Thursday, July 9, 2015

Closet decades and flowerpot vikings

In February, CO Hultén passed away. At this time, he was the last surviving member of the Imaginisterna (imaginists) group that was crucial in surrealist painting and networking in Sweden in the 40s and 50s. Less than a year ago, Gudrun Åhlberg (-Kriland, -Holmstedt) and Bertil Gadö had left us, as did their initial ”secretary” Helmer Lång, and only few years ago Anders Österlin.

Hultén was a very active painter, sharpminded and opinionated, up to a remarkably high age, and he is sadly missed. For such a long time, Imaginisterna was the closest thing to a proper surrealist group that had existed in Sweden. Nevertheless, it must be noted that this was still a mere painter group for mutual help, networking, publishing and exhibiting, and thus far from a surrealist group in the full sense. But such are groups are not only rare on the geographical scale, in Sweden, but it should also be noted that in fact the 50s surrealist organisation was at its lowest ebb globally.

For most of its history, Hultén was the prime motor of the Imaginisterna group, but its origins were a joint effort by Hultén and Svanberg, and the disagreements between the two play a crucial role in the early years of the group. And since Svanberg is the more famous painter, in the world, in the country, and in surrealism alike, Hultén’s role has sometimes gone unnoticed. Instead of writing another Hultén obituary, I will here take the opportunity to talk a bit more about surrealism in the 50s, both specifically as regards the case of Svanberg, and concerning degree of organisation.

C O Hultén (1916-2015)

Invisible international: surrealism in the 50s
The remarkable upsurge in surrealist activity in the second half of the 40s, the number of surrealists and surrealist group and groupings and the number of countries where it was present, very quickly ebbed. The surrealist coordination office Cause had failed to establish itself, very many of the new groups and initiatives had coordinated themselves either in opposition to or in willing isolation from the main movement. The stabilisation of the political and social situation after a precious few years of unsettled questions after the end of the war involved the instalment of a more or less open dictatorships and other repressive regimes in a number of countries, and a climate of ideologically triumphant rationalist-consumerist liberal democracy in others. Surrealist activities in Romania and Egypt had been effectively suffocated, members going into exile or simply quitting; surrealist activities in Czechoslovakia and Portugal went clandestine and maintained radio silence; surrealist activities in England, Canada and USA simply stopped. Contacts with Japan and the whole of Latin America were sparse and activities informal and/or isolated. Only in Belgium there were, like in France, a confusing diversity of groupuscules claiming surrealism’s heritage and occasionally bantering with each other, but in Belgium they were all more or less ”post-surrealist” and more or less no one defended surrealism wholeheartedly and kept up international collaborations in its name.

In fact, there wasn’t a single ”surrealist group of NNN” outside Paris during this whole decade, except for a few shortlived and fairly isolated experiments! The surrealist group in Paris was indeed alone. It had a number of friends scattered all over the world, and André Breton together with others (notably Etienne and Pierre) were still struggling to find the new artists that provided new revelations of the spirit – often successfully, but typically in the form of single exceptions.

While such an experimentation went on on a collective level in the networks that had more or less branched off from official surrealism in the organisational decantation processes in the late 40s; the various (interlocking) networks of cobraists and postcobraists, informalists and lyrical abstractionists, automatists and nuclearists, imaginists and bauhaus-imaginists, etc… Through the 50s, it was Jaguer’s new network Phases that gathered and connected the largest number of nodes, and most of the most still relevant to surrealism, of them. Others were gathered in the Situationist International in a more sectarian, spiteful and hyperradical vein. And we could acknowledge the Popular Surrealist Tendency (TPS) as a more isolated rallying point. And the Pataphysical College as a more diluted and non-committal one.

The surrealist group in Paris, the persevering keepers of the flame as organisational center and pole of continuity of surrealism itself, was more isolated than it had ever been since surrealism started spreading over the world in the second half of the 20s. The French surrealist journals of the 50s typically have news bulletins when they have received word from surrealists in another country, and this is not very often. So it looks fairly obvious, but was not openly acknowledged, that the truce or close collaboration between the surrealist group and Phases in the late 50s and early 60s, was a fairly desperate move from the surrealist group to become international and connect with whole circles and groupuscules of people rather than the single individual exceptions that showed up at the local café or in art galleries in the local neighborhood. Phases was in fact the loose structure organising circles of surrealists and perhaps-surrealists in Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Germany and Poland…

Well, it sort of worked eventually and surrealism rejuvenated itself with a number of new groups in the 60s and a regained sense of internationalism and a sense of radicalism which was not only in opposition to the current times but also in connection with some of its forth-bursting undercurrents. But here, let’s dwell some more in the more bleak, isolated and secret-society-like 50s…

The surrealisation of Svanberg: invention of the surrealist viking culture
Another thing that characterised surrealism in France in the 50s was how surrealism’s inherent lack of love for Judeo-Christian values and Greco-Roman civilisation led to a distinct fad for the old Celts. Celtic mythology and Celtic art were praised, the group established relationships with scholars of bronze-age Celtic culture, there were even rather farfetched attempts to connect specifically the Celtic spirit with the other big fad of the times, lyrical abstraction in painting. But there was also painting with a more mythological, naive, and if you will ”primitive” spirit that perhaps went more easily with the very old aesthetics, both in the unprofessional art brut sphere and in the post-Cobra professional art sphere.

Max Walter Svanberg seemed to fit right in there when he first exhibited in Paris in 1954. The surrealist group in Paris just loved him, and adopted him as one of the movement’s principal new painters immediately. This is well-known and often repeated. Not as often is the other half of the background acknowledged.

Svanberg’s exhibiting in Paris in 1954 was part of an Imaginisterna group show, but Svanberg had in fact just left the group after a final quarrel with Hultén about the direction of the group. They disagreed about the sense and content of imaginism and about the attitude towards surrealism. They had all rejected the cheap aestheticising Dalí-ism (in Sweden represented by the Halmstad group). But Svanberg identified imaginism with his own splendid mythological vision, and strongly opposed this to surrealism. Hultén (along with the others in the group) on the other hand were busy with trying old and new methods of gestural automatism and pretty much in line with contemporary lyrical abstraction; far less eager to keep up a demarcation towards surrealism.

So this well illustrates how the Paris surrealist group at this time was so much more interested in establishing contact with the isolated exceptional visionary than with the collective stratum that was part of a movement specific to the times. And of course, Svanberg’s universe is a powerful statement in itself, it is entirely visionary, and it combines a sense of the archaic and the naive with preciosity and with fetishisms and obsessions that many surrealists can easily recognise as their own. So this selective affinity is not unwarranted or strange.

What is strange is how it is expressed and motivated. All the major texts by Breton and Pierre about Svanberg emphasise that they interpret Svanberg’s vision as reborn Viking mythology. This is a bold trajectory, a fantasy, clearly without any knowledge about Viking culture, and it is difficult to find anything specific in Svanberg’s pictures to suggest this. The archaic-style naive figuration with a mythological directness, and the love of ornamentation, glitter and the golden colour, yes even some specific patterns, may suggest Bronze Age art, but probably far more some kind of Byzantine-exoticising aesthetics. The Bronze Age-suggesting elements surely made the French think of their own variety in their beloved Celtic heritage. And the traditional exoticising boreophilia in France seems to be still focused on the dramatic stories of the Vikings, so they saw no need to make pedantic distinctions in Nordic history between the Bronze Age and the far later, far less aesthetically productive, Viking age… So since Svanberg was a denizen of the Frozen North, then it was easy to project first their own love of Celtic aesthetics onto Viking culture, and then to project this Viking culture as a setting for Svanberg’s vision. It is arbitrary or very prejudiced, but so weirdly so that it is remarkable, it is even contagious, once the establishment has been made, you start seeing connections…

And it also shows Svanberg’s flexibility in the sense that sure, he was opposed to surrealism, but if the surrealists liked him, even if they strangely called him a viking, then who was he to criticise them? (This could be termed openmindedness, or narcissistic opportunism, depending on where you’re coming from.)

 * * *

So, the 50s Paris surrealists preferred an isolated Martian whom they could make into a sandbox Viking shaman to a struggling collective who were keeping a sense of surrealism alive in the late avantgarde. ”Official” surrealism at the time was pretty much under ”occultation”, a small band of devoted believers keeping the flame alive, in opposition to major contemporary historial trends of course but also at a distance from all the groupings and epicentra that represented more or less of an equivalent of surrealism in a lot of countries all over the world. A secret society. Until things changed in the 60s.


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