Surrealism by Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy (2004)

SURREALISM. Noun: Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, or otherwise, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral considerations.
(First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)

One of German publisher Taschen’s ‘Basic Art’ movement series, this 95-page-long, mid-size art book consists of a series of key Surrealist art works, prefaced by a handy ten-page introduction, complete with funky timeline of historical events (e.g. 1913 – world’s first domestic refrigerator sold in Chicago!).

The main body of the text consists of 34 double-page spreads, each one displaying a major Surrealist painting on the right, and a page of commentary about the artist – with their biography, photo and interpretation of the work – on the left-hand page.

The artists are presented alphabetically, not chronologically, so the commentary on them and their pictures jumps about a bit in time and space, in a pleasantly random, surreal kind of way. They are:

  • Hans Arp (1 painting)
  • Hans Bellmer (1)
  • Brassaï (1 photo)
  • Giorgio de Chirico (2)
  • Salvador Dalí (5)
  • Paul Delvaux (1)
  • Max Ernst (4)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1)
  • Paul Klee (1)
  • Wifredo Lam (1)
  • René Magritte (4)
  • André Masson (1)
  • Matta (1)
  • Joan Miró (3)
  • Meret Oppenheim (1)
  • Pablo Picasso (4)
  • Man Ray (1 photograph)
  • Yves Tanguy (2 paintings)

As this list shows, Salvador Dalí emerges as the single biggest contributor to the Surrealist ‘look’.

Like other books on the subject, the excellent introduction has problems defining precisely what Surrealism was, because its definitions, ideas and embodiments changed and evolved over the key years between the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and the outbreak of war in 1939.

From this account I took that Surrealism is ‘a philosophical and artistic approach which vehemently rejects the notion of the Rational Mind and all its works’. For Surrealists, the True Mind, true human nature – ‘the true function of thought’ – is profoundly irrational.

The Surrealists thought the Rational Mind formed the basis of ‘bourgeois’ society, with its moral and sexual repressiveness, its worship of work and money, its fetishisation of capitalist greed which had led both to the stifling conformity of Western society and to a series of petty wars over colonies which had themselves led up to the unprecedented calamity of the First World War.

In the Surrealists’ opinion, this entire mindset had proved to be a ghastly mistake. The Surrealists thought that we had to reject it lock stock and barrel by returning to the pure roots of human nature in the fundamentally irrational nature of the human mind, liberating thought from all censorship and superficial, petty morality, seeking to capture ‘the true function of thought’ and creativity through the exploration of the fortuitous and the uncontrolled, the random and the unexpected, through dreams and coincidences.

The first Surrealist magazine was titled La Révolution surréaliste (1924 to 1929) not because it espoused a communist political line, but because it thought that Surrealist writing and art would, by its very nature, reveal to readers and viewers the true nature of unbounded thought and lead to a great social transformation.

Strategies of Surrealist writers

The writers who initiated the movement (André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos) tried to get at and reveal ‘the true function of thought’ using a number of strategies.

Free association In 1919 Breton and Soupault spent days taking it in turns to free associate words and sentences, while the other scribbled down the results – producing monologues ‘without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue unencumbered by the slightest inhibition’. The results were published in 1920 in a work of ‘fiction’, The Magnetic Fields, the first Surrealist text.

Automatic writing Later, in the mid-1920s, they experimented with the ability to go into a sort of trance or half-asleep state and then write the mind’s thoughts, similarly ‘unencumbered by inhibition’. The poet Robert Desnos turned out to be the best at this – he could put himself into a trance-like, sleep-like state but nonetheless write reams of text – to everyone’s amazement. There are photos of him doing it.

Transcribing the mad Breton was a trainee doctor and towards the end of the war worked with shell-shocked soldiers, some of whom had gone completely mad. With this experience and training, it’s odd that he didn’t pursue the ravings of the mad in greater detail during the 1920s. Even Freud was forced to amend his theories in light of the universal incidence of shell shock, post traumatic stress disorder and so on among Great War soldiers. So it’s genuinely surprising that there isn’t more about war and madness in Surrealism (not in any of the books I’ve read, anyway).

Compare and contrast with the traumatic war art of the Surrealists’ German contemporaries, Otto Dix or George Grosz.

Paranoiac-critical method It was left to Salvador Dalí, who only joined the movement in the late 1920s, to undertake a (sort of) exploration of madness. Dalí exploited his own florid psychological issues – hysteria, panic attacks, delusions – into a system he grandly titled the ‘Paranoiac-critical method’.

It was never exactly clear what he meant by this, but one definition he gave defined it as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.’

In practice this meant cultivating a state of mind in which he was open to the multiple meanings of objects, receptive to visual puns, where one object turns into another object which turns into another object, presenting a kind of vertigo of endless transmutations.

Maybe the most famous example is the image of melting clocks. This came to him at the end of a dinner as he sat watching the cheese board and some super-ripe camembert cheeses drooping and oozing over the edge of the plate. In a flash he saw clock faces, melting clock faces, in the round cheeses, and rushed home to paint them. (At least, that’s the story he tells in his often unreliable memoirs.)

(I hadn’t realised till I read this book that the slug-like thing on the floor of this famous painting is a self-portrait. If you rotate the image through 45 degrees you can see Dalí’s big nose pointing to the left and that the fringe of hairs are the eyelashes of his closed eye. This ‘self-portrait as a slug’ appears in a number of early paintings – look out for the eyelashes.)

Strategies of Surrealist painters

We know that the artists who joined the group at first struggled to compete with the ‘pure’ automatism of  their writer colleagues. After all the ability to free associate words and text is a pretty cheap and easy technique, difficult to replicate with oil paints and brushes.

Automatic drawing Early member André Masson simply free-associated his drawings, letting his pen wander over the surface of paper or canvas, drawing inconsequential lines, dots and squiggles. Many of these were saved and recorded but it’s difficult to get too excited by them.

Interesting up to a point, but you can see how after a certain number of these you might get bored. Is this all the Unconscious had to say?

Collage Max Ernst was a member of the Cologne Dada group when he discovered the hallucinatory power of cutting up graphic elements from newspapers, magazines, adverts and so on and sticking them together in strange combinations.

A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

Illustration from A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

More than letting the pen or brush wander at random, it is this idea of the bizarre yoking-together of elements from different spheres, realms or discourses, the notion of strange and unexpected combinations, which lies at the heart of Surrealist art.

(The art of jarring juxtapositions is a technique Dalí would bring to a kind of cartoon, fluent perfection in Surrealist objects like the famous lobster telephone of 1936.)

Max Ernst emerges as the most prolific innovator among Surrealist artists: he went on to develop a number of other techniques designed either to remove the artist from the process of creation, or to fully incorporate elements of chance and randomness – both with the aim of getting at ‘the true function of thought’:

  • frottage – The technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art. In frottage, the artist takes a pastel or pencil or other drawing tool and makes a rubbing over an uneven surface. The drawing can be left as it is or used as the basis for further refinement.
  • grattage – Laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping the paint off to create an interesting and unexpected surface.
  • decalcomania – Applying paint to paper then folding it, applying pressure, and unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern, then turning the resulting patterns into landscapes and mythical creatures. A kind of Rorshach diagram, with elaborations.

Biomorphic shapes Much Surrealist art uses existing objects and motifs from the real world, albeit placed in unexpected combinations, but there also developed a whole sub-set of Surrealist art which explored shapes and patterns for their own sake, creating a whole new visual vocabulary of the strange and uncanny. Klingsöhr-Leroy says this type of exploration distinguishes the first wave of Surrealist painters – Masson, Miró, Arp and Tanguy.

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Dreamlike serenity Although the writers often invoked ‘revolution’, ‘overthrow’ and ‘violence’, there is a whole strand of Surrealist art which is the exact opposite, creating a dreamlike sense of stasis. Think of the mysterious empty cityscapes of de Chirico, the somnambulistic people in Paul Delvaux or the apparently relaxed way the figures in Magritte paintings blankly accept the oddest apparitions.

Klingsöhr-Leroy Cathrin says dream paintings are more characteristic of the painters who joined the movement later on, like Magritte and Dalí. And contrary to all Surrealism’s revolutionary rhetoric, many of these works were, by the time I was growing up in the 1970s if not before, best-selling posters, calm and bright and pretty on the walls of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1929 was a lot fiercer in tone. I’ve read various reasons for this, including Breton’s growing involvement with Communism or his own personal life being in disarray. The Second Manifesto notoriously accompanied the expulsion of a number of writers from the movement, angrily denouncing them for abandoning the cause.

But, on the positive side, it also expanded the movement’s terms of reference by namechecking medieval alchemists, drawing a parallel between their arcane quests for knowledge and the Surrealist investigations. And it introduced a distinct new idea, that of exploring ‘the Surreal object’ – using art or writing to reveal ‘the remarkable symbolic life of quite ordinary, mundane objects’.

To no artist is this more applicable than Magritte. What could be more normal than his apples and clouds? Or, in the way he deploys them, more disturbing?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

Naked women Coming from the generation born around 1900, all these men had been brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic society which was staggeringly repressive about sex.

When they looked for the aspect of ‘bourgeois’ society which would be easiest to provoke, or when they delved into themselves to try and identify their deepest unconscious urges, or when they read any of Freud’s numerous writings about the Unconscious – everywhere they looked, the Surrealists tended to find sex sex sex.

Hence, the most tiresome element of Surrealism, which is the endless images of naked women. I expected sex-mad Dalí would be the most guilty party, but they were all at it – bosoms and fannies as images of ‘liberation’.

For all of them the female body, depicted realistically, or chopped up, or morphing into abstract shapes, was a constant source of inspiration.

Should it be? If feminists had their way, would male artists be allowed to charge the female body with all kinds of ‘profound’ meanings, as the repository of ‘fertility’, ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’, ‘mystery’, ‘consolation’, ‘depravity’ – all the hackneyed attributes of the famous madonna-whore complex, plus many more?

It’s partly the tedium of looking at yet another pair of bare boobs which draws me to more abstract artists like Paul Klee. He had a vast amount of beautiful, strange ideas to express, and not a bosom in sight.

Primitivism In a way it’s surprising that there isn’t more evidence of ‘primitivism’ in Surrealist art i.e. the use of images and motifs from the supposedly more ‘primitive’ cultures of Africa or Oceania. According to Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre, there’s some debate about who introduced the taste for African and Oceanic fetishes and statues into avant-garde circles, but it was certainly present by around 1905.

So by 1925 it was a very well-established taste, with most artists having ‘primitive’ masks scattered about among the other bric-a-brac in their studios. But looking at some of the images in this book the main conclusion is that the cult of weird faces and masks had become so diverse that, by the 1930s and 40s, it is difficult to tell where ‘primitivism’ ended and a kind of science fiction weirdness began (the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published in 1926).

The Surrealist Revolution?

How tiresome modern artists and modern art experts are with their persistence in thinking that modern art ‘undermines’ or ‘subverts’ ‘bourgeois’ values.

It’s hard for us, nowadays, to recreate just what the ‘bourgeoisie’ ever meant. The word derives from mid-19th century France. Are we to think of the narrow-minded townsfolk in novels by Flaubert or Zola? Men who shave, dress ‘correctly’, have sensible jobs as doctors and lawyers and bankers?

Looking at all the photos of Surrealist artists in this book, one of the main visual impressions is how very smart and shaved and formal they themselves look, often in a nice suit, with white shirt and dark tie.

Living in 2018 London packed with stubbly dudes with nose piercings carrying huge backpacks, it’s difficult to imagine these ancient, respectable-looking men ever subverting anything.

It’s very hard to recapture ‘the shock of the new’ so long afterwards. The 1930s when Surrealist artworks began to be widely exhibited, were 20 years after Cubism had ‘shocked the world’, getting on for 30 years since the Fauves scandalised Paris, 40 years since Symbolist and decadent art upset newspaper columnists and 70 years after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe ‘scandalised’ Paris.

You have to wonder who these people are, who keep on being scandalised by modern art. Hadn’t they read about the previous scandal? And the one before that? And the one before that?

Klingsöhr-Leroy tells an anecdote about when the Surrealist gang broke up a literary banquet being held in honour of the rather conventional poet Saint-Pol-Roux at the Closerie des Lilas bar on 2 July 1925. Tables were overturned, crockery broken, the gang chanted ‘anti-bourgeois’ slogans, blows were exchanged. She goes on to comment:

The incident is characteristic of the Surrealists’ anarchic and anti-bourgeois attitudes. Their actions were an attack on the established bourgeois order, designed to undermine all that was generally accepted and revered by respectable society. (p.17)

Really? A punch-up in a café? Undermining the whole of bourgeois society? I don’t think so, and the fact that, 80 years later, Klingsöhr-Leroy thinks this, undermines your confidence in her sense of history or perspective. Choosing a punch-up in a bar as an outstanding example of their ‘anarchic and anti-bourgeois’ values somehow reduces the whole movement to a set of schoolboy pranks.

In fact the the Surrealists’ ‘anarchic’ and ‘anti-bourgeois’ behaviour and attitude sound like standard undergraduate high jinks to me, precisely the kind of ‘wild’ behaviour that is expected of upper or upper-middle-class ‘rebels’ and bohemians, wild and crazee artists (all men, of course) who, in the final analysis, depend on money and connections (or in the Surrealists’ case) on rich patrons and rich buyers, to bail them out.

1. The connection between money and art was one of the messages of Sue Roe’s gossipy book about Picasso and Matisse, In Monmartre, set in the 1900s and explaining how the competition between the two Great Men of Modern Art was not only to find new artistic avenues of expression but, just as importantly, to curry favour with rich collectors and influential dealers. By 1910 both Picasso and Matisse had good working relationships with both and began to flourish.

2. In her book, Surreal Lives, Ruth Brandon writes a simple and devastating sentence which ought to be inscribed at the entrance to every modern art gallery in the world and tattooed on the forehead of every modern art scholar and curator.

Art is a luxury product, and artists rely for their living on rich patrons. (p.326)

3. I’ve known about Luis Buñuel’s ‘subversive’ early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or for forty years or more, but it was only when I read Brandon’s book that I learned about the key role played in funding them by the wealthy French aristocrat Arthur Anne Marie Charles, Vicomte de Noailles. According to Wikipedia:

Charles financed Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929), which centers around Villa Noailles in Hyères. He also financed Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s L’Âge d’Or (1930). In 1930 Charles made possible the career of Dalí by purchasing in advance a large work for 29,000 francs, thus enabling Dalí and Gala to return from Paris to Port Lligat and devote themselves to his art.

The take-home message from all these books is that art – no matter how ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ – depends on rich patrons to make it possible. Radical art may upset conservative newspapers and, through them, the great philistine middle classes. But it doesn’t ‘subvert society’; the opposite: it is the plaything of the rich.

There is more ‘radical’ art about than ever before in the history of the world, and yet finance capitalism has never been more entrenched and powerful.

Because their art revelled in images of sex and death, because they behaved like spoilt schoolboys, because they were sponsored by aristocrats, and because they had absolutely no understanding of the fatal consequences of revolutionary politics, it is difficult to disagree with the Soviet Commissar who pointed out that Surrealism itself represented ‘the ultimate degeneration of the French bourgeoisie’ i.e. the complete opposite of the values Breton claimed for it.

In any case, the Surrealists soon recognised the essentially luxury nature of their output. Just six years later, in 1933, the group launched a new, glossy Surrealist magazine, Minotaur. It was limited to 3,000 copies, intended for connoisseurs and collectors only and, as the Hungarian photographer Brassaï put it, was priced far

beyond the reach of proletarian purses and could only serve a milieu of rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works. (quoted page 23)

‘Rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works.’ Precisely.

Dalí grasped this from the start and went to America to become rich – which is why the others came to loathe him. Like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst in later generations, he realised that the best art is business. In fact art is a form of business, it’s just another specialist provider of luxury objects to the rich.

The artistic legacy

Surrealist art didn’t overthrow anything, but its explorations and experiments opened the way for an entirely new visual language to be created, for loads of individual masterpieces, styles and looks to be developed, which filtered through into all aspects of design, fashion, advertising, film and TV.

It became an imaginative climate where we still, to a large extent, live, strangely appropriate for the disjointed and technology-driven lives of the 20th century Western world.

And, having read so much about the earnestness and seriousness with which Breton set up his Institute of Surrealist Research, with which he and colleagues carried out their automatic writing and painting and so on – I wonder if the movement made any lasting scientific discoveries. Are psychologists, linguists or experts in perception and cognition aware of any lasting scientific facts which came out of this explosion of ideas and researches into the unconscious workings of the mind, about language and images and the unconscious?

Or was it all an enormous, delightful, argumentative and hugely influential but, in scientific terms, inconsequential game?


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Nadja by André Breton (1928)

What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes? What was it they reflected – some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride? (p.65)

Reading Ruth Brandon’s group biography of the Surrealists, Surrealist Lives, prompted me to track down this, the most famous work by the group’s domineering leader, the writer, poet and critic André Breton. It is, according to the blurb, ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’.

It is also a huge disappointment. After only a few pages I wanted it to hurry up and finish and was relieved to realise that since it includes quite a few illustrations (44 in fact) this mercifully reduces the length of this tedious book – only 150 or so pages in the Penguin paperback edition – to under 110 pages of text.

It is not shocking or revolutionary or subversive. Nadja is characterised by:

  • a contorted prose style which makes it hard to understand
  • an inability to gather its thoughts into a coherent order
  • the crushing triviality and irrelevance of its examples
  • a dismaying heartlessness towards the young woman at its centre
  • Breton’s astonishingly humourless self-absorption

Part one

Nadja is in three parts. Part one jumps straight in with the most important subject in the world – Breton himself – in its opening sentence:

Who am I?

The answer relies on a French proverb which is not quoted in full or explained in a note, so we never learn what it is exactly, but which apparently involves the word ‘haunt’.

This linguistic accident gives rise to a long disquisition on how the ghost of dead selves ‘haunt’ the current self, about how the ‘self’ can’t be defined by existing social or psychological categories and so on. Breton here rewords ideas about identity that had been discussed by the poet Arthur Rimbaud 60 years earlier (‘je est un autre’, as Rimbaud famously wrote) and far more systematically by Sigmund Freud a generation earlier – in fact much better, by lots of other writers.

Breton’s style is dry and airless, without any colour or (as mentioned) humour, convoluted and contorted, evincing a kind of academic self-importance. To say that Breton is a man who gives himself airs is an understatement.

Such reflections lead me to the conclusion that criticism, abjuring, it is true, its dearest prerogatives but aiming, on the whole, at a goal less futile than the automatic adjustment of ideas, should confine itself to scholarly incursions upon the very realm supposedly barred to it, and which, separate from the work, is a realm where the author’s personality, victimised by the petty events of daily life, expresses itself quite freely and often in so distinctive a manner. (p.13)

It’s all like that. It’s like reading concrete. It’s like drowning in a giant vat of glue. He means the artist’s personality is more important than the work – pretty much the opposite to the current point of view.

Part one moves on to a list of works which have moved Breton, with a predictable jog-trot through the accepted canon of proto-Surrealist writers – Arthur Rimbaud, the Marquis de Sade, Lautreamont.

It seamlessly moves on to discussing places in Paris, particular streets or statues or shop signs, which have strangely moved the author, along with (to him) odd coincidences, like being able to predict where shops with particular names will be along a street, or bumping into someone at a theatre and later receiving a letter from them without realising it was the same person (Paul Eluard). The banality is stupefying.

Only very slowly does it become clear that this section is meant to be about what Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’. Apparently (and it’s only by reading the introduction to the book and the Wikipedia article about it that you can really understand this) the notion of ‘significant coincidences’ was a key element in early Surrealism (along with ‘automatic writing’ and the importance of dreams).

For the Surrealists they were all strategies or techniques for evading the mind’s rational ‘bourgeois’ constraints and tapping directly into our unconscious, into the true and deepest sources of human creativity.

Here’s an example of such a ‘petrifying coincidence’. On one of his dates with Nadja, she and Breton walk from the Place Dauphine to a bar called ‘the Dauphine’ and Breton points out that, when he and friends play the game of comparing each other to animals, more often than not he is compared to a dolphin (‘dauphin’ in French)! Wow, eh!

It would be easier to understand what Breton was on about if he explained it lucidly – if there were some sentences early in Part One describing what he’s trying to do (list spooky places and strange coincidences designed to help you appreciate the non-rational Surrealist worldview) – or if he could write simple clear declarative sentences. But he can’t.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has a really bad stutter? Quite quickly you find yourself willing them to just spit it out; you can see what they’re driving at and you just want to help them get over their crippling debility, which is obviously causing them agonies of frustration.

Reading Breton is like that. He has got something to say but he seems cripplingly unable to express it. And instead of the fluency he so sorely lacks, his prose displays a kind of roughshod, domineering quality, a determination to make himself heard, no matter how incoherent what he’s saying actually is.

I must insist, lastly, that such accidents of thought not be reduced to their unjust proportions as faits-divers, random episodes, so that when I say, for instance, that the statue of Etienne Dolet on its plinth in the Place Maubert in Paris has always fascinated me and induced unbearable discomfort, it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (p.24)

What?

The pope of Surrealism

Breton became known as the ‘pope’ of Surrealism for the iron control he exercised over the movement. He regularly staged trials and inquisitions into members who had in any way strayed from what he defined as the True Faith, which in practice meant dropping writers, poets or artists if they disagreed with him (which almost all the other Surrealists did at one stage or another).

This self-centred self-importance is on ample display in this book in the casual self-importance:

  • I must insist…
  • Which leads me to my own experience…
  • Nantes: perhaps, with Paris, the only city in France where I feel that something worth while can happen to me…
  • I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather, since such a wish once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…
  • Meanwhile, you can be sure of meeting me in Paris, of not spending more than three days without seeing me pass, toward the end of the afternoon, along the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle between the Matin printing office and the Boulevard Strasbourg. I don’t know why it should be precisely here that my feet take me…

Paradoxically, the technique of recording every dream, every strange coincidence, every funny feeling you have about a statue or a narrow alley somewhere in Paris, it all runs the risk of seeming very inconsequential.

For example, Breton informs us that his favourite film is called The Grip of the Octopus, giving us several scenes from it which haunt his imagination. Then by far the longest section of Part One (six pages) is devoted to retelling the entire plot of a play he once saw, a thriller which leads up to the discovery of a child’s corpse in a cupboard, which was accompanied by a piercing scream which riveted him to his seat.

It is unbelievably self-absorbed, trivial and boring.

Similarly, we learn that reading Rimbaud in 1915 gave Breton an ‘extremely deep and vivid emotion’. That one day, years later, he was walking in the countryside in the rain when a strange woman fell into step beside him and asked if she could recite a Rimbaud poem to him. And then again, just recently, that he was at the Saint-Ouen flea market when he came across a copy of Rimbaud’s poems amidst the bric-a-brac, which had some hand-written poems among the pages. The book, and the poems, turn out to belong to the stall-keeper, a pretty young woman. That’s it.

It’s only towards the end of this first part that Breton explains (in his convoluted way) that he has been trying to give us examples of what the Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’ and explains a little about the non-rational world he thinks they open up for us.

I imagine he intended all these trivial anecdotes to form a dazzling insight into his and the Surreal worldview. But instead they seem thumpingly banal and ineffectual. If this is it, if this is the basis of the entire Surrealist movement in art and literature – some places give you a spooky feeling, some coincidences are a bit eerie – then you can see why so very little of Surrealist literature has survived or been translated into English.

It seems crushingly boring.

Part two – Nadja

Having got this ham-fisted and disappointing insight into the worldview of Surrealism out of the way, Part Two of the book is finally about the woman of the title. On page 63 Breton finally meets ‘Nadja’, bumping into her in the street. She’s an attractive young woman, who immediately engages him in intense conversation – about her work (about work in general, and ‘Freedom’), about her lover who jilted her, about her family. He is entranced by her candour.

If Part One has done anything it has shown how Breton melodramatises quite humdrum events and feelings into Great Insights Into the Unconscious.

So it’s prepared us for the fact that Breton now reacts to every tremble and hesitation from this strange young woman as if it physically touches his oh-so-precious sensibility.

She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. (p.64)

I met lots of young women like this at parties in my 20s and 30s, fey, sensitive and spiritual souls, bruised by the hard world, treated badly by beastly men, cramped by horrible jobs – women who are too good for this world, women quick to tell you how spiritual they are, how much they care about the environment, how they only live for their cats.

She is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvellously, for life! (p.90)

Breton presents his idealised portrait of a hauntingly sensitive young woman as being somehow new, when it struck me as being incredibly old, really really ancient, a timeworn Romantic cliché. 115 years earlier Lord Byron had written:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

and this story of a sensitive poet falling under the spell of a delicate young woman struck me as the opposite of innovative, new or interesting.

I’ve recently read descriptions of the Futurist Marinetti in 1912 yelling through a megaphone at tourists in Venice to burn the gondolas – that was funny and original.

I’ve been reading about the madcap provocations of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists in Zurich, dressing up in cardboard costumes and reciting poetry to the beat of a bass drum.

I keep reading about Marcel Duchamp exhibiting his famous urinal in 1917. All these are still startling, new and entertaining.

André Breton sitting in a café in Paris listening to a slightly unhinged young lady telling him about her boyfriend problems…. well… it just seemed incredibly dull and ordinary. And sentimental, Christ! he sounds like a puppyish teenager scribbling in his diary.

She told me her name, the one she had chosen for herself: ‘Nadja, because in Russian it’s the beginning of the world hope, and because it’s only the beginning.’ (p.66)

As you might well imagine it turns out that Nadja’s health is delicate – exactly like any number of beautiful poor young women in 19th century novels or Romantic operas. Nadja loves her mother (‘I love mother. I wouldn’t hurt her for anything in the world’). And – surprise – she’s no good with money.

In other words, Nadja comes across as more stupefyingly dull and clichéd than words can convey. And yet the stolid humourless Breton seems to be endlessly moved by her tedious vapourings.

  • More moved than I care to show…
  • I am deeply moved…
  • This is one of the compliments that has moved me most in my life…

I couldn’t really believe the tone of fatuous self-importance which dominates the text and, for me, was epitomised when, towards the end of their first chat, strolling through the streets:

About to leave her, I want to ask one question which sums up all the rest, a question which only I could ever ask, probably, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it: ‘Who are you?’ (p.71)

I have read and reread this, but Breton really seems to think that asking a stranger who he’s just met who she is, is a mark of genius, is ‘a question which only I could ever ask’.

Of course, he means it in a more poetic sense than you or I could ever mean it, because he is a POET. He is driving at a deeper enquiry into her soul and identity than just her name (which she’s already given us) and I suppose is referencing the ‘discussion’, if you can call it that, of identity with which he opened the book.

And she answers as only the sensitive young woman in a POET’s life could ever answer:

I am the soul in limbo. (p.71)

This is sentimental horseshit, and I am staggered at its sub-Romantic, pimply, teenage clichédness. Who would ever have predicted that ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’ would be so tiresomely ‘sensitive’ and boring.

The novels of Jean-Paul Sartre are infinitely more weird and disorienting than this. Nadja feels like the work of an immensely boring, utterly normal person trying to force himself into being interesting and sensitive and spooky – and the best he can come up with is ‘odd coincidences’ and an encounter with a slightly bonkers young woman. Really?

The encounters start as a diary of a sequence of days in October, going into detail about their meetings, conversations and wanderings round Paris over the course of a week or two.

Without any explanation the narrative then breaks into scattered memories of Nadja’s increasingly disconnected sayings, random phrases, fears of underground passages and of people watching her. It includes a series of pictures she scribbled on the back of postcards and scraps of paper which Breton takes as signs of uncanny genius, but which look like exactly the kind of pictures you or I might scribble on the back of scraps of paper in bored moments.

And then, suddenly, the narration pulls right away from Nadja. With sudden detachment Breton reports that he was told, ‘several months ago’, that Nadja was found raving in the hallway of her hotel and sent to a sanatorium.

You might have thought this would elicit some kind of concern about her, maybe a visit to the sanatorium, letters to get her released and so on.

But no, instead this news prompts a lengthy diatribe against psychiatry, Breton ranting against the power doctors have to deprive people of their freedom, in which he loses sight of Nadja altogether and instead imagines the fight that he, the Surrealist poet André Breton, would put up in an insane asylum, taking the first opportunity to murder a doctor and being locked up in solitary as a result.

Typically self-absorbed. And typical macho bullshit from bully boy Breton.

Part three

Part Three is short, at just ten pages or so, with a few photographs thrown in. It starts with characteristic self-absorption and bewildering lack of clarity, making it quite difficult to figure out what it’s about.

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him. (p.147)

So it’s a passage at the end of a book about how difficult he finds it to imagine someone who can end a book.

After struggling to express himself on the subject of how difficult he finds it to express himself, there are a few last scattered memories of Nadja – one particularly hair-raising one where they are driving along and she puts her foot over onto the accelerator pedal, making the car suddenly jerk forward, till he manages to get her to take it off again.

But then, in the last four pages, the entire narrative completely changes tone altogether. Out of the blue it suddenly addresses someone referred to only as ‘You’, a ‘you’ who, apparently, is a bringer of huge emotional turmoil to our confused author, addressed in Breton’s usual rambling manner.

That is the story that I too yielded to the desire to tell you, when I scarcely knew you – you who can no longer remember but who, as if by chance, knowing of the beginning of this book, have intervened so opportunely, so violently, and so effectively, doubtless to remind me that I wanted it to be ‘ajar, like a door’ and that through this door I should probably never see anyone come in but you – come in and go out but you. (p.157)

Confusingly, the entire story of Nadja suddenly seems a thing of the distant past, completely eclipsed by this sudden inexplicable obsession with this mysterious ‘you’.

Since you exist, as you alone know how to exist, it was perhaps not so necessary that this book should exist. I have decided to write it nevertheless, in memory of the conclusion I wanted to give it before knowing you and which your explosion into my life has not rendered vain. (p.158)

This incoherent finale to the book only made any kind of sense when I turned to read the Introduction to this Penguin translation.

The introduction

The introduction to this Penguin edition of Nadja is by Mark Polizzotti who is a biographer of Breton.

To my surprise he quotes some of the tritest, most sentimental passages about Nadja with apparent approval, which at first dismayed me. But then he goes on to give a fascinating account of what actually happened – what Nadja is actually about – which is far more interesting than any of Breton’s bombastic bragging.

Polizzotti explains that ‘Nadja’ was actually Léona-Camile-Ghislaine D., last name unknown to this day, born in 1902, who Breton met in the street in October 1926, and then met again and again obsessively over the period of a month or so. Breton introduced her to his Surrealist colleagues (all impressed by her spooky intensity) and to his long-suffering wife Simone Kahn (intellectual collaborator, sounding board but not, apparently, sexual partner).

Breton the big-talking poet entranced Léona just as much as she beguiled him – it was a short sharp affair which climaxed in a train ride out of town to a rural hotel where they had sex. This physical act Breton, apparently, found unsatisfying, and soon after he began withdrawing himself from her. She continued to try to meet him, bombarding him with letters and drawings – and it’s these increasingly desperate messages which account for the way the middle part of the book morphs from distinct diary entries into a haphazard set of fragmented memories, notes, sayings, and photos of the drawings which she sent Breton.

One day Léona was found raving and hallucinating in the hallway of her cheap hotel, and was reported to the police who called the medics who took her off to an asylum. According to Polizzotti, some of the Surrealists she’d been introduced to visited her there, but Breton didn’t.

Léona was transferred on to another hospital in 1928 (just about the time Nadja was published), where she remained incarcerated until her death from cancer in 1941.

Breton using Léona

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Breton, desperate to write something, anything, in the mid-1920s, to assert his control and leadership of the Surrealist movement – desperate to compete with the outrageous pronouncements of the Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara or the fluent lyricism of his friend, Louis Aragon – used his chance encounter with Léona, her intensity, her ‘insights’ and ultimate madness, to create a text notable only for its self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.

You don’t have to be a feminist to find this despicable, as despicable as the fact that he had his sexual way with her, then dumped her to return to his wife, letting her go mad and be locked up without once visiting her.

Suzanne

And according to Polizzotti, this was at least in part because Breton had, at just the moment Léona was incarcerated, fallen madly in love with the statuesque mistress of a fellow writer (Emmanuel Berl), one Suzanne Muzard.

After meeting her only a few times, Breton persuaded Suzanne to run off to the South of France with him (from where Breton wrote long letters describing every development in his infatuation to his long-suffering wife, Simone).

But when Suzanne insisted that Breton leave Simone and marry her, Breton didn’t know what to do. Disappointed by his reaction, Suzanne insisted that they return to Paris. Her former lover Berl got back in touch and offered her a secure home and money. What’s a girl to do? She rejoined him and they set off abroad together.

Breton got wind that they were departing from the Gare de Lyon and rushed there to confront her as she left, but she chose money and comfort over passion and love (wise woman).

So it takes all this explaining to get to the point of realising that it is Suzanne who is addressed as ‘you’ in those final pages of Nadja.

Without the long and thorough factual explanation given in Polizzotti’s introduction the reader would have no way of making sense of the way this ‘you’ supersedes Nadja in a firework display of schoolboy gush.

All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this succession of terrible or charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet. (p.158)

Pathetic.

Failure to communicate

According to Polizzotti, Breton had intended to close Nadja with a final section which would be ‘a long meditation on beauty, a kind of beauty consisting of “jolts and shocks” as represented by Nadja and her unsettling presence’.

You can see how this might have worked – how the uncanny moments and strange insights of Nadja could be associated with the opening section about coincidences and spooky locations, and all drawn together to put forward a sustained case for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the irrational, the accidental, the uncanny and the inexplicable.

Unfortunately, Breton found himself simply unable to do it. All he managed was a few last pages about Nadja, into which suddenly erupt a handful of pages of fifth-form gush about Suzanne, and then, abruptly, one page (one page!) which in a half-baked way leads up to the most famous thing in the book, its last sentence:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will be nothing at all. (p.160)

What a shame, what a real shame that he didn’t have the wit or intelligence to go back over his own text and summarise the findings of a) his general thoughts about coincidence b) the specific case study of Nadja – and produce a systematic and blistering defence of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Instead, the preceding 160 pages amount to a badly organised ragbag of subjective impressions, silly premonitions, pretentious conversations with a fragile young woman, crappy hand-drawn sketches, boring photographs of Paris streets, half-assed gestures towards an aesthetic which in no way build a case.

You could be smart and argue that the text’s very failure to make much sense or mount a coherent argument enacts the Surrealist aesthetic of fragments and the anti-rational, but that’s not very persuasive. There’s a difference between the artful placing of fragments – as done by countless modern artists, collagists and photomontagists, done with wit and style – and this spavined text, which so overtly struggles with Breton’s own lack of style and with his abject inability to write clearly or coherently.

Breton comes across from this book as a humourless, pompous and self-important prig, and this is exactly the impression you get from reading Ruth Brandon’s 450-page long account of the Surrealists. One of the colleagues he expels from the group describes him as a schoolboy bully. Exactly.

And why is he talking about ‘beauty’, like some 18th century connoisseur or some 1880s dandy? In the age of Duchamp’s anti-art, Tsara and Arp and Ball’s Dada, Grosz’s searing satirical paintings, Heartfield’s photomontages or Man Ray’s solarised photographs, it seems almost unbelievably retrograde, reactionary and obtuse to be crapping on about ‘beauty’. Beauty? What has beauty got to do with anything?

In every way Nadja seems to me an extravagantly feeble, badly written, pompous, sentimental, self-centred failure of a piece of steaming, putrid donkey dung.


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