Wednesday, 3 June 2015

“A deep affinity”: Surrealism and non-European arts

 Paris  |  7 May 2015  |  AMA  

In 1920, many artists in Western Europe harboured a deep contempt for materialist bourgeois society and its arrogant faith in science and technology, a society which, since the First World War, the Dada movement had aimed to disturb with their provocative works. In 1920, however, new means of expression were being developed, and non-European objects had become increasingly common. More than 30 years prior to this, Gauguin had turned towards traditional Oceanian cultures to find the necessary resources for the new means of expression that he wanted to develop, starting by acquiring two Minkissi statuettes from the Congo, which he displayed at the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1889. A little later, in the 1900s, Picasso became inspired by traditional Congolese art, particularly for his Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Unlike Western tradition, the so-called “primitive” artists attempted neither to reproduce nature, nor ideal beauty, offering an alternative to the Western tradition that was in crisis and new opportunities that were so sought after by the avant-garde artists. Such artists, for whom the meaning of words was too narrow and rigid, sought, rather simply reinventing existing codes once again, to transcend the categorisation of the real, advocating the submission of the unknown to the known, taking interest in the opposition between dreams and reality. The Surrealists participated in this battle. André Breton, who founded the movement in 1924 with his Manifeste du surréalisme, saw the works of Freud as a rediscovery of the resources of the imagination and dreams, masked by the obsessive rationalisation of the world. He used the theory of unconsciousness to develop the artistic method that he called Surrealism or the search for the resolution of the opposites, dream and reality, by creating a surreality. Automatic writing, or writing in a stream of consciousness, is an important part of this method: reflection, and therefore reason and rereading, put aside, it is about allowing “the phrases alien to our conscious thoughts that want to be externalised” to emerge (Manifeste du surréalisme).

The place of Non-European objects in the Surrealist movement is not always an obvious one. Enigmatic objects inspired the majority of these artists and poets, with the well-known exception of René Magritte. A far cry from the Western arts, non-European objects represented a diversity characteristic of the universalising aim of the Surrealists. Moreover, the relationship between the Surrealists and Tribal art also offers the contemporary audience an interesting entry point by which to discover the often under-appreciated Indigenous arts, with one such opportunity taking place from  9 May 2015, at the Galerie Flak, in Paris, in the form of an exhibition of works from Africa, Oceania, and North America, entitled “Objets Surréalistes”.

Bargain-hunting artists

In his Second Manifeste (1930), André Breton, who kept a whole collection of sculptures from Oceania and North America, wrote about his increasing interest for the symbolic life of objects, usually hidden by realism. In his novel Nadja, he referred to the first “savage” object that he acquired, a fetish from Easter Island which says “I love you, I love you” to the novel’s titular character Nadja. In 1925, the Surrealist artists, including Max Ernst, Giorgio De Chirico, Man Ray, and Paul Klee were exhibited together for the first time at the Galerie Pierre in Paris. On 1 March 2015, the son of the gallery’s founder, Pierre Loeb closed his own gallery, Albert Loeb, situated at Paris’ Rue des Beaux-Arts, which was mainly dedicated to Tribal art.

In 1930, Pierre Loeb and Tristan Tzara, poet and co-founder of Dada who went on to adopt Surrealism, organised an exhibition of African and Oceanic art at Pigalle gallery with tribal art collector Charles Ratton, to whom the Musée du Quai Branly dedicated an exhibition in 2013 (“Charles Ratton : l’invention des Arts “Primitifs””). During the same period, Belgian collector René Gaffé was a patron of Breton and Paul Éluard. Meanwhile, the two poets endeavoured to find works of African tribal and Oceanic art. The close link between Surrealism and Tribal art is also evident in Gaffé’s love of Surrealist works. His collection, distributed by Christie’s in 2000-2001, notably included works by Miró and Picasso. From the view of a collector, therefore, it seems that Surrealism and non-European provded abundant new resources for European visual culture, whose traditions had been severely weakened since the second half of the 19th century.

The taste for non-European objects may still appear exotic, though nevertheless Euro-centric and adapted for Western audiences. The poet and essaying Tristan Tzara, for example, praised the savage force of a figure associated with the god Gou, cast in brass from the kingdom of Dahomey, and with a prominent phallus, from the Ratton collection. However, the Surrealists were still faced with certain criticisms. Between 1929 and 1931, Georges Bataille published his multidisciplinary surrealist magazine Documents, which notably sought to forge links between ethnography and avant-garde and defended the value of historical material and sources of non-European objects, beyond the aesthetic value that Western artists attribute to them. The so-called shameless materialism of the caustic writer incited contempt from the leader of the Surrealists, who mocked the founding principals of Bataille’s anti-idealism in the Second Manifesto. Moreover, Surrealism seemed to integrate the ethnographic study so dear to Bataille when, in 1933, the surrealist magazine Minotaure published a report on the Dakar-Djibouti mission, with photographs of Dogon masks taken by ethnologist Marcel Griaule. The enigmatic aspect, aesthetic significance, and anti-colonial dimension of such objects –which defended the value of this art as equivalent to that of Western Art – o particularly address the concerns of Breton’s movement. A few years later, Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), who formed part of the Surrealist group during his stay in Paris from 1938 to 1942, proposed an even less European appropriation of African tribal art to the extent that the figures that it incorporates blend into a nightmarish vision of returning to the same jungle in Cuba that haunted his childhood imagination.

Tribal art – a challenge for Surrealism?

From 1924 onwards, Surrealism emerged as a rival to Dada, offering a new perspective to visual artists and reinterpreting the old movement as a precursor to the Surrealist mission. Though usually considered part of the Dada movement, Max Ernst played an important role in pioneering the move from automatic writing to artistic creation, and saw the association of these two elements, hailing from different semantic realms, as a great poetic feat. A master of collage who used the medium to draw attention to irrationality in the midst of a society determined to deny it, Ernst saw Surrealism as the culmination of the artistic research that had preoccupied him since the 1910s. During the same period, Surrealist painters developed their own form of pictorial automatism which began with the works of Masson and Miró, before moving on to the subject of dreams, an area in which Magritte and Dalí took the lead.

For Breton, non-European objects were a crucial part of Surrealist aesthetic development since they represented a challenge to the notion of analogy, otherwise known as relationships of resemblance, which the Surrealists sought capture by juxtaposing objects of diverse origins. Non-European objects were thus a challenge in the sense that they express the very difficulty upon which Surrealist philosophy was founded, namely the idea that: “everything indicates that there is a mental vantage-point from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, will no longer be perceived as contradictions. It would be pointless to look for a different motive of surrealist activity than the hope to determine this very place.” (Breton, Second Manifesto). Whilst Ernst’s collages represented a challenge to the rational distinctions and habitual associations we attach to different objects, the Surrealist workshops were home to a diverse assortment items, which, when juxtaposed, find a commonality that transcends these apparent contradictions, a practice much admired by Claude Levi-Strauss. In 1926 the surrealist gallery held its first ever exhibition, entitled “Man Ray paintings and island objects”, and ten years later in Paris, Charles Ratton would hold the “Exhibition of surrealist objects” in his own gallery, assembling a highly diverse, and often enigmatic, group of objects, including found objects, African and Oceanic tribal sculptures, Duchamp’s bottle-holders, and Meret Oppenheim’s “fur breakfast”.

Non-European influences in the final year’s of the movement

For Breton, non-European art and objects represented more than just a new pool of visual resources for European culture, or a source of enigmatic objects used to create striking analogies. Indeed, just as Breton was quick to project the surrealist ideology onto writers, poets and artists who were either dead or had finished their careers long before the advent of Surrealism, he saw close connection between non-European objects and Surrealist art, noting: “the profound affinities between Surrealism and primitive thought. Both envision the abolition of the hegemony of the conscious and the everyday, leading to the conquest of revelatory emotion.”

During movement’s final years, pre-Columbian cultures served as the principal source of inspiration for artists, particularly Max Ernst. In 1940, whilst the majority of the Surrealists left for the United States, fleeing an occupied France, Ernst exiled himself to New York before moving to Arizona, where he acquired a giant sculpture of a Kwakiutl ogress of British Colombian origins, as well as Katsinam (or Kachina) dolls – goddesses that served as intermediaries between humans and the spirit world – from the Hopi and Zuni peoples of the South West of the USA. In 1946 he wrote the poem Ten Thousand Red Skins, inspired by the ritual dances of the Native American peoples. Like Breton, his enthusiasm for pre-Columbian art coincided with his exile in America, during which period the movement did its best to keep going. In some of the later sculptures the influence of motifs and aspects of tribal ritual objects is particularly market, such as in the piece Der Assistent, Der Frosch und Die Schildkröte (1967), which is currently held in Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum. At the same time, the painter Wolfgang Paalen, who was also exiled in America, decided to move to Mexico and break ties with Breton. However, one thing he did keep in common with the latter was a fascination with Native Americans and their cultures, to which he dedicated two editions of his revue Dyn in 1943.

At the end of the 1950s, André Breton came across the works of the painter Yves Laloy, whose work was inspired by Pre-Colombian objects and figures. Breton pushed Laloy towards Surrealism, though Laloy had little interest in the movement, Laloy’s non-European inspirations leading the Surrealist founder to compare some of the motifs in Laloy’s work to the sand paintings of the Navajo people or the Kwakiutl’s masks. Breton also recognised in Laloy a magical or spiritual quest comparable to that found in Indigenous arts. Many still consider Laloy’s appropriation of these cultural references a clear by-product of the Surrealist movement, despite the artist’s claims to the contrary.

Overall, Tribal art, principally of Native American and Oceanic origins, was an important source of inspiration for the Surrealists, and in particular for Breton, as part of his efforts to ground Surrealism in artistic movements and traditions that existed prior to or outside the context of the movement. Nevertheless, it is important not to overstate the role of Surrealism in the emergence of Tribal art onto the global art scene. Whilst on one had, Breton’s boundary-pushing mission would seem to level the playing field for non-European arts and Western Fine Art, his work in this area had a negligible influence on the institutions of the day, particularly since Sartre and the Marxists, the stars of the Post-War period, were quick to dismiss the Surrealists as petit bourgeois, as were many other key players in Post-War artistic scene, many of them former Surrealists that had turned their backs on the movement. Nonetheless, in terms of the market, Charles Ratton, whose gallery can still be found on Paris’ Rue Bonaparte, played an important role in stirring up interest in Tribal art and in 1953 collaborated with Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Ghislain Cloquet for their documentary Les statues meurent aussi, which denounces the unequal institutional treatment of Tribal and European art, censored for eight years for its anti-colonialist stance. And yet despite this apparent progress the distinction between “Fine art” and Indigenous art is, to all intents and purposes, no less pronounced today than it was in the mid-1950s, in no small part due to an anti-colonialist discourse that leads many question the legitimacy of the monopolisation of Indigenous art by Western institutions and collections.

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