Europe's strange exports

A Boatload of Madmen - Surrealism in Exile

January 5, 1996

It is a strange coincidence that only a month or two after the publication of Mark Polizzotti's exhaustive and revealing biography of Andre Breton, which naturally enough covered in detail the surrealist leader's unhappy wartime exile in New York, these two large books should have come out simultaneously and both of them dealing more or less with the same subject.

Nor are they aimed at the coffee table; there are no glamorous colour reproductions and many rather drab documentary photographs. Yet, despite some inevitable overlap, the two authors have approached their material from such different angles and offer such diverse evidence that it becomes impossible to suggest that either book makes the other redundant.

Their points of departure differ. Dickran Tashjian had expected his book (the full title is a quote from Breton; "Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen") to flow from his already published work on New York Dada (1915-21). To his surprise it did not. There was virtually a complete fracture but he nevertheless feels obliged to start his book with the failure of all those Americans in Paris who sought to export the surrealist message throughout the 1920s to the other side of the Atlantic.

In Martica Sawin's Surrealism in Exile there is only the briefest description of the genesis and early development of the movement and she begins her story with a full description of the great Parisian exhibition of 1938 - a useful device in establishing where surrealism stood at that moment. She follows this with short account of Breton's visit to Mexico to meet Trotsky in the same year. Then, after an introduction to those painters who were to play their part in the coming drama, the war begins and with it Sawin's theme proper.

Myth tends to simplify. People who know a little surrealist history believe that as soon as Hitler overran France those who were able to escape crossed the Atlantic bearing surrealism with them like the sanctified host, and almost immediately converted those artists who were to become abstract expressionists. This is the equivalent of the notion that when they shut down the red light district in New Orleans all the jazz musicians moved overnight to Chicago. Like most myths there is something in both cases, but they are hopelessly encapsulated.

In reality, as both authors make clear, many of the leading surrealist painters had been shown in New York galleries from the early 1930s on. In 1931, rather surprisingly, a didactic exhibition, "The Newer Super-Realism", opened in Hartford, Connecticut (the English equivalent would have been Tunbridge Wells or Cheltenham) - although it was not until 1936 that the New York Museum of Modern Art installed a comprehensive show, "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism". It irritated Breton for presenting surrealism in an historic context rather than as a revolutionary movement, but it put it firmly on the American map. Even so the surrealist alternative styles (automatic or magic realist) had little effect on American painting at that time, with the exception of a small group of Marxist painters, among them James Guy, O. Louis Guglielmi and Walter Quirt, who recruited Dali's displacement to the service of political satire.

In effect then it was not until the exodus from occupied Europe and elsewhere that surrealist practice began to stimulate a new generation of American artists.

Both authors agree that more than any other factor what held up the understanding of the true aims of surrealism were the antics of the arch mountebank, Salvador Dali. Even before his expulsion from the movement his technical brilliance and disturbing imagery, boosted by his instinctive exhibitionism, excited both press and public to the exclusion of all others. But once he set out with the twin aims of enriching himself and discrediting Breton by declaring himself the only true surrealist, he became extremely obstructive. Even today many people still believe "Dali" and "surrealism" to be interchangeable words.

Sawin alone describes in some detail those extraordinary quirks of compassion and chance which snatched Breton and many others out of the jaws of the Nazis and their Vichy stooges and deposited them in safety on the transatlantic shore. While not strictly necessary, this episode is a highly dramatic prologue to what was to come and, as Tashjian chooses to call his book "A Boatload of Madmen", it seems an opportunity missed. Once in the United States, however, both authors unravel the complicated and twisted skein that led from surrealist automatism to abstract expressionism. At that time the magic realism of Magritte (later to influence pop painting) and the hysterical exactitude of Dali played no part. Yet Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Matta and Andre Masson, all of whom exploited deep space and recognisable images, were very central.

Many marginal or almost forgotten figures reemerge from the shadow of history. The English ex-naval officer, Gordon Onslow Ford, is one such - not that he seems to me any more interesting now (influence apart) than he did then. Arshile Gorky on the other hand takes his rightful place as the bridge between surrealism proper and abstract expressionism, while Jackson Pollock, precociously, both pointed and painted the way ahead.

Yet both books also record a tragedy - the dispossession of Andre Breton. Lacking a cafe table to dominate; refusing to learn English (he claimed in order to protect the purity of his French but it was more probably because he could not bear the thought of being laughed at); forced to rely, he the arch homophobe, on Charles Henry Ford, an open gay, for a magazine in which to publish his views; firmly slapped down by Ernst on arrival for pressing for the excommunication of the now pro-Stalinist Paul Eluard; reduced by need to broadcasting propaganda to France, Andre Breton became a kind of King Lear - his only pleasures exploring the extraordinary varied terrain and the collection of wonderful native American artefacts.

Both these admirable books prove - and Breton, in delaying his return to Paris, had probably suspected - that surrealism's historical moment was passing and that the enforced emigration by so many members not only impregnated a whole new school, but also played an important part in the waning of France's cultural prominence.

Breton adored the female praying mantis which eats its mate during copulation. But I doubt that he would have appreciated the obvious parallel taking place in the lofts of New York and the converted barns of Massachusetts and elsewhere.

George Melly is the author of Paris and the Surrealists (1991).

A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde, 1920-50

Author - Dickran Tashjian
ISBN - 0 500 97416 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.00

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