life, I mean--that in the end this belief is lost. Man, that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his destiny, has trouble assessing the objects he has been led to use, objects that his nonchalance has brought his way, or that he has earned through his own efforts, almost always through his own efforts, for he has agreed to work, at least he has not refused to try his luck (or what he calls his luck!). At this point he feels extremely modest: he knows what women he has had, what silly affairs he has been involved in; he is unimpressed by his wealth or his poverty, in this respect he is still a newborn babe and, as for the approval of his conscience, I confess that he does very nicely without it. If he still retains a certain lucidity, all he can do is turn back toward his childhood which, however his guides and mentors may have botched it, still strikes him as somehow charming. There, the absence of any known restrictions allows him the perspective of several lives lived at once; this illusion becomes firmly rooted within him; now he is only interested in the fleeting, the extreme facility of everything. Children set off each day without a worry in the world. Everything is near at hand, the worst material conditions are fine. The woods are white or black, one will never sleep.

But it is true that we would not dare venture so far, it is not merely a question of distance. Threat is piled upon threat, one yields, abandons a portion of the terrain to be conquered. This imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility; it is incapable of assuming this inferior role for very long and, in the vicinity of the twentieth year, generally prefers to abandon man to his lusterless fate.

Though he may later try to pull himself together on occasion, having felt that he is losing by slow degrees all reason for living, incapable as he has become of being able to rise to some exceptional situation such as love, he will hardly succeed. This is because he henceforth belongs body and soul to an imperative practical necessity which demands his constant attention. None of his gestures will be expansive, none of his ideas generous or far-reaching. In his minds eye, events real or imagined will be seen only as they relate to a welter of similar events, events in which he has not participated, abortive events. What am I saying: he will judge them in relationship to one of these events whose consequences are more reassuring than the others. On no account will he view them as his salvation.

Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.

There remains madness, "the madness that one locks up," as it has aptly been described. That madness or another.... We all know, in fact, that the insane owe their incarceration to a tiny number of legally reprehensible acts and that, were it not for these acts their freedom (or what we see as their freedom) would not be threatened. I am willing to admit that they are, to some degree, victims of their imagination, in that it induces them not to pay attention to certain rules--outside of which the species feels threatened--which we are all supposed to know and respect. But their profound indifference to the way in which we judge them, and even to the various punishments meted out to them, allows us to suppose that they derive a great deal of comfort and consolation from their imagination, that they enjoy their madness sufficiently to endure the thought that its validity does not extend beyond themselves. And, indeed, hallucinations, illusions, etc., are not a source of trifling pleasure. The best controlled sensuality partakes of it, and I know that there are many evenings when I would gladly that pretty hand which, during the last pages of Taines LIntelligence, indulges in some curious misdeeds. I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane. These people are honest to a fault, and their naiveté has no peer but my own. Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen. And note how this madness has taken shape, and endured.

It is not the fear of madness which will oblige us to leave the flag of imagination furled.

The case against the realistic attitude demands to be examined, following the case against the materialistic attitude. The latter, more poetic in fact than the former, admittedly implies on the part of man a kind of monstrous pride which, admittedly, is monstrous, but not a new and more complete decay. It should above all be viewed as a welcome reaction against certain ridiculous tendencies of spiritualism. Finally, it is not incompatible with a certain nobility of thought.

By contrast, the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dogs life. The activity of the best minds feels the effects of it; the law of the lowest common denominator finally prevails upon them as it does upon the others. An amusing result of this state of affairs, in literature for example, is the generous supply of novels. Each person adds his personal little "observation" to the whole. As a cleansing antidote to all this, M. Paul Valéry recently suggested that an anthology be compiled in which the largest possible number of opening passages from novels be offered; the resulting insanity, he predicted, would be a source of considerable edification. The most famous authors would be included. Such a though reflects great credit on Paul Valéry who, some time ago, speaking of novels, assured me that, so far as he was concerned, he would continue to refrain from writing: "The Marquise went out at five." But has he kept his word?

If the purely informative style, of which the sentence just quoted is a prime example, is virtually the rule rather than the exception in the novel form, it is because, in all fairness, the authors ambition is severely circumscribed. The circumstantial, needlessly specific nature of each of their notations leads me to believe that they are perpetrating a joke at my expense. I am spared not even one of the characters slightest vacillations: will he be fairhaired? what will his name be? will we first meet him during the summer? So many questions resolved once and for all, as chance directs; the only discretionary power left me is to close the book, which I am careful to do somewhere in the vicinity of the first page. And the descriptions! There is nothing to which their vacuity can be compared; they are nothing but so many superimposed images taken from some stock catalogue, which the author utilizes more and more whenever he chooses; he seizes the opportunity to slip me his postcards, he tries to make me agree with him about the clichés:

The small room into which the young man was shown was covered with yellow wallpaper: there were geraniums in the windows, which were covered with muslin curtains; the setting sun cast a harsh light over the entire setting.... There was nothing special about the room. The furniture, of yellow wood, was all very old. A sofa with a tall back turned down, an oval table opposite the sofa, a dressing table and a mirror set against the pierglass, some chairs along the walls, two or three etchings of no value portraying some German girls with birds in their hands--such were the furnishings. (Dostoevski, Crime and Punishment)

I am in no mood to admit that the mind is interested in occupying itself with such matters, even fleetingly. It may be argued that this school-boy description has its place, and that at this juncture of the book the author has his reasons for burdening me. Nevertheless he is wasting his time, for I refuse to go into his room. Others laziness or fatigue does not interest me. I have too unstable a notion of the continuity of life to equate or compare my moments of depression or weakness with my best moments. When one ceases to feel, I am of the opinion one should keep quiet. And I would like it understood that I am not accusing or condemning lack of originality as such. I am only saying that I do not take particular note of the empty moments of my life, that it may be unworthy for any man to crystallize those which seem to him to be so. I shall, with your permission, ignore the description of that room, and many more like it.

Not so fast, there; Im getting into the area of psychology, a subject about which I shall be careful not to joke.

The author attacks a character and, this being settled upon, parades his hero to and fro across the world. No matter what happens, this hero, whose actions and reactions are admirably predictable, is compelled not to thwart or upset--even though he looks as though he is--the calculations of which he is the object. The currents of life can appear to lift him up, roll him over, cast him down, he will still belong to this readymade human type. A simple game of chess which doesn't interest me in the least--man, whoever he may be, being for me a mediocre opponent. What I cannot bear are those wretched discussions relative to such and such a move, since winning or losing is not in question. And if the game is not worth the candle, if objective reason does a frightful job--as indeed it does--of serving him who calls upon it, is it not fitting and proper to avoid all contact with these categories? "Diversity is so vast that every different tone of voice, every step, cough, every wipe of the nose, every sneeze...."* (Pascal.) If in a cluster of grapes there are no two alike, why do you want me to describe this grape by the other, by all the others, why do you want me to make a palatable grape? Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable. The desire for analysis wins out over the sentiments.** (Barrès, Proust.) The result is statements of undue length whose persuasive power is attributable solely to their strangeness and which impress the reader only by the abstract quality of their vocabulary, which moreover is ill-defined. If the general ideas that philosophy has thus far come up with as topics of discussion revealed by their very nature their definitive incursion into a broader or more general area. I would be the first to greet the news with joy. But up till now it has been nothing but idle repartee; the flashes of wit and other niceties vie in concealing from us the true thought in search of itself, instead of concentrating on obtaining successes. It seems to me that every act is its own justification, at least for the person who has been capable of committing it, that it is endowed with a radiant power which the slightest gloss is certain to diminish. Because of this gloss, it even in a sense ceases to happen. It gains nothing to be thus distinguished. Stendhal's heroes are subject to the comments and appraisals--appraisals which are more or less successful--made by that author, which add not one whit to their glory. Where we really find them again is at the point at which Stendahl has lost them.

We are still living under the reign of logic: this, of course, is what I have been driving at. But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Logical ends, on the contrary, escape us. It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge. It too leans for support on what is most immediately expedient, and it is protected by the sentinels of common sense. Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices. It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer--and, in my opinion by far the most important part--has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud. On the basis of these discoveries a current of opinion is finally forming by means of which the human explorer will be able to carry his investigation much further, authorized as he will henceforth be not to confine himself solely to the most summary realities. The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them--first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed.

Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream. It is, in fact, inadmissible that this considerable portion of psychic activity (since, at least from man's birth until his death, thought offers no solution of continuity, the sum of the moments of the dream, from the point of view of time, and taking into consideration only the time of pure dreaming, that is the dreams of sleep, is not inferior to the sum of the moments of reality, or, to be more precisely limiting, the moments of waking) has still today been so grossly neglected. I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams. It is because man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all the plaything of his memory, and in its normal state memory takes pleasure in weakly retracing for him the circumstances of the dream, in stripping it of any real importance, and in dismissing the only determinant from the point where he thinks he has left it a few hours before: this firm hope, this concern. He is under the impression of continuing something that is worthwhile. Thus the dream finds itself reduced to a mere parenthesis, as is the night. And, like the night, dreams generally contribute little to furthering our understanding. This curious state of affairs seems to me to call for certain reflections:

1) Within the limits where they operate (or are thought to operate) dreams give every evidence of being continuous and show signs of organization. Memory alone arrogates to itself the right to excerpt from dreams, to ignore the transitions, and to depict for us rather a series of dreams than the dream itself. By the same token, at any given moment we have only a distinct notion of realities, the coordination of which is a question of will.* (Account must be taken of the depth of the dream. For the most part I retain only what I can glean from its most superficial layers. What I most enjoy contemplating about a dream is everything that sinks back below the surface in a waking state, everything I have forgotten about my activities in the course of the preceding day, dark foliage, stupid branches. In "reality," likewise, I prefer to fall.) What is worth noting is that nothing allows us to presuppose a greater dissipation of the elements of which the dream is constituted. I am sorry to have to speak about it according to a formula which in principle excludes the dream. When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers, the way I surrender myself to those who read me with eyes wide open; in order to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought. Perhaps my dream last night follows that of the night before, and will be continued the next night, with an exemplary strictness. It's quite possible, as the saying goes. And since it has not been proved in the slightest that, in doing so, the "reality" with which I am kept busy continues to exist in the state of dream, that it does not sink back down into the immemorial, why should I not grant to dreams what I occasionally refuse reality, that is, this value of certainty in itself which, in its own time, is not open to my repudiation? Why should I not expect from the sign of the dream more than I expect from a degree of consciousness which is daily more acute? Can't the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life? Are these questions the same in one case as in the other and, in the dream, do these questions already exist? Is the dream any less restrictive or punitive than the rest? I am growing old and, more than that reality to which I believe I subject myself, it is perhaps the dream, the difference with which I treat the dream, which makes me grow old.

2) Let me come back again to the waking state. I have no choice but to consider it a phenomenon of interference. Not only does the mind display, in this state, a strange tendency to lose its bearings (as evidenced by the slips and mistakes the secrets of which are just beginning to be revealed to us), but, what is more, it does not appear that, when the mind is functioning normally, it really responds to anything but the suggestions which come to it from the depths of that dark night to which I commend it. However conditioned it may be, its balance is relative. It scarcely dares express itself and, if it does, it confines itself to verifying that such and such an idea, or such and such a woman, has made an impression on it. What impression it would be hard pressed to say, by which it reveals the degree of its subjectivity, and nothing more. This idea, this woman, disturb it, they tend to make it less severe. What they do is isolate the mind for a second from its solvent and spirit it to heaven, as the beautiful precipitate it can be, that it is. When all else fails, it then calls upon chance, a divinity even more obscure than the others to whom it ascribes all its aberrations. Who can say to me that the angle by which that idea which affects it is offered, that what it likes in the eye of that woman is not precisely what links it to its dream, binds it to those fundamental facts which, through its own fault, it has lost? And if things were different, what might it be capable of? I would like to provide it with the key to this corridor.

3) The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart's content. And if you should die, are you not certain of reawaking among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference. You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless.

What reason, I ask, a reason so much vaster than the other, makes dreams seem so natural and allows me to welcome unreservedly a welter of episodes so strange that they could confound me now as I write? And yet I can believe my eyes, my ears; this great day has arrived, this beast has spoken.

If man's awaking is harder, if it breaks the spell too abruptly, it is because he has been led to make for himself too impoverished a notion of atonement.

4) From the moment when it is subjected to a methodical examination, when, by means yet to be determined, we succeed in recording the contents of dreams in their entirety (and that presupposes a discipline of memory spanning generations; but let us nonetheless begin by noting the most salient facts), when its graph will expand with unparalleled volume and regularity, we may hope that the mysteries which really are not will give way to the great Mystery. 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. 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.

A story is told according to which Saint-Pol-Roux, in times gone by, used to have a notice posted on the door of his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, which read: THE POET IS WORKING.

A great deal more could be said, but in passing I merely wanted to touch upon a subject which in itself would require a very long and much more detailed discussion; I shall come back to it. At this juncture, my intention was merely to mark a point by noting the hate of the marvelous which rages in certain men, this absurdity beneath which they try to bury it. Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.

In the realm of literature, only the marvelous is capable of fecundating works which belong to an inferior category such as the novel, and generally speaking, anything that involves storytelling. Lewis' The Monk is an admirable proof of this. It is infused throughout with the presence of the marvelous. Long before the author has freed his main characters from all temporal constraints, one feels them ready to act with an unprecedented pride. This passion for eternity with which they are constantly stirred lends an unforgettable intensity to their torments, and to mine. I mean that this book, from beginning to end, and in the purest way imaginable, exercises an exalting effect only upon that part of the mind which aspires to leave the earth and that, stripped of an insignificant part of its plot, which belongs to the period in which it was written, it constitutes a paragon of precision and innocent grandeur.* (What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer anything fantastic: there is only the real.) It seems to me none better has been done, and that the character of Mathilda in particular is the most moving creation that one can credit to this figurative fashion in literature. She is less a character than a continual temptation. And if a character is not a temptation, what is he? An extreme temptation, she. In The Monk the "nothing is impossible for him who dares try" gives it its full, convincing measure. Ghosts play a logical role in the book, since the critical mind does not seize them in order to dispute them. Ambrosio's punishment is likewise treated in a legitimate manner, since it is finally accepted by the critical faculty as a natural denouement.

It may seem arbitrary on my part, when discussing the marvelous, to choose this model, from which both the Nordic literatures and Oriental literatures have borrowed time and time again, not to mention the religious literatures of every country. This is because most of the examples which these literatures could have furnished me with are tainted by puerility, for the simple reason that they are addressed to children. At an early age children are weaned on the marvelous, and later on they fail to retain a sufficient virginity of mind to thoroughly enjoy fairy tales. No matter how charming they may be, a grown man would think he were reverting to childhood by nourishing himself on fairy tales, and I am the first to admit that all such tales are not suitable for him. The fabric of adorable improbabilities must be made a trifle more subtle the older we grow, and we are still at the age of waiting for this kind of spider.... But the faculties do not change radically. Fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant are all devices which we can always call upon without fear of deception. There are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales still almost blue.

The marvelous is not the same in every period of history: it partakes in some obscure way of a sort of general revelation only the fragments of which come down to us: they are the romantic ruins, the modern mannequin, or any other symbol capable of affecting the human sensibility for a period of time. In these areas which make us smile, there is still portrayed the incurable human restlessness, and this is why I take them into consideration and why I judge them inseparable from certain productions of genius which are, more than the others, painfully afflicted by them. They are Villon's gibbets, Racine's Greeks, Baudelaire's couches. They coincide with an eclipse of the taste I am made to endure, I whose notion of taste is the image of a big spot. Amid the bad taste of my time I strive to go further than anyone else. It would have been I, had I lived in 1820, I "the bleeding nun," I who would not have spared this cunning and banal "let us conceal" whereof the parodical Cuisin speaks, it would have been I, I who would have reveled in the enormous metaphors, as he says, all phases of the "silver disk." For today I think of a castle, half of which is not necessarily in ruins; this castle belongs to me, I picture it in a rustic setting, not far from Paris. The outbuildings are too numerous to mention, and, as for the interior, it has been frightfully restored, in such manner as to leave nothing to be desired from the viewpoint of comfort. Automobiles are parked before the door, concealed by the shade of trees. A few of my friends are living here as permanent guests: there is Louis Aragon leaving; he only has time enough to say hello; Philippe Soupault gets up with the stars, and Paul Eluard, our great Eluard, has not yet come home. There are Robert Desnos and Roger Vitrac out on the grounds poring over an ancient edict on duelling; Georges Auric, Jean Paulhan; Max Morise, who rows so well, and Benjamin Péret, busy with his equations with birds; and Joseph Delteil; and Jean Carrive; and Georges Limbour, and Georges Limbours (there is a whole hedge of Georges Limbours); and Marcel Noll; there is T. Fraenkel waving to us from his captive balloon, Georges Malkine, Antonin Artaud, Francis Gérard, Pierre Naville, J.-A. Boiffard, and after them Jacques Baron and his brother, handsome and cordial, and so many others besides, and gorgeous women, I might add. Nothing is too good for these young men, their wishes are, as to wealth, so many commands. Francis Picabia comes to pay us a call, and last week, in the hall of mirrors, we received a certain Marcel Duchamp whom we had not hitherto known. Picasso goes hunting in the neighborhood. The spirit of demoralization has elected domicile in the castle, and it is with it we have to deal every time it is a question of contact with our fellowmen, but the doors are always open, and one does not begin by "thanking" everyone, you know. Moreover, the solitude is vast, we don't often run into one another. And anyway, isn't what matters that we be the masters of ourselves, the masters of women, and of love too?

I shall be proved guilty of poetic dishonesty: everyone will go parading about saying that I live on the rue Fontaine and that he will have none of the water that flows therefrom. To be sure! But is he certain that this castle into which I cordially invite him is an image? What if this castle really existed! My guests are there to prove it does; their whim is the luminous road that leads to it. We really live by our fantasies when we give free reign to them. And how could what one might do bother the other, there, safely sheltered from the sentimental pursuit and at the trysting place of opportunities?

Man proposes and disposes. He and he alone can determine whether he is completely master of himself, that is, whether he maintains the body of his desires, daily more formidable, in a state of anarchy. Poetry teaches him to. It bears within itself the perfect compensation for the miseries we endure. It can also be an organizer, if ever, as the result of a less intimate disappointment, we contemplate taking it seriously. The time is coming when it decrees the end of money and by itself will break the bread of heaven for the earth! There will still be gatherings on the public squares, and movements you never dared hope participate in. Farewell to absurd choices, the dreams of dark abyss, rivalries, the prolonged patience, the flight of the seasons, the artificial order of ideas, the ramp of danger, time for everything! May you only take the trouble to practice poetry. Is it not incumbent upon us, who are already living off it, to try and impose what we hold to be our case for further inquiry?

It matters not whether there is a certain disproportion between this defense and the illustration that will follow it. It was a question of going back to the sources of poetic imagination and, what is more, of remaining there. Not that I pretend to have done so. It requires a great deal of fortitude to try to set up one's abode in these distant regions where everything seems at first to be so awkward and difficult, all the more so if one wants to try to take someone there. Besides, one is never sure of really being there. If one is going to all that trouble, one might as well stop off somewhere else. Be that as it may, the fact is that the way to these regions is clearly marked, and that to attain the true goal is now merely a matter of the travelers' ability to endure.

We are all more or less aware of the road traveled. I was careful to relate, in the course of a study of the case of Robert Desnos entitled ENTRÉE DES MÉDIUMS,* (See Les Pas perdus, published by N.R.F.) that I had been led to" concentrate my attention on the more or less partial sentences which, when one is quite alone and on the verge of falling asleep, become perceptible for the mind without its being possible to discover what provoked them." I had then just attempted the poetic adventure with the minimum of risks, that is, my aspirations were the same as they are today but I trusted in the slowness of formulation to keep me from useless contacts, contacts of which I completely disapproved. This attitude involved a modesty of thought certain vestiges of which I still retain. At the end of my life, I shall doubtless manage to speak with great effort the way people speak, to apologize for my voice and my few remaining gestures. The virtue of the spoken word (and the written word all the more so) seemed to me to derive from the faculty of foreshortening in a striking manner the exposition (since there was exposition) of a small number of facts, poetic or other, of which I made myself the substance. I had come to the conclusion that Rimbaud had not proceeded any differently. I was composing, with a concern for variety that deserved better, the final poems of Mont de piété, that is, I managed to extract from the blank lines of this book an incredible advantage. These lines were the closed eye to the operations of thought that I believed I was obliged to keep hidden from the reader. It was not deceit on my part, but my love of shocking the reader. I had the illusion of a possible complicity, which I had more and more difficulty giving up. I had begun to cherish words excessively for the space they allow around them, for their tangencies with countless other words which I did not utter. The poem BLACK FOREST derives precisely from this state of mind. It took me six months to write it, and you may take my word for it that I did not rest a single day. But this stemmed from the opinion I had of myself in those days, which was high, please don't judge me too harshly. I enjoy these stupid confessions. At that point cubist pseudo-poetry was trying to get a foothold, but it had emerged defenseless from Picasso's brain, and I was thought to be as dull as dishwater (and still am). I had a sneaking suspicion, moreover, that from the viewpoint of poetry I was off on the wrong road, but I hedged my bet as best I could, defying lyricism with salvos of definitions and formulas (the Dada phenomena were waiting in the wings, ready to come on stage) and pretending to search for an application of poetry to advertising (I went so far as to claim that the world would end, not with a good book but with a beautiful advertisement for heaven or for hell).

In those days, a man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.

The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be--the greater its emotional power and poetic reality...* (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

These words, however sibylline for the uninitiated, were extremely revealing, and I pondered them for a long time. But the image eluded me. Reverdy's aesthetic, a completely a posteriori aesthetic, led me to mistake the effects for the causes. It was in the midst of all this that I renounced irrevocably my point of view.

One evening, therefore, before I fell asleep, I perceived, so clearly articulated that it was impossible to change a word, but nonetheless removed from the sound of any voice, a rather strange phrase which came to me without any apparent relationship to the events in which, my consciousness agrees, I was then involved, a phrase which seemed to me insistent, a phrase, if I may be so bold, which was knocking at the window. I took cursory note of it and prepared to move on when its organic character caught my attention. Actually, this phrase astonished me: unfortunately I cannot remember it exactly, but it was something like: "There is a man cut in two by the window," but there could be no question of ambiguity, accompanied as it was by the faint visual image* (Were I a painter, this visual depiction would doubtless have become more important for me than the other. It was most certainly my previous predispositions which decided the matter. Since that day, I have had occasion to concentrate my attention voluntarily on similar apparitions, and I know they are fully as clear as auditory phenomena. With a pencil and white sheet of paper to hand, I could easily trace their outlines. Here again it is not a matter of drawing, but simply of tracing. I could thus depict a tree, a wave, a musical instrument, all manner of things of which I am presently incapable of providing even the roughest sketch. I would plunge into it, convinced that I would find my way again, in a maze of lines which at first glance would seem to be going nowhere. And, upon opening my eyes, I would get the very strong impression of something "never seen." The proof of what I am saying has been provided many times by Robert Desnos: to be convinced, one has only to leaf through the pages of issue number 36 of Feuilles libres which contains several of his drawings (Romeo and Juliet, A Man Died This Morning, etc.) which were taken by this magazine as the drawings of a madman and published as such.) of a man walking cut half way up by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body. Beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, what I saw was the simple reconstruction in space of a man leaning out a window. But this window having shifted with the man, I realized that I was dealing with an image of a fairly rare sort, and all I could think of was to incorporate it into my material for poetic construction. No sooner had I granted it this capacity than it was in fact succeeded by a whole series of phrases, with only brief pauses between them, which surprised me only slightly less and left me with the impression of their being so gratuitous that the control I had then exercised upon myself seemed to me illusory and all I could think of was putting an end to the interminable quarrel raging within me.* (Knut Hamsum ascribes this sort of revelation to which I had been subjected as deriving from hunger, and he may not be wrong. (The fact is I did not eat every day during that period of my life). Most certainly the manifestations that he describes in these terms are clearly the same:

"The following day I awoke at an early hour. It was still dark. My eyes had been open for a long time when I heard the clock in the apartment above strike five. I wanted to go back to sleep, but I couldn't; I was wide awake and a thousand thoughts were crowding through my mind.

"Suddenly a few good fragments came to mind, quite suitable to be used in a rough draft, or serialized; all of a sudden I found, quite by chance, beautiful phrases, phrases such as I had never written. I repeated them to myself slowly, word by word; they were excellent. And there were still more coming. I got up and picked up a pencil and some paper that were on a table behind my bed. It was as though some vein had burst within me, one word followed another, found its proper place, adapted itself to the situation, scene piled upon scene, the action unfolded, one retort after another welled up in my mind, I was enjoying myself immensely. Thoughts came to me so rapidly and continued to flow so abundantly that I lost a whole host of delicate details, because my pencil could not keep up with them, and yet I went as fast as I could, my hand in constant motion, I did not lose a minute. The sentences continued to well up within me, I was pregnant with my subject."

Apollinaire asserted that Chirico's first paintings were done under the influence of cenesthesic disorders (migraines, colics, etc.).)

Completely occupied as I still was with Freud at that time, and familiar as I was with his methods of examination which I had some slight occasion to use on some patients during the war, I resolved to obtain from myself what we were trying to obtain from them, namely, a monologue spoken as rapidly as possible without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue consequently unencumbered by the slightest inhibition and which was, as closely as possible, akin to spoken thought. It had seemed to me, and still does--the way in which the phrase about the man cut in two had come to me is an indication of it--that the speed of thought is no greater than the speed of speech, and that thought does not necessarily defy language, nor even the fast-moving pen. It was in this frame of mind that Philippe Soupault--to whom I had confided these initial conclusions--and I decided to blacken some paper, with a praiseworthy disdain for what might result from a literary point of view. The ease of execution did the rest. By the end of the first day we were able to read to ourselves some fifty or so pages obtained in this manner, and begin to compare our results. All in all, Soupault's pages and mine proved to be remarkably similar: the same overconstruction, shortcomings of a similar nature, but also, on both our parts, the illusion of an extraordinary verve, a great deal of emotion, a considerable choice of images of a quality such that we would not have been capable of preparing a single one in longhand, a very special picturesque quality and, here and there, a strong comical effect. The only difference between our two texts seemed to me to derive essentially from our respective tempers. Soupault's being less static than mine, and, if he does not mind my offering this one slight criticism, from the fact that he had made the error of putting a few words by way of titles at the top of certain pages, I suppose in a spirit of mystification. On the other hand, I must give credit where credit is due and say that he constantly and vigorously opposed any effort to retouch or correct, however slightly, any passage of this kind which seemed to me unfortunate. In this he was, to be sure, absolutely right.* (I believe more and more in the infallibility of my thought with respect to myself, and this is too fair. Nonetheless, with this thought-writing, where one is at the mercy of the first outside distraction, "ebullutions" can occur. It would be inexcusable for us to pretend otherwise. By definition, thought is strong, and incapable of catching itself in error. The blame for these obvious weaknesses must be placed on suggestions that come to it from without.) It is, in fact, difficult to appreciate fairly the various elements present: one may even go so far as to say that it is impossible to appreciate them at a first reading. To you who write, these elements are, on the surface, as strange to you as they are to anyone else, and naturally you are wary of them. Poetically speaking, what strikes you about them above all is their extreme degree of immediate absurdity, the quality of this absurdity, upon closer scrutiny, being to give way to everything admissible, everything legitimate in the world: the disclosure of a certain number of properties and of facts no less objective, in the final analysis, than the others.

In homage to Guillaume Apollinaire, who had just died and who, on several occasions, seemed to us to have followed a discipline of this kind, without however having sacrificed to it any mediocre literary means, Soupault and I baptized the new mode of pure expression which we had at our disposal and which we wished to pass on to our friends, by the name of SURREALISM. I believe that there is no point today in dwelling any further on this word and that the meaning we gave it initially has generally prevailed over its Apollinarian sense. To be even fairer, we could probably have taken over the word SUPERNATURALISM employed by Gérard de Nerval in his dedication to the Filles de feu.* (And also by Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus ([Book III] Chapter VIII, "Natural Supernaturalism"), 1833-34.) It appears, in fact, that Nerval possessed to a tee the spirit with which we claim a kinship, Apollinaire having possessed, on the contrary, naught but the letter, still imperfect, of Surrealism, having shown himself powerless to give a valid theoretical idea of it. Here are two passages by Nerval which seem to me to be extremely significant in this respect:

I am going to explain to you, my dear Dumas, the phenomenon of which you have spoken a short while ago. There are, as you know, certain storytellers who cannot invent without identifying with the characters their imagination has dreamt up. You may recall how convincingly our old friend Nodier used to tell how it had been his misfortune during the Revolution to be guillotined; one became so completely convinced of what he was saying that one began to wonder how he had managed to have his head glued back on.

...And since you have been indiscreet enough to quote one of the sonnets composed in this SUPERNATURALISTIC dream-state, as the Germans would call it, you will have to hear them all. You will find them at the end of the volume. They are hardly any more obscure than Hegel's metaphysics or Swedenborg's MEMORABILIA, and would lose their charm if they were explained, if such were possible; at least admit the worth of the expression....** (See also L'Idéoréalisme by Saint-Pol-Roux.)

Those who might dispute our right to employ the term SURREALISM in the very special sense that we understand it are being extremely dishonest, for there can be no doubt that this word had no currency before we came along. Therefore, I am defining it once and for all:

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 the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. The following have performed acts of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM: Messrs. Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Eluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac.

They seem to be, up to the present time, the only ones, and there would be no ambiguity about it were it not for the case of Isidore Ducasse, about whom I lack information. And, of course, if one is to judge them only superficially by their results, a good number of poets could pass for Surrealists, beginning with Dante and, in his finer moments, Shakespeare. In the course of the various attempts I have made to reduce what is, by breach of trust, called genius, I have found nothing which in the final analysis can be attributed to any other method than that.

Young's Nights are Surrealist from one end to the other; unfortunately it is a priest who is speaking, a bad priest no doubt, but a priest nonetheless.

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism.

Chateaubriand is Surrealist in exoticism.

Constant is Surrealist in politics.

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn't stupid.

Desbordes-Valmore is Surrealist in love.

Bertrand is Surrealist in the past.

Rabbe is Surrealist in death.

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

Jarry is Surrealist in absinthe.

Nouveau is Surrealist in the kiss.

Saint-Pol-Roux is Surrealist in his use of symbols.

Fargue is Surrealist in the atmosphere.

Vaché is Surrealist in me.

Reverdy is Surrealist at home.

Saint-Jean-Perse is Surrealist at a distance.

Roussel is Surrealist as a storyteller.


I would like to stress the point: they are not always Surrealists, in that I discern in each of them a certain number of preconceived ideas to which--very naively!--they hold. They hold to them because they had not heard the Surrealist voice, the one that continues to preach on the eve of death and above the storms, because they did not want to serve simply to orchestrate the marvelous score. They were instruments too full of pride, and this is why they have not always produced a harmonious sound.* (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, Gustave 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, André Masson.)

But we, who have made no effort whatsoever to filter, who in our works have made ourselves into simple receptacles of so many echoes, modest recording instruments who are not mesmerized by the drawings we are making, perhaps we serve an even nobler cause. Thus do we render with integrity the "talent" which has been lent to us. You might as well speak of the talent of this platinum ruler, this mirror, this door, and of the sky, if you like.

We do not have any talent; ask Philippe Soupault:

"Anatomical products of manufacture and low-income dwellings will destroy the tallest cities."

Ask Roger Vitrac:

"No sooner had I called forth the marble-admiral than he turned on his heel like a horse which rears at the sight of the North star and showed me, in the plane of his two-pointed cocked hat, a region where I was to spend my life."

Ask Paul Eluard:

"This is an oft-told tale that I tell, a famous poem that I reread: I am leaning against a wall, with my verdant ears and my lips burned to a crisp."

Ask Max Morise:

"The bear of the caves and his friend the bittern, the vol-au-vent and his valet the wind, the Lord Chancellor with his Lady, the scarecrow for sparrows and his accomplice the sparrow, the test tube and his daughter the needle, this carnivore and his brother the carnival, the sweeper and his monocle, the Mississippi and its little dog, the coral and its jug of milk, the Miracle and its Good Lord, might just as well go and disappear from the surface of the sea."

Ask Joseph Delteil:

"Alas! I believe in the virtue of birds. And a feather is all it takes to make me die laughing."

Ask Louis Aragon:

"During a short break in the party, as the players were gathering around a bowl of flaming punch, I asked a tree if it still had its red ribbon."

And ask me, who was unable to keep myself from writing the serpentine, distracting lines of this preface.

Ask Robert Desnos, he who, more than any of us, has perhaps got closest to the Surrealist truth, he who, in his still unpublished works* (NOUVELLES HÉBRIDES, DÉSORDRE FORMEL, DEUIL POUR DEUIL.) and in the course of the numerous experiments he has been a party to, has fully justified the hope I placed in Surrealism and leads me to believe that a great deal more will still come of it. Desnos speaks Surrealist at will. His extraordinary agility in orally following his thought is worth as much to us as any number of splendid speeches which are lost, Desnos having better things to do than record them. He reads himself like an open book, and does nothing to retain the pages, which fly away in the windy wake of his life.  


Tuesday, March 10, 2009 12:28:41 AM


This blog will include info from History of Art about the presurrealists those that paved the way for the eventual surrealist movement championed by Andre Breton in 1924.

Presurrealists: Joos de Momper; Giovanni Battista Braccelli; Rodolphe Bresdin; Augustin Lesage; Adolph Wolfli

Odilon Redon (Eye-Balloon) 1878

Jean Ingres (Jupiter et Thetis) 1811

There are certain precursors whom the surrealists claimed as their own, and to whom they constantly paid homage in their periodicals and their exhibitions. Andre Breton said, in an interview towards the end of his life, 'Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe that it will survive me.' However, although the movement was based on the cult of the strange and the exaltation of the imaginary, we should avoid the common error of believing that all the masters of fantastic art, of mannerism and baroque, were its ancestors. Surrealism has no room for the fantastic when it is elaborated without inner need : it is not so much the description of the impossible as the evocation of the possible, supplemented by desire and dream. Thus, there are painters of strange universes who have no connection with it at all. For instance, Odilon Redon, in his charcoal drawings and etchings, created fantastic animalcules and nightmare landscapes with the avowed intention of putting 'the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible'; but the surrealists firmly refused to acknowledge any kinship with this artist, whom they considered insipid. Conversely, there are some works by classical painters which are undeniably surrealist in the ambiguity of their content or their execution. Ingres, for instance, in Jupiter and Thetis (1811, Aix-en-Provence, Musee Granet), produced the image of a regal couple which has all the enigmatic effulgence of the figures in the work of Paul Delvaux.

The surrealists assembled for their own use an 'ideal museum' made up of a small number of works which they admired. They did not wish to destroy existing libraries or art galleries, but merely to give them a thorough shaking-up, to sweep away hallowed glories, and to bring unappreciated geniuses into the full light. Surrealism is based on the belief that there are treasures hidden in the human mind. It was this that brought the surrealists to claim that in the cultural legacy of the past there remained undiscovered personalities and works which were to be preferred to the names and titles revered by official teaching.
If we consider only those forerunners of surrealism whom the surrealists themselves recognized as such, and whom they regarded as authorities, we find that they all fall into one or another of three groups : visionary art, primitive art and psycho-pathological art. It was this triple influence which gave birth to surrealism, which is in a sense a fusion of the principles behind each of these three forms of art.

Paolo Uccello was one of the great visionary artists, those who show objects not merely as they actually appear, but through the mind's eye. He was honoured by the surrealists for paintings like the Desecration of the Host (1465-7, Urbino, Galleria Nazionale). It was the lyricism of his conception that they consciously admired, and they were indifferent to the legend of 'Paolo the bird-lover', and to his mania for perspective. Uccello freed painting from the slavish imitation of nature by giving arbitrary colours to animals, houses and fields, and by arranging his figures as a function of a combination of converging lines. These means also allowed him to endow reality with a sense of irrationality.

Paolo Uccello (Miracle of the Desecrated Host) 1465-69


According to Vasari's account, another painter of the Italian Renaissance, Piero di Cosimo, would spend long periods in the contemplation of stains on a wall or clouds in the sky. In the stains or in the clouds he saw great processions, cities and magnificent landscapes, which he used as models. For a festival in Florence he organized a macabre masquerade which both terrified and delighted those who saw it. His powers of transfiguration enable him, in paintings like The Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths (London, National Gallery) and the Misfortunes of Silenus (Cambridge, Mass., Fogg Art Museum), to evoke the Dionysiac ecstasies of the Golden Age.

Piero di Cosimo (The Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths)


Piero di Cosimo (The Misfortunes of Silenus) c. 1505-1510

The most important pre-surrealist visionary was Hieronymus Bosch, and it was on his example that the surrealists relied most. In The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain (Madrid, Prado) and the Temptation of St Antony (Lisbon, Museu Nacional), he parades an exhaustive repertoire of prodigies. There are wheeled dragons, fish with legs, hybrid demons, contortionists, living rocks, weird vegetables, birds larger than men, delirious processions and dizzy battles, people walking on their hands or vomiting frogs, rebel angels transformed into dragonilies. All these are part of the heritage of Gothic Art, but Bosch's meditative genius reinvents them and offers an obsessive spectacle of the prodigality of nature, of humanity's feverish squandering of life, and of the universal triumph of unreason. There have been many attempts to explain the philosophical preoccupations which make Bosch's painting, to an even greater degree than that of the elder Bruegel, something which remains a secret - in other words, by definition a surrealist form of painting.

Hieronymus Bosch (Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights) c. 1500

Hieronymus Bosch (Triptych of Haywain) 1500-02
Hieronymus Bosch (Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony) 1505-06
Albrecht Durer (The Sea Monster) c. 1498

Albrecht Altdorfer (The Battle of Alexander) 1529
There were more forerunners of surrealism among sixteenth-century German painters. Albrecht Durer's woodcuts and copper engravings gave episodes from the Apocalypse and various allegories the force of hypnagogic images. Albrecht Altdorfer, an architect at Regensburg in Bavaria, applied miniaturist techniques to his large painting The Victory of Alexander (1529, Munich, Alte Pinakothek), and by this method was able to make hundreds of warriors, lit by dawn in the heart of a mountain landscape, swarm over the canvas in a hallucinatory way. Matthias Grunewald, the greatest colourist of the German school, reached the heights of the fantastic in his Isenheim altarpiece, and did so through a very excess of realism. Hans Baldung Grien's frenzied imagination, shown in his linking of Pleasure and Death, and in his witches' sabbaths, compelled the intense attention of the surrealists.

Antoine Caron, the court painter of the Valois, whose job it was to commemorate the festivities of the court of Charles IX, has a place of honour in the surrealists' ideal museum. He painted two pictures of massacres, in particular the Massacre of the Triumvirs (1566, Paris, Musee du Louvre), in which the convulsions of the beheaded victims and the bloody rage of the soldiers contrast with the smiling calm of the statues and the harmony of the architecture to create a nightmare of cruelty. There is a strange quality, too, in other paintings by Caron, such as the Apotheosis of Semele and The Elephant Carousel, and also in his engravings for Le Livre de Philostrate, which had a great success during his lifetime.

Antoine Caron (An Allegory of the Triumph of Spring) 1566

Matthias Grunewald (Isenheim Altarpiece. The Temptation of St Antony) c. 1515
Hans Baldung Grien (Three Ages of the Woman and the Death) 1510
The 'double image' technique which some of the surrealists used to great effect was anticipated by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, official portrait painter to the Holy Roman Emperors, who lived at the Hapsburg court from 1560 to 1587. He was noted for his 'composite heads', in which he used assembled objects to make up allegories and portraits. He also painted Summer (1563, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), a figure composed of a pile of vegetables, fruit and flowers, and The Librarian, made up of a heap of books. Some of the minor Flemish masters, among them Joos de Momper, imitated Arcimboldo and painted anthropomorphic landscapes.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Water) 1566
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Summer) 1573
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (The Librarian) 1566

Joos de Momper (Anthropomorphic Landscape) (Flemish, 1564 -  1635)
Joos de Momper ( Flemish, 1564 -  1635)
Anthropomorphic Landscape

Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624
 The figures who play instruments and dance in the fifty engravings in the series Bizarrie di varie Figure (1624), by the Florentine painter Giovanni Battista Braccelli, are made up of chains, drawers, springs and set-squares, rather like some of the drawings produced in the surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse.

Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624
Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624

Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624
Giovanni Battista Braccelli  (1600-1650)
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, 1624
Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Fussli), a Swiss-born painter who lived in England, liked to paint dreams in which a sleeping creature was surrounded by unreal figures; his most successful picture in this genre was The Nightmare (1782, Frankfurt, Goethe-Museum). His taste for tragic lighting effects and his fondness for fairy landscapes, where wyverns mingle with winged toads, redeem his over-literary inspiration : most of its subjects were drawn from Shakespeare. The poet-engraver William Blake was more openly a visionary. He had genuine hallucinations during which he saw into the future and conversed with angels and with the dead. In his visionary epics, illustrated with engravings, and in his illustrations to Dante, he expresses Chaos and the Forces of Good and Evil with frenetic brilliance.
Henry Fuseli (The Nightmare) 1791
William Blake (The Great Red Dragon and the Woman) 1810
Francisco de Goya (They Spruce Themselves Up)

Goya's Proverbs are deeply surrealist, both in the spontaneity of line and in the originality of the subjects. He is surrealist, too, in other works where his merciless grip inflicts violent twists on reality, forcing it to bring forth monstrous truths. Charles Meryon, the romantic engraver, descends from Goya's line. From the time when he was first afflicted by the persecution mania which led to his detention in the Charenton asylum, his etchings of Paris were enlivened by disturbing apparitions in the sky. Typical of these is the aerial flotilla in his Ministry of the Marine (1865).

Rodolphe Bresdin, who lived an eccentric and miserable existence, made etchings containing extraordinary landscapes, with trees scaled like fish, contused jumbles of rocks, animals and skeletons, and glimpses of dreamlike buildings.

The great romantic poet Victor Hugo also made a contribution, through his drawings, to the development of free and imaginative art. Between 1848 and 1851, in the large studio he had set up in Paris, he did large drawings in which he used every kind of audacious technique to evoke castles on the Rhine and more or less sinister ruins. He used strange mixtures of ink and coffee, and made use of soot, carbon and sepia. Often he used a scraperboard technique. When he was in exile in Guernsey, he turned to chance methods, and created forms by folding a piece of paper on to which he had dropped an ink blot, or by placing a scrap of lace on a blot. On other occasions he chose to use crossed nibs which left blots and stains. A series of etchings made from his drawings, known as the Album Castel (1863), reveals his capacity for visual poetry.
Rodolphe Bresdin (France, 1825-1885)
La Comédie de la Mort, 1854

Le Bon Samaritain, 1861

La Sainte Famille aux cerfs, 1871

Intérieur paysan à la chaste Suzanne, 1860
Arnold Bocklin, who was to be admired by both Chirico and Dali, was born in Basle, but lived for a long time in Italy, where he tried to discover the secret of the technique used in the mural paintings of Pompeii. While he was living in Florence, from 1872 to 1885, he painted the Island of the Dead (1880, Basle, Kunstmuseum), one of the masterworks of his style, which creates an atmosphere of muted unreality. Bocklin made a conscious effort to associate painting with poetry, both by attaching a great deal of importance to the content of the picture and by using shimmering colour.

Arnold Bocklin (The Isle of the Dead) 1880
  Towards the end or the nineteenth century, some painters began to formulate demands which the surrealists later applauded. They admired Gauguin for his rebellion, and for his rejection of civilization for a wilder form of life; they admired Van Gogh, with whom Antonin Artaud identified himself in some impassioned pages; they admired Seurat, whose Neo-Impressionism they regarded as a 'pre-surrealism' which bathed everyday reality in a magic light; and they admired Charles Filiger, who was a painter of Gauguin's Pont-Aven group, living a hermit's life at Plougastel, whose plans for stained glass for an imaginary church have a spare, hieratic quality.
Paul Gauguin (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888
Georges Seurat (The Circus) 1890
Charles Filiger (Pouldu Landscape) 1890
This period was dominated by Gustaves Moreau, a master whom the surrealists rated second only to Hieronymus Bosch. A refined and learned teacher at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where his pupils included Rouault and Matisse, Moreau was a solitary whose contempt for modern life led him to shut himself up in his house in Montmartre (now his museum), and to spend his life evoking visions of Greece and the Orient. Moreau had a sense of visual splendour. Art, he said, should obey the principle of 'necessary richness' ; in other words, it should represent everything that is most sumptuous in the world. His watercolours, more so than his enormous paintings, blaze with enamels, jewels and embroideries, giving to Sirens, Chimaeras and other fabulous characters the luxurious brilliance of nostalgic visions.

Henri (le Douanier) Rousseau, too, was a notable forerunner of the surrealists, particularly in his exotic paintings, which always prompt the question as to whether he did them from imagination or from memory. In the Dialogue creole between Andre Breton and Andre Masson, the former remarks : 'A good question for an advanced examinationfor art critics (don't you think that they ought to be made to take examinations?) would be : "Does the painting of Rousseau prove that he knew the tropics or that he did not? ".'

Finally, very close to their own beginnings, surrealists in search of precedents came across the Norwegian Edvard Munch, who, although claiming to be an expressionist, goes far beyond expressionism in his paintings, where he gives mystical expression to love, to solitude and to primitive tears : such paintings as The Dance of Life (i899-1900, Oslo, Nasjonalgalleriet). They found also Alfred Kubin, who, at the time he published his novel Jenseits (1909), was painting virgin forests inhabited by extinct animals, and who set down his night dreams in pen drawings the moment he woke.
Gustaves Moreau (Hercules and the Hydra) 1876
Henri Rousseau (Unpleasant Surprise) 1901
Alfred Kubin (Every Night a Dream Visits Us) 
One thing which the majority of these visionary artists had in common was that they could develop their faculties only by starting from subjects from Graeco-Roman mythology, from the Bible or from daily life. What distinguishes them from the surrealists is that the latter wanted to invent their own mythology, or to draw it from sources which had hitherto remained untapped.

They sought this new stimulation from primitive art. They developed to the highest degree the interest that it is possible to feel in the creations of distant peoples. They were able to do this because they immediately made it a matter of love and not of mere curiosity. The cubists had wanted to make use of the plastic solution which was offered by African masks (Artistic Cultures of sub-Saharan Africa); the surrealists, on the other hand, tried to establish communication with the mind that had imposed the form of the mask. The first twentieth-century amateurs of what were called 'barbaric fetishes' were as willing to collect rubbishy tourist souvenirs as authentic pieces. In 1905 Vlaminck and Derain were wholly undiscriminating in the purchase of objects which sailors had brought back from Africa. The surrealists made their choices as genuine connoisseurs; some of them, indeed, were specialists in ethnography. In 1939, the surrealist Wolfgang Paalen visited British Columbia and Alaska, where he discovered some ancient witchdoctors' tombs. After an expedition to a little-known area of the state of Veracruz in Mexico, he published a treatise on Olmec art. The finest pieces shown at the exhibition of North American Indian art in the Museo Nacional in Mexico City in 1945 came from his collection. Although the surrealist painters were not all as expert as Paalen, they were on the whole well-informed amateurs of primitive art.
Melanesian art (Mask of a Kararau clan)
Pueblo (Hopi) art (Katchina doll)
They did, however, have a distinct preference for the art of Oceania as opposed to the art of Africa. This is not to suggest that they undervalued or systematically rejected the resources of Africa; this can be seen from Michel Leiris' fine work on the secret language of the Dogon ot West Africa and on the possession rites of the Gondar of Ethiopia. The fact is that surrealism merely accepted the principle that African art, because it was based on criteria of realism, was less capable of regenerating the plastic arts in the West than was Oceanic art, which was based on a poetic interpretation of the world. 'Oceania .. . what power that word will enjoy in the surrealist movement. It will be one of the lock-keepers who will open the floodgates of our hearts', Andre Breton acknowledged. The fascination with Oceanic art derived from a nostalgia for a 'lost world' : its signs suggested the possibility of a life of paradise. But it was a result, too, of the profusion and variety of its styles, with new revelations coming from every island. Tortoiseshell masks from the Torres Strait, basketwork masks from Sulka in New Britain, tree-fern sculptures from the New Hebrides, mother-of-pearl inlays from the Solomon Islands, monumental drums from Ambrym, Easter Island megaliths; in all these, an exuberance of imagination gives vitality to the decoration. What the surrealists loved in this art was the fact that conceptual representation was more important than perceptual. In the bark paintings from Arnhem Land in Australia, totemic animals and mythical figures, depicted with their entrails visible, show the need to paint what is known, what is believed, while making use of what is seen.

The time which many of the surrealists spent in America gave them the opportunity of discovering American Indian art, which moved them to the same enthusiasm as the art of Oceania. The traces of pre-Columbian civilizations, too, evoked a 'lost world', and they too were probed to give forth their meaning. Max Ernst and Andre Breton, particularly, were captivated by the myths and drawings of the North American tribes; for example by the Hopi of north-east Arizona, with the wall paintings in their kivas, underground temples, their initiation rituals which culminated in the 'night of mystery and terror', their cult of cloud-ancestors, and their supernatural guardians the Katchina, who were represented by dolls or by masked dancers.

Finally, 'psycho-pathological' art is a field of study which the surrealists were the first to turn to profit. Here there was an inexhaustible reservoir of authentic works, motivated neither by a desire to please, nor by material interest, nor by artistic ambition, but by the irrepressible need to pour out a message from the depths of the being. This category includes the paintings of mediums and the paintings of the mentally sick. The medium who was most admired was Helene Smith, the subject of Theodore Flournoy's book Des Indes a la planete Mars (1900). When she was in trance, Helene Smith described her adventures on Mars, spoke Martian, and drew and painted the plants, landscapes and houses which she had seen there. In 1912 a miner from the Pas-de-Calais, Augustin Lesage, in obedience to an inner voice, began to produce enormous decorative panels, which, despite the fact that he was an uneducated man, included examples of various Oriental styles; he believed himself to be in contact with spirits (including that of Leonardo da Vinci), who guided him in his choice of patterns and colours.

Augustin Lesage

(French, 1876-1954)
Composition symbolique, 1928
Symboles des pyramides, 1928

Signed, 1927
But the surrealists attached more importance to the evidence of the mentally deranged, who proved that the least cultured being possessed genius, once it abandoned itself to the promptings of the unconscious mind. Of all the mental patients they adopted, the one they appreciated the most was Adolph Wolfli. Wolfli's mother was a washerwoman and his father a mason. He himself worked as a labourer, and after a conviction for indecency took to drink and fell prey to schizophrenia. From the time of his hospitalization in 1895, when he was thirty-one, until his death in 1930 he painted tirelessly. At first he painted scenes of self-punishment, where he showed himself undergoing tortures, then he moved to scenes of grandeur in which he saw himself as a masked superman surrounded by winged goddesses and emblematic animals. His horror of blank space led him to overload his surfaces, filling his images with decorations and musical compositions. The rending violence of such masterpieces of psycho-pathological art strip naked the instinct which drives man to deform reality.

But, left to themselves, these precursors, illustrious or obscure, would not have been enough to impose a new scale of values. The realization that the lessons which they offered could be of value to modern art had to wait for the appearance of the surrealists, a group of creators who sought allies from the past to support their bid for the recognition of the absolute rights of the dream.

Adolph Wolfli  (Swiss, 1864-1930)

(1864 - 1930) (occasionally spelt Adolf Woelfli or Adolf Wolfli) was a prolific Swiss artist who
is regarded as one of the foremost artists in the Art Brut or outsider art traditions.


Sunday, March 8, 2009 12:47:11 AM


Below are two articles about Magritte's 1948 Vache period. I'll give a short summary. The early 1940s was one of the worst times of Magritte's life, not only did the Germans occupy Belgium but his marriage briefly fell apart. In 1943 Magritte trying to overcome a severe depression started painting his sunny impressionistic pieces inspired by Renoir which he calls his sunlit period.

When Magritte live in the suburbs of Paris from 1927-1930 he never received the recognition he felt he deserved. He had no one-man shows and returned to Belgium in bad economic times. By the mid-1940s the French began to appreciate his art and he was invited to do a show in late 1947. In preparation for the show, during a five week period in 1948, he decided to paint some joking impressionist paintings to exert some revenge on the French for snubbing him for so long.

Magritte called these paintings jokingly his “vache” paintings which in french does not only mean “cow,” but also as much as “mean” or “dirty”; “vacherie” signifies a dirty trick.
Here are two articles about the 1948 Vache period:

Bernard Marcadé on René Magritte: Bernard Marcadé is a critic and freelance curator based in Paris. His Marcel Duchamp biography was published this year by Flammarion.

In 1947 Magritte gave up what he called his "tactile conformism" partly to distance himself from the rigours of Parisian Surrealism. He painted a series of hilarious pictures that trumped his colleagues- until his wife Georgette complained. Bernard Marcadé looks at René Magritte's Période Vache.

Art history likes periods, whether for the purposes of simplification or edification. Thus Picasso’s blue and pink periods are evoked, most often in order to contrast them with one another, as are Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical and return-to-order periods, or the mechanomorphic and abstract periods of Francis Picabia. In most cases the artists themselves play no part in these classifications and registrations. They are particularly difficult to determine when René Magritte is concerned. It is possible, of course, to perceive Impressionist and Cubist influences at the beginning of his career. But running contrary to the abstract, figurative, automatic and oneiric styles that ceaselessly articulated the history of painting at this time, and Surrealism in particular, Magritte would opt, from 1925 onwards, to “paint objects only with their apparent details”.

So it was with full knowledge of the facts that he twice decided to break with the “tactical conformism” that he had until then freely imposed upon himself: in 1942 with the period referred to as “Impressionist” or “Renoir”; and in 1947 with his “vache” – literally cow – period. It’s hard to understand these decisions outside of their historical context, that of the Second World War and the Liberation. The painter’s Impressionist period also coincides with his self-distancing from official Parisian Surrealism. His manifesto Surrealism in full sunlight, which he concocted in 1946 with the complicity of Marcel Mariën, Paul Nougé, Louis Scutenaire, Joë Bousquet, Jacques Michel and Jacques Wergifosse, a prelude to the manifestoes of extramentalism and amentalism, is an instrument of warfare directed against the magic, esoteric ideology into which André Breton had strayed. “We have neither the time nor the taste to play at Surrealist art, we have a huge task ahead of us, we must imagine charming objects which will awaken what is left within us of the instinct to pleasure.”

It was in this polemical context that Magritte was invited to hold his first solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie du Faubourg in May 1948. For the occasion, over five weeks he made the seventeen oil paintings and twenty or so gouaches which, taken together, he would then call his vache period. Behind this term, of course, we must read an ironic reference to the historically listed Fauve (literally wild beast) painting of Derain, Matisse and Braque. Vache would thus be the conniving and trivial reverse of Fauve, a term that was originally pejorative but which has, over time, been wreathed with the values of lyricism and flamboyance. The category of bovidae in fact supplies fewer inspiring metaphors than that of wild beasts. In French, the term vache is used for an excessively fat woman, or a soft, lazy person. An unpleasant person is described as a peau de vache (cow-skin); amour vache (cow-love) refers to a relationship more physical than emotional. It thus treads a line between vulgarity and coarseness, and that is what characterises this set of paintings and gouaches, representing a radical departure from the painter’s neutral, detached style which had finally been accepted by Parisian Surrealist orthodoxy. Overall, the striking thing about these works is their garish tones, their exuberant, grotesque and caricatured subjects, all executed rapidly and casually in the name of a freedom from aesthetic and moral injunctions and prescriptions.

The exhibition was accompanied by a small catalogue with a preface by the poet Louis Scutenaire, bearing an evocative title (“ Les pieds dans le plat” – Putting one’s foot in it) and written in a slangy style, which is clearly in line with Magritte’s intentions. Moreover, Scutenaire would admit as much some years later: “The important thing was not to enchant the Parisians, but outrage them.” The triviality of the works actually wrong-foots Surrealist good taste. Both text and images are placed on a deliberately rustic and provincial register. “We’d been fed-up for a good long time, we had, deep in our forests, in our green pastures.” Traditionally, the Belgians are seen as coarse peasants by the French, including the intellectuals (in about 1865 Charles Baudelaire had written his pamphlet Poor Belguim). This chauvinism, still prevalent event among the holiest of holies of Parisian Surrealism, is here in a sense returned to sender, “We’d like to say shit politely to you, in your false language,” Scutenaire goes on to write. “Because we bumpkins, we yokels, have absolutely no manners, you realise.”

The tone is set. Scut’ and Mag’ (their signatures, indicating their friendship and complicity) have decided to turn this exhibition into a kind of explosive manifesto against the arrogance and pedantry of the sycophants of the ideology advocated by André Breton. “The moment had come to strike a great blow,” Scutenaire would explain in retrospect. The two associates laid it on the line, The works shown in Paris joyfully mix comedy, viciousness and coarseness of the most scatological kind. In this respect they continue the visual counterpart to the three tracts that Magritte published in 1946 along with Marcel Mariën ( The Imbecile, The Pain in the Arse, The Sod), in which one could already read a supreme contempt for all kinds of convention. Pictorial Content is probably the painting in the series which best allegorises Magritte’s desire to attack the pictorial practices with which he himself had engaged up until that point. It is no longer resemblance that is brought to the fore here, but an excess of distortion and a stridency of colour.

The runny trickles provide a kind of sabotage of the idea of painting which to a certain extent anticipates what would be, some 30 years later, at the heart of the so-called Bad Painting which, from German Neo-Expressionism to the Italian trans-avantgarde, via French free figuration, erupted across the world of Western art in the late 1970s and 1980s. In it, in fact, we find a similar way of integrating the devalued registers of popular culture (advertising, comic strips, graffiti). Scutenaire suggests that this series of paintings was to a large extent inspired by “caricatures shown by Colinet, published before 1914 in magazines for children”. It is true that one can recognise, here and there, explicit references to certain caricatures by the Belgian cartoonist Deladoës, or even direct borrowings of scenes from the Adventures des Pieds nickels, the famous strip drawn by Louis Forton for L’Epatant (The Mountain-dweller, Pictorial Content, The Triumpal March, Jean-Marie, Famine).

In spite of their unbridled style, they are not entirely alien to the painter’s universe. The Ellipse, depicting a huntsman whose rifle appears where his nose should be, The Old Soldier (a poor, ill, veteran who can no longer fight, decked out with five pipes and three noses), an eagle’s head topped by a fortress ( Prince Charming) participate in René Magritte’s visual rhetoric. But that rhetoric is subjected to such chromatic stridencies, to such formal anarchy, that the pleasure principle is plainly the determining factor here. In the end, these insolent works have less in common with de Chirico or Picabia, who were, at the same time, radically transforming their style by miming “traditionalist” attitudes, than they do with an approach such as that of Martin Kippenberger between 1980 and 1990, undermining from within the dominant forms of the art of his time.

The exhibition at the Galerie du Faubourg enjoyed no commercial success. But the target had been hit. The Parisian Surrealists felt they were being aimed at, and were duly offended. This période vache could not subsequently be transformed into a style. Barely a few weeks after the opening of the show, Magritte used the excuse of his wife’s supposedly negative reaction to bring the adventure to an end. “I would quite like to continue with the ‘approach’ I experimented with in Paris, and take it further. That’s my tendency: one of slow suicide. But there’s Georgette and my familiar disgust with being ‘sincere’. Georgette prefers the well-made painting of ‘yesteryear’, so particularly to please Georgette in future I’m going to show the painting of yesteryear. I’ll find a way to slip in a great big incongruity from time to time.”

30 October 2008 – 4 January 2009

René Magritte numbers not only among the most important, but also among the most popular twentieth-century artists. Often against the grain of the artistic tendencies of his time, the Belgian Surrealist painter developed a unique and unmistakable pictorial language. His work’s continuing crucial influence on later generations of artists and his impact on today’s visual culture are almost without par. Many of his enigmatic and equally hard-to-forget solutions have been reproduced in the millions and become famous icons far beyond the world of art.

However, a fascinating period of the artist’s landmark oeuvre has remained nearly unknown: his so-called Période vache. In 1948, Magritte made a group of paintings and gouaches distinctly different from the rest of his work for his first solo exhibition in Paris. Relying on a new, fast and aggressive style of painting – and particularly inspired by popular sources such as caricatures and comics, but also interspersing his works with stylistic quotations from artists like James Ensor or Henri Matisse – Magritte, within only a few weeks, produced about thirty entirely uncharacteristic works that caused an outrage in Paris. The artist deliberately conceived the exhibition as a provocation of and an assault on the Parisian public. Painting in an unexpectedly crude, playful, and intentionally “bad” manner, he reflected his own work and painting in general. While only sporadically included in most retrospectives of Magritte’s oeuvre, his works from the Période vache will be assembled in the exhibition at the Schirn outside France and Belgium for the first time. Especially against the background of the last thirty years’ art, this concentrated presentation will shed new, surprising light on an extraordinary artist whose work is often mistakenly regarded as far too familiar and easy to grasp.

The fact that Magritte’s first solo presentation in Paris did not take place before 1948 is of crucial relevance for the genesis of his Période vache. Paris was not only the center of the art world, but also the capital of the Surrealist movement, and Magritte, as the central figure of Belgian Surrealism, had been in close contact with the circle around André Breton since the 1920s. Yet, it was not only his attempt to establish himself in the French metropolis that failed after only a three-year stay (1927–1930); even after his international recognition had grown in the 1930s, he was denied an adequate appreciation of his work in Paris.
In addition, Magritte came into direct conflict with Paris after the war when his redefinition of Surrealism met with the disapproval of the Surrealist group’s protagonists returning home from exile. In the preceding years, which Magritte had spent in Brussels under German occupation, he had made a programmatic turn and thus laid the foundations for the period of his work known as la Période Renoir or la Période soleil today: falling back on the French Impressionists’ colorful style, he propagated a change of direction towards “the beautiful side of life” and, dissociating himself from the official Paris line, launched a “Surrealism in the blazing sun” (surréalisme en plein soleil). He vehemently attacked the reactionary attitude of an avant-garde movement that he regarded as ossified and tried to convince Breton of his intentions. In vain – not only the manifestos he initiated but also his works in the Neo-Impressionist manner met with general rejection and criticism.

This was the polemical context in which Magritte regarded his invitation to Paris in 1948 less as an overdue chance of success in the French metropolis but rather as an opportunity for taking revenge – for the arrogance of the capital’s art scene and the ossified attitude of a Surrealism that had outlived itself and become far too socially acceptable – by pulling off a surprising coup.

The term “vache” used by Magritte for his new group of works is mostly understood as an ironical allusion to the historical movement of the Fauves, whose exaggerated coloring Magritte’s works parodied as much as their decoratively pleasing character. Yet in French, “vache” does not only mean “cow,” but also as much as “mean” or “nasty”; “vacherie” signifies a mean trick. Other related words are “femme vache” for an extremely corpulent woman, “peau de vache” for a horrible, malicious person, or “amour vache” for brutal carnal love. Thus, the term hints at the aggressive and deliberately crude quality characteristic of the pictures.

Regarding both their motifs and their style, the works of Magritte’s Période vache do not constitute a consistent ensemble but rather present themselves as a patchwork of different pseudo-styles borrowing more or less openly from other artists and drawing on the artist’s own earlier works. These elements are transformed into something comic, trivial, or grotesque by being blended with aspects of popular visual culture. With numerous art historical references – like to James Ensor, whose grotesque physiognomies are given another turn of the screw, to Henri Matisse, whose colorful ornaments are degraded to wallpaper-like décor, or to Joan Miró, who, as we know, was not held in high regard by the artist – Magritte ridicules traditional cultural values and aesthetic norms and distances himself from an art scene lusting for innovation. By presenting motifs taken from his own previous pictures in a new manner of painting, he turned into his own caricaturist, as it were. Contrary to his “classical” works, their cool, precise and realistic approach, and the conceptual consideration behind them, the works of Magritte’s Période vache strike us as colorful, two-dimensional, quickly painted, and radiating an astounding directness and spontaneity.

The exhibition in Paris turned out the expected failure. Not one picture was sold. The press reacted frostily. The public was appalled. The Paris Surrealists kept their distance. Only one of the vache works was exhibited again during Magritte’s lifetime, i.e. until 1967. For exhibition makers as well as art dealers and art historians, this group of works constituted an alien element in an otherwise extraordinarily consistent oeuvre. In addition, it did not fit
in with the image of an artist who had, above all, been presented as a pioneer of Pop art and Concept art since the 1960s. It was not before thirty years after their making that these hitherto forgotten works began to be gradually reevaluated and appreciated starting with the “Westkunst” exhibition in Cologne.

In the context of the 1980s’ Post-Conceptual painting, the strategies Magritte had relied on for subverting the prevailing standards of painting in the medium itself appeared both exemplary and highly topical. Today, about forty years after Magritte’s death, contemporary artists such as John Currin or Sean Landers often come to understand his oeuvre by making themselves familiar with the works of his Période vache at first. The works’ humor, spontaneous style, and daring bad taste provide an example for a form of painting deriving its momentum from the apparent meaningless of its subjects in order to refute the clichés of today’s world of images. With his manifesto-like protest against all varieties of arrogance and reprimands in the arts, Magritte has become a model for the artist’s triumph over the workings of an art scene that seem to be more overpowering today than they ever were.

With “René Magritte 1948. La Période vache,” the Schirn continues a series of exhibitions that started with “Henri Matisse. Drawing with Scissors” and “Paul Klee. 1933” and was followed by “Max Beckmann. The Watercolors and Pastels” or “Picasso and the Theater,” focusing on extraordinary groups of works or scarcely noticed aspects in the oeuvre of established masters of classical modernism.

CATALOGUE: “René Magritte 1948. La Période vache.” Edited by Esther Schlicht and Max Hollein. With a preface by Max Hollein and texts by Michel Draguet, Robert Fleck, Florence Hespel, and Esther Schlicht. German and English, 176 pages, ca. 90 illustrations, Ludion, ISBN 978-90-5544-768-8, 29,80 € (Schirn), ca. 34,90 € (Ludion).

Magritte: The True Art of Painting  

Sunday, March 8, 2009 12:13:49 AM


Here are some quotes from Magritte from "Magritte: The True Art of Painting by Harry Torczyner, translated by Richard Miller (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), pp. 55-57." You have to remember that Magritte was part of the political turmoil that included World War I around 1916. He became part of the Dada movement along with many of his artist friends that was a reaction against the bourgeois (middle class) ideals.

René Magritte on the Revolutionary Artist vs. Folk Art & Stalinism

The Communist point of view is my own. My art is valid only insofar as it opposed the bourgeois ideal in whose name life is being extinguished.

—René Magritte, Les Beaux Arts (Brussels), no. 164, May 17, 1935, p. 15

I distrust this folk art the Fascists have chosen to promote. Art-for-the-people is spurious because it is based on a superficial point of view. I too am part of the people. What a painter must do is to see mankind in workman’s overalls. This is what Courbet did when he painted Les Casseurs de Pierre (The Stone Breakers), which caused a scandal among gallery-goers because its subject was new. For that matter, I have often met with greater understanding from the working class than from the most refined aesthetes. As for the snobs, they have wildly applauded Surrealist projects because they have to be "with it." Today, they are being lulled by the deplorable singsong of Existentialism, and tomorrow. . . .

—René Magritte, Clarté, December 16, 1945

Nevertheless, the Party wants to get some use out of artists who are incapable of inventing new emotions, and requires them to engage in political agitation. Yet since artists cannot go on strike, the absurdity of artists’ political agitation is only too obvious.

The only correct attitude the Party can take with regard to the aesthetic question, and which it is refusing to take, is that of requiring an artist to give his works a revolutionary content. This is our conviction, and it prevents us from attending the meetings at Antwerp, which will be held with the absurd notion of seeking ways for artists to engage in political agitation.

—René Magritte et al., Lettre au Parti Communiste de Belgique, 1946

On the other hand, in order to attract the interest of the artistic, political, and literary population, this title was chosen because of the "sensitivity" to current events that makes these cultivated individuals so impressionable. Having thus gained the attention of this group for the few moments it is capable of maintaining a semblance of thought, one notices that on their level—the level of unskilled art—folk objects are the equivalent of the so-called secrets of alchemy in another area.

Just as propaganda for alchemy could only be made with an ignorance of today’s scientific knowledge, so the arguments for folk art can only be explained by the reprehensible ignorance of spiritual things shared by the cultural specialists who are responsible for or support this shameful enterprise.

Whereas the least objective of minds would readily judge the call for a return to alchemy to be an attempt to destroy scientific progress and a desire to return to the adoration of icons or to the fear of forbidden fetishes in the hope of rediscovering a so-called age of gold, a parallel and large-scale endeavor in favor of folk art is now underway and is being supported by both those who are for reaction and those who seek change in the world economic system.

The agreement these opponents have reached on the benefits of folklore is unusual and significant enough to merit examination.

The fact that the Catholic and revolutionary newspapers are united in this affair leads one to Oelteve that what divides them exists on another level than that of cultural matters, and that there is nothing to keep them from agreeing on "minor questions."

In short, these political foes give little importance to the feelings a man has about life and the enhancement of those feelings by artistic means. What divides them makes them alike, These foes are made of the same stuff: second-rate stuff that has nothing to do with either the noble spirit of the alchemists or with the enthusiasm of unknown folk artists. Alas! This stuff is the stuff of inertia, an inertia made monstrous by its permanence and its extent!

There are some men here on earth who know what true intellectual honesty is and who want no part of this inertia nor expect any help from it. The countless others are indifferent, passive, clumsy calculators, or dishonest. Their number is not enough to make them right.

In the artistic sphere in 1949, we are called upon to dismiss the case involving the fraudulent attempts to revive feudal obscurantism based on folk material. Also, to refuse to respect the myriad selfish hopes one could place on this kind of undertaking.

Simple honesty demands that such attempts—doomed, in any case, to failure—be called by their rightful name: the sign of contemptibility.

—René Magritte, Nous N’Avons Pas Choisi Le Folklore, 1949


The workers have been exposed to paintings under poor conditions as a result of initial confusion in regard to artistic activity and political action. While the political struggle must, under present circumstances, concentrate on the demand for our rights to, for exampIe, adequate nourishment and minimum comforts, the battle being waged by revolutionary artists can now be understood as a response to a maximum need: the conquest of the mind’s wealth, a conquest that must never be abandoned.

In their encounter with artists, the workers were only permitted to contemplate those pictures strictly limited to the plastic expression of political ideas or sentiments; and the architects of the Party’s cultural policy are making the error of leading the workers to believe that this is the only kind of painting for which they are suited.

Although the pictorial translation of political ideas is useful for illustrating Party posters, it does not automatically follow that the artist’s only valid role is to paint pictures that in more or less lyric terms express the social struggle, and that the workers must forgo the pleasure of looking at pictures that can enrich their minds without teaching them class consciousness.

Class consciousness is as necessary as bread; but that does not mean that workers must be condemned to bread and water and that wanting chicken and champagne would be harmful. If they are Communists, it is precisely because they hope to attain a better life, worthy of man.

For the Communist painter, the justification of artistic activity is to create pictures that can represent mental luxury, a luxury for Communist society quite different from the useless, ostentatious, tasteless luxury of the existing exploiting classes.

To want systematically to exclude this luxury from the socialist world is to condone a sordid and culpable establishment of mediocrity, at least insofar as the mind is concerned.

A better life cannot be conceived without some real luxury. It cannot be achieved without political struggle and the difficult struggle waged by revolutionary artists, those who do not limit their efforts solely to the expression of political ideas or to the representation of familiar scenes in the life of the working class for the purpose of edification.

—René Magritte, Note Pour La Parti Communiste, April 24, 1950

Progressive atheists and Fascist Catholics are not very interesting. While on the way to Antwerp yesterday, I passed near the camp at Breendonc [sic] (the Belgian Buchenwald), and the memories this camp brought back are far from being able to provide any rationale for the universe. As for the progressive atheists you mention, who dream of horsewhipping the whole world, they are obviously incapable of making anything but trouble. We don’t have to do anything about such "engagés" so long as they leave us more or less in peace. However, when "culture" is at stake, their titles—Catholics, Fascists, atheists, progressives, etc.—are reason enough for one to be disgusted at the prospect of collaborating with them. For them, it’s not enough to take a "quick turn round the floor with a modicum of elegance." They wouldn’t hesitate to stop you if it were necessary.

—Letter from René Magritte to G. Puel, May 22,1955


SOURCE: Magritte: The True Art of Painting by Harry Torczyner, translated by Richard Miller (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), pp. 55-57.


Understanding Magritte 

Saturday, March 7, 2009 10:36:46 AM


This is my article on Magritte's work with paintings as examples: 


Certainly Rene Magritte had different styles during his lifetime although he is known for his detailed realistic style. Until the mid 1920s his work was more abstract and cubist in style and eventually he developed his realistic style which he consistently maintained until the 1940s when he briefly experimented with impressionism (1942-1947) and later that decade his vauche period (1948). I'll gives example of his styles and paintings later on in this article.

The next section will examine the political and artisitic climate that led to Magritte's development and eventual adherence to surrealism.

Cubism is the avant-garde art movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1900s. Other French cubists including Fernand Leger and Amedee Ozenfant had an influence on the early style of young Magritte who studied art in Brussells. He was inspired by a lecture from abstractionist Theo van Doesburg titled De Stijl (The Style) in February 1920 and studied related futurism and purism. Some of his paintings including the Blue Cinema done in 1925 have an Art Deco influence. See examples below.

Before surrealism Magritte was aligned with the Dada movement in Europe that was a reaction to the First World War (1916-1924). Many Dadaists believed that the 'reason' and 'logic' of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality (nihilism).

Giorgio de Chirico
One artists that embraced chaos was the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, who alos lived in Paris several times. From 1914 to 1925 de Chirico painted bizarre, faceless mannequins and juxtaposed wildly unrelated objects in his still lifes, a technique adopted by the surrealists. When Magritte became aware of Giorgio de Chirico work in 1925,  he rejected the early influences of Cubism (popular from 1907-1919), Futurism and Purism. He adopted a style of detailed realism to depict subject matter that was not real.  His "The Two Sisters" (1925) based on Giorgio de Chirico and "The Shooting Gallery" mark the turn in style.

Max Ernst
The other artist that influenced Magritte in the early 1920s that led to his first surreal works was the German artist Max Ernest. Brought into the French Dada circle in 1922 by French poet Eluard, they worked on a cycle entitled Les Malheurs des Immortels, a series of collage pictures made of scraps of illustrations cut out from old books.

This untitled collage is one from circa 1925 pre-dating his Lost Jockey.

According to Magritte His Lost Jockey (1925), below, was his first surreal painting.

 The Lost Jockey- 1925

E.L.T. Mesens, together with Magritte, contributed to the final issue of Picabia's Dada review 391 (October 1924) about the same time Andre Breton published his first Manifeste du Surréalisme defining the movement 'once and for all' as he put it: "SURREALISM, noun, masc. 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 more preoccupations."

The dadaists joined forces behind Breton and became surrealists. The Paris group included Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Antonin Artaud, Andre Masson, Raymond Queneau, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Pierre Naville, Mathias Lübeck, Jacques-André Boiffard and Georges Malkine. The group launches a new periodical, La Revolution Surrealiste.  A Bureau of Surrealist Enquires is opened in Paris.

The Belgium dadists started their own group lead by Paul Nouge. It included Rene Magritte, E. L. T. Mesens, Camille Goemans, Marcel Lecomte and others.

Surrealism became divided into two main artistic groups. Magritte was from the Veristic Surrealism group that includes Dali and Ernst. This group used meticulous realism to portray the imagery of the subconcious mind.

The other branch of surrealism that included automatic drawing and writing stems from André Breton definition of surrealism as "Pure psychic automatism." Automatic drawing was a free form expression developed by the surrealists, as a means of expressing the subconscious. Andre Masson and Miro remain prime examples of the automatism movement.

Magritte's Surrealism
To understand the nature and effect of Magritte's work you simply must understand the nature of what makes a joke work. A joke combines an element of surprise, what you expect to hear is not what you hear. It combines the unexpected with the predictable. In Magritte case what you expect to see is not what you see.  The familiar expectations have been intentionally altered.

A quote from one  of Magritte’s letters to Paul Nouge (1927) helps explain:  "I have found a new possibility things may have: that of gradually becoming something else—an object melting into an object other than itself... In this way I obtain pictures in which 'the eye must think' in a way entirely different from the usual."

The following are seven different techniques Magritte used in his paintings: 

1) Altering the familiar; Juxtaposition of objects: Surrealism is the depiction of the images found in the subconscious mind, whether the images are dreams or unconscious thoughts. Characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition, these images confound the viewer. 

La Belle Captive- 1926

Above is one of Magritte's paintings in his new style. It combines illusion (a canvas that is the exact image of the backround beach scene) with the incongruent images of a burning tuba, an easel and a boulder, none of which are typically found on a beach.

2) Mutation of objects- Metamorphosis: In 1927 Magritte painted "Discovery" depicting a female nude whose skin has morphed into wood grain. Attributing human characteristics to animals, and objects is called “anthropomorphism.”

Discovery- 1927

Hommage to Mack Sennett 1934

The Red Model II 1939

3) Fragmentation: Delusions of Grandeur is one example of Magritte fragmenting an image (in this case it's a woman's torso).  La Fin des contemplations 1927 is another example of fragmentation frequently used as the shattered glass images either in a mirror or in other paintings glass windows.

The Eternally Obvious, 1930 and new version done 1948, is one of René Magritte's best examples of fragmentation. The painting is done on five separate framed panels, oil on canvas laid on board. Magritte painted the body of a naked blonde model, cut from the canvas the body's five choicest bits, surrounded them in gold frames, and reassembled the figure with blank spaces in between on a sheet of glass. This work is a variant of the artist's famous, same-titled prototype from 1930 for which his wife Georgette posed. In that earlier work, Georgette's face is seen in three-quarter view, she stands in a contrapposto stance, and her body is not as rigidly aligned frontally as in this later work, for which the artist chose a younger model with firmer breasts. Magritte plays tricks with our perception in these "picture-objects," whose fame—that of the earlier version—coincided with its role in the cult of the Surrealist object in the 1930s. Although the body is truncated, we automatically fill in the missing areas and see a "complete" nude woman, never mind that her arms and hands are missing.

4) Creation of icons or symbols: An icon is just a symbol. For Magritte certain obsessive images became icons: his famous bowler hat, the dove, curtains, the rose, the bell, the apple, the burning tuba, the mirror, the leaf, the owl, the bilboquet or balluster, the candle, the egg, a canvas painting, and even words themselves.

In 1926 Magritte introduced the balluster (a wooden upright support, such as a furniture leg sometimes resembling a chess bishop) as his icon and many of his early works (See above: The Lost Jockey) have ballusters.

Above are two of Magritte's icons: a ball and a leaf. These giant icons dwarf the two people standing between them.

Iconologic, simply put, means thinking through images. By introducing these icons in various settings Magritte created mystery. The mystery of the image was an important concept for Magritte. What does the image/object/icon mean? Is it real? Can we really understand the unknowable?

By repeating these icons throughout his art he gives power to certain images that are normally quite ordinary. Repeating icons in art is a form of obsessive behavior. Salvador Dali was perhaps the master of neurotic/obsessive images.

5) Altering perspective:

Personal Values- 1952

6) Illusion:

Carte Blanche- 1965

Magritte was a master of illusion and displacement. Above is one good example of illusion done in a more contemporary style several years before his death in 1965.

7) Words and images: Beginning in 1926 magritte began adding written words to his paintings.


Cubist Pre-1925

Magritte's early work was inspired by the cubists like Fernand Leger and Amedee Ozenfant.  After attending a lecture on the Dutch movement by abstractionist Theo van Doesburg titled De Stijl (The Style) in February 1920, Magritte began a series of paintings exploring those principles. Around the same time Servranckx and Magritte developed an artistic style based on purism and futurism they called Cubo-Futurist which in some ways was similar to Art Deco. As you can see in his early works below. Many of these early works seem awkward and primitive. The Nude from 1919 is one of his ealiest works. Around 1925 he abandoned cubism entirely adopting a painterly realtistic style. His important discovery in 1922 was the work of Giorgio de Chirico.

Nude- 1919

Donna 1923

Georgette At The Piano- 1923

Woman Bathing- 1925

Collage- Early Surrealism and First Iconic Images
Around 1925 Magritte began using collage after Max Ernst. Magritte began using balluster (wooden table leg- bedpost type) icons to represent people and trees. The balluster (bilboquet) icon appears in many of his collages and paintings from this period (1925-1927)

Collage (Untitled) circa 1925: Note that the Bilboquet resembles a chess piece

Le Recontre- 1926

Birth of an Idol

The Treachery of Words
Around 1925 Magritte created a series of paintings that included captions, correctly and incorrectly labeling the image being depicted.

Magritte at the Edge of Codes  

Friday, March 6, 2009 5:55:03 PM


This is the last of a series of articles in Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative: 
Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924

Magritte at the Edge of Codes 
Author: Silvano Levy; Published: November 2005

Abstract (E): What distinguishes Magritte's œuvre is that it is positioned at the interface of distinct systems of codes. The sign straddles and oscillates between discordant meaningful conventions. As opposed to Apollinairean calligrammatic amalgamation of signifiers into a cognitive middle ground, Magritte puts forward the binarity of incompatible readings. Diverse significations do not merge but simply clash. Even when codes are not transgressed Magritte prompts a defection from fixed meaning through non-sequitor. Space is destabilized and unitary components are dismantled. Integrality is violated and reconfigured. The code is at once asserted and subverted, thus curtailing the message. Semantic fragmentation and deformation erodes the codification of the message. Interpretation is inhibited so that meaning is deferred .

The reason why a military aircraft is so manoeuvrable is that it just about manages to fly. It is designed to be so aerodynamically unstable that a slight adjustment would cause it to drop out of the sky. That is what effectively happens: one barely viable flight configuration is abandoned so as to allow an alternative trajectory to be assumed in seconds. The aircraft is therefore always at the edge of flying. In military jargon, it is 'pushing the envelope'.

The essence of this modus operandi is revealing when considering the deep structure of Magritte's paintings, which is analogous. What marks Magritte's pictorial composition is that it is consistently pictorially unstable. It pushes the envelope of representation. Typically, what appears to be a reliable and wholly comprehensible message turns out to be semantically volatile, often being destabilised and, even, cancelled out by a disruptive element. The meaning is momentarily annulled. As in the case of the military aircraft, the instability that makes this possible also allows an alternative configuration to be assumed with ease. Magritte's work sits, as it were, at the edge of the representational code.

The process is far from straightforward and the ways in which this 'switching' between pictorial trajectories occurs is, in fact, macrocosmically twofold. There are, of course, sudden switches between representational scenarios: one meaning is suddenly transformed into an alternative reading, just as a jet can suddenly change direction. But, that is where the analogy runs out. As well as semantically flitting within representation, that is to say within a delimited code, Magritte also alternates between codes themselves. It is not so much the direction of flight that is in question, but more whether, at times, it is a matter of flying at all. That is the conceptual point at which Magritte's work emerges as most disturbing. Our visual mores cannot but be perturbed when Magritte positions his messages at the interface of distinct systems of codes. The sign straddles and oscillates between discordant meaningful conventions. As opposed to Apollinair ian calligrammatic amalgamation of signifiers into a cognitive middle ground, where the verbal is orchestrated so as to resemble the visual signified, Magritte puts forward a binarity of incompatible readings. Diverse significations do not merge or follow on: quite simply, they clash. Moreover, even when he does not transgress codes, Magritte prompts a defection from predictable legibility by means of non sequitor . In a general sense, he puts two separate but correlated structural mechanisms into motion: on the one hand he destabilizes space, whilst on the other he dismantles unitary representational components are dismantled.

Magritte's dismantling of the represented object, the deconstruction of anatomy, as it can be termed, is effected in gradual stages. It begins by tentatively moving away from the finiteness of form in a way that destabilises the individual shape: the unity itself of the object, however, is still respected. In Les Pipes amoureuses de la lune (1928) the represented pipes are not 'taken apart' but simply denied a fixed form. It is as though a process of mollification were beginning and the pipes had not had time to melt away beyond recognition. Yet the instability of their configuration suggests that this is inevitable: the pipes become increasingly elastic and so seem to portray different stages of a progressive dissolution. Ultimately the process could be imagined to lead to the state of liquid viscosity seen in La Sortie de l'école (1927), where form is reduced to an irregular and unrepresentational amorphousness. In Les Pipes amoureuses de la lune though, the object is by no means as distorted as this. The context, though, is agrammatic: the setting remains vague. Nothing rests on the ground and the pipes are floating in mid-air. The setting is further confused by the blurred horizon line, which makes it difficult to distinguish the horizontal from the vertical. Without these fundamentals of orientation there can be little spatial cohesion and it is not clear what the correlation is between the foreground objects and the more remote areas. Even the illusion of a sky, stretching beyond the immediate scene, is somewhat contradicted by the three broad horizontal strokes of dark colour below the level of the moon. These superimposed patches remain outside the pictorial illusion and emphasize that the sky is actually a flat surface of paint. The space of the painting is essentially insubstantial.

The distortion in Les Pipes Amoureuses de la lune is an example of a development that was to be characteristic of many works of the late 1920s. Since, however, the painting treats the simplest of objects, the process is shown in a limited light. The true taxonomy of Magritte's 'dissolution' only emerges when he systematically disassembles the composite form of the human body, which he subjects to a tortuous form of maceration. What, in Albertian terms can be described as the 'anatomical module', is subjected to the equivalent of an assault course. In an unrelenting manner, Magritte delves into the notion of instability in form. He conjures up degenerative and disfiguring situations that place figures on the boundary between remaining whole and disintegrating. A type of threshold is established that opens the way for what is to be the eventual total 'dissolution' of the body.

The most striking way in which Magritte edged the body towards the limit of its potential is by a form of test of endurance, a type of sportive trial. The idea of gruelling gymnastics is precisely the subject of Les Impatients (1928), in which figures that look like muscular athletes are engaged in strenuous and uncomfortable movements. These are contortionists, twisting and stretching. A similar and more extreme form of twisting and warping emerges in Les Idées de l'acrobate (1927-8), which goes further along the path of 'fragmentation'. The question of uncertainty about the feasibility of a particular contortional pose does not even arise, however, as it had in Les Impatients . The body here is stretched, elongated, misshapen and deformed beyond credibility and, at times, recognizability. Not only are the members altered in size and shape, but they are also disordered and, in places, joined together in an incorrect sequence.

This process of distortion and its accompanying 'mollification' of form gradually give way to the next stage of the dissolution of anatomy, its 'fragmentation'. Magritte's approach to this procedure is twofold. In some cases the solid object is broken up by a physical sectioning: forms are shattered or dismantled. Alternatively, there is a deconstruction of the formal aspects of representation. It is more a question, in this case, of contradicting the formal constituents of a depicted object such as reception of light and circumscription. In many works the complex form of the body is resolved into simpler components by means of the detachment of limbs or the slicing of the torso into portions. The body becomes a unit comprising independent and removable parts. The body is treated like the then novel Art Deco mannequin, which had a great potential for disassembly and the interchangeability of body parts. Indeed, mannequins frequently appear in Magritte's work at this period: in La Naissance de l'idole (1926) an artificial arm severed at the shoulder hangs limply on the side of a giant skittle. As was the case for the shop window mannequin of the twenties, the implication is that the detached parts can be reassembled. Accordingly, Magritte introduces prongs and sockets that could secure together the separated members. In the case of Le Supplice de la vestale (1926-27) there are rods protruding from a headless torso. What is significant is that Magritte makes the point that form is being torn apart by leaving the parts starkly disjointed. The division of form is unambiguous, if straightforward: the outer shell of a form is simply broken up.

A secondary, more complex, form of fragmentation, however, turns the spotlight onto 'anatomy' in its stricter, technical sense. Magritte goes on to reveal the body as having an internal structure, with concurrent layers of fabric. These are what are then subjected to a progressive penetration and effacement. The assault is on what Michel Foucault terms 'the internal relationship of subordination and organization that traverses the body' (Foucault 1966: 149; Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author.). In L'importance des merveilles (1927), for instance, there is both segmentation and stratification. The body is, once again, sliced horizontally, but instead of being dispersed, the parts retain their original sequence. They are distanced by means of divergent scaling. Whilst being firmly rooted in segmentation, the painting points the way to 'stratification'. A painting that emphatically implies a penetration of the layers of the body is Le Sang du monde (1926-27). As in écorchés, blood vessels and arteries appear on the surface. This is a penetration beyond surfaces. The three amoeba-like forms attached to the bodies look like giant cells or corpuscles that have been magnified under the microscope and the background form looks like an area of equally magnified tissue inlaid with blood. The implication is that we are seeing beyond what is superficial and immediately visible. It is as though a substratum of the body had been revealed. Scutenaire tells us that Magritte delves 'under the outer crust of objects' (Scutenaire 139). In a further development of his trajectory, Magritte prizes open the body ( Le Double secret (1927), or removes its constituent layers, as in La Grande nouvelle (1926), where there is a reduction to the skeleton.

But, such affronts on form are made solely on the level of physical structure. Magritte's offensive on convention also involves the dismantling of the methods of pictorial depiction themselves. So far the process of segmentation has been seen to lead away from precision and finiteness in representation: specific pictorial meanings have been loosened and replaced by interpretative flexibility. Semanticity has been vacillatory, but only inasmuch as the dissolution of the anatomical unit has operated on the level of solid form. Magritte, it can be argued, also effects a deconstruction on the level of the formal aspects of representation.

This particular posture first becomes evident when the corporeal form is seen to be reduced to the planar. In La Naissance de l'idole (1926) and Le Chevalier du couchant (1927) for instance, the entire body is deprived of its volume. Almost every detail of the body disappears and Magritte portrays a tenuous suggestion of a human shell. In this way, he alludes to the incipient stage of formal, textbook representation, the blocking-in of a body. At this level, where the body is denied surface features, the idea of substantiality is still, nevertheless, present since the forms do possess a degree of thickness. Consequently, in a further development Magritte proceeds to remove this final trace of volume. L'Esprit comique I (1927) can be seen to make just this transition from the 'solid' plane to what is effectively an 'insubstantial plane. This is achieved through the paper cut-out, which Magritte described as 'papier masqué' (René Magritte in Torczyner 165). L'Esprit comique I (1927) presents the figure as a flimsy blank sheet of paper punched with holes across its entire surface. As such, it could not be more incompatible with the notion of solid form. Whereas the silhouette of the form depicted suggests a broad-shouldered man pounding across a rocky ground, the substance making up the silhouette itself is without thickness, pliable and almost weightless. It is as though the figure had been 'emptied' of its pictorial resolution. There is an erasure of the graphic 'stages' by which a painted figure would be given form and substance. But, at the same time, it is undeniable that 'pictorial grammar' still persists. In the gouache L'Esprit comique II (1927) the figure of a boy made of paper is pictured striking a paper sleeping man with a large stone: in other words, there is a subject, an object and an indirect object. This form of organization will eventually be eroded by Magritte.

Remaining within the present discussion, it can be said that the disintegration of form progresses further and that the plane gives way to the line. In L'âge du feu (1927), which is somewhat a compendium of the dissolution and incorporates most of its stages, such as a division into planes, particularly in the face of the figure, there is a clear reduction to rudimentary outlines. What follows this is a stage of pictorial disintegration, which can be termed the 'blob' stage. The mark on the canvas is so indeterminate that it ceases to be meaningful. The progressive contestation of the anatomy of the pictorial unit reaches a point when plastic significance is absent. This is a substantial progression and was carefully thought out by Magritte. The transition in question is alluded to in a letter to Nougé (Collection DeKnop, Brussels). Magritte was patently aware of a new phase in his work: 'I think I have discovered something significant'. He writes that he was beginning to consider a new approach that modifies not so much the external relations of objects, but their internal structure . He suggests that isolated elements could merge freely. In this way, the letter continues, one thing could be melted into another. Representation is distorted to such an extent that interpretation becomes difficult. What are missing are 'the visible contours' (Magritte 61). This is a derangement of pictorial finiteness and tends towards objects with no representational meaning.

One 'isolating' strategy that Magritte adopted (the prerequisite to modification of internal structure) is that of encasement , usually in a grey slab of melted lead or carved stone. He applied this formula not only to single objects (which had the effect of 'grammatical' deactivation) but also to 'matières', as in La Saison des voyages . This had the effect of interfering with anatomical unity, that is semanticity. When the contents of the grey slab are substances , which have no definite outline - the sky being an unlimited, three-dimensional space and planks forming a continuous surface - the function of the grey solid changes from that of wrapping around a form to that of invading it. The question is no longer one of 'composition' but one of the internal make-up of an object, its 'anatomy'. Whereas an object can be confined to its own contours, something that has no fixed delimitations can be said to be partially erased by confinement. This is evident in Le Démon de le perversité (1927), where the slab acts as an interruption of what is normally a continuous surface. Whereas the planks of La Saison des voyages are simply intruded upon, here there is a fragmentation. In La Saison des voyages sky is trapped in a shallow niche and thereby loses its characteristic limitless voluminosity. All that remains is a token of representation. What would otherwise be an illusion of infinite space is entirely blotted out apart from a nominal sample. Nevertheless, the two represented substances are not totally invalidated pictorially. In their respective compartments, the sky and planks remain identifiable prototypes of potential compositional constructs and it is from this level of minimal, inert pictorial semanticity that Magritte's 'discovery' proceeds.

Beginning with elements in this already denuded state, he goes on to suggest a further distortion, that of 'gradually becoming something else'. Viewed logically, if something is to 'become something else' then its very identity is in jeopardy. When, therefore, Magritte proposes that sky be mixed with wood and wood with sky he is, in fact, proposing a debasement of the representation: the image would undergo a drastic decrease of semantic intelligibility. The sky/plank composite thus becomes an entity devoid of pictorial resolution. Representation veers towards imprecision and the habitual monovalency of the anatomical unit is disrupted. There arises an irresolvable contradiction that leads to representational amorphousness. In this way a transition is made from the minimal pictorial signification apparent in La Saison des voyages, to a state of virtual pictorial meaninglessness. What remains is plastic presence without representational value.

A painting that transposes 'sky' into an alternative pictorial element, the Albertian 'pavement' in this case, is Les Muscles célestes (1927). In the work, a portion of sky breaks away from the far distance, crosses the black middle distance and anchors itself to the foreground. This immediately contradicts the depth that the receding pavement insistently conveys. As a result, the principal function of the pavement, to accommodate objects and to establish their recession in space, is overridden by spatial instability. Solid objects have no place in this environment and, not surprisingly, Magritte omits them altogether. The subject of the painting is the 'legs of the sky' as Magritte had put it. They hint at the characteristics of wood: they have clear-cut outlines, they cast shadows and, in all respects, conform to the idea of a rigid plane. But also, like sky, they have a furling, unspecifiable configuration. Quite unlike flat planes, they make contact with the pavement at various points in depth. In effect, they are implicit zones of 'melting', places where contradictory meanings are fused.

What is significant, moreover, is that such loci of representational contradiction, where finite plastic interpretation becomes impossible, are not rendered as an imprecise blurs or as haziness. On the contrary, they are independent entities in the painting. Les Muscles célestes presents the paradoxical constituent as a 'limb' attached to a larger corpus. Even if, one would imagine, the final severance were made and the limb allowed to exist freely, it would still have finite presence. Magritte, therefore, invokes the notion of free units of meaninglessness that, nevertheless, can inhabit a fully articulated pictorial space. It is in this way that Magritte's 'discovery' could be seen to have ultimately resulted in a transition from planes to 'blobs', a term coined by Robert Roseblum (Roseblum 16). Planes, it has been shown, had been first isolated and then fused, with the result that a paradox of 'substance' was brought about. The ensuing pictorial contradiction was then seen to lead an absence of representational meaning. Finally, the resulting state of zero representation was seen to acquire autonomy within the painting. Having reached this point in his progressive denudation of representation, Magritte is in a position to advance the concept of paintings peopled wholly by semantically dysfunctional elements.

In further works Magritte does just this. He retracts all traces of pictorial signification and allows objects to fade into vague forms. Foucault has referred to such entities as 'stains, shadows, silhouettes' (Foucault 1973: 54). The aptness of the description becomes apparent in Les Traces vivantes (1927), in which shadow-like forms replace recognizable objects. This is a potential landscape scene, but it is stripped of content. It is populated only with indefinite 'blobs'. These 'traces', to use Magritte's term, are neutral and vacant rather than incomplete. The dark outer boundary envelops an inane core. As such, blobs are neither shells nor skeletons. They neither conceal an essence nor do they imply envelopment. With them Magritte has, in the words of Robert Lebel, 'broken away from any meaning' (Lebel non paginated). In so doing he reverts to an elemental, pre-representational state. Foucault writes of 'things hardly formed . with neither face nor identity' (Foucault 1973: 54). Blobs precede the whole schema of the representational procedure. Their pictorial value does not exceed that of rudimentary markers of perceived presence. Before the pictorial element can even begin to be formed, the artist, according to Alberti, conceives it in terms of a location: 'First, in seeing a thing, we say it occupies a place' (Alberti 67; translation John R. Spencer). Thus the blob state can be seen as the raw material of visual expression. For Marcel Mariën these are 'initial signs' (Mariën 132).

Rarely though does Magritte depict the blob in an independent capacity. Mostly it occurs with the written word. In Les Traces vivantes the phrase 'Femme nue' appears on the trunk of the tree. In other works a word or phrase is placed in close proximity to or actually on the blob. L'Usage de la parole I (1928-9), for instance, contains one blob with the word 'miroir' inscribed underneath it and another with the phrase 'corps de femme' below it.

It would be tempting to argue, at this juncture, that the meaningless blob marks the terminal point of the dissolution of the pictorial object and that verbal components are needed as channels for meaning. The appearance of 'named' blobs, in other words, signals the cessation functional representation. However, the fact that it is a tree with which Magritte associates the phrase 'Femme nue' shows that the word is not an explanation of its associated object. Indeed, Magritte never sets up an explanatory relationship between verbal elements and the blobs with which they are coupled. Foucault simply describes inscribed blobs as 'word carriers' (Foucault 1973: 53). They are far from 'explained' or 'deciphered'. Their only connection with their allocated words is to provide a physical support for the letters. They act like blackboards: they are 'occupied' by words but in no way reflect or take on their signification. In no uncertain terms, these 'captions' do not establish the semantic finiteness of the blob.

If, therefore, blobs remain meaningless as pictorial units then their function in the painting must be other than 'anatomical', that is other than illustrative of individual meanings within the work. Their significance bears, in fact, upon the composition as a whole. This broader subtext is hinted at in the gouache of L'Esprit comique , where the absence of individual objects is compensated by an augmentation of composition. Similarly, the shell-like forms in Les Traces vivantes may not be carriers of any intrinsic and isolated meaning but, as a group, they do take on the function of establishing what could be termed 'relative values'. Seen in this light, blobs certainly have a meaningful function. Viewed as clusters, they convey the notion of mutual differentiation. Their 'meaning', consequently, resides in how they and distinguished themselves. For example, we know that one blob is high up and that another is low down, that one is upright and another is horizontal, that some are long and thin whilst others are short and stout. Blobs thus emerge as contrasting, relative positions in a spatial setting. In quite a definite way, there is compositional orientation within Les Traces vivantes . From this perspective, it becomes apparent that, even at this extreme pole of Magritte's 'dissolution', pictorial grammar asserts itself. What emerges is a set of definite compositional relations, without vagueness or ambiguity, even though, by this stage, the individual object has disintegrated into no more than a mere mark of presence on the anatomical level.

Notwithstanding this practical annulment of the unit form, Magritte does not, surprisingly, conclude his anatomical dissolution at this juncture. Rather, he goes on to erode even the minimalist state of token 'presence' that the blobs have generated. As would be logical, minimal presence is relegated into absence . In a number of works devoted to this notion, Magritte makes reference to a specific subject, whilst simultaneously absenting it from the representational context. More than a non-representation or non-presence, this amounts to marking missing presence. This idea of pictorial vacuity is manifestly demonstrated in La Voix du silence (1928). Represented objects are, quite simply, denied presence. Magritte does not present a visual context in which objects cannot exist: he does not paint an abstract space for instance. Instead he presents a potential receptacle for forms and then shows it to be perceptually empty of objects. On the right of this painting there is a banal setting: a domestic dining-room. Even the picture hung on the wall appears to be of a traditional landscape scene. On the left there is complete darkness. There is a sudden leap from replete banality to pictorial absence. Yet the two halves of the painting are complementary rather than irreconcilable. At first sight the well-lit room, cluttered to the point of containing decorative vases and plants may seem totally dissociated from its neighbouring area where nothing is visible. But just below the partition we can seen that a little light is able to permeate into the dark area and that the floorboards show that there is spatial continuity between the right and the left of the painting. Both areas therefore exist in the same voluminous context and so the darkness on the left conceivably contains another room full of furniture and bric-a-brac. It is a potential space and a potential container of objects. The two sections only differ in that one is pictorially dormant, its space and objects remaining unexpressed. In La Voix du silence there are two alternative pictorial states, one that is fully resolved and one where space, form and light are blotted out leaving a pictorial silence (The title is particularly apt and expresses the notion of marking a missing entity.). 'Silence' signifies omitted sound rather than its non-existence.

Yet, it is also noteworthy that Magritte does not paint a completely black canvas. This is because the darkness in La Voix du silence is absence and not non-existence. Nevertheless, this remains an unspecified form of absence and the spectator is left to speculate, albeit within certain parameters, about what is missing. Such ambiguity, however, disappears altogether in a related work, L'Homme au journal (1927). Here, in contrast, absence appears in a manner that is emphatically precise. Of the four identical room settings depicted only one is occupied by a seated man reading a newspaper. In the others he is simply not there. Here therefore, Magritte actually shows us what he omits. Indeed, Magritte has differentiated between 'the hidden visible' and 'the invisible' ('Dans l'invisible il faut tout de même distinguer l'invisible et ce qui est caché. Il y a du visible qui est cache - une lettre dans une enveloppe par exemple, c'est du visible caché, mais ce n'est pas de l'invisible.'; Magritte 603).

This idea of pointing out an absence is more insistent in Personnage méditant sur la folie (1928), in which the spotlight is thrown on a particular point in space where nothing is present. The effect is achieved through the gestures of a sombre, solitary figure: his expression is serious, betraying a deep concentration, and his eyes stare fixedly at something on the right. Yet, as before, nothing is visible. The figure focuses attention on an empty table-top. Absence is patently the subject of the painting. Moreover, in this dominant absence is able to take on a particularly elusive quality. Whereas in L'Homme au journal Magritte showed what was missing, in Personnage méditant sur la folie he gives no clue about the omitted object. Within this rigid context, the pictorial object is able to dissolve to the extent of losing its identity as well as its presence while nevertheless remaining acknowledged.

The absence depicted in Personnage méditant sur la folie is the ultimate dissolution of the pictorial object. More than being erased, the pictorial presence is emptied of all significance. The last three 'retakes' in L'Homme au journal at least contained lingering traces of meaning, but here there is total vacuity. All that the painting does is to signal a location, an area on the right, which accommodates this vacuity. In a closing repartee, Magritte pushes his train of thought a little further by proffering an extension of his progressive conceptual diminution. Even though signification had, by this stage, been totally effaced, what nevertheless did remain semantically, even in Personnage méditant sur la folie , was the idea of the spatial volume within which the absence had occurred. Of course, the space that had 'contained' absence has been seen to have been contracting progressively: in La Voix du silence it occupied a whole room, in L'Homme au journal it was the size of the missing figure, in Personnage méditant sur la folie it became limited to the room on a table-top. In Le Soupçon mystérieux (1928) Magritte makes it contract still more by shrinking it to the space available on the palm of a hand. Consequently, indeterminate absence is reduced to miniscule proportions. The pictorial object regresses, therefore, to a state equivalent to that of the most elementary graphic mark that can be made, the dot. It is, indeed, the dot-like lack of signification and dimension to which our attention is drawn in Le Soupçon mystérieux . In other words, Magritte demonstrates that he can paint nothingness and that he can place it almost nowhere at all. Le Soupçon mystérieux is at the end of a long road leading to the dissolution of the object.

As well as marking a conclusion to a long line of experiments Le Soupçon mystérieux also points the way forward. The sombre figure could be seen to be in a state of expectancy. He is waiting for something to happen, for something to emerge from the tabula rasa . What did emerge and took Magritte's work 'beyond representation' was the written word. Through his use of words, Magritte directed his work towards a system of signification from which the pictorial was conceptually excluded. The bounds of representation were therefore overreached. Words in Magritte's work are primarily negators of the pictorial. Almost without exception words contest the signification of what is shown in paintings or sketches.

Representation has long been perceived as a self-sufficient system, a code with its specific rules and conventions. Jean Piaget has written of 'frontiers' beyond which there are only 'external elements' (Piaget 6). If words are indeed foreign to the domain of the pictorial, then their presence in a work of visual representation has the effect of situating that work on the periphery of the pictorial. By breaking across the frontier of the verbal, Magritte places his work at the edge of figuration. He 'pushes the envelope' of the pictorial. The representational code is at once asserted and subverted. The functioning of the message is impaired and eventually curtailed by a semantic fragmentation and deformation that erodes codification. Meaning is deferred .

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting , Trans. John R. Spencer. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.

Foucault, Michel. Les Mots et les choses . Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Foucault, Michel. Ceci n'est pas une pipe , Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973.

Lebel, Robert. Magritte,paintings , London: Methuen, 1969, non paginated.

Magritte, René. Ecrits Complets . Paris: Flammarion, 1979.

Mariën, Marcel. René Magritte . Brussels: Les Auteurs Associés, 1972.

Piaget, Jean. Le Structuralisme , Vendôme, P.U.F., 1974.

Roseblum, Robert. "Magritte's Surrealist Grammar." Art Digest . 1 5 March 1954: 14-16.

Scutenaire, Louis. Avec Magritte . Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1977.

Torczyner, Harry. René Magritte, signes et images . Paris: Draeger, 1977. 
About the Author 
Dr Silvano Levy is a Reader at Keele University, England. He has published extensively on surrealism, with studies on René Magritte, E.L.T. Mesens, Paul Nougé, Desmond Morris and Conroy Maddox. His publications include Desmond Morris: 50 Years of Surrealism (1997), Desmond Morris: Naked Surrealism (1999), Desmond Morris: Analytical Catalogue Raisonné 1944-2000 (2001) and The Scandalous Eye. The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox . 

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