The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924
by Patricia Allmer and Hilde Van Gelder
Belgian Surrealism has, until now, been marginalised by most Anglo-American explorations of Surrealism. One reason for this might be that it offers internal complexities and contradictory meanings which, however problematic, also make it a truly fascinating object of analysis and exploration. Belgian Surrealism seems to interfere with contemporary canonical approaches to the movement, which very much rely on and prefer French Surrealism. However, any understanding of Surrealism which does not consider the Belgian element remains incomplete - understandings which include this element will, in contrast, arrive at new, altered and extended definitions of what Surrealism is.
With this in mind, the Image & Narrative special issue 'The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism From 1924' has been conceived to offer an inaugural platform for the exploration of different aspects of the movement through bringing together and presenting essays by distinguished, international scholars. Many of the essays have grown out of the 2005 Association of Art Historians conference session with the same title. The conference session opened interesting debates and discussions and made particularly clear how important such a publication is.
Belgian Surrealism emerged with the publication of Correspondance in 1924, the same year as Breton published the First Surrealist Manifesto, the official beginning of a movement which, arguably, has been the most influential avant-garde in 20 th century art. Already in this first period of Belgian Surrealism, which can be dated from 1924 - 1926, the term comprised two distinct groupings. On one side, Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte (who were later joined by two musicians, Paul Hooreman and André Souris) published Correspondance, which consisted of different coloured flyers. The journal consisted of one-page tracts which, under the auspices of being 'A Reply to an Investigation on Modernism', dissected writings by Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, André Gide and French Surrealists such as Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault and particularly André Breton, whose theories of dreams and the unconscious were repeatedly criticised. Paul Nougé called this practice of critical enquiry 'serpigineuse' and Marcel Mariën elaborated on it as follows: "It was as if they would slip into the skin of their subjects of criticism and seize their pens - they grab the texts from their insides whilst helping themselves to the words of their subject of criticism, in order to bend these words to their own purposes" ('Der Surrealismus aus Brüsseler Sicht', 16, our translation) - a definition which could perhaps be seen as foreshadowing the practices of deconstruction and détournement.
On the other side, René Magritte and E.L.T. Mesens were still involved in the Dada mindset and together published the periodical Osophage in March 1925. Mesens's periodical Marie in June and July 1926 published Magritte alongside Lecomte, and drew together the two groupings which, can be described as the Brussels Surrealist Group. Valuable publications emerged out of this union, such as the journal Distance in 1928, and co-operations with French Surrealists like those on the special issues of Variétés in 1929, Documents in 1934 and the collective work of Violette Nozières in 1933 which brought together Breton, Char, Dali, Eluard, Mesens, Ernst, Arp and Magritte. The first elements of 'dialogism' in Belgian Surrealist artistic production, as observed in Correspondance, remained and were further cultivated into inter-textual exchanges between each other, between Belgian and French surrealism and between Belgian surrealism and its own traditions, exchanges which also formed inter-art dialogues. These are examined in a number of essays here. Ben Stoltzfus (University of California, Riverside) explores the discursive relations between Magritte and Robbe-Grillet: La Belle captive: Magritte's Surrealism, Robbe-Grillet's Metafiction, and Ainsley Brown (Princeton University) offers an insight into René Magritte and Paul Éluard: An International and Interartistic Dialogue. Silvano Levy's (University of Keele) essay explores Magritte at the Edge of Codes, while David Scott (Trinity College Dublin) examines Word & Image in Belgian Surrealist Art: The Case of Paul Delvaux. Affinities between Belgian Surrealists and the work of the Marquis de Sade are explored in Stacy Kathleen Fuessle's (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) The Belgian Surrealists and Sade: A Criminal Affinity.
However, whilst the Brussels Surrealists were, as stated above, critical of French Surrealist theories, a group of Walloon Surrealists was formed in Hainaut in 1934 which was much more receptive to French theories, and importantly organised the International Exhibition on Surrealism in La Louvière in October 1935. The Rupture Group was independent and consisted of Achille Chavée, Fernand Dumont, André Lorent, Armand Simon and Marcel Havrenne. Its dismemberment in 1938 led to Chavée, Dumont, Simon and others forming the Hainaut Group.
It is already apparent that Belgian Surrealism not only differs from French, but likewise resists being seen as a unified, coherent whole. Instead it was divided, exploring and being marked by the differences within its own history, and between Flemish and Walloon traditions and identities. Such differences triggered the formation and re-formation of different groupings which formed contrasts between each other, but also shared points of collaborations with each other as is apparent in the publication of L'Invention Collective in 1940 on which the Hainaut Group worked together with the Brussels Group. Regional significances and the impossibility of presenting Belgian Surrealism as a coherent whole is closely examined in An Paenhuysen's (University of Leuven) essay Surrealism in the Provinces: Flemish and Walloon Modernity in the Interwar Period, and Janet Styles Tyson (University of North Texas) addresses The Persistence of Mystery: René Magritte as a Regional Artist . Belgian Surrealism's international relations are addressed in Neil Matheson's (University of Westminster) Brussels-Paris-London: E.L.T. Mesens and the Surrealist International. Sebastian Hackenschmidt (MAK, Vienna) re-examines meanings of Marcel Broodthaers' bones in his essay A Material Matter: Marcel Broodthaers' Use of Bones as a Surrealist Intervention against the Political Cult of the Dead.
The complexity of Belgian Surrealism is enhanced by the formation of later groups such as the Revolutionary Surrealist Group, Cobra, Phases, Phantomas and Daily-Bul which broadened the meaning of Surrealism still further, perhaps even to that point where the ultimate Surrealist act is to be fragmented, to question and even negate itself, as Paul Nougé asserts: "Exegetes, if you want to be able to see clearly, cross out the word Surrealism." (Les Lèvres Nues)
Marcel Mariën, 'Der Surrealismus aus Brüsseler Sicht' in Kunstverein und Kunsthaus Hamburg René Magritte und der Surrealismus in Belgien. Translated by Jörg Ebeling, Brussels: Leeber Hossmann (1982).
Paul Nougé, 'Journal 1941 - 1950', Les Lèvres Nues, Brussels (1968).
Patricia Allmer is Research Associate at MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University. She has recently completed a PhD on René Magritte and is currently preparing, together with Hilde Van Gelder, an edited book on Belgian Surrealism.