Tuesday, October 5, 2010

three eras of surrealism

The history of surrealism remains a source of inspiration and a battleground. While the quality of much of academic surrealismology has certainly been rising the past decades, it is still very often the old traded misunderstandings and simple errors that reach wide circulation in exhibitions, newspaper criticism and popular books, and other areas of historiography; and in many cases even those who are attracted by surrealism and take part in it swallow much of their general knowledge of the movement's history through such popular sources – in the cases where they do not have a special interest in history, thus impatiently striving to put it into practice rather than caring for historical detail. It must be admitted at this point that the official internal traded version of the history of the movement may hold some flaws and some dangerous simplifications: a few decades ago, back in the days of reigning poor surrealismology, it was safe to say that generally surrealists were far better "experts" in surrealism than the experts in surrealism were (whatever it would actually mean to be an expert in surrealism, we're not going into this here), but this is sometimes not the case anymore. Not only are several of the academics now quite careful and well-read, it is also the case that very many surrealists see little meaning in taking up the competition over knowledge of historical detail with them who are getting payed for dealing with it but who will always miss an important dimension due to the lack of own experience and therefore integrated sense of a whole surrealist perspective. But then, it becomes quite crucial which sources the active surrealists utilise as their standard references for historical information.

So, in order to make the various small points of surrealist historiography and its consequences for surrealist strategy and organisation that is one of the more prominent themes on this blog, I find it necessary to lay down some basic terms here.

It seems to be of crucial importance for understanding the conditions of surrealist activity at different points in time to see that this is something which had clearly changed its objective character in history. (Many surrealists themselves will deny that for polemical reasons, instead emphasising the exemplary continuity, as if historical change would seriously threaten their legitimity.) Now for any particular historiographical project, one will have to assess periodisations depending on the factors relevant for these particular questions. Obviously the surrealist movement has gone through all kinds of changes depending on the failures and successes of organisational initiatives, on events in the world such as wars, crises, repression, radical upsurges, etc. What I'm suggesting here is just that the sense of being a movement has fundamentally changed twice.

Surrealism remains one and continuous, and in order to stay one and stay in history it has twice rejuvenated itself in fire. Thus three times (the inception and the two reinceptions), surrealism has been in a fluid state in the midst of a dramatic favorable wind, and come out with a different face, for some less recognisable, or actively denied. According to this there has been three different eras, three different basic historical modes. It is not very important for me to pinpoint any exact dates for change (especially since the overlaps are huge, and the objective characteristics of several periods are manifested simultaneously) nor to suggest fancy terms for the periods, what I am emphasising is the importance of recognising that such major shifts in historical focus have occurred. I don't think it will be that controversial, even though I do loan myself to some simplifications in matters that will surely prove more complex under careful thinking and careful historic study.

a) Classic surrealism from the inception of the group under the new term and in the new direction of experimentation in 1922, throughout historical changes of the 30s and the hardships of war (internationalisation was an early consequence of the inner dynamics, 1929 was not a major direction shift, the war outbreak was circumstances made more difficult). This might also be called 1st generation surrealism. Surrealism slowly gave itself its shape through its temporary historical decisions, and had no heritage to be concerned about (except that freely chosen), and kept developing and going forward through new discoveries, abandoned areas of experimentation, strategical decisions, etc.

b) Late-classic surrealism from the reorganisation of surrealism in the late 40s. This might also be called post-war surrealism or 2nd generation surrealism. Organised surrealism cared much about keeping the tradition alive to hand it over to the future. It made less inventions, and no overall changes as its concerns about itself emphasised continuity, inclusivity and integrity to the point of reintegrating abandoned or conflicting viewpoints and strategies and thereby creating a sense of timeless surrealism. While the more impatient, vanguardist or ultraradical currents typically budded off into new para-surrealist movements. Indeed most of the surrealist advances on the theoretical, artistical and political levels were made outside the surrealist movement in the most narrow sense, yet it was there that they were reintegrated. After the few years in the late 40s that was a great favorable wind, the quantitative summit of the surrealist movement, and a dramatic situation of fruitful uncertainty, the 50s and early 60s were an all-time low, when more or less all groups outside the Paris group stepped over into various varieties of para-surrealism or simply ceased activity.

c) Post-classic surrealism from the refounding of surrealism in a new paradigm of popular radicalism in the 60s. This might also be called post-breton surrealism or 3rd generation surrealism. Throughout the decade (and partly still!) a rather unresolved tension surfaced between new groups that were based in the new radicalism and old groups which had difficulties relating to the new radicalism even though they indeed had heralded and inspired it. In the french group, these difficulties were added to the difficulties naturally following Breton's death, expressed in the partial and ineffective participation in the '68 movement, and finally triumphed in the dissolution of the french group. In the new situation, the surrealist movement found itself being far more underground, without the mass media's or art world's attention, a more democratic network structure, and in all kinds of ways finding a new relevance based in the new paradigm for all of surrealism's traditional themes and methods.

(The only terminological issue that may be important is a minor one. "Postsurrealism" is a common and fitting term for an eclectic abandoning of surrealism, especially in the art world – let it remain that and don't ever accept any attempts to confusionally and derogatorily apply the term to active post-classic surrealism.)

Now I would say that for most historical questions, this division into three periods suggests something of the different framework for dealing with various questions and ideas throughout surrealist history. But from a historical viewpoint, what I consider very crucial to surrealism is to look closer at these periods of transition, to see what the options were and what were the factors that decided the routes to follow. This is of course of great strategical importance to the surrealist movement, and while I am not surprised that the academic historians have usually failed to see the crucial relevance of these transitionary periods (or merely seen them as chaotic accumulation of anecdotes of contradictions), I think it is important for us as surrealists to grapple with them.

Separate forthcoming posts will be devoted to each of these transition periods.

M Forshage

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