Surrealism versus the work ethic


Man Ray, Séance de réve éveillé (Walking Dream Séance), 1924, gelatin silver negative on glass, 3 1/3 x 4 3/4''. Left to right: Max Morise, Roger Vitrac, Simone Breton, Jacques-André Boiffard, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Pierre Naville, Robert Desnos, Giorgio de Chirico, Philippe Soupault, Jacques Baron. Published on the cover of La Révolution surréaliste 1 (December 1924). Photo: Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2022.


IN A PANTOMIMED SCENE from Charlie Chaplin’s A Lady of Paris (1923), the bon vivant Pierre Revel visits an upscale eating place’s kitchen to vet the preparation of his meal. Protecting an getting older pheasant carcass to his nostrils, a chef affirms its high quality for the “extremely joyful gourmand,” who, in flip, luxuriates in “the spoiled meat scent as greedily as though it got here from a cluster of lilies of the valley.”

This campy vignette opens Ilya Ehrenbourg’s essay “The Surrealists,” translated from the Russian for Partisan Overview in 1935. A cultural ambassador to the Parisian intelligentsia who had Stalin’s ear, the critic right here abandons international relations to irritate a rising rift between reputable Communism and the “phosphorescent youths” of the interwar avant-garde. “I’m no longer fairly positive,” the creator confesses, “whether or not the Parisian ‘Surrealists’ are to be in comparison to the pheasant strung up by means of the neck or to the wily chef,” however the textual content’s next invective in opposition to André Breton and his circle makes undeniable Ehrenbourg’s contempt for those would-be revolutionaries and their epicurean logo of radicalism.

Charlie Chaplin, A Woman of Paris, 1923, 35 mm, black-and-white, 82 minutes. Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou).

Without delay scary this screed was once a piece of writing by means of thinker and Surrealist associate Ferdinand Alquié, who publicly condemned a Soviet movie’s glorified depiction of a hard work commune and pugnaciously denounced a “wind of cretinism” blowing from Moscow. Responding in sort, Ehrenbourg's “The Surrealists” rebuked the artists as trifling libertines, as keen on “‘revolution’ as they're of cocktails and sexual perversions.” Whilst posturing as “champions of a proletarian purity,” he fees, they “can have not anything to do with paintings . . . They're too busy learning pederasty and goals,” with fortify from “their inheritances or their better halves’ dowries.” The obloquy escalated to blows when Breton encountered Ehrenbourg in Montparnasse. In a while thereafter, Breton’s faction decisively broke with the French Communist Celebration (PCF), repudiating, in a jointly written tract, no longer most effective the “ultra-conformist” socialist state below Stalin, but additionally the “wretched merchandise of ‘proletarian artwork’ and ‘Socialist realism,’” which have been formally instated because the USSR’s cultural coverage in 1934.

This sensational battle is recounted by means of artwork historian Abigail Susik in her fresh e book Surrealist Sabotage and the Conflict on Paintings. Taking the amorphous if power “anti-work place” of Surrealist artists in interwar Europe and postwar United States as its purview, Susik’s account considers symbolic, rhetorical, and “parapolitical” manifestations of sabotage within the writing and automatist practices of the Parisian Surrealists, the artwork and sculpture of Canary Islander and late-coming Bretonian Óscar Domínguez, and, around the Atlantic, the protest performances and exhibitions of the Chicago Surrealists within the Nineteen Sixties. The e book translates those inventive interventions along contemporaneous political actions and subject matter cultures, with explicit consideration paid to a transferring gendered department of work. Susik’s dense and cautious prose bears the load of assiduous background analysis, and her pluralist strategy to social historical past leads to engrossing formal exegeses. However the e book’s surfeit of bibliographic and contextual element has a tendency to difficult to understand artificial conclusions round artwork’s courting to arranged anti-capitalist politics, an issue that was once urgently negotiated within the Thirties and the overdue Nineteen Sixties.

Man Ray, Cover of La Révolution surréaliste 4 (July 1925). Photo: Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2022.

The interwar Surrealists’ “GUERRE AU TRAVAIL,” as they declared at the quilt of a 1925 factor of the magazine L. a. Révolution surréaliste, drew on eclectic supply subject matter, corresponding to utopian socialism, Paul LaFargue’s 1883 treatise on laziness, Dada’s anti-utilitarian rhetorics, contemporaneous discourses on sabotage, and the French hard work moves that gained the eight-hour day in 1919. Susik’s first bankruptcy gifts a “family tree” of those references, elaborating their affect on Breton’s manifestos and different texts printed within the staff’s journals. Of explicit be aware is trade-unionist-turned-communist André Thirion’s 1929 essay “Down with paintings!,” which, along Alquié’s provocation, stoked pressure between the Surrealists at the one hand and the PCF and Moscow at the different. Susik relays Thirion’s critique of communist newshounds who, according to Susik, “revell[ed] in hyperbolic reward of the distinctive feature of labor and the the Aristocracy of employees,” and one after the other notes that the Surrealists disparaged an identical results in depictions of work in nineteenth-century French realist portray. Right here and in other places, Susik frames the Surrealists’ anti-work politics when it comes to antagonism towards cultural manufacturing that they see as venerating a piece ethic. In Susik’s account, the Surrealists conceived of work as an alienating and dehumanizing facet of social lifestyles, however she leaves unclear whether or not this viewpoint additionally grasped hard work’s structural position as the root of capitalism, a traditionally particular mode of manufacturing whose contingency was once uncovered, within the Nineteen Twenties and 30s, by means of the specter of revolution on a global scale.

Unknown artist, untitled postcard photograph, ca. early 1920s, photograph, 3 x 5''.  Photo: Abigail Susik / Manchester University Press.

Susik’s 2d bankruptcy translates computerized writing on the Bureau for Surrealist Analysis within the Nineteen Twenties as a kind of “symbolic sabotage.” She starts with the mythos built round automatism thru staged pictures of Simone Breton at a typewriter, transcribing a stream-of-consciousness dictation from probably the most motion’s many illustrious male artists who encompass her. With explicit consideration to the preferred trope of the dame dactylographe, Susik weaves a shocking tapestry of cultural meanings related to ladies stenographers of the technology, which had observed a unexpected feminization of secretarial paintings after the Nice Conflict’s mobilization of fellows to the entrance. Susik strains the gender politics of automatism thru what she herself characterizes as a “heady set” of cultural artifacts (amanuensis manuals, nationalist propaganda, foxtrot and vaudeville tune, Ouija board ads, and pulp erotica, to call a couple of). Representing automatism thru “the picture of a labouring new girl,” male Surrealists, Susik claims, “known with, projected onto, and emblematised no longer most effective the extra acquainted tropes of the feminine spiritualist medium and the incarcerated woman hysteric,” but additionally the “fetishised stereotype of the sexualised secretary.” Via “repeating, re-signifying and re-performing the trimmings of gendered paintings efficiency,” Surrealist automatism turns into a “instrument for liberation” ready to “unfetter subjection of other kinds.” Susik’s comparability of automatist practices to the “subversion thru compliance” techniques of work-to-rule business sabotage is intriguing, however its implications are difficult to understand. With out taking into consideration key variations of their contexts and stakes, it turns into tricky to bridge the space between aesthetic “methods of resistance” and the type of arranged motion that resulted within the relief of the operating day.

Óscar Domínguez, Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, 1934–35, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 3/4''. Photo: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Simply probably the most convulsive of Susik’s case research is her exam of “autonomy and autoeroticism” within the Thirties artwork of Óscar Domínguez. In his Dalíesque 1934–5 portray of an “electro-sexual stitching system” and similar works, the stenographer’s typewriter is supplanted by means of some other gendered equipment and its personal spectrum of ancient associations. Susik once more wields a dizzying array of inventive and vernacular references, from a remarkably an identical Joseph Cornell collage and Isidore Ducasse’s proverbial “probability stumble upon” on an working desk to early vibrator advertising and marketing schemes and the scandalous 1933 Papin Affair. In a tribulation that captivated public creativeness, two home servants—sisters who had been probably incestuous—confessed to brutally murdering their employers with tools in their hard work: kitchen knives and a water jug. The case piqued the hobby of no longer most effective the Surrealists but additionally Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Genet, whose 1947 play The Maids (1947) was once impressed by means of it.

In Gadget à coudre électro-sexuelle, Susik describes, “the stitching system and its operator fold into one some other in a metonymic amalgam of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic transformation.” The contraption’s presser foot (pied de biche) turns into a real doe’s hoof, and a “thread” (le fil) of pink fluid funnels onto female flesh (los angeles fille). The scene takes on unproductive and onanistic connotations, Susik contends, in gentle of moralizing clinical discourses that prompt ladies working bipedal machines had been vulnerable to involuntary orgasms, and that stitching system paintings broken their reproductive well being. “In the end,” Susik persuasively argues, “ladies’s intended autoerotic dispositions in machinic paintings . . . struck a nerve in regards to the disturbingly shut ties shared between sexual excitement, labour productiveness, and the manufacturing of human capital with the promise of long run labour output.” Figuring out the in part obscured, tongue-like protrusion in Domínguez’s portray as a displaced “hypertrophic clitoris,” Susik precludes any lawn selection studying of its perforated, prostrate torso as a fetishistically violated feminine frame. As an alternative, two palettes held aloft by means of the application’s horizontal “arm” turn on some other valence of the sanguine paint trickling alongside the determine’s again, bringing the paintings of artmaking itself into center of attention. In eliding operator with product, Susik suggests, the portray provides a self-referential remark that demonstrates a “uniquely surrealist strategy to the issue of the artist as a manufacturer.”

Unknown artist, untitled photograph for Vive St. Anne postcard, France, early 1920s, photograph, 3 x 5''. Photo: Abigail Susik / Manchester University Press.

To many readers, Susik’s phraseology will recall Walter Benjamin’s contemporaneous “The Writer as Manufacturer,” written for the Institute for the Learn about of Fascism in Paris and unpublished within the philosopher’s lifetime. Whilst Benjamin’s lecture purportedly went undelivered as Domínguez started his portray in 1934, the Soviet Writers’ Congress publicly debated the “duties of proletarian artwork,” in the long run mandating Socialist Realism because the formally sanctioned taste of the USSR. The next yr in Paris, the Global Congress of Writers for the Protection of Tradition, which occasioned the overall smash between Breton and Moscow, wrangled with the perception of cultural freedom in gentle of fascism’s upward push. In Gadget à coudre électro-sexuelle, Susik reads an implicit war of words between Surrealism and Socialist realism, seeing in Domínguez’s paintings “a metaphorical retort to the PCF’s call for that Surrealism abandon its determination to the non-instrumentalized murals in prefer of sensible modern propaganda.” Breton’s insistence on “non-illustrative and non-prescriptive modern artwork,” upfront of a 1938 manifesto cowritten with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky in Mexico, was once according to the basis that sooner than communism is discovered, a “counterpedagogy” is important to facilitate the possibility of proletarian arts. For Susik, the accessibility and indeterminacy afforded by means of Domínguez’s computerized method of decalcomania, wherein ink pressed between two surfaces leads to adventitious patterns, exemplified this kind of apply.

Franklin Rosemont, Protest “Surrealist Exhibition,” Gallery Bugs Bunny, Chicago, October 27–December 8, 1968, 1968, broadsheet, 9 1/2 x 17''. Photo: Penelope Rosemont / Manchester University Press.

In a fairly abrupt chronological and geographical leap lower, Susik’s ultimate bankruptcy addresses the publications and protests of artists and political agitators who assembled round Franklin and Penelope Rosemont in Nineteen Sixties Chicago. The gang availed themselves of artwork’s polemical possible in direct reaction to recent occasions, together with William Rubin’s exhibition “Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage.” Having traveled from New York’s Museum of Trendy Artwork to the Artwork Institute of Chicago in fall 1968, the display met with disruptive, absurdist performances within the museum’s galleries and a counter-exhibition arranged by means of Robert Inexperienced on the Gallery Insects Bunny. Because of the artists’ shut ties to the Commercial Staff of the International, their courting to sabotage is probably the most concrete a few of the e book’s examples. The similar mechanical wisdom that Inexperienced put to paintings in destructive berry choosing machines all through a employees’ strike in 1964, Susik notes, generated the mechanomorphic assemblages he exhibited at Gallery Insects Bunny. The gang’s self-professed “Wobbly anarcho-Freudianism,” particularly vis-a-vis New Left uprisings like the person who coalesced across the 1968 Democratic Nationwide Conference, additionally drew them to the theories of Frankfurt Faculty émigré Herbert Marcuse. Susik paperwork an animated, ongoing trade between artists and thinker at the political capacities of Surrealism.

Top: Franklin Rosemont, decorated envelope for Herbert Marcuse, 1975. Photo: Marcuse family / Manchester University Press. Bottom: Franklin Rosemont, decorated envelopes for Herbert Marcuse, 1971. Photo: Abigail Susik / Manchester University Press.

In the end, Surrealist Sabotage gifts anti-work aesthetics as an interesting and enduring thematic in Surrealist manufacturing, but the political stakes of this thematic stay elusive. One explanation why lies within the e book’s tendency towards diffuse and evenhanded remedy of wide-ranging supply fabrics, from time to time deflecting necessary nuances and contradictions amongst and inside them. Ancient tensions inner to Surrealism are sidelined, together with political disagreements between Breton and different interwar Surrealist-communists like Aragon and Bataille (the latter as soon as colorfully denounced Breton’s camp as “too many fucking idealists”). Additionally, the complexities of Soviet artwork’s evolving orientation towards hard work—inextricable, on the time, from the extraordinary problem of transitioning to a classless society, regardless of financial underdevelopment and imperialist incursions—are all however elided. Socialist artwork turns into one thing of a straw guy, lowered to a wholesale birthday celebration of work for hard work’s sake. However, Susik succeeds in eliciting tantalizing frictions across the relation of avant-garde actions to leftist politics in her find out about of the Surrealists’ makes an attempt to “reconcile their revolution of the thoughts with the Marxist name for a proletarian overthrow.” We will have to proceed this mission with vigilance—no longer most effective thru ancient find out about, however in as of late’s revived militancy amongst artwork employees, whose institutional employers liberally advertise rhetorics of “resistance” merely for his or her connotational frisson. Renegotiating our courting to hard work calls for a materialist problem to this doublespeak, but additionally collective technique—and tough paintings.