The following article was written for the Crimson by J. S. Levy '27 in connection with the present exhibition at the galleries of the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art.
Although the new movement in literature and painting known as "Surrealisme" began in Paris some time before 1924, it still remains the "dernier cri", receiving fresh impetus each year, new recruits, new exponents. In this age when new art movements have rapid births but even quicker deaths this fact alone, the persistence of Surrealisme not for a year but for almost ten, should warrant sufficient consideration. But we must not leap too hastily to any conclusion, either for or against. Some of us who mocked the first exhibitions of Cubism in America, notably the Amory Show, have learnt to be as unthinkingly broad-minded today as we were at one time prejudiced and skeptical,--so that it is more rare to hear the public express a reasonable doubt when facing new mystifications, than it is to hear such young ladies who say, "I am sure this must be fine. I don't understand it, but it is so modern." To be catholic is admirable. Let us not be over credulous.
Surrealisme Not New
However the essence of Surrealisme is not at all new. Perhaps the first Surrealiste Act was the Creation of Man. The creation of the material world was naturalistic enough. Whereas the beginning of Life, whether by the Finger of God, or evolved from green algae, is to us something of transcendant importance, astonishing; sensational, incomprehensible, practicably incredible, perhaps a hoax, not supernatural but in fact super-real. And whatever the possible logical explanation may prove, we cannot deny that the illogical mystery has been for centuries our zest in living.
Other "Surrealiste" manifestations have followed in rapid succession. What of the invention of the metaphor? "A blushing rose entered my chamber." Who ever heard of such a thing? Imagine the shocked surprise of the first audience to hear the first metaphor. The poet was not so prosaic as to say, "like a blushing rose." He stated out and out that a rose entered his room. Somehow that has more meaning for the imagination than to say that a girl, a lady, a woman, a wench, a female, entered his room; and it is that sense of revelation, of outer nonsense and inner significance, that gives more power to the metaphor and likewise to any painting by Max Ernest or Salvador Dali.
A Revolt Against Abstraction
"Surrealisme" in painting is a revolt against abstraction. With the invention of photography in the last century painters had subconsciously realized that representational art was dead, bested by the camera. And so while many painters insensitive to new influences continued to push painting to the extreme boundaries of realism, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and their followers developed abstract expressions, Purism, Cubism, etc. But their theories were based on the assumption that man possesses a sixth sense, the so-called aesthetic sense, which vibrates in response to pure forms, colors, arrangements, proportions, divorced not only from reality, but also impoverished by the elimination of meaning, of literature, history, humanity, tragedy and comedy, in short the other five senses and the rich inheritance of mankind. And many people begin to realize today that the logical apotheosis of the "pure form" picture would be the painting of a circle, and they find that the idea leaves them cold.
Discover World Inaccessible to Camera
So these new painters, the "Surrealistes" attempt to discover a world that is objective, non-abstract, meaningful, and yet inaccessible to the camera. They depict a world of the subconscious imagination, more real than conventional reality, fantastic in so far that it is opposed to the logic of our every-day life. A pocket watch painted as an object so limp and pliable as to be used for a riding saddle, that is not abstract but it is fantastic. The "Surrealistes" of 1924 adopted Freudian psychology as a key to the subconscious world they wished to explore and depict. But the symbolism of Freud, although it professes to general application, does not carry even ordinary conviction to most people, and a literature and art which used these symbols as a literal; imagery by which to express their ideas, threatened to be esoteric. It was upon this snag that the first Surrealistes were hung, and word went about that the movement was finished. The younger painters, however, now find that by intuition a more plausible imagery may be evolved; and new interest was aroused in this doctrine by the exhibition two years ago in Paris of paintings by the new-comer, Salvador Dali.
The earliest Surrealistes, in advance of the movement proper, were Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernest, Paul Klee, and Joan Miro. Chirico's early neo-classic landscapes were more truly landscapes, for the shadows were thrown towards the sun, the sky was perhaps green, and a more than natural poignancy was continually attested by these imperceptible distortions. Besides being a "Surrealiste" Chirico was a master of painting, and continued painting until past the inception of the full-fledged school. Max Ernest, independent of the school, matures day by day in his own inimitable lyricism. The verdict of time will undoubtedly confirm his place as one of the most significant painters of this new movement, Joan Miro has been the representative of Surrealisme in this country up to the present, and this is an unfortunate fact, as Miro paints in the manner of the earlier men who were subservient to Freud and the dictates of psychoanalysis. In literature Andre Breton was the theoretician of the school, and Louis Aragon the foremost poet and writer, perhaps the best of the younger French writers today.
An exhibition of these pictures is sensational. But sensational not only for its novelty, but because the "Surrealistes" often deliberately purpose to shock and surprise, so that you may be deprived of all preconceived standards open to new impressions. They intend to shock, as the safe-breaker might pare the skin off his finger-tips, so that his supersensitized bared flesh might the better feel the fumblers fall; to shock as the bull-fighter first uncovers the nerves of his audience by the wilful and barbaric shedding of blood and disemboweling of defenseless horses, so that the supersensitized public might the better sense the grace and agility of subsequent performance. Francies of real validity in childhood have been discontinued for the expediencies of adult life, but in some hidden corner of our mind may have reached an unearthly maturity of their own; and mythology, superstition, magic, from the childhood of culture, may still live with accumulated sophistication as an unrealized phantom in our modern civilization. If can scarcely be denied that here is a fascinating realm for exploration. The ultimate value of the Surrealiste painter does not depend upon what you may think of his subject matter but in the last analysis depends upon the quality of his execution.