Poetry News

Garrett Caples on Surrealism in the United States

By Harriet Staff


Garrett Caples writes about André Breton, his "inadvertent [sparking of] the Haitian revolution of 1946," and the history of Surrealism in the U.S. for the City Lights blog. An excerpt:

The United States ... has been a particularly hostile environment to surrealism as a movement, for there’s something about the European model of avant-garde activity that doesn’t translate well to these shores. Unlike France, say, the U.S. has no cultural center on the level of Paris; New York would be it, and the city’s dominance in the publishing industry seems to assure that much of the official cultural history is written there, but the U.S. is simply too big, and the fact that the film and television industry is still centered on the opposite coast in Los Angeles, not to mention the more recent technological counterweight of Silicon Valley, has guaranteed a more fractured collective attention than the historical form of European modernism could have anticipated.

Surrealism has never been a part of official U.S. culture in any real sense. One might suggest there was a protosurrealist movement in New York City during the First World War, led by expats Duchamp and Picabia and attracting homegrown talent like Man Ray and Joseph Cornell, a group most frequently identified as New York Dada, though this is a retrospective, ahistorical label, for most period evidence suggests that these artists thought of themselves as futurists at that time. Neither dada nor surrealism existed as yet.

Just as it is difficult to date with precision the birth of surrealism in Paris—is it 1917, with the rewriting of Apollinaire’s play The Breasts of Tiresias and/or his preface to Satie and Cocteau’s ballet, Parade; 1920, with the publication of Breton and Soupault’s automatic collaboration, Magnetic Fields; or 1924, with the publication of Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto and the magazine La Révolution surréaliste—so too it hard to say exactly when surrealism makes it debut in the United States. In the U.S., too, unlike France, surrealism begins with visual art, because translation of creative or polemical texts inevitably lags behind. The first U.S. exhibit of surrealist painting is generally held to have taken place, believe it or not, in Hartford, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, organized by director Chick Austin under the heading “The Newer Super-Realism” in 1931, and including works by de Chirico, Dali, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Masson, Roy, and Leopold Survage. A version of this show would wind up in New York the following year at Julien Levy’s Gallery, with Americans like Cornell and Man Ray added, and certainly Levy credited himself, not without some justification, with bringing surrealism to the U.S. Pierre Matisse’s gallery also became a major factor.

But one could argue the definitive American introduction of surrealism—with the Paris group’s active participation—takes place five years later, in 1936 through a pair of MoMA shows curated by Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Cubist and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. The latter show, for instance, is brought to the masses, via coverage in LIFE magazine, which reproduces Dali’s Persistence of Memory in full color, and true to its title, almost 80 years later, this is still probably the most famous surrealist painting in the United States. Rebooted mere weeks earlier as a photojournal by right-wing publisher of Time and Fortune, Henry Luce, LIFE, of course, heaps as much scorn on surrealism as it will 20 years later on the Beat Generation, yet the lush reproductions of the likes of Magritte, Victor Brauner, and Meret Oppenheim rather undermine the intended criticism. In any case, the two catalogues Barr produces for these shows are, along with Levy’s contemporaneous Surrealism (NY: Black Sun, 1936), the first cogent expositions of surrealism written in the U.S., most previous English-language texts like David Gascoyne’s A Short Survey of Surrealism (London, Cobden-Sanderson: 1935) being British in origin.

Caples goes on to talk about surrealism hitting 1940s New York City, and the writing that emerged on the West Coast in 1942-43, when "15-year-old prodigy Philip Lamantia sees a pair of museum shows of Dali and Miro and begins writing automatic surrealist poems." There's also the CIA-led packaging of Jackson Pollock as an abstract expressionist, "to assert American cultural dominance against the threat of communism." Read all of this great post.

Originally Published: December 16th, 2013