Not quite already from its inception but at least from the mid-30s, surrealism has held forth actions of women amidst it and not just the bodies of women. And at least since the 60s, in many quarters earlier, many of us have been emphasising the importance of that shift, the importance of criticising a mere sexual optimism that goes all too well along with the continued exploitation of women as well as the commercialisation of desire, the importance of recognising issues of sexual politics in everyday life, and to develop new and noncomformist alleys of erotic exploration, and all of this in order to emphasise and deepen the emancipatory and exploratory potential of surrealism, to prove them wrong who make a career out of claiming surrealism to be fundamentally sexist, yet to remain vigilant of all complacency in these respects among ourselves.
Now, the Brazilian surrealists apparently want to put the clock back and ignore the insights of the last 50 years, and return to the good old late 50s when it was daring to use foul language and show nude female bodies, at least within high culture. In the recent, massive, issue #3 of A Phala, a massive part of the overwhelming number of pages are devoted to conventional female nudes, and a good deal of the remaining stuff is modern porn collages and nostalgic reminiscences of 1959 when the surrealists devoted the international surrealist exhibition to the theme of Eros (and managed to remain just a little bit more playful, a little bit more dark, and a little bit more high-strung than the rest of the optimistic liberal ”sexual revolution” disenveloping at the time). It feels more like one more of these fashionable coffeetable books of yesterday’s ”erotic photography” than a surrealist journal.
Female breasts, female breasts, stocking fetishism, female breasts, some titillating sadism, and some optical and geometrical distorsions of female bodies. This is just so stuffy, so nostalgic, and so utterly conventional, while many of us was expecting surrealism to be imaginative, radical, perhaps even intelligent and innovative…
Now, in these 2 tomes there are 93 pages of conventional nudes by non-surrealist photographers (yes, 93), most in 60s style by nude photographer André de Dienes (and including a number of optical/geometrical puns with nudes) but also by more recent standard fetishist Günther Blum plus some anonymous ones picked from random softporn mags and advertising, often placed side by side with Bellmer’s pictures (or occasionally Malet’s, Dalí’s, Molinier’s and Mariën’s) in a layout that is perhaps intended to show some continuity but mostly gives a pedagogic demonstration of the obvious difference: these ever-present conventional nudes have nothing particular to do with surrealism.
Then, of contemporary collage, which there is also quite a lot in here, and which is generally in a rather poor state, one can note that more than 50% have porn cutouts (recognisable female bodyparts, usually breasts) (so then I’m not counting Sauvageot’s classical nude statues who also display their breasts…) Wait, wasn’t a point with collage to show something unexpected? Considering that the abundant retrospective material in these tomes is also very much focused on the 50s sense of eroticism, and that a lot of the contemporary drawing, painting and photo has a lot of female body parts in it too, regardless of the fact that some of this art is in fact very powerful, imaginative or poetic; there is basically tits, and women in uncomfortable positions, staring at you from almost every spread as you flip through these tomes. So monomanic, so strange, so unexciting, so oldfashioned!
And from the more serious point of view: what a massive step backwards, to disconsider the entirety of emancipatory sexual politics, to still ignore women as subjects rather than just objects, and to reduce eroticism (which had a thorough dynamics in surrealism) to fetishism of the female body!
The editorial (short English version in the second volume) does indeed invoke the dark 50s of surrealism as an esoteric golden age. It does hold forth female surrealist contributions during the period, so they are not denied – but it is really a pity that they are not reflected in the editing, nor are any concerns connected with them…
There is very little if any evidence of an ongoing collective activity in Brazil among these pages (unlike the previous issue of A Phala from just two years ago), and in this connection a particular lack is notable of the remarkably many female surrealist artists in the country (eventually, three of them do eventually turn up with some pages of images at the very end of the two-volume work).
Some things within all these pages are obviously worthwhile: some documentation of recent activities in France, Canada and Portugal (while it is notable and slightly weird that the West Coast Surrealist Group is being presented as an active surrealist group, and that the American ex-groupings presented in the massive Invisible Heads anthology is presented as an active group too including new adherents), playful contributions from Recordists and SLAG, Merl’s important essay on mythology (circulated some time ago but for the first time in print), a bit of useful historical info on Sampaio, Cirlot and Malet, and several remarkable pictures such as Kathy Fox’s uncanny material Freud fantasies, Seixas Peixoto’s intense brutish drawings, Virginia Tentindo’s beautiful and hilarious sculptures with partly erotic themes, Enrique Lechuga’s strangely effective chaos/junk-collages (just to pick a few of my favourites) - others are probably very good too but either reproduced very poorly (so many small imagefiles have been blown up to fullpages and ended in blurred pixliness) or just too cramped up within this nostalgic sauna of tits to have a fair chance. Texts are of course mainly in portuguese and largely inaccessible to me (some chunks are in English, French or Spanish). Some very interesting poetic texts in English by above all relative newcomers Bill Wolak and Paul McRandle, well-known great poets Will Alexander and Beatriz Hausner, and relative veterans Ribitch and Graubard, are notable.
There has been a series of remarkable big anthologies of international surrealism recently: first came the small-sized but packed What Will Be from Brumes Blondes, the most inclusive of the lot but still well edited and with an edge; then the beautiful and dark La Chasse catalog from Montreal; after that the big Hydrolith #2, which suffered badly from a few really bad editorial decisions but also included very much interesting material (especially from Madrid, who don’t write in English too often), and now finally A Phala #3 where the scattered little pieces of interesting content are difficult to find in the 500 pages mire of bad editorial decisions…