Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s: Art, Politics and the Psyche by Steven Harris

The art object lies between the sensible and the rational. It is something spiritual that appears as material.
— Hegel’s Poetics and the beginning of Breton’s 1935 lecture ‘Situation Surréaliste de l’Objet’

Surrealism was arguably the only truly revolutionary art movement of the 20th century. Contemporary culture, from advertising to pop videos to film to political spin to t-shirts, repeatedly uses Surrealist devices, methods, and iconography. The co-option of the movement into modern mass culture is overwhelming, a testament to its genuinely threatening force. Steven Harris, assistant professor of Art History at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, tries in Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s to reposition the movement in some of its original contexts.

The book researches Surrealism in its second period, from 1929-1939, and offers long and detailed scholarly engagement, attempting to capture thirties Surrealism as a collaborative movement, as well as shedding light on Surrealist attempts and failures at bringing together and synthesising Hegelian aesthetics, psychoanalysis and Marxism. As this might suggest, this is a demanding but rewarding work, shedding new light on a perennially popular area of art history.

Recent writings on Surrealism have, to a large extent, focused on Surrealism’s preoccupation with psychoanalysis, as well as the analysis of Surrealism’s own “unconscious.” The leading figures and, perhaps, initiators of this trend are the group of art theorists linked to the journal October. Formed in 1976, October members such as Rosalind E. Krauss, Hal Foster and Denis Hollier have revolutionised the art historical world by introducing post-structuralist theories into modern thinking on art.

Part of Harris’s project is to argue with October’s psychoanalysis of Surrealism (specifically their reliance on the controversial theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), some of which, he suggests, “runs counter to some of the movement’s own claims.” Harris argues that Surrealism is a dynamic field in which theoretical constituents (psychoanalysis, Marxism, Hegelianism) battle, causing friction between each other as well as interacting in centrifugal and centripetal ways through “Hegelianising psychoanalysis” and “Freudianising Marxism.”

Another argument with the October group is their positioning of French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille as a Surrealist. Instead, Harris argues that Bataille becomes, in the 1930s, “materialist in antithesis to Surrealism’s projected idealism, realist in antithesis to its Surrealism, and antidialectical in opposition to its dialectics,” whilst his 1930 essay on Surrealism “is too often accepted uncritically as an adequate description of Surrealism.”

The Surrealist object — things found or recovered from flea-markets, junk shops, even from the gutter, and reinvested with aesthetic importance — lies for Harris at the heart of Surrealism in the 1930s, and embodies “many of the aspirations of the group in this period.” The Surrealist object, the first of which was Alberto Giacometti’s highly erotic Boule Suspendue in 1931, and which attained its most significant moment in the Exposition surréaliste d’objets in 1936, becomes in Harris’s book a fragment encapsulating and telling the story of Surrealism’s second period.

It is the evidence of an attempt to move beyond painting: “The Surrealist object is … situated beyond the traditional artistic categories of painting or sculpture, and it participates in the logic of a scientific activity that would also be disruptive and revolutionary, as an activist intervention allied to (but not identical to) the activities of the political avant-garde.” Following this, his theoretical elaborations never lose sight of the Surrealist object, as object of investigation and revelation. His arguments are underlined by detailed interpretations of objects offered by a wide range of artists such as Claude Cahun, Valentine Hugo, Man Ray, Juan Miró, Oscar Dominguez, Méret Oppenheim and André Breton.

Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s is concerned with the Surrealist attempt to integrate or synthesise art into life. Harris explores the movement from an original “overcoming of the separation of art and life in a ‘poetry made by all, not by one'” to the end of this aspiration by 1938, where the “overcoming of art is exchanged for the persistence of art.” Here the Surrealist object is seen as the “object of the object,” as the “leading example offered by the Surrealists of this art that would no-longer-be-art… since in their understanding it was a realization and an articulation of the relation between subject and object, action and dream.”

One criticism of Harris’s book is its lack of geographical range. For example, he remains very focussed on Surrealism in France, and manages to go 321 pages without mentioning Belgian Surrealism and its relation to and conceptualisation of the Surrealist object as understood by French Surrealist artists. So, for example, René Magritte produced numerous objects from 1931 onwards, such as his painted plaster cast Les Menottes de Cuivre (1931), his painted casts of Napoleon death masks L’Avenir des Statues (c. 1932) or his painted bottles like Femme-Bouteille (1940). Questions such as how these objects differ from, relate to, enrich or challenge the specifically French conceptions of the Surrealist object are never addressed.

Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s is a rigorously written and highly academic book, which redirects attention from a principally psychoanalytical approach to understanding Surrealism, positing instead an evolving, dynamic movement caused by the interaction of often contradictory theoretical forces. Harris relentlessly returns to the different arguments he sets out in the book, and through this he links them together into a strong, well-illustrated analysis and a highly complex picture of Surrealism in the 1930s.