Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 11, 2004
Steven Harris Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s: Art, Politics, and the Psyche New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 340 pp.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $108.00 (0521823870)

Steven Harris’s new book on Surrealism is excellent. It is refreshing to see the politics of Surrealism properly acknowledged, and, at the same time and as part of the same argument, to see the aesthetics that underwrote those politics correctly assessed. In Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s: Art, Politics, and the Psyche, Harris tracks an extremely rich and nuanced discourse between Surrealism and the French Left, a series of debates virtually unknown in Anglophone culture; he also nicely lays out his arguments in clear and readable prose. But the real issues at stake in this discourse are difficult to convey to a contemporary audience bred on the simplistic and misleading accounts of Surrealism found in much of the literature. Virtually all histories of Surrealism on this side of the Atlantic persist in viewing it as an art movement, and in looking at Surrealist works as if they were only art. Though Surrealist research often resulted in art, it did not start that way. For any understanding of the potentials of modern art, of modernism’s past dreams and future possibilities, it is crucial to consider fully what the Surrealists were trying to do.

As an avant-garde movement, Surrealism aimed to surmount the anodyne role of art as a provider of “spiritual” experiences that make a false life bearable, and to overcome the specialist function of the artist. These goals were frequently and plainly stated in manifestos and articles in Surrealist publications, but mainly expressed in the Surrealist artworks themselves. The most critical social position was presented in sensuous form, in an appeal to the imagination and the poetic faculty, not in the dry and all-too-literal polemics that we are familiar with today. A failure to realize this might be one of the reasons why Surrealism is not entirely understood today. Harris performs the task of elucidation that we evidently need, makes very concrete and illuminating readings of enigmatic and ambiguous works, and traces a chronology of Surrealist activity that allows all the points and sharpened edges in its polemic to emerge to the touch once more.

The Surrealists wanted to understand the relation between subjectivity and the world, between the inner and outer realms of experience. On the surface, their quest seems too general, too vague to generate useful answers; yet the importance of line of research is that it has political and aesthetic and psychological ramifications. It can reduce to matters of artistic technique (an artwork might be constructed according to an objective system or be the product of a series of decisions by the artist), or to problems in interpretation (such as the question of how much weight to give to intention), but for the Surrealists the fundamental issue was the role of the intellectual in modern society. This issue also set the music for the Surrealists’ complicated dances with the French Communist Party. 

The great merit of Harris’s book is that it brings forward the philosophical researches of André Breton and the others, most profoundly their speculation on the connection between mind and matter. The question was left unsolved—perhaps it is unsolvable—but for the Surrealists it was capable of generating concrete outcomes. Harris argues that the Surrealists based their investigations most importantly on Hegel, particularly his notion that, in both the romantic and modern eras, art must become knowledge. This notion so contradicts the popular, widely disseminated view of Surrealism that it deserves a double take. The Surrealists saw their activity as research into the operations of the mind, in order to understand how the imagination works; they did not want to traffic in obscurities. Judging from Harris’s bibliography (of studies published mostly in French), some work has been done on Hegelianism in Surrealist thought, and therefore the subject is not Harris’s main focus. Yet, as the author suggests in his introduction, the recent interest in Georges Bataille, fostered partly by the editors of October, has brought with it a one-sided derogation of Breton and an obscured appreciation of his critical and dialectical appropriation of Hegel. The Surrealists were not in any way idealist; their Hegelianism was materialist, Marxist, and, one might even say, negative. In other words, there may be more similarities between Breton and Theodor Adorno than first meets the eye. The Surrealists were not looking for false resolutions, but for openings toward the future.

Harris does not pursue the Hegelian strand as far as I, for one, might wish. Among other things, I came to the book to gain a better understanding of where the Surrealists thought the boundaries of consciousness lay. That topic, however, might belong more to the 1920s and the theoretical context of Breton’s novel Nadja. As the book’s title indicates, Harris’s period is the 1930s, and so inevitably must entail a close study of the political discourse of the movement. But if his study manages to put the Bretonian core of Surrealism back on the table in an unfamiliar way, namely through its politics, it also opens up an extremely rich body of aesthetic and political thought virtually unknown in the English-speaking art world. For myself, I knew that Salvador Dalí was an important thinker, but I did not realize how rigorous, how polemical, and how taken up with the political agenda of the group, at least in his early period, he was. Likewise, I have some familiarity with Roger Callois from reprints of his writings in October, but also without an inkling of the real nature of his importance at the time. But the real surprises were Claude Cahun and Tristan Tzara.

Tzara, the former Dadaist who famously declared that “thought begins in the mouth,” turns out to be a committed Marxist who broke with Surrealism because he felt that automatism had degenerated into mystification. According to Harris, “The waking dream is for Tzara … consciously Hegelian in its attempt to synthesize and incorporate the rational and the irrational in a new mode of thought” (128). Cahun is even more surprising. Her photos are now well known and she is generally seen as a Cindy Sherman avant-la-lettre, but as Harris demonstrates, she was one of the sharpest, most passionate and literate of leftists, as well as a strong presence at the center of the Surrealist group. Her writing must now be essential in any history of twentieth-century art and theory.

Cahun appears here not as a photographer, but as a writer and maker of objects. Harris’s book is built around the Surrealist object, whether assemblage, found, or readymade. He focuses on two important occasions: objects published and discussed in the December 1931 issue of Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, and in the Exposition Surréaliste d’Objets, held in May of 1936 at the Galerie Charles Ratton (the latter perhaps the central moment in his history). Harris tracks changes in the conceptualization of the object in Surrealist literature, but he also shows how the objects themselves constitute interventions in an ongoing debate. Furthermore, he has evidently studied the works closely and consequently has a lot of very interesting things to say about how they are made and what they mean.

Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s is an example of how good art history can be, and it reaches this level because thorough research of primary sources and intelligent grounding in social history is accompanied by genuinely illuminating interpretations of specific works. It is rare that an art historian today can marshal the whole orchestra so that all the sections play together and in tune. It is the tuning that is crucial, by which I mean an ear for the note that matters, in a text or a work. If I have one criticism of Harris’s book, it is that his prose is not perfect music—but that is excusable considering the constraints and pressures of a graduate dissertation. In comparison to any other example of that genre that I have read, Harris’s book is superior. It covers a lot of material without losing focus; it does justice to the specificity of the artwork without losing sight of the politics that surround it; the writing is polemical and participates in current debates while maintaining a scholarly posture defended by rigorous historical argument. This book deserves to be noticed, and read.

Robert Linsley
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo