Surrealist Painters and Poets - An Anthology by Mary Ann Caws

by Maurice Bottomley


Nomads Are Great Scissors To Undress Space

“To be nothing. Of all the ways the sunflower has of loving the light, regret is the most beautiful shadow on the sundial. Crossbones, crossword puzzles, volumes and volumes of ignorance and knowledge. Where is one to begin? The fish is born from a thorn, the monkey from a walnut. The shadow of Christopher Columbus itself turns on Tierra del Fuego: it is no more difficult than the egg.”
—Andre Breton and Paul Eluard

It’s a fair question. Where is one to begin? Perhaps by suggesting that your reaction to the above extract will to no small extent determine how you will respond to this singular collection. If it seems complete drivel (and pretentious drivel at that) it is unlikely that the book will be of any value at all, consisting as it does of nearly 600 pages of similar writing. If it seems comical in a wacky, zany, Monty Python manner, then that is a starting point but not a particularly appropriate one. If, however, it puzzles and intrigues you, we are getting somewhere. Finally, if this seems to be full of resonance and to hint at a poetry of the most liberating and seductive kind then you are on Mary Ann Caws’ wavelength and may just have found yourself at the very gates of Heaven. Even if you cannot quite share that level of ecstasy, no reader familiar with modernist movements will fail to marvel at this collection.

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Surrealist Painters and Poets — An Anthology

Mary Ann Caws

(The MIT Press)

We inhabit an age of Readers and Anthologies, but few rise above the functional and most are determined by the demands of the undergraduate syllabus. Occasionally something out of the ordinary emerges from this generally cynical enterprise. Not only is this one of those occasions, but this weighty volume has the potential to prove a significant milestone in the appreciation and understanding of that familiar yet much-maligned phenomenon, Surrealism. Beautifully produced, it works in the way the best anthologies should. Well-known pieces take on a new life when placed alongside unknown items and, vast as the collection is, you end up wishing for more. It has its own agenda, which works, but is a joy to simply dip into at random and marvel at work that is eccentric, bizarre and, more often than expected, genuinely moving.

The book operates in three guises — as a companion piece to Caws’ The Surrealist Look (1997), as a sequel to Robert Motherwell’s hugely influential The Dada Painters and Poets (1951), and as a self-sufficient celebration of surrealist visual and literary art. This is worth noting as the triple function serves to give the volume purpose and direction as well as attesting to the ambitiousness of the project. All the familiar figures are represented — Breton, Man Ray, Magritte, Duchamp, Aragon, etc. Then there are the (until recently) ignored women surrealists and avant-gardists such as Dorothea Tanning, Jaqueline Lamba, and Mina Loy. Precursors such as Lautreamont and Marcel Schwob are included alongside many barely remembered names — Georges Limbour or Gisele Prassinos, anyone? Finally there are some famous strays who appear to have wandered in accidentally, for example Kay Boyle, Leopold Senghor, and William Carlos Williams. The two waves of surrealism, France in the 1920s and America in the 1940s, dominate proceedings but there are some latter-day practitioners and samples from over twenty different countries in all. It is not quite a comprehensive list but is lengthy enough to satisfy all but a few pedants.

Such a large cast raises the first of what will be very few objections. Why these pieces, why in this order, and why no biographical information? The answer to the first two is to be found in Caws’ other work but the third points to the book’s only real weakness. Whether out of some misplaced desire to render all contributions contemporary or out of the optimistic assumption that the average reader is familiar with every Surrealist living or dead, it was a mistake not give some biographical and historical context. Professor Caws may eat and breathe these names (and, given her prolific output, is possibly writing books about every single one) but the rest of us are not so well-informed.

The apparent randomness of the choices is more easily explained by reference to her critical writings. There is no doubt that Caws’ angle on the whole programme is dependent on and deeply concerned with the ramifications of Breton’s concept “Amour Fou,” with her emphasis on the noun rather than the more usually stressed adjective. She has also pointed out the significance of the Baroque as close aesthetic ancestor, the artifice and anti-realism of which she fashionably favours. Transgression and mimicry, for which the Surrealists are of course tailor-made, are two other guiding principles. Hence the real but very odd Claude Cahun and the unreal and even odder Rrose Selavy loom rather larger than they would in some anthologies. On the wider editorial front such standpoints mean a minimum of revolutionary politics, a mere smidgeon of direct epater le bourgeoisie material and automatic writing only when it produces a certain lyricism. What remains is a very beautiful and surprisingly non-confrontational movement, oddly refined and extremely stylised. It remains subversive, yes, but slyly so and does not suggest much barricade-storming. It is an elegant, eroticised, and, dare one say it, much more feminised version of the enterprise than we have been used to picturing. Perhaps “less phallic” is a better term — whatever, it is refreshingly human and is absolutely convincing and captivating. Its presiding spirits are Dorothea Tanning and Joseph Cornell, with a newly vulnerable (and much more likeable) Andre Breton looking on.

As to the order of things — I suppose in this company that is a contradiction in terms. Yet if the editor was after violent juxtaposition she fails, for it does read fairly logically. There are three sections — memoirs, text, and manifestoes. The memoirs are all too brief but immensely illuminating. In the absence of any other framework they provide a lifeline for the historically dependent. An interview with the late Robert Motherwell offers insight into the U.S. avant-garde in the 1940s as well as a provocative but probably correct opinion about the essentially Catholic nature of European Surrealism, as opposed to the Protestantism of Mondrian and much abstract art. This interview takes the place of the preface Motherwell was to have written and serves as a passing on of the torch from his work on Dadaism to the current text. Of the other retrospective articles, highlights include a melancholy piece by Rene Char that is moving and eloquent. Magritte is represented by a statement-essay that reveals more about his much abused and co-opted project than a dozen theses. The curmudgeonly De Chirico hangs himself with some ill-tempered rope of more than sufficient length.

That leaves the bulk of the book to the texts and the illustrations. These interact in sometimes harmonious and sometimes startling fashion. Especially fine examples are the Eluard/Man Ray sequence or any of the sections that use Cornell’s playful dream-cases. Of the writing itself, the better known names (Desnos, Soupault, Breton himself) justify their reputation while a prejudice that the prose would be far more surreal and poetic than the verse is confirmed, except in the odd instance. I don’t know why the one doesn’t startle like the other. It may be the weight of French Symbolism on the versifiers, or it may be simply an indication that we are rather more inured to strangeness and incomprehensibility in modern poetry than we are in prose. Not that it really matters, as a suspicion lingers about this movement that everyone involved was essentially a poet, whatever their chosen medium. Perhaps that is why a selection which favours the lyrical and the obliquely romantic works so well.

There are other treasures to be found here — anthropology, myth, dreams, short stories, aphorisms, and so much more. There is enough for serious scholars to wear out several sets of teeth but hopefully even more for the curious and open-minded lay reader. The familiar dream-landscapes still reign but there is a sense of yearning, a utopianism, which has been often forgotten and which should find an audience even in this hard-nosed age. Like Cornell’s boxes that she so admires, the editor has placed together some magical little fragments and made another magical object herself. Prepare to be amazed. It is no more difficult than an egg.

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