Surrealism and the Sacred: Celia Rabinovitch
CELIA RABINOVITCH is a writer, artist,
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.
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.
Another writer who influenced me was M. H. Abrams, whose work Natural Supernaturalism explores the “moment” of epiphany in Wordsworth and the Romantics. His book understands poetry as a state of mind — an embodiment of insight or a moment of consciousness. Few art historians make that leap into the experiential — they seem stuck in notions of progressive or predictive history or in deconstructive theory that ignores the art. My approach has met little support from art historians, but has captured the imagination of poets and artists. Despite working in academia, I am now firmly placed on the fringes, as an alternative thinker — which is fine. In fact it’s better.
Symbolism drew from the mythologies of the past, from the ancient near East and the Hellenistic world. These dovetailed with colonialism to produce a fascination with all things exotic or “oriental”. The late 19th century interest in “the orient” reversed the colonial subjugation of these countries by envisioning them as erotic or exotic. But the use of narrative and mythology in Symbolism limited its originality. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Surrealism grew directly from Symbolism, because symbolist painters often illustrate myths, appealing to our guilty enjoyment of sentiment. In contrast, the Surrealists sought the origins of the imagination that creates dreams, images and mythologies. While the Symbolists explored earlier mythologies, the Surrealists uncovered the impulses by which those mythologies were formed. The force of the imagination, that impelled the Surrealists, intensified in the early 20th century. Surrealism became a much more original movement than Symbolism, creating original visual ideas and mythologies, rather than relying on ancient motifs. Primarily it was the French poets — Gérard de Nerval and Baudelaire — who provided the intellectual platform for Surrealism. The other major influences were Giorgio de Chirico, and of course, Freud. Nerval connected supernaturalism with a somnambulistic dream state. His imagery layered archaic, Egyptian, Christian, and personal motifs. He focused on the sublime and erotic power of the woman; his lover, a muse, the goddess, and the Virgin Mary, wrapped into one image. Neglected for many years except by the Surrealists, Nerval pointed the Surrealists toward a profound, mutable eroticism — l’amour fou.
From the Publisher:
“From archaic fetishism, found objects, dream images, and free association, surrealist artists and writers — such as Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Merret Oppenheim, and Wolfgang Paalen — transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary by deliberately evoking the ambivalence of sacred power. Surrealism and the Sacred traces the conflict between the secular and sacred forces from prehistory and paganism through the Renaissance and the occult revival of the 19th century to the surrealist movement of the twentieth century. Against the tyranny of reason and the European bourgeoisie, Surrealists drew from occultism, Asian religions, mysticism, and psychoanalysis to create an uncanny and creative state of mind that continues to have a profound effect on the modern imagination. This remarkable book challenges conventional assumptions about modern art and its larger meanings in the history of knowledge.”
Were the Surrealists working within the French literary/artistic tradition of heterodoxy, mysticism, and revolution? What is it about surrealism that is original, unique?
The Surrealists rejected all tradition, but used heterodox streams of thought to attack Catholicism and the bourgeois mentality. As much talk as there is of Surrealism’s rejection of logic, I think that André Breton attempted to justify Surrealism through citing the occult sciences or mysticism, such as the tarot, Tibetan Buddhism, and parapsychology. The Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes and its publication, La Révolution surréaliste used a pseudo-scientific format to send up empiricism. The magazine demonstrates Breton’s need to develop a “rationale” for surrealism. He was more of a theorist, a demagogue, than an artist. The Manifestoes of Surrealism ultimately are characterized by a subversive ideology — and hampered by a high seriousness — that is a trap that the best of the art avoids.
Surrealism’s originality arises from its art, not its political arguments between artists or writers that continue to this day. Imagination and intuition, in visual art and in poetry, give us alternatives to retinal vision and logic in a way that a sequential argument never can. In the image, poetic associations, and music’s harmonic structures we apprehend simultaneously the contradictions of emotion and sensation; it is the only understanding of completion that we can experience beyond mysticism or intimacy with another.
Perhaps the traditions of Western esotericism are marginalized because they understand the world through matter — transformed in alchemy, employed in ritual, developed in herbalism, and manifested in nature. For the same reason the dominant cultures of the west have rejected the body — to deny we are matter is to deny death. The alternative, poetic view of the world comes from our physical experience of matter. The imagination creates metaphor from matter, while reason denies it connection to feeling, except for its functional use. The Surrealists embodied their metaphors through matter — bone, fur, sand, flesh. What is Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea-cup without the creepy sensation of drinking from it?
Is there a lack of supernaturalism in contemporary art? Or is it just the opposite?
Contemporary art defines supernaturalism differently from the original medieval meaning put forth by St. Thomas Aquinas, who differentiated the natural and the supernatural as two planes of reality. The Surrealists understood the supernatural as a phenomenon related to parapsychology — which requires a receptivity that opposed the merchandising of contemporary art. Contemporary art uses supernaturalism to manipulate the viewer — it creates an extraordinary effect that elicits a feeling of awe through indefinite spaces (the liquor bottle floating in the sky, à la Magritte) or by using surrealistic devices such as grotesquely animating inert human body parts, as in the contemporary American artist Tony Oursler’s disembodied heads and eyes (created through digital projections). Other artists use theatrical or atmospheric effects to create ambiguity through which images become disconnected from their context, and thereby accumulate fetishistic meaning.
In order to draw us into a commodity fetishism that drives consumers, contemporary advertising makes the most of Surrealism’s techniques of surprise, reversal, irreverence, and isolation of the object. Art directors have created an applied surrealism that focuses the viewer on the transcendent or erotic experience encapsulated by the consumer object. Brand names shamelessly make fetishes out of ordinary objects, whetting the consumerist appetite for the status they confer.
In order to draw us into a commodity fetishism that drives consumers, contemporary advertising makes the most of Surrealism’s techniques of surprise, reversal, irreverence, and isolation of the object.
We live in a materialistic culture, and artists love to go against the grain. The seemingly supernatural effects of contemporary art owe more to the side-show theatrics of 19th century spiritualism than to a naïve apprehension of the supernatural. Ironically, supernaturalism becomes post-modernist when it is used to critique materialism while still employing the sensationalism of a materialistic culture. For the Love of God, Damian Hirst’s diamond studded skull, exploits this supernatural effect. Intrinsically, diamonds have a transparent, electric energy. The skull recalls death, but death made beautiful, desirable. The excessive diamond in the skull’s forehead appeals to the contemporary appetite for luxury. The artist entitled his work using his mother’s astonished exclamation, when he told her of his creation, suggesting the cynicism of his approach. Numbers line up to see this excessive work, reinforcing the shallow celebrity culture in which we live, rather than any authentic experience of the supernatural. For that we must look to archaic art for a sense of mystery. The archaic world gave form to mythic energies that post-modernists are either incapable of seeing, or too cleverly cynical to acknowledge.
In this direction, I find much of contemporary literature’s interest in the supernatural contrived. Supernatural imagery has become de rigueur; it provides the “magic” in magic realism, where such phenomena intrude into ordinary events. In contemporary Latin American fiction, supernaturalism has become systematized into a certain genre — taking away its “extraordinary” effect. For that sense of the extraordinary I look to Jorge Luis Borges, who takes the paradoxical intertwining of the metaphysical and the actual into a complex mental state of reflection and loss.
How would you explain the “sacred” in modern art?
The experience of the sacred is elusive, and eclipses religions. It arises from the imagination opening to visionary experience. Human spirituality is independent of religion, and escapes its forms through individual experiences in nature, love, and creativity. Religion is a construct of the imagination, like art. The human imagination gives form to sacred power, altering it in religions. Religions create rituals around relationships (between people, and with the environment and the elements) by creating a community of believers. Religions are systems.
Modern European artists sought the sacred but rejected religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition. The sacred manifests itself in art from prehistory and onwards as an ineffable power that demands expression, embodiment, humility, or awe. The artist has an opening to the sacred through the imagination, because only through the imagination can one perceive its mutable power. If it exists, it exists as a feeling, in our perception of the world, and conceptually, in a worldview. One can hardly argue with a feeling, it is or isn’t there — that’s the beauty of it. Artists discover the sacred through their unwillingness to accept things as they are, to disregard the functional definitions of things, and uncover a poetic reality that contains depth.
The artist has an opening to the sacred through the imagination, because only through the imagination can one perceive its mutable power. If it exists, it exists as a feeling, in our perception of the world, as well as conceptually, in a worldview.
Initially modern art was attracted to a Platonic notion of the sacred as something pure, inviolable, and eternal. Hence, Kazimir Malevich’s suprematist squares. By contradiction, the Surrealists found the sacred as elemental, elusive, and dangerous — an amoral, erotic power — or sense of dark, daemonic energy — that sidestepped conventional spiritual categories. Through automatic writing or painting or through dreams, the Surrealists opened themselves to a primary experience of the sacred as an ambivalent, disruptive, power. Their experience of mysticism cannot be defined except as contradiction or paradox.
How is it that Surrealism “exists at the border between art and religion”?
I wrote that Surrealism develops on the threshold between art and religion. More precisely, we should use the word “sacred” rather than religion. Like Buddhism, surrealism creates an awareness of mind in our experience of the world. The Surrealists sought a direct experience of the mind — they investigated parapsychology, Tibetan Buddhism, as well as shamanic art and vivid dreaming — anything to escape the confines of a mediated experience of the world. While many scholars interpret surrealism’s interest in the mind as psychoanalytic — and certainly it employs psychoanalytic processes to critique modern culture’s elevation of reason — the surrealist understanding of mind is larger.
Surrealism goes to the source, the imagination, and provoking it to effect an authentic, even a dangerous, experience of the world.
The source of creative insight still remains obscure for us. I once received a rejection letter saying that I was “naïve and jeune” in asserting that the Surrealists were actually interested in fetishism and magic, because everyone knew that they took their ideas from Jacques Lacan. While Lacan may have informed Breton’s arguments, I find this kind of intellectualism to be blindly self-referential. Anyone who is a practicing artist knows that art often arises from a direct apprehension of something — a feeling — before becoming a visual idea. Only later does the artist feel the need to develop a rationale for their approach. Mainly, what I meant by “the border between art and religion” is that threshold between the conscious mind and the subconscious imagination, where symbols, myths, art, and religious forms emerge. The creative imagination constructs all these things — dream, myth, art, and religion — all constructs of the imagination. Surrealism goes to the source, the imagination, and provoking it to effect an authentic, even a dangerous, experience of the world.
You wrote “The pursuit of the numinous emotion was central to modern artists for whom traditional religions and philosophies were bankrupt.” This seems a fair enough statement, but what could you say about modern art itself now six or seven decades later? Is modern art itself bankrupt? Some of us are so burned out on everything, even modern art.
We have to make the distinction between modern and contemporary art.
A Matisse, or De Chirico painting, a Wallace Stevens or Ginsburg poem, a Borges story still have the power to move us because they embody the artist’s vitality, an authentic feeling of life. These artists were not apologists for sincerity, striving for something beyond reach. Contemporary art rarely pursues authenticity. The universities promote cleverness, irony, and conceptualism. Once you get the message you hang up the phone. Who needs art that is a message?
People are burnt out on the sense that they have to strive to get it, and when they do — so what. There is a lot of hype in the art world — it has become like the music world, a youth cult that encourages artists to seek celebrity first…
I’m not talking about an art that has to enhance or beautify life. Even curators agree that fewer people go to museums and galleries because the layering of theory discourages them. People are burnt out on the sense that they have to strive to get it, and when they do — so what. There is a lot of hype in the art world — it has become like the music world, a youth cult that encourages artists to seek celebrity first — we have spawned a culture of self-reflexive dandies. Universities are training students to be artists, rather than to make art. That’s like pretending to be a lover rather than making love.
In your words, “… the unique state of mind embodied in surrealist art can be described by the language of insight for which the Chinese or Japanese artist developed a vocabulary many years before one developed in Europe.” Why do you think it took the West so long to catch up with this Eastern “language of insight” ?
The Eastern notion of self-realization, and the Western collectively defined notion of the sacred oppose each other. Since Christianity, nothing in the Western religious worldview encouraged personal realization. The Biblical tradition was narrative; it did not develop from lyrical, internal states of mind — in the West these are linked to devotional literature. Personal revelation or a direct experience of the holy was heresy according to the Catholic Church, which persecuted first the Cathars, then Francis of Assisi, then Luther. Meditative practices in the west implied extreme forms of devotion, such as denial and penitence. Those who had a personal vision were often punished as heretics, as was Francis of Assisi for his belief that one can experience God directly through nature, that creation was sacred. St. Francis’ vision turned Italian Renaissance artists and the 17th century Dutch painters towards a romance with space and nature. Others such as Meister Eckhart or Jakob Böehme lived on the spurious fringes of Christian thought.
The notion of the self as the window to the sacred was more or less nonexistent in the West until the early Renaissance. In India as well as China there was never the strict Western division between the natural and supernatural worlds. While the Christian West distinguished the supernatural from the natural, and condemned the fragile body to the corruptible, natural world, Asian cultures accepted the body and the self as the ephemeral vehicle through which one could attain enlightenment — even if insight was non-attachment to self. While those in the West believed in an eternal soul, in Asia there was no eternal self, because the self was as fleeting as everything else in the world. Even so, through the self one found the Buddha nature, the insight or satori, or the Enlightenment experience of Nirvana that could inform the rest of one’s life.
The notion of the self as the window to the sacred was more or less nonexistent in the West until the early Renaissance… While the Christian West distinguished between the supernatural and natural worlds, and condemned the fragile body to the corruptible, natural world, Asian cultures accepted the body and the self as the ephemeral vehicle through which one could attain enlightenment — even if insight was non-attachment to self.
Chinese traditions such as Taoism are bound by materiality or physicality in their understanding of the world. Matter becomes metaphor. Matter and metaphor were indistinguishable and formed forceful poetic associations in Chinese medicine and poetry. For the ancient Chinese artist/monk, materiality carried both a physical and a spiritual potency. This is the basis of Chinese medicine (herbalism) where the essence of a plant or herb is extracted through a process of reduction via boiling. These physical properties also act spiritually; the body-mind connection was apparent to the Chinese in their understanding of food, water, placement of objects, the location of a house, or the orientation of a doorway. All of these things express the flow of chi — the vital energy that animates all things. This is, of course, bigger than libido.
Taoism, the tradition of which we speak, is by turns, playful, paradoxical, and solitary. Taoism, and its later expression in Ch’an Buddhism, seeks the solitary illumination. Through this solitary, individual struggle the Chinese artist uncovered his or her creativity. Many Ch’an Buddhists were also artists or poets. The brush strokes, both material and spiritual, expressed “chi” — energy. The subtle tones suggested a dreamy state of suspended time. The practice of looking at something was based on the meditative ideal of becoming that thing. To paint something with integrity, the artist must meditate on it, conduct many studies, and then execute their work in one stroke. The connection between master and pupil is a special relationship—a “secret tradition of knowledge outside books or words.” The knowledge, the insight, is not formal or sequential — it appears in a moment of extended time and then vanishes, leaving a changed being. Chinese scholar/artists were much more attuned to perceptual psychology than their medieval counterparts, who labored as artisans under the patronage of the Church or State. This fundamental difference prevented a unified understanding of art as insight until the 19th century romantic artists pulled away from the formal structures of power.
How would you describe modernism in art, literature, and thought, and further, does it still exist?
Modernism is a state of mind, embodied in the attitude of certain paintings and poetry from the birth of the French avant-garde in the 1880s until the 1960s — around the beginning of Abstract Expressionism. Minimalism was the extremity of modernism. Until recently art historians saw modernism moving in a historical trajectory from Symbolism and Post Impressionism, through Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Writers and poets were open to the idea of cross-influences and the intrinsic value of art rather than its historical place or classification. Now, it’s accepted that the ideology of progress in art is a historicist notion. We need to take from modernism the intrinsic value of its art and literature — its fresh methods, raw energy, lack of embellishment, rejection of 19th century seamless narratives, and its insistence on the viewer’s direct engagement.
We need to take from modernism the intrinsic value of its art and literature — its fresh methods, raw energy, lack of embellishment, rejection of 19th century seamless narratives, and its insistence on the viewer’s direct engagement.
Look at the relationship between Cubism and surrealism. While each movement has been studied in depth separately, each is seldom looked at together. Dig deep, and you find that they are connected in the use of contradiction or ambivalence. While Cubism creates visual ambivalence through multiple points of view, surrealist art creates psychological ambivalence, evoking attraction and repulsion simultaneously. Modernism in art and literature embraces contradiction and simultaneity. The ambiguity and ambivalence create the meaning. It evokes a complex state of mind in which we must hold various meanings and images in tandem. Modern literature — from the poetry of Eliot, Pound, to Stevens and Ginsberg, uses a right-angled and disjunctive approach in its use of different voices, which the reader has to connect, in the way the viewer has to connect the disparate elements in a painting. There no longer remains a seamless, sequential narrative — modernism offers a prismatic perspective. This is what links cubism and surrealism, although modern art history tends to see these as sequential movements in the upward rising spiral staircase of art.
Modernism exists every time we experience the sensation of simultaneity and contradiction in art. But to evoke contradiction, modernism requires a familiarity and ease with the Western canon — with the humanistic “big picture”, so that one ‘gets’ all the associations, and get pleasure from their disruption. It requires a certain fluency in literature or art to practice it, as well as a sense of tactility, materiality, pleasure and personal taste, all of which are spurned by the current art establishment. As a practice, it has been flattened to shock and innovation without content — conniving for press coverage, and a reduction of the motive to épater la bourgeoisie. But art can surprise us with its resilience.
Do you think “true” surrealist art is being created here at the beginning of the 21st century?
Contemporary surrealism is expressed in advertising, where art directors have learned how to use the power of surprise, isolate the object and sell a heightened experience. They use the fascination excited by surrealist techniques to develop consumerist desires. These effects are so ubiquitous that most of the public could not recognize their source in surrealist art. Surrealism has been subverted by consumerism — but it is remarkable how in this guise it gives rise to humor, irreverence, and play. The other contemporary surrealist art tends towards the theatrics of supernaturalism, or towards derivatives of Dalí or de Chirico, where psychedelic posters meet high art: “that’s weird, man.”
Simple question: is there any way you can label what artistic era we are in now? Is it still a post-modern age, or is it post-post modern? Are categories like these mere illusions that do not help us understand ourselves as artists and writers in the world?
For me, art must have authenticity. Like music, art is evident only by itself. Explanations of zeitgeist are interesting for scholars and cultural historians, who subsume art or poetry into their own ideas. But, art is also a historical document, incontrovertible, original, and complex. To reduce one’s art to post-modernism might be good for marketing, but it doesn’t make the art live. We are in the age of irony — not a complex irony — a soundbite irony, deliberately offhand. It has an adolescent irreverence, which would be refreshing except that much of it has marketing motives. I would also say that we are in the age of cynicism — a cynicism that makes art an instrument to create a pre-determined, literal position. Such instrumentalism may refer to cultural ideas, but can’t give them the vitality of an embodied meaning. Post-modernism’s stance that everything is a coded language has become thin and lifeless.
For me, art must have authenticity. Like music, art is evident only by itself.
Does it at all bother you that Salvador Dalí was pro-fascist? Or, because he was such a great artist, does this matter? I suppose this poses the question, was Dalí a great artist?
Dalí was the Liberace of the art world. He was called “Avida Dollars” by the Surrealists — referring to his unscrupulous greed and need for attention. This trait also appears in Dalí’s admiration of fascism. The Franco regime tolerated him as a symbol of Spanish artistry and he perversely made statements of support for fascism, perhaps to pique André Breton, who expelled him from the movement in 1934. Dalí was affiliated with anarchism in his youth, rather than communism. In supporting fascism he was rebellious and offensive, following his instincts for pageantry and oligarchy. While Dalí had tremendous powers of imagination and technical accomplishment to match, his content was lacking — more so as he got older. Like Giorgio de Chirico, he was brilliant when young, but seemed to experience a decline in his visionary inspiration as he became older. Breton, that most purist of the Surrealists, understood that lust for wealth and celebrity had consumed Dalí.
I think that those who hold themselves up as exemplars of a movement need to demonstrate integrity with regard to their ethics and values. Otherwise, as an audience we experience at some level the incongruence of their art and their actions. Dalí’s fascism countered Breton’s position — but ironically, they overlap in the occult Breton turned to in 1937. Then, Dalí took refuge in the over-the-top Catholicism that informs his later imagery. We don’t know whether Dalí used fascism to capture attention, to differer from the Surrealists, or to separate from the struggling Spanish proletariat as a scion of the Franco regime. Whatever the motive, he is responsible for his choices. If these incurred the suffering of others, then historians should acknowledge so, rather than sweep it under the rug.
This incongruence is difficult for the viewer, because his qualities of imagination and consummate skill co-exist with greed and fascist tendencies. It is important to see both together in any artist. This does not mean we can condemn him as a artist because we don’t like his politics — but it does mean that we don’t have to like him as a human being, that we don’t have to support his character flaws, which damaged the lives of others. If we feel strongly, we don’t have to engage with his art. Many writing in the art world today seem to adhere to what humanists called, “the intentional fallacy”: literally meaning, “trust the tale and not the teller”. If we see only the tale, and not the teller, we wear historical blinkers.
We also need to separate biography from art. Unfortunately the art world exhibits an increasing tolerance for the ‘transgressive’ for its own sake. Are we so corrupted by the notion of art as a separate and inviolable realm that we are impressed only by status and renown? On the other hand, Dalí is so irreverent and outrageous, that we can’t help but be fascinated by him.
… those who hold themselves up as exemplars of a movement need to demonstrate integrity with regard to their ethics and values. Otherwise, as an audience we experience at some level the incongruence of their art and their actions.
The same exists with Ezra Pound’s poetry. Because he later espoused fascism and anti-Semitism, through radio broadcasts and personal statements, does that discredit the transcendent poetry he wrote in his earlier years? There are those who will not read him; yet his poetry is finely crafted; he is a superb translator of the Chinese poets, who obviously had nothing to do with his politics. We have to separate his poetry from his political affiliations — while recognizing that his character encompasses both.
Finally, I think it is a mistake for many artists to get so involved in politics. Many artists tend to present the issues in moralistic all or nothing terms. Maybe it’s better to write an article where your ideas can be examined in the arena in which they have currency, rather than using art to editorialize for politics. With art it’s best to stick with what you know.
Could you fill in the blanks for those of us who instinctually do not like Freud — who sense in Freud something that is almost anti-surrealistic, that is, a reaction against French literature altogether?
Reading Freud is like reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; they are investigative sleuths, following a trail like a dog with a bone. In his writing Freud is a detective novelist, moving inductively through various examples to create his argument, developing the inevitable logic of his conclusions. Recently Freud has been under attack for fictionalizing his research, primarily by Jeffrey Masson (The Assault on Truth), while the post-structuralists discredit him as a conventional white western male, utilizing his concepts such as the unconscious.
Reading Freud is like reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; they are investigative sleuths, following a trail like a dog with a bone. In his writing Freud is a detective novelist, moving inductively through various examples to create his argument, developing the inevitable logic of his conclusions.
By separating our understanding of Freud from surrealism, we avoid the antipathy of the rational against the visionary mind. Freud is anti-surrealist in logical analysis, but sympathetic with its content. What is so different from the contemporary psychiatrist who inquires about the artist’s “symptomology” ? I think the antipathy towards Freud would disappear if we accept that he is not a French writer and makes no pretense of being one. If his works require imagination, it is because they require logic of symbols. Freud cultivated a positivist understanding of his work because he wanted to popularize it. We forget that for many years he was a bohemian and lived on the fringes of intellectual respectability. He was interested in, and later not impressed by the Surrealists. When they visited he observed them with medical remove. In fact, his notes on Dalí show that he tried to analyze him.
Freud was not popular in France during the twenties and thirties because he was viewed as “too German”. After World War I the French had a historical hatred towards the Germans. Anti-Semitic literature linking Freud and others to corruption of Germanic purity found its way to France. Later writers such as Rosalind Krauss looked to the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan as a major influence on surrealism. This was the intellectual approach of Breton. However, surrealist artists used everything that was available to buttress their ideas. I doubt if, in making their art, the Surrealists used psychoanalysis other than a method — as automatic writing and painting. What many art historians tend to forget, so obvious to every artist, is that every work of art, every poem, becomes an original document that embodies knowledge. Art doesn’t need an intellectual argument to justify its existence. Its meaning is like music, evident only through itself — it requires no further explanation other than the fact that we experience it directly. I think we can enjoy Freud for his vivid, often witty yet always self-examining writing style. It has its own momentum.
Why would Freud perceive “the ambivalence of the uncanny” as a neurosis? This is, what’s wrong with anyone, not only children, with perceiving dolls as being animate, possessing spirit? What’s wrong with letting our imaginations wander wherever they want to, if there’s no overall meaning to ourselves and the world?
I’m not certain that Freud actually did understand the ambivalence of the uncanny as neurosis. He began in an article (1921) with the idea of the uncanny as a “peculiar aesthetic emotion” and to me that is still one of the best definitions of the uncanny.
I think his later definition of the uncanny having to do either with castration, death, or the loss of the mother, seems to be pushing it. The sense of the uncanny appears in all cultures as an obscure sense of significance, a sense perhaps of being observed or controlled by another, a psychological doubling. Every culture has the myth of the double. While this may be a denial of death, it is still an aesthetic emotion: it’s best left at that.
What is the connection between the surrealist’s understanding of the uncanny and a religious or quasi-religious experience?
Surrealists found the uncanny to be nameless or formless — it was closer to the idea of the informe of Steiner and Lacan. I don’t think they connected it to a religious or even quasi-religious experience, because they rejected religion. But in their command of that threshold between the imagination, dream and the sacred they stumbled across the notion of an external power that can invade the most ordinary object or event. That heightening of experience was the sense of the uncanny. Because the sacred, in its raw sense of power, is the source of attraction and repulsion, the uncanny could be seen as one of its vernacular manifestations.
How best would you describe the “un-canniness” of the surrealist use of dolls and mannequins?
We project meaning into the human form, in whatever scale. The viewer identifies with the figure in paintings especially when it is seen from behind; a separate personality is not evident, and that enables imagination to become that figure, as seeing the environment of the painting with its eyes. Similarly, dolls and mannequins echo the human form, but without individuality. Because of this we can animate them —inanimate forms — with our own excess energy, the energy of the imagination.
The Surrealists seemed to suggest that if we are going to save ourselves from annihilation in modern culture, we must break completely from reason — logical thinking. But if we were to break entirely from logic and reason, wouldn’t we cease to exist as being truly human?
To be doctrinaire, the Manifestoes say that we must break from the dominance of reason. Ironically, Breton in the Manifestoes of Surrealism uses logic to argue for its demise. The Surrealists were against the limitations of causal thinking, that endless litany of cause and effect, which short-circuited imagination. Imaginative thinking is associative, creative, unpredictable, and revelatory. Seeking such a direct realization of the imagination, the Surrealists rejected the realism of retinal vision (the slicing of the eye in Un chien andalou) in favor of imagination’s internal world.
In their polemics the Surrealists argued about the limitations of reason; their ideas are expressed sequentially — in itself a reasonable structuring of thought. But in their art and poetry, they abandon the dependence on seamless sequence to use right-angled changes of direction, associations, and surprising images that coalesce into the surreal experience.
As artists and poets who argue for the authority of the imagination, we still use reason — but as a weapon against scientific positivism, its strained vocabulary and academic propensity to favor the database over the vivid embodiment of feeling.
Our culture has gone so far into functional commodity and instrumental use of others, that it has obliterated the play of imagination, except in advertising and in the marginal world of artists.
I don’t know if we would not be human without reason and logic. Logic is a construct based on observation — empiricism — but observation gives more than logic, it inspires the imagination. Human culture developed for many years without an explicit use of logic, but through its material expressions in art, music, architecture, agriculture, and medicine. I think it is a question of proportion, of what we value as knowledge. Our culture has gone so far into functional commodity and instrumental use of others, that it has obliterated the play of imagination, except in advertising and the marginal world of artists.
Why was the search for origins so important to the Surrealists? What did they hope to gain by finding a “lost innocence”?
They sought direct apprehension of a world that has been obscured by layers of culture. This is the point of Zen and surrealism — a direct apprehension of the world, in all its mystery and grotesque beauty. They abandoned a stale culture of conventional thinking, for a more vivid one, responsive to sheer wonder. They had to bracket the coded experience of the world to allow for a new sense of play and enchantment. And their irreverence is great.
Could you explain why Rosenkreutzism and the notion of the alchemical were so important to surrealism?
Transformation — of matter into meaning, lead into gold — drives both the alchemist and the artist to work with matter, to distill it to its essence. In medieval Europe, the alchemist, apothecary, and artist were under the same guild, sign of the mortar and pestle, because they extracted from matter the elixir, color, or vital energy.
Surrealism’s involvement with alchemy arises from Breton’s call for “the profound occultation of surrealism” (Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1930). He signaled the Surrealists’ dissatisfaction with leftist politics; instead, they sought a new myth for the modern world.
For the Surrealists, occultism and alchemy made visible how artists transform matter into metaphor. The esoteric traditions of alchemy and Rosicrucianism demonstrated matter’s potency. The Surrealists pursued the principle of alchemical transformation in how they handled matter. They cast alchemical ideas into new forms that transcended the dichotomy of the spiritual and physical through their use of matter. Processes of alchemical transformation were allied to their exploration of magic in fetishism (ethnography), Rosicrucianism (The Chemical Wedding) and the occult sciences (tarot). Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Meret Oppenheim, Yves Tanguy, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dalí created forms that recalled the alchemical prima materia and the philosopher’s stone.
It seems ironic that Modernists such as the Surrealists were “obsessed” with primitivism and the pursuit of origins. There seems to be something more primitive about modernity than pre-modernity?
Modernism attempted to go back to origins — Freud’s article, “The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words”, shows how a word — in archaic or primal language — can mean its opposite, such as high-deep, father-son, mother-daughter, familiar-strange. Now if you think of these words and an archaic art that show one thing as part of another — look at archaic Chinese bronzes, for example — you have a “both-and” phenomena. The work can be both this figure and that form. Modern artists and poets were fascinated by this aspect of archaic or “primitive” art and borrowed that principle of opposition from it.
We might say that modernism has no fixed frame of reference, no vanishing point, and no horizon line. It attempts to make visible both this image and that image simultaneously, to give us a different, fluctuating perspective that approximates experiential sensations rather than the objective dimension of human perception.
During the Renaissance, a seamless interpretation of vision resulted in the development of perspective, with its fixed frame of reference. This created a single vanishing point, and horizon line, to create a static window on the world. We might say that modernism has no fixed frame of reference, no vanishing point, and no horizon line. It attempts to make visible both this and that image simultaneously, giving us a different, fluctuating perspective that approximates experiential sensations rather than the objective dimension of human perception.
In poetry, Modernism usually rejects the seamless narrative by forcing the reader to think in image juxtapositions, and by expanding or contracting time, often with an expansive moment or epiphany that opens up all the nuances of experience for the reader.
Is Giorgio de Chirico’s fifty-year battle with the Surrealists emblematic of the polarities that still exist today with regards to formalism versus “organicism”? Is this dichotomy the difference between leftism and conservatism, in art and literature?
I don’t think that Giorgio de Chirico’s battle with the surrealism was connected to polarities such as formalism versus organicism, or even leftism and conservatism.
De Chirico was a visionary as a young painter — the best of the surrealist painters. Even today his work has such strong color, construction and disturbing emotional tone that it eclipses most of Dalí, Tanguy or Ernst. Of all the “dream photographs” created by the Surrealist painters, his work remains mysterious and irreducible. There is no formal trick or system that can be deciphered. The feeling eclipses all objective formal analysis. Most art historians can’t even touch him. William Rubin admits this in his article for the de Chirico retrospective in 1982: the “ethos” of the work is beyond the grasp of art history.
The Surrealists classified the hypersensitive and obstinate de Chirico as conservative, when, in sheer naiveté, he turned towards the conservative principle of Renaissance “technique”, later using it to distinguish himself from the Surrealists. I cannot imagine how painful it was for a sensitive artist such as de Chirico to have his work picketed in Paris by his former colleagues, who had formerly idolized him. What a betrayal. And of course he was a bit of a nut case in his writings, which are a fifty-year argument with Breton, both of them taking themselves too seriously, and Breton with a hauteur that is a bit offensive. They each felt there was a betrayal — Breton felt that de Chirico had betrayed Surrealism and become a conservative, lugubrious hack; and de Chirico, whose work had inspired so many Surrealists, felt that they had betrayed him by not supporting his new work. Perhaps he was reacting to the many imitators of his work and wanted to do something new. More likely he had mystical experiences when younger, which he describes in his letters and Meditations which he sent to Apollinaire; and then that heightened experience of the world faded for him.
What is the sacredness that is imbued in Surrealist art?
In Surrealism, the sacred appears as a fearsome sense of power and mystery, eros subsumed in numinous experience, subtly emerging as tenderness or love, a focus on the obscure nuance of another’s presence, or as an amoral libidinal energy absorbed from a direct apprehension of reality. It is a profound ambivalence — a sense of attraction and repulsion in the face of nature, a person or a thing. For artist, the sacred arises from the perception of the extraordinary within the ordinary, in letting go of the dependence on sequential reasoning — a direct apprehension of the contradiction embedded in life —attraction/repulsion; beauty/disgust; energy/decay — leading to a perception of mystery. It is the uncanny as an “obscure sense of significance”.
And for the Surrealists themselves?
They avoided thinking about the sacred, except when they invented new forms to express it. They were repulsed by Western religion, and rejected it. Although the Manifestoes claim to lay waste to religion, I think they refer specifically to Catholicism and Christianity. The Surrealists were interested in numerology, the Kabala, and Tibetan Buddhism — Breton wrote an open letter to the Dalai Lama because he knew that Buddhism aimed for a change in consciousness. They were fascinated by non-Western religions that they discovered through ethnography. Miró, for example, was inspired by shamanic Inuit masks, and the anthropology of Levy-Bruhl.
The Surrealists were fascinated by manifestations of sacred power —which is to say a sense of attraction and repulsion, the sense of something breaking through an ordinary experience to open up a new vision or reality. We could say that they saw the sacred as the razor that slices through the eye.
(VOX Press, 2008)
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