Insiders see what others don’t. They are aware of the shades and details that might seem insignificant for others. But what are the differences when two insiders, namely André Breton and Sarane Alexandrian try to tell the same story: the story of surrealist art?
First of all, there is a generational difference between the two: Alexandrian (born in 1927) is more than thirty years younger than Breton (born in 1896). Breton is the real insider when speaking about surrealism before the second world war: surrealism has already been born before Alexandrian. But Alexandrian is also a genuine insider as far as postwar surrealism is concerned – he is a bright disciple of Breton, secretary of the “Bureau d’information et de liaison surréaliste”, Cause. And a disciple also of Victor Brauner, arguably the most interesting surrealist painter in the 1940s. Therefore Alexandrian might be considered a key figure when theorizing what are the elements of surrealist thought that have survived the war.
The 1972 Icon Edition of Breton’s Surrealism and painting reunites texts from a wide range of themes and time. The main texts are of course Le surréalisme et la peinture, originally published in 1928, and another text offering a broader insight and written in 1941: Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism.
It is interesting to note that the political aspects of surrealism – its links to marxist thought – are not taken into account when speaking about painting. Both Breton and Alexandrian seem to consider this side as marginal in this case, or possibly a variant of the surrealist endeavours that tried to transform so many aspects of life and of human sensitivity.
Let us see then what are the main themes of Breton in the book.
1. The painting as a window. This is important for Breton because of the narrowness of the concept of imitation: he insists on the validity of the internal model, which focuses on the intensity of the existence of images rather than on their “reality”: “it is impossible for me to envisage a picture as being other than a window, and my first concern is then to know what it looks out on, in other words whether, from where I am standing, there is a ‘beautiful view’, and nothing appeals to me so much as a vista stretching away before me and out of sight.” In this respect, Picasso and Braque are the ones whom Breton considers to have begun exploring a new path around 1909. The window here is a metaphor that is relevant in both directions: looking outside from the inside but also in the opposite way. For Breton it is important to feel that he has been let “inside” a world or a building or a dream: “From each one of your pictures you have let down a rope-ladder, or rather a ladder made of the sheets of your bed, and we, and probably you with us, desire only to climb up into our sleep and down from it again.”
2. His disappointment with some artists’ change in style and mentality. For example, Giorgio de Chirico’s “surrender” has a strong emotional impact on Breton because the beginnings of surrealist painting seem to have been indebted strongly to Chirico. It is the space he created, the city “where everything seems so close to existence” that fascinated the early surrealists, “it was here, more than anywhere else, that we held our invisible meetings” – says Breton. We are not to forget that these phrases were written during the years when “the marvellous city” were one of the main preoccupations of Breton, Aragon and their comrades. Another major disappointment for Breton is, of course, Dalí, because of, among other things, his “cynical indifference to the means he used to advertise himself”. But Dalí is not yet included in the 1928 article, his role in revolutionizing surrealist painting is to be admitted only at a next stage.
3. The key figures of Breton’s account then seem to be artists like Max Ernst (a painter of multiple skills, the most important of these being for Breton most probably his capacity to “magnetize” and discover affinities for pieces and objects that previously seemed separated), Joan Miró (for his pure automatism) and Yves Tanguy (for his independent imagery of “inner” landscapes).
Accounts of Breton include, of course, artists like Magritte, Masson, Matta and Brauner, and shorter texts about secret favourites of his like Toyen, Jacques Hérold or even Frida Kahlo, with her What the Water Yields Me. The 1972 edition contextualizes all these within a network where the works of “naïve” or “insane” painters are themselves relevant in a sort of mediumnistic way or because of their different sense of margins or of liberty. Three shorter texts are dedicated also to a theme that will get much greater significance in Alexandrian’s book: the theme of the object. For Breton, the most important aspect about the object is to explore “its latent possibilities which are not peculiar to it”, and to use their unpredictable “power of evocation”.
It is here, with the emphasis on the object that Alexandrian’s account differs significantly from those of Breton. As Alexandrian points out, the central relevance of objects became evident at the 1936 surrealist exhibition, where the proposed classification was: mathematical objects, natural objects, primitive objects, found objects, irrational objects, ready-made objects, interpreted objects, incorporated objects, mobile objects. Instead of this, Alexandrian operates with a new classification to be able to include “the whole range of surrealist inventions”. From the old classification, he retains found objects (that have the effect of jamais vu), the natural objects (where the object that has been sought for and longed for is much more important than the one found by chance), the interpreted found object (that is transformed by the artist into something bizarre), the interpreted natural object (poetic camouflage of stones, roots etc.), the readymade (industrially mass-produced object whose function is altered), and the incorporated object (strongly associated with a painting or sculpture, close to collage). He adds new types of objects to the list: the assemblage (where natural or found objects are arranged to form a sculpture), the phantom object (which might be made but is instead merely suggested by a verbal or graphic description), the dreamt object (a familiar object that is ‘dramatized’ in the way dreams work), the box (arrangement of various elements brought together in a box – like those made by Joseph Cornell, for example), the optical machine (invented by Duchamp), the poem-object (invented by Breton), the mobile and mute object (produced by Giacometti), the symbolically functioning object and the being-object (conceptualized by Dalí) and the objectively offered object (invented by Gherasim Luca, who described it in The Passive Vampire as an object made while thinking of a person, and thus a vehicle for sentimental or intellectual exchanges). As we can see, Alexandrian tries to go into details, and describes the objects mainly through their functioning, their interaction with people, and not defining them by their source.
Artists that are presented at a broader scale than in the book by Breton include: Dalí, Magritte, Brauner and Paul Delvaux. It seems that the disturbing erotic nature of these artists’ imagery was more important for Alexandrian although in this book he does not insist on the ‘erotic’. Post-war artists presented here, like Pierre Molinier, Clovis Trouille, Max Walter Svanberg are also painters who were not discussed by Breton at a larger scale.
Alexandrian’s book is organized in a way that although it observes a more or less strict chronology, it succeeds in marking the different periods of surrealist art by some key aspects: for example, the dada roots by the term of the ‘anti-art’, the ‘conquest of the marvellous’ marking here the period when Chirico and the ‘cadavres exquis’ method were most important for Breton and his comrades.
Surrealist objects, the great thematic surrealist exhibitions, surrealist architecture get separate chapters here, just like surrealism in the United States and across the world. Therefore Alexandrian succeeds in presenting surrealism in a more ‘historical’ way, creating a narrative for it, although he continues to speak from within this narrative, not claiming that the movement has come to an end: “an artist did not necessarily stop being surrealist when, after having been part of this common enterprise, he was driven by his individual development to withdraw from it” – he states. He himself is, of course, one of those who had formally quit the surrealist group at a certain moment, without ceasing to be a surrealist.
Alexandrian’s attempt is to prove the presence of surrealism in the world at a broader level than Breton does – not necessarily on the conceptual side (because Breton’s account is general enough to incorporate many potential examples), but at the material level. The emphasis on objects and their classification is perhaps the best proof of that.
(André Breton: Surrealism and Painting. Transl. Simon Watson Taylor. Icon Editions, Harper&Row Publishers, New York – Evanston – San Francisco – London, 1972.; Sarane Alexandrian: Surrealist Art. Transl. Gordon Clough, Thames and Hudson, London, 1970.)