Surrealism and the Sacred: Celia Rabinovitch

Celia Rabinovitch
BY Scott Barham, 2008

CELIA RABINOVITCH is a writer, artist,
and professor whose paintings have been exhibited in Canada, Europe and the U.S.A. Her recent book, Surrealism and the Sacred: Power, Eros, and the Occult in Modern Art (Westview Press, 2002), uncovers the struggle between sacred and secular forces from prehistory through the Surrealist movement. She has written for Artweek, C Magazine, The Dictionary of Art, American Ceramics, and Metalsmith, and museum catalogues for Swarthmore College and the Kala Institute, Berkeley. Having taught art history, painting, and drawing at the University of Colorado at Denver, McGill University, California College of Art, Syracuse University, and Cabrillo College, Santa Cruz, she was previously a Program Director for Fine Arts and Graphic Design at the University of California, Berkeley. Most recently she was Director of the School of Art at the University of Manitoba, Canada, where she is now a professor. Her current writing investigates art and religion in the history of knowledge, Surrealist women artists, as well as mind, brain, and imagination.

This interview was composed by e-mail from March 2007 until about August of 2007. It was first published in a lengthier version in Complete with Missing Parts: Interviews with the Avant-garde, a limited edition of seventy-five copies (VOX Press, 2008).

What was your working process when writing Surrealism and the Sacred?

I was always curious about the effect that surrealist art had on me. The works captured me with an unsettling feeling — a creeping sensation of unease — the sensation of the uncanny.

This sensation was particularly true of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte. Surrealism appeals to the child or the adolescent in us, rebelling against conventional depictions of reality — it beats back the reasonable, acceptable view of the world. Visionary intensity demands an “innocent eye”, because experience insulates us from a direct apprehension of the world. The paradox of Surrealism fascinates; but we cannot decipher a contradiction without losing it.

Where I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a tradition of darkly psychological surrealist art exists. I was influenced by the teachers at the School of Art, where I began studying at 17. Even before that I was interested in Surrealism; also modern poetry and Asian traditions. I liked the imagist poets’ assertion that a complex feeling could be conveyed through a single image, even an ordinary image. At the same time, my experience of art became a kind of meditation on what I saw, as in Zen Buddhism. The perceptions I had while drawing or painting made everything express a mysterious, elusive meaning. I felt what the Buddhists call the “isness” of the thing. These sensations wrapped into my experience of Surrealism — its search for an altered state of mind, receptive to mysterious enchantment, its rejection of logic against the reversals of black humor, passion and the imagination, and the use of automatic painting or writing.

Surrealism appeals to the child or the adolescent in us, rebelling against conventional depictions of reality — it beats back the reasonable, acceptable, view of the world. Visionary intensity demands an ‘innocent eye’, because experience insulates us from a direct apprehension of the world.

I always intended to write Surrealism and the Sacred. The original title of my dissertation in graduate school was The Surreal and the Sacred: Archaic, Occult and Daemonic Elements in Modern Art. I read the Symbolists, the history of science, Freud, and the history of psychoanalysis, ethnography, symbolic anthropology and archaic religions — following my interest in art as an embodiment of experience. I wanted to write a history with narrative momentum, employing intertwining figures and themes, as in Roger Shattuck’s quartet of figures in his remarkable book, The Banquet Years.

How far did your research take you into French symbolist art and poetry? How accurately can one claim that the French Symbolists were precursors of the Surrealists?

I read Nerval and Baudelaire in the original French. I also looked at the femme fatale in symbolist art, and traced the 19th century origins of surrealism. Symbolism has literary sources. There isn’t a clear trajectory leading from Symbolism to Surrealism. I found a strong connection to Surrealism in Romanticism, where Turner gave form to the sublime energies of nature, and Casper David Friedrich pitted the person against distant spaces. I prefer the Romantic’s whirling energies of nature to Symbolism’s tamer literary narratives.

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