Wednesday, February 29, 2012

the kaleidoscope

This is an event. There has been few histories of the surrealist movement that weren't either extremely sketchy or completely misinformed, and the ones that weren't, typically still kept arbitrarily, cynically and ignorantly restricting its topic geographically to just a small number of countries and chronologically to end at some date long ago, and thereby misses the fundamental internationalism of surrealism and its ability to inspire ever new activities and therefore as a weapon of choice arouse ever new incarnations. The new Caleidoscopio surrealista – una visión del surrealismo internacional (1919-2011) by Miguel Pérez Corrales, La Pagina eds., is thus far more than a kaleidoscope of surrealism, it is a standard compendium potentially of similar weight as the indispensible Dictionnaire général de Surréalisme et de ses environs, without the illustrations but with a more consistent and far more updated outlook than the DGS.

In fact, those of us who already had had the opportunity to pick up anything like this are extremely few, and now, with this volume, the overview becomes available to anyone with any pretensions of objectivity; so many of those academic historians can now be dismissed; you haven't done your homework – go back and read this book and learn what the surrealist movement has been. (The journalist critics however can probably not be compelled to read bulky books.)

Sitting with a similar dataset on my own, I am probably one of the few who could make a detailed assession of the material throughout; express proper impressment where rare sources have been consulted and where even more information than I have been capable of tracing is referred; point out the various lacunae and potentially controversial delimitations, point out minor errors. Especially in the form of spelling of names, and citing erroneous lifespans, there are a number of those, but considering the vast amount of biographical information included, it has to be concluded that it is a very small fraction, far less than in academic standard works. (And a rather insignificant one to most readers. So I won't be going over these details here.)

So, especially to the extent I am in a similar position, I have to admire the determination to let go at one point. It will never be complete, and if closer to complete it will be far more than these 700 pages. Here, especially, there is no explicit method, no explicit circumscription criteria, and therefore it is open not only to a particular amount of subjectivity (which works good) and a particular amount of impressionism (more regrettable but perhaps unavoidable). I mean, it is inevitable that there are, even in such a book, some omissions, several missings of rather crucial points, and correspondingly, a lot of space given to stuff less crucial.

Since there is hardly such a thing as a lack of method, only more or less conscious and more or less consistent methods, we'll have to acknowledge that the method here is that of vaguely completist, but even more impressionistic, bibliographical chronicle, far more than a historiography. It enumerates and relates a wide and well-informed selection of publications, events and individuals, it does not impose any particular questions on the material, it does not consistently focus on certain aspects, it hardly analyses, tries to look through, see patterns, and since it has no circumscription criteria it can always give the space it likes to certain publications and not regret omitting the omitted.

Personally, it is in fact these dwellings on certain rather randomly selected publications which is the only part which I would seriously have liked to see far less of: long lists of the contents of particular journal issues or anthologies, interspersed with brief subjective judgments; there are so many places where very little space have been left to actual historical and biographical data in favour of arbitrary details about some more or less useful recent publications, very often some recent retrospective exhibition catalog or a recent mention in a surrealismological bulletin like InfoSurr, and in these cases it does of course fulfill a function of source reference which is otherwise very difficult to squeeze in such a massively accumulative-synthetic account. But on the other hand it is often scattered hommages by contemporary or more recent surrealists, or long lists of other names mentioned in the same publication... Though on a greater scale, this is just like a "publications received" section of InfoSurr or Phosphor, a chronicle and not a historiography. Nevertheless, this also fills the function of providing some references for the facts, a task which is extremely difficult in a work of such a scope and such a degree of vast synthesis.

And then I should perhaps examplify what I consider to be imbalanced alotting of space between recent/contemporary surrealist activities: the fact that some untraditional or controversial groups like the Recordists are not mentioned at all (and the Surrealist Action Turkey only in passing) while for example Derrame are given significant space, the fact that certain isolated individuals are given plenty of space while other more collective yet informal strongholds are barely mentioned; the fact that certain surrealist groups like Minnesota and LSG are completely overlooked. It is, regardless, truly astonishing to see so much data amassed with only so minor errors – they are not few, but almost always without great consequences – some names are misspellt, some people's locations are dislocated, a few associations are arbitrarily assumed and a few not-quite-truthful anecdotes are repeated without checking facts.

Yet the book does not open itself to criticism in the area of displaying such lacunae or misbalances; since it lacks any explicit criteria for circumscription and focus. In that sense, we can never be sure what would actually merit a place or not in this story. And that makes it also slightly less useful as a compendium, we can't know that it is within the purpose of the author to give us the full information in any particular question we might be seeking, maybe it's not really part of his scope.

Especially the treatment of British surrealism holds lacunae and errors. The Surrealist group of England in the 70s, the Surrealist Research Group of the 90s, and the contemporary London Surrealist Group are not mentioned at all, The Moment group not in the main history but only in Peter Wood's personal entry etc, while perhaps unproportionate weight is given to 80s ExTrance group. The Birmingham surrealists refusal to participate in the 1936 is, as far as I know, still unconfirmed; Mesens' imposing rigid bylaws of the surrealist group in 1940 is treated with distortive sympathetic understanding, Lyle's quarrel with Coupoure and Chicago's subsequent quarrel with Lyle in 1970 is misrepresented. Four names are misspellt in this section. Kathleen Fox is strangely considered a member of a (in fact non-existent) Welsh surrealist group.

Other countries which I am less than happy with the treatment of, are Germany, Italy and Austria, which are indeed among the most difficult countries to write about here, since surrealist evidence has been scattered and obscure though important. Also Eastern Europe in general is typically rather sketchwise treated. The strangest chapter of all is the small one about Switzerland, which does not cover active surrealists in this country (Oppenheim, the Basel group around Laszlo, the Le La group, the Elephant Celebes activity) but focuses on interned brut artists (a category not covered in other countries).

On the other hand, the detailed information about especially Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries (both on the Iberian peninsula and in South America) is just excellent, and in many cases far more than I have been able to extract elsewhere. Here any imbalances and omissions are clearly volontary and polemically motivated. Against the long tradition in nationalist art history and literature history in Spain to consider vaguely surrealism-influenced or surrealism-parallell artists and writers who did not engage in the international surrealist movement to be an indigenous surrealism independent from and superior to "french" international surrealism, Corrales claims there was extremely little surrealism in Castilia in historical times, thereby well-motivatedly highlighting the internationally oriented surrealists in Catalonia and the Canaries (as well as the obscure Aragonese) and denying much relevance to the famous national official names like Aleixandre, Alberti, Cernuda and Garcia Lorca, but in the process also underemphasising Hinojosa and surrealist ambitions in early days of the Gongorista/generation of `27 environment on the whole. While at the same time in the case of Brazil, resting heavily on Sergio Lima's historiographical efforts, emphasising a lot of such vaguely surrealising "indigenous surrealism", which in this context has perhaps less been used by official academic historiography as a baton against international, organised surrealism.

Corrales set out to demonstrate that surrealism is international rather than French, and continuing rather than a thing of the past – which is easily, but here indeed commendably done – but also to show that the way surrealism has popped up in different guises in different countries does NOT mean that there is only a bundle of different national surrealisms which are not necessarily closely related to each other. The latter point is also an important one, if surrealism is internationalist it is also one, regardless of the different emphases made and historical conclusions drawn by different surrealist activities in different places. Yet it is a point which is far more difficult to make without a particular method, and without a clear interpretation. So in the end, this unity is still assumed more than demonstrated, and the author is as happy as anyone to relate anecdotes about contradictions, without making an effort to sort out constants and variables in characterisations.

This book is not just a correction of the narrowness of a reader's prejudiced conception about the limits of surrealism, it is, thereby and beyond, also a massive compendium of suggestions of artists, poets and theories to check up works by and be inspired by, suggestions of crucial points in history where it becomes extremely interesting to research further into the response and significance of surrealism and the strategies of the surrealists at that time and place, suggestions of people to get in contact with!

Wow. What an achievement. Still so open. Still calling for response.

Mattias Forshage

(illustrations are collage sketches by Gabriella Novak from the collective Stockholm surrealist group work on the Analogical Bonegarden for the International Surrealist Exhibition in Reading, Pennsylvania january 2012)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Miguel Perez Corrales has acknowledged this review and discussed several points it raises on the Surrealismo internacional blog at