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Surrealism: Desire Unbound is an anthology of scholarly essays published to accompany a new travelling exhibition on Surrealism. This large-scale, well-illustrated de facto catalogue features twelve essays by a diversity of scholars, including museum curators, academic art historians, and literary critics. The volume succeeds as a considerable contribution to the ample body of literature dedicated to the movement.
As the title suggests, the central theme of the anthology is a reevaluation of the role of desire and eroticism in Surrealist literature, visual art, and political philosophy. Yet, the key terms such as “desire,” “erotic,” “pornography,” and “sexuality” here receive a systematic treatment and are not simply left to the vagaries of casual readership. Such a broad-based attempt to analyze and define the significance of these terms in Surrealism’s ever-changing sociopolitical contexts is perhaps the book’s single most important contribution to the scholarly literature on the subject. Indeed, a static essentializing conception of the term “desire” has traditionally been a stumbling block in most work on the movement. Even in many of the revisionist studies of the 1980s and 1990s, influenced by Anglo-French feminist and deconstructivist philosophies, the role of “desire” in Surrealism was generally assumed to be one of phallocentric glorification and the subjugation of women. The revolutionary role that desire played in the early years of the movement via the contestation of sexuality, power, and bourgeois socioeconomic norms has often been deemphasized, while its supposed gender-exclusivity has been heavily critiqued under the auspices of the “male gaze” and “misogyny.”
While such criticisms were perhaps necessary in making relative the historical activities of the group, such criticism often assumed an almost relentless one-sided negativity. This tended to foster a disregard for the group’s truly radical aesthetic and sexual projects, as seen for instance in many Man Ray’s disorienting photographs of the female body. Further, the fiercely independent activities of many of the women associated with Surrealism and Surrealism’s potential use-value as a critical methodology for analyzing late twentieth-century media culture have likewise been overlooked in favor of feminist deconstructive critique. In short, the movement and its philosophies regarding gender, sexuality, pornography, desire, and other key concepts were commonly reduced to a few simplified and negatively toned Freudian buzzwords such as “fetish,” “obsession,” and “repression.”
While a few of the essays in the volume do little to contribute anything new or significant to the already saturated body of literature on Surrealism, several do critically engage the arguments of earlier interpretations and evaluations. Furthermore, many of the essays substantially expand the scope of Surrealism scholarship not only by considering both men and women once thought marginal, but also by discussing in depth the period after World War II, for many years considered an intellectual and artistic “decline” in the movement’s history.
The aforementioned rectification of previously little-known persons is undertaken with intellectual rigor by Vincent Gille and others and thus avoids being simply a tired roll call for the sake of political correctness. In a series of short essays, Gille explores the lives and contributions of several historically neglected women, including Denise Levy, Elsa Triolet, Suzanne Muzard, Yvonne Georges, Nora Mitrani, and others. Muzard, a woman central to the creation of Breton’s novel Nadja, is discussed in relation to her active role in their literary collaborations. This is a refreshing treatment of this important woman, who has often been dismissed as a passive muse whom Breton emotionally destroyed. Also notable in this vein is Katharine Conley’s study of Joyce Mansour, a poet who surfaced only in Surrealism’s less glamorous postwar years. Excerpts from her writings indicate an independent intellect that abstractly engaged memory and desire.
Among the more compelling studies that reevaluate the role of women in Surrealism are those by curator Jennifer Mundy and long-time scholar of the movement Dawn Ades. In general, both argue that women were not simply oppressed or typecast as passive femmes enfants by their male counterparts, as many feminist studies of Surrealism have concluded. Rather, they posit the notion that gender roles in Surrealism were relatively open, equal, and thus unconventional, an aspect of the group’s culture that offered young women an alternative to bourgeois domestication. For instance, Mundy cites several quotes by Louis Aragon from the newly uncovered Recherches sur la sexualite, an unpublished documentation of a years-long dialogue within the group, which concerns topics such as desire, gender, and sexuality. In these dialogues, Aragon forwards the claim that men and women are social and sexual equals, rebuffing some of the more sexist rhetoric of other men in the group. Ades claims that some women, among whom she cites Dorothea Tanning, completely disavowed the significance of gender in creativity and imagination—two cornerstones of Surrealist practice.
For years, Andre Breton, the movement’s self-proclaimed “leader,” has been the central rallying point for scholars wishing to expose Surrealism’s sexism and underlying social conservatism. While it is undeniable that Breton’s intellectual and social pretensions did offend and alienate several women, his ideas on love, sex, desire, and literature are here taken as a means by which to reinvest Surrealism with a conceptual radicalism. For example, Ades, Gille, and David Lomas each variously praise Breton for what they see as his liberating attitudes regarding the relationship between love and sexual intercourse and the larger relations between men and women. Ades notes how Breton insisted that love and sex were inseparable and central to any political revolution, a claim made in the face of severe criticism from the French Communist party. Lomas describes Breton’s advocacy of Charcot’s experiments with “hysterical” female patients at the Salpetriere as a “poetic discovery” for the poet because of the disorder’s potential usefulness in the understanding of fantasy, desire, and the subconscious. Gille’s contribution to discussions of Breton revolves around his claim that for Breton, the poetic image was inseparably linked to amorous encounters, thus merging the gap between “art” and “experience,” something the Surrealists undoubtedly wished to do. In these essays, Breton is cast less as misogynist or stalker and more as a passionate romantic and revolutionary bent on uncovering the political and artistic use-value of love.
While each writer necessarily grapples with Freudian thought and its relative significance for Surrealism, the most exhaustive treatment comes in Hal Foster’s essay on the photographic image of the female body in Surrealism. Foster has long examined Surrealist imagery in lieu of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic thought. Beginning with a general agreement with feminist conceptions of the role of desire in the movement as essentially male-controlled, Foster explains this position by citing the fetishistic disavowal of castration anxiety manifested in photographs of several female nudes. According to him, this is accomplished by their photographic conversion into signifiers of phallic forms, as seen in Brassai’s famous nude of 1933, in which a curled-up nude female model takes on the shape of a floating phallus. For Foster, this reification of the nude as phallic signifier compensates for the male artist’s fear of castration when confronted with a perceived female “lack.” Bellmer’s controversial Doll series is discussed as a more extreme reckoning with both sadistic and masochistic desires within the artist’s subconscious. For Foster, these works reach beyond the simple fetishism of much Surrealist nude photography because of their violently deconstructive quality. Thus, Surrealist photographs of female nudes participate in a complex play of desires with varying psychic and formal outcomes.
Neil Cox offers what is the most thorough reconsideration of the definition and importance of desire for the movement. He establishes the centrality of the writings of thinkers who were previously considered to be ancillary figures in Bretonian Surrealism, such as the Marquis de Sade, Maurice Heine, and Georges Bataille, and posits Sadean sexuality, with its emphasis on nonreproductive and nonmonogamous sexual activities, as a cornerstone for the Surrealist notion of “love.” He argues that rather than simply being a cover for the sexual exploitation of women, Surrealist “love,” in contrast to bourgeois “love,” in fact promoted a critical linkage between acts of love, atheism, and revolutionary morality. Therefore, love ceases to be simply a vehicle by which to subjugate women and takes on a political potential by being in opposition to bourgeois conceptions of morality and desire.
Surrealism: Desire Unbound is a worthwhile addition to Surrealism literature largely because of its focus on new areas of research. Writers and visual artists both male and female, as well as formerly disregarded historical contexts, are brought to the fore within these scholarly explorations. Valuable as well are Mundy and Foster’s frank investigations of the philosophical and historical limitations of Freudian psychoanalysis vis-à-vis the activities and ideas of this divergent and loosely knit group. Yet the title of the text does not seem apt. If indeed defining and mobilizing “desire” was as problematic for Surrealism as this group of studies suggests, it can no longer be seen as simply “unbound” within the confines of the movement. As one scholar notes, even de Sade recognized that any liberation of desire is contingent upon the acknowledgement of its societal limitations. Therefore, “desire” was not so much an object to be unbound as it was a potential ethical system reconfigured and invested with artistic, literary, and political potentiality, a conceptual leap that meant the subordination of individual gratification to greater ends.
Hayes Peter Mauro
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Design, Queensborough Community College, CUNY