Only poets, since they must excavate and recreate history, have ever learned anything from it.
In the vast critical literature on surrealism, all but a few black surrealists have been invisible. Despite mounting studies of Aimé Césaire, Wifredo Lam, Ted Joans, and, more recently, Jayne Cortez, academic histories and anthologies typically, but very wrongly, persist in conveying surrealism as an all-white movement, like other "artistic schools" of European origin. Occasional token mentions aside, people of color—and more particularly those from Africa or the Diaspora—have been excluded from most of the so-called standard works on the subject.
In glaring contrast, the many publications of the international surrealist movement—periodicals, books, pamphlets, exhibition catalogs, and anthologies produced by the surrealists themselves—regularly feature texts and reproductions of works by black comrades from Martinique, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, South America, Africa, the United States, and other lands. These publications, moreover, are readily available to researchers at numerous libraries. Inaccessibility, therefore, is not a legitimate excuse for exclusion.
It is the aim of this book to introduce readers to the black surrealists of the world; to provide sketches of their lives and deeds as well as their important place in history, especially the history of surrealism; and, not least, to present a selection of their writings and art.
* * *
The surrealist movement began as a spontaneous association, based on elective affinities, and that is what it has always been and still is. Abjuring, on principle, all proselytizing and recruitment, it has never entertained the aim of being a mass movement. Indeed, surrealism has always been determinedly minoritary: French poet André Breton—its cofounder, author of the Surrealist Manifestoes, and first major theorist—described surrealism as a minority always "tending toward greater human emancipation," and went on to add that it is "ceaselessly renewable" and "acts as a lever."
Surrealism's worldwide membership has rarely if ever exceeded two hundred at any given time. As the present volume demonstrates, well over fifty individuals of African descent, from the early 1930s on, have participated actively, at one time or another, in what its adherents often call the Surrealist International. These individuals not only have considered themselves surrealists, but also have regularly taken part in Surrealist Group discussions and other collective activities such as collaborating on surrealist books and periodicals, planning surrealist exhibitions, and in any number of ways publicly affirming their involvement in surrealism and their support for its aims and principles. A large majority, moreover, have proved to be truly distinguished figures, noted for their originality and expansion of the surrealist cause. Within the ranks of the international movement, surrealists black, brown, and beige have long been recognized as outstanding poets, theorists, critics, spokespersons, painters, sculptors, collagists, story writers, filmmakers, playwrights, dancers, and all-around agitators.
In addition to these fifty-plus participants in surrealism as an international movement, the present anthology also includes a number of surrealism's black forerunners as well as close allies, among them freelance writers and independent scholars, some with university connections. Aware that insight and imagination are not anyone's private property, surrealists over the years have readily welcomed many thoughtful and sympathetic associates who, often without even knowing it, have helped surrealism move in new directions.
A third category, also represented in this volume, includes individuals who, though neither adherents of the surrealist movement nor formally allied with it, have nonetheless proved by their exemplary attitude and activity—as poets, writers, artists, or activists—that they have fully qualified as objectively surrealist.
The Opposite of a Bureaucracy
Poetry has an aim: absolute human freedom.
Malcolm de Chazal
In the spirit of first things first, this is probably the place to tackle the question, "What is surrealism?"
Early on, surrealist painter André Masson called it "the collective experience of individualism," and poet Antonin Artaud, "a new kind of magic." Such playful definitions still ring bells today. As a movement, however—and one still very much in motion—surrealism has always resisted the efforts of critics to confine it to any static definition. Surrealists themselves have always preferred to speak of surrealism in terms of dynamics, dialectics, goals, and struggles. One of the clearest and most succinct presentations of its fundamental aims was provided by David Gascoyne, the sixteen-year-old cofounder of the Surrealist Group in England in 1936: "It is the avowed aim of the surrealist movement to reduce and finally to dispose altogether of the flagrant contradictions that exist between dream and waking life, the 'unreal' and the 'real,' the unconscious and the conscious, and thus to make what has hitherto been regarded as the special domain of poets, the acknowledged common property of all."
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that surrealism is not and never has been a school or a style or an ideology but, rather, "a community of ethical views," as the Czech surrealist painter Toyen called it in the early 1950s. The spirit of solidarity is its essence. The opposite of a bureaucracy, surrealism involves no forms to fill out, no pledges, no membership cards to sign. Unlike so many artistic or literary cliques or political sects, whose narrow-minded dogmas are reflected in a stifling organizational conformity, surrealist groups have always encouraged and exemplified the widest diversity and open-endedness, not only in their collective interventions in the larger society, but also and especially in their internal affairs. In a 2005 talk at Loyola University in Chicago, poet Jayne Cortez remarked that "surrealists, even those who haven't met before, always tend to recognize each other."
Above all, hack journalists notwithstanding, surrealism does not signify unreality, antireality, the nonsensical, or the absurd. On the contrary, surrealism—an open realism—signifies more reality, and an expanded awareness of reality, including aspects and elements of the real that are ordinarily overlooked, dismissed, excluded, hidden, shunned, suppressed, ignored, forgotten, or otherwise neglected.
Surrealism from the start differed radically from the many "avant-gardes" that preceded it. Post-Impressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Fauvism, and Dada were focused almost exclusively on art—or, as in Dada, art and antiart—and to a lesser extent on literature. These avant-gardes were not only white and European, but also, with the partial exception of Dada, openly Eurocentric. Surrealists, however, even before the publication of André Breton's first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, were emphatically anti-Eurocentric. Even during their brief period as Dadaists (roughly 1919-1922), they were calling everything European and American into question, including Dada. They openly scorned white supremacy, patriotism, religion, colonialism, prudish morality, and respect for the law. For the pious bourgeois artists and intellectuals most promoted by the commercial press, they had nothing but contempt.
In the same rebellious spirit, the contemporaries they most admired were noted for their fierce repudiation of the commercialism and conformism that sustained Euro-American values: Jacques Vaché, "past master in the art of attaching little or no importance to everything," and Arthur Cravan, the "deserter of seventeen nations." The humorous 1929 "Surrealist Map of the World"—drawn by artist Yves Tanguy—omits almost all of Europe (except Paris) and leaves out the entire United States as well. All of this was part of what filmmaker Luis Buñuel called the surrealists' "obstinate dedication to fight everything repressive in the conventional wisdom."
Surrealism's emancipatory, direct-action approach was emphasized by French surrealist Alain Joubert in 1969: "The essential of the surrealist project is to dismantle all sclerotic categories and inhibiting authority, all forms of alienation (internal as well as social), and to open—largely, definitively, and for all—the field of the possible."
Anyone who takes the trouble to study the aesthetic avant-gardes prior to surrealism will soon recognize that the surrealists' concerns are incomparably broader, audaciously ranging far beyond traditional literary and artistic categories. Surrealists were—and still are!—interested in philosophy, magic, myth, history, heresy, the exploration of objective chance, sleep and dream, the interplay of dialectics and analogy. In their search for ways to liberate the unconscious, they practice hypnosis and dream interpretation as well as automatic writing and drawing. They have discovered new techniques, from frottage and collage to cubomania and prehensilhouette, and have invented games that result in collective poetry. "Drawing correspondences between our real and imaginative experiences"—in the words of poet and anthropologist Ayana Karanja—helps resolve the contradictions between dreaming and waking, subjective and objective.
Rejecting all forms of domination and the dichotomous ideologies that go with them—intolerance, exploitation, bigotry, exclusiveness, white supremacy, and all race prejudice—surrealists make the resolution of contradictions a high priority. In surrealist games, for example, play is regarded not as a matter of power, winning, and losing, but, rather, as a joyful collective dialogue and a source of insight, discovery, beauty, and laughter. Passionate defenders of the Marvelous, the unfettered imagination, poetry as a way of life, mad love, long walks, a revolution of the mind—and indeed, world revolution, the surrealists' basic platform may be summed up in a few words: creation of a truly free society and the realization of Lautréamont's watchword, "Poetry must be made by all!"
Again in contrast to the older avant-gardes, most of which faded away in less than a decade, surrealism not only has endured for eighty-plus years, but also happens to be enjoying a global resurgence in the new millennium. Surrealism today—in poetry, theory, art, and action—offers an unparalleled panorama. Long-established and highly productive groups in Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, Chicago, Madrid, London, Leeds, Stockholm, and São Paulo are still going strong, and several more recently formed groups—in Athens, Lisbon, Santiago de Chile, and Buenos Aires, as well as Portland, Oregon, and St. Louis, Missouri—are quite active. In addition, important surrealist nuclei exist in New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Harrisburg, Vancouver, Brussels, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Tunis.
Far from "art for art's sake" and the "art market," surrealists—now as always—champion freedom, revolt, love, humor, play, creativity, nonconformity, and wild nature. André Breton and his comrades inherited and expanded the revolutionary Romantic disdain for Progress, Modernity, and the ecocidal technological devastation that smugly persists in calling itself "development." Surrealists have always been unrelenting critics of late capitalism, its mind-numbing consumer culture, and its systematized misery, exemplified by the military, prison, and advertising industries as well as the billionaires' meretricious media. It was certainly not by accident that the first surrealist journal, started in 1924, was titled La Révolution Surréaliste.
One of the key elements of surrealist methodology, inherited from the nineteenth-century French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, is Absolute Divergence—divergence above all from the dominant ways of thinking and behaving. Indeed, the radical utopian tradition, from the seventeenth-century Port-Royalists to such nineteenth-century figures as Enfantin, Flora Tristan, and Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, has left a strong impact on the surrealist outlook. Combining utopian, revolutionary, and poetic thought, André Breton's mature views on social betterment—as expressed in Arcane 17, for example—correspond closely to some of the key ideas of the pioneering African American feminist Anna Julia Cooper, who, in her 1892 book, A Voice from the South, calls for nothing less than the collective creation of a true democracy founded in universal reciprocity.
Breton's agreement with Cooper on such an essential issue reminds us that surrealism's anti-Eurocentrism also involves a vigorous opposition to all masculinist ideology. Women have been active in surrealism from the movement's earliest days, and their activity has increased greatly over the years. From the start, too, surrealists attacked the institutions of patriarchal oppression: church, state, capital, the fatherland, the military, and all authoritarianism. In addition to challenging gender stereotypes and rejecting the prevailing models of maleness (soldier, cop, boss, hoodlum, officeholder, and bureaucrat), they denounced such masculinist preoccupations as punishment, imprisonment, and conquering nature.
A later surrealist concept—miserabilism—is also crucial, for it gives a name to the ruling ideologies of our own time, as epitomized in the New World Order, the World Trade Organization, and all the McMiseries of globalization. In a 1956 essay, "Away with Miserabilism!" Breton defines this new plague as "the depreciation of reality instead of its exaltation" and links it historically to the combined toxic legacies of fascism and Stalinism. As "the rationalization of the unlivable," miserabilism is the major enemy of the Marvelous.
Forward to Africa
Africa challenges the West in a way that the West has not been challenged before.
Surrealism's solid grounding in poetry—in the practice of poetry as a way of life and, indeed, a social force—is directly related to its openly revolutionary position. And that in turn is directly related to the crucial but rarely acknowledged fact that surrealism is the only major modern cultural movement of European origin in which men and women of African descent have long participated as equals, and in considerable numbers.
African influence on the founders of surrealism was evident even before they called themselves surrealists—that is, before the formation of the movement in 1924. As early as 1919 the appearance of African American jazz in France was a notable historic event for André Breton and his friends and was duly recalled as such thirty-one years later in the group's Surrealist Almanac (1950). The works of Alexandre Dumas were also important. Dumas is not only France's best-known author of African descent, but also France's best-known author, period. Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, and Jacques Vaché—major players in the formation of the movement—were known for a time as the Three Musketeers (in Dumas' novel the trio was also in fact a quartet). Significant, too, was Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. As a story of escape, struggle against injustice, and ultimate revenge, it has never been surpassed.
Victor Hugo was another influence on the first surrealist generation—especially Hugo the poet and Romantic radical. A militant abolitionist, outspoken admirer of John Brown, and the only prominent European writer to defend the 1859 attack on Harper's Ferry, Hugo was an early source of the Surrealist Group's vehement opposition to white supremacy. "If insurrection be ever a sacred duty," he wrote in 1860, "it is against slavery."
The French revolutionary Jacobin tradition also had its impact. Saint-Just and Marat, vigorous opponents of the slave trade, were early surrealist heroes and remained so through the years. Marat's December 1791 declaration defending the right of slaves to revolt in the colonies was reprinted in the summer 1959 issue of the Milanese surrealist journal Front Unique (United front), at the height of France's war in Algeria. A Chicago Surrealist Group tract issued on Bastille Day 1989 celebrates the French Revolution's bicentennial and denounces the increasingly bloated U.S. prison industry.
The surrealists' first black hero was undoubtedly Toussaint L'Ouverture, the liberator of Haiti. He was an especially important figure for André Breton. In his first New York interview as a refugee from Nazism in 1941, Breton told of a dream in which he was Zapata, "making ready with my army to receive Toussaint L'Ouverture the following day and to render him the honors to which he was entitled."
Closer still to the specifically surrealist project and, indeed, one of its major inspirers, was the poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), whose militant scorn for European values and institutions the founders of surrealism heartily adopted. Rimbaud's defiant dissociation from the authoritarianism and hypocrisy of white society—as evidenced by his bold cry, "Je suis nègre!" (I am a Negro!)—made a deep impression on the nascent surrealist group, as it would a few years later on Aimé Césaire and his comrades from Martinique, Guyana, and Senegal. Even stronger was the impact of Uruguayan-born Isidore Ducasse, who called himself the Comte de Lautréamont. His astonishing book, Les chants de Maldoror (Songs of Maldoror, 1869), is poetry at its most luminous and ferocious—and at the same time a merciless indictment of Western civilization's "legislators of stupid institutions" and "narrow morality."
Other important precursors of surrealism are Francis Viélé-Griffin and Stuart Merrill, brilliant U.S.-born French Symbolist poets. The former, son of a Union Army general during the Civil War, frequented the anarchist milieu in 1890s Paris. Merrill, a revolutionary socialist, was the author in 1905 of a series of articles entitled "The Black Question in the United States" in the newspaper L'Européen.
Because organized surrealism began in France, its initial adherents in other countries tended to be French-speaking artists and intellectuals. At that early stage, only scattered attention was given to forerunners of surrealism whose native language was not French. Breton's Surrealist Manifesto, for example, simply lists Shakespeare ("in his finer moments"), Edward Young, Jonathan Swift, and Edgar Allan Poe. By the mid-1930s, however, a sizeable Surrealist Group had formed in London, and several of its most active collaborators—including David Gascoyne, Hugh Sykes Davies, and Herbert Read—had begun to study the movement's English precursors. Their tentative quest, and its later in-depth pursuit by surrealists in the United States, greatly expanded our knowledge of surrealism's historical roots.
It is surely no mere coincidence, for example, that John Milton—widely recognized as the Western world's first all-around revolutionary intellectual, second to none in his outspoken ardor for human freedom—also bestowed upon us the splendid expression "unpremeditated verse," that is, a spontaneous and wholehearted eruption of the imaginary, clearly prefiguring the practice of surrealist automatism.
Indeed, all the poets and writers of the past that the surrealists have come to recognize as the movement's specifically English-language precursors—including Cowper, Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Emily Brönte, Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and the whole transcendentalist gang—Whitman, Melville, Hardy, Sterling Brown—are, like their French equivalents, characterized by their passion for freedom, their vehement opposition to slavery, and their rebellion against all forms of oppressive authority and conformity.
As the direct and living heir of the revolutionary traditions in poetry, surrealism has also been—and remains to this day—attuned to what the Sicilian American surrealist Philip Lamantia calls a "surrealist Afrocentrism": a more or less "underground" tradition that extends back to the Gnostics and alchemists and includes Renaissance mages Pico della Mirandola and John Dee, as well as such later figures as Martínez Pasqualis, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, and philologist Fabre d'Olivet (whose play, Idamore, or the African Prince, has been described as a severe critique of colonialism and slavery). Their collective effort was not merely to deemphasize the mainstream Enlightenment obsession with Greco-Roman civilization, but also and especially to revalorize the wisdom of ancient Egypt. In their various ways, the Polish revolutionary romantic Hoene-Wronski, French occultist Eliphas Lévi, and the African American Paschal B. Randolph also participated in this project. Among the surrealists, André Breton, Jorge Camacho, Ithell Colquhoun, Élie-Charles Flamand, Joseph Jablonski, Gérard Legrand, Pierre Mabille, and Kurt Seligmann have written extensively on various aspects of this heterodox tradition.
African art also had a strong impact on emerging surrealism. Surrealists were in fact among the first to defend tribal sculptures, not in traditional aesthetic terms—that is, not as merely decorative commodities suitable for display in museums or other "Art Detention Centers" (in Ishmael Reed's apt expression)—but rather as manifestations of visible poetry, objects imbued with spiritual energy and therefore vital elements in daily life. Rejecting also the ethnologists' bad habit of categorizing such works as mere artifacts, Breton and his friends went as far as to hail this art as an active and creative force in the development of a new and revolutionary sensibility. In the so-called primitive art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas surrealists recognized a new kind of beauty, which Breton later called "convulsive": a subversive, liberating beauty—the beauty announced by Lautréamont, free of the aesthetic inhibitions of the West.
"Traitors to Everything That Is Not Freedom"
Passionally attracted to Africa though they were, few of the young men and women who took part in the early years of the world's first Surrealist Group had more than a very modest knowledge of Africa and Africans. The sole exception seems to have been Maurice Heine, who lived in Algeria for six years. A forceful critic of colonialism, he was editor-in-chief of La France Islamique, a regular collaborator on other Franco-Arabic papers, and an ardent defender of the rights of the indigenous population.
The first surrealists' strong pro-Africanism, accompanied by denunciation of European and U.S. imperialist politics and pretensions, made it clear that the new movement's "race politics" were unequivocally on the side of people of color. As Paul Éluard puts it in "La suppression de l'ésclavage": "The supremacy of Europe is based only on militarism and the cross—the cross in the service of militarism. . . . The white man is nothing but a corpse—a corpse who dumps his garbage under the natives' noses." Addressing students in Madrid that same month (April 1925), Louis Aragon emphasized that surrealists not only supported colonial insurrections, but also recognized their own role, as surrealists, in this world revolution: "First of all we shall ruin this civilization . . . in which you [bourgeois students] are molded like fossils in shale. Western world, you are condemned to death. We are the defeatists of Europe, so take care—or, rather, laugh at us. We shall make a pact with all your enemies." In short, surrealists openly defined themselves as "traitors to everything that is not freedom."
The impressive extent to which surrealist eyes and ears were drawn toward Africa in this early period is most dramatically demonstrated by their enthusiasm for the revolt of And El-Krim and the Rif tribespeople of Morocco in the summer of 1925. In a July 15 statement they declared their solidarity with the Riffians and affirmed "the right of peoples, of all peoples, of whatever race" to self-determination. This statement was followed a few weeks later by the collective tract "Revolution Now and Forever!"—the Surrealist Group's first important political declaration, in which members elaborated not only their attitude toward the war in North Africa, but also their critique of Western civilization and their growing awareness of themselves as traitors to the white race and avowed enemies of Eurocentrism: "We want to proclaim our total detachment from, in a sense our uncontamination by, the ideas at the basis of a still-real European civilization. . . . Wherever western civilization is dominant, all human contact has disappeared, except contact from which money can be made. . . . The stereotyped gestures, acts, and lies of Europe have gone through their whole disgusting cycle."
In the steadily burgeoning critical and historical literature on surrealism in recent years, too little has been made of the striking fact that it was an African revolt that precipitated the Surrealist Group into revolutionary politics. Important, too, is the fact that the surrealists' anti-imperialism never wavered. More than five thousand copies of their vehement denunciation of the 1931 Colonial Exhibition were distributed in Paris, mostly in working-class areas. Simultaneously, in collaboration with Vietnamese students, the Surrealist Group organized a well-attended anti-colonialist exhibition titled "The Truth about the Colonies." In 1932 Jacques Viot, a former collaborator on La Révolution Surréaliste who still had close ties to the Surrealist Group, published a novel, Déposition du blanc (White man's deposition), a scathing exposé of the sinister role played by missionaries in dominating colonized populations.
Surrealists in France were also active in garnering support for the U.S. Scottsboro defendants. And in 1934 the group's "Appeal to Struggle" sounded the tocsin against the first fascist provocations in Paris.
The surrealists' reading of Hegel and Marx had hastened them toward an antidogmatic, open-ended Marxism, rather like that of Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and others of the Frankfort School. Never Stalinist, the Surrealist Group was in fact severely critical of Soviet Marxism and especially of the French Communists' vacillating policies. They strongly opposed, for example, the unprincipled political blunder known as the "Popular Front."
In the United States today this lamentable maneuver is scarcely remembered, except for the laughable slogan "Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism," but the disastrous politics involved left Africa—and embattled colonies everywhere—more vulnerable than ever to European exploitation. The Surrealist Group tract Neither Your War Nor Your Peace!, issued at the time of the Munich talks (September 1938), rightly accuses the imperialist democracies and their staunch ally, Stalin's Soviet Union, of having "permitted Italy to annihilate Ethiopia, notably because any successful resistance to the white invader would encourage the colonial peoples to free themselves from the grip of imperialism."
In their vehement opposition to white supremacy, the surrealists were in fact far to the left of the Socialist and Communist parties, in France and elsewhere, most of which regarded the issue of race as decidedly less important than that of class. In the collective statements quoted above, the Surrealist Group was very much at odds with those parties but in close agreement with such renowned black revolutionary internationalists as George Padmore, Garan Kouyaté, and C.L.R. James.
In an insightful essay, historian Sidra Stich has described surrealism as "a rebellion against . . . racist attitudes" and further explains that this rebellion, from the beginning,
adamantly disputed an exclusionist conception of culture that took Western civilization as the preeminent model and set it above and apart from all others. Not only did they [surrealists] reject certain aspects of Western civilization, but they also recognized that its rigid, often elitist conceptions tended to obscure or deny both critical similarities with and significant differences from other civilizations. Their interest in African, Oceanic, North American, Asian, and prehistoric cultures asserted a will to expand beyond the confines and closure of Western culture while revealing the flux and variety of human expression.
All through the 1920s and 1930s, French newspapers and other periodicals routinely printed malicious caricatures of Africans and Asians. A major offender in this regard was the journal Documents (not to be confused with the later Belgian publication of the same name). Edited by Georges Bataille, the French Documents was basically an academic review with a strong anti-Marxist, antisurrealist slant. In regard to jazz, its favorites included Paul Whiteman and other white imitators of the genre. Much worse, however, each issue featured a large, highly offensive smiling "Sambo" advertisement.
In contrast, the surrealists in their journals ran images and texts ridiculing white pomposity, including photographs of the French bourgeoisie, generals, clergy, and colonial agents—all accompanied by mercilessly mocking headlines or captions. In articles, too, and their "Review of the Press," and even in their poetry, games, and tales, surrealist disdain for white supremacy was loud and clear.
In the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, each player writes a word or phrase and then folds the paper so that the next player cannot see what has been written so far. The results, always surprising, sometimes hilarious, were often printed in La Révolution Surréaliste. Here is one from the October 1927 issue: "The oyster from Senegal shall eat the tricolored bread." Surrealist automatic writing also produced more than a few passages with comparable antiestablishment overtones. In Benjamin Péret's 1920s tale, "In a Clinch," we are told of "a host of little pigs similar to the flag of the United States"—an image that suggests, some forty years early, the work of artist and cartoonist Emory Douglas in the 1960s Black Panther newspaper.
The barbed and bitter humor directed by surrealists against white supremacy and the entire "white mystique" surely must be recognized as part of the broader project of revalorizing blackness that Breton and his friends shared with the protagonists of Pan-Africanism and Negritude. What the surrealists in the 1930s began to call black humor—a direct descendent of Hegel's objective humor—was precisely defined as "the highest revolt of the mind and spirit," always and everywhere regarded as an unequivocally liberating factor. It is not by chance that the Dictionnaire du surréalisme et ses environs (1982)—by far the best reference work on the subject—asserts, in the entry for "noir," that "black has always been the color of surrealism."
It is only fair to add that Georges Bataille not long afterward mended his ways and indeed, by mid-decade had joined André Breton and the surrealists in the formation of an explicitly revolutionary group, Counter-Attack.
Surrealism and Psychoanalysis
Think of the things you could be by now if Sigmund Freud's wife was your mother.
Surrealists shared with their Marxist and anarchist friends an abiding interest in social issues and supported collective action—and for that matter, class action—to change society. Unlike most Marxists and anarchists, however, surrealists were also passionately concerned with the individual, the inner self, the life of the mind, the world of dreams, and chance encounters. Such, indeed, was the terrain of much of the most fruitful surrealist research. What Ayana Karanja has called "the efficacy of dreams as a credible epistemological apparatus" extends back to surrealism's very beginnings, and beyond. The surrealists early on took a serious interest in the theories of Freud and his coworkers regarding internal reality: the unconscious, libido, dreams, daydreams, slips of the tongue, and so on. They were attracted to psychoanalytic inquiry not as therapy, but, rather, as a subversive activity, a form of criticism, and an aid to humankind's liberation from repression. They were also impressed by the applications of psychoanalysis to folklore, jokes, the arts, and the whole field of culture.
Here, too, as with Marxism, the surrealists' attitude was antidogmatic and open-ended. While defending Freud against reactionary criticism, Breton nonetheless points out that surrealists "reject the greater part of Freudian philosophy as metaphysics."
Despite Freud's own unsympathetic view of surrealism, and an even greater hostility on the part of the psychoanalytic establishment, most surrealists considered their encounters with Freudian thought—and with the work of such thinkers as Sandor Ferenczi, Otto Fenichel, Edward Glover, Edith Jacobson, and Geza Röheim—to be provocative, stimulating, and beneficial.
Many surrealist writers—Breton, Benayoun, Calas, Crevel, Effenberger, Garon, Luca, Mabille, Pailthorpe, Seligmann, and Teige, to name a few—have drawn fruitfully on psychoanalytic insights in various articles and books.
Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack.
Like all revolutionary movements, surrealism from the start had enemies, and the fulminations of these enemies are often revealing. Journalists, militarists, clergy, litterateurs, and other upholders of the nation's "glory" were especially hostile. In the 1920s the racist and proto-fascist paper Action Française frantically implored the French press never even to mention the Surrealist Group or any individual surrealists. In that same decade, in a book on contemporary Paris life, a gossip columnist chose to ignore the surrealists' aims, principles, and accomplishments and instead portrayed the group as a rowdy street gang "violently opposed to bourgeois conceptions. . . . They are aggressive. They are as ready to express their dislikes with fists as with words. Their manifestoes always create an uproar. Their magazine announced [itself] as 'the most scandalous review in the world.' [Frequently, in the course of their demonstrations] the police were called in. It is dangerous to offend the surrealists. They are hysterically explosive against their age."
Such simple-minded blatherings may seem little more than amusing, but other enemies of surrealism had ways of enforcing their bigotry. In Hitler's Germany, for example, surrealism in painting and poetry was reviled as degenerate art and officially forbidden, as it was in Franco's Spain and Hirohito's Japan. The Soviet Union under Stalin took a similar view. Years later, under Khrushchev, a 1961 Dictionary of Terms Used in the Plastic Arts still defined surrealism as a "reactionary tendency in the art of contemporary capitalist countries," and went on to state that "the perverted imagination of the surrealists concerns itself only with the world of dreams denuded of all sense. . . . The surrealists combine allusions to real forms in the ugliest succession, with the aim of destroying logic and healthy human perception." Clearly, surrealism's self-declared enemies also tended to be supporters of colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and other forms of chauvinism, racism, and reaction.
In an interview in New Directions 1940 the Greek surrealist Nicolas Calas sums up the surrealists' attitude toward their critics:
The aggressiveness of surrealism, like all movements that are in pursuit of definite objects (realizations of desires) must lead to attack. . . . The anti-conventional attitude of surrealism breaks through all manner of good taste and prudery. Surrealism after all is shocking for the people who are shocked by dreams. . . . The poet fights for surprise. . . . Surrealism looks for a transformation of the world. . . . Poetry is the antithesis of prayer. Poetry is an exigency and leads to revolution, which is a concrete force by means of which obstacles are overturned, further desires set free.
African Americans in Paris
There is more freedom in a square mile of Paris than in the entire United States.
Surrealism in the 1920s and early 1930s was much in the news, not only in Paris but worldwide. The group's many insulting letters to bourgeois celebrities, its numerous militant tracts (such as "Open the Prisons! Disband the Army!" and "Hands Off Love!") and direct action—"The Truth about Colonies," for example, and many other boisterous disruptions of official literary and political affairs—scandalized the philistines but also, and more important, attracted the interest of rebellious youth all over the globe. Surrealist groups, modeled on the Paris original, blossomed in Argentina, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Japan, Yugoslavia, and eventually in many other lands.
The first black encounters with surrealism in Paris tended to involve African Americans seeking respite from U.S. racism. Most of these meetings were casual, brief, and—as the saying goes—without conclusion. Henry Ossawa Tanner, the preeminent African American artist in Paris from the 1910s until his death in 1937, had met Picasso and admired some of his work, but does not seem to have had any association with the surrealists. His preference for biblical themes would not in fact have attracted the vehemently atheist surrealists, but many of his works are very striking. This is true especially of the series inspired by a trip to North Africa, and those in which the predominant element is a bright, shimmering glow—a strange light from outside—suggesting what his son called Tanner's mystical fourth dimension.
Tanner's influence on young black artists was considerable. His studio on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques was something of a shrine for visiting African Americans, and he is known to have encouraged the artists among them, including the modernists.
The great painter Archibald Motley, from Chicago, spent much of 1929-1930 in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Some of his finest works—bright portrayals of Paris jazz nightspots and cabarets—were painted at that time. Although not a surrealist painter, strictly speaking, Motley's passionate, warm color, combined with the vital rhythm of his lights and shadows and his lyrical, indeed musical, intensity—as in his marvelous Blues of 1929, and Casey and Mae in the Street (1940)—radiates a hauntingly beautiful African American surrealist atmosphere.
Among the early expatriates was Anita Thompson, described as "a pretty, young Harlem socialite" who had left the United States "to enjoy the social freedom of life" in Paris, and who was for a time the companion of the Dutch surrealist painter Kristians Tonny. Writers, artists, and other participants in the Harlem Renaissance, including the Jamaican Claude McKay, the Puerto Rican scholar and book collector Arthur Schomburg, and African Americans Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennet, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes also visited Paris. Hughes became a good friend of Louis Aragon's and probably met other surrealists at demonstrations, cafes, and parties. Surrealist Georges Limbour was one of the first to translate Hughes' poems into French.
Paris-based African American entertainers, most notably the eccentric dancer Josephine Baker and the singer and nightclub operator Ada "Bricktop" Smith, counted more than a few surrealists among their friends. Georgia-born jazz pianist Henry Crowder, for several years the companion of Nancy Cunard, not only frequented the surrealist milieu, but also had the pleasure of having a book of his jazz compositions published by The Hours Press, with front and back cover designs by surrealist photographer Man Ray.
Such encounters may suggest a curiosity about surrealism rather than a serious interest, but they surely helped spread the word that an exciting new radical force—rooted in poetry and revolt—was in the wind. Surrealists, at the same time, learned of the new dynamism and rebellion in black America.
A decisive forward leap was made in 1932: year one of black surrealism.