Surrealist Collaboration: Poetry, Art, Literature, Ingenuity and Life Itself
January 20 – February 26, 2022
A stupendous exhibit. I won’t put an exclamation point there, for that punctuation would be repeated, excessively. Here is a fine example of what a gallery can do in an exhibition if the focus is on a specific kind of thing, in this case on an historic collective and collaborative art-making activity, repeated differently as an off and on ritual event. The exhibition is replete with fascinating documents, such as Man Ray’s vintage gelatin silver print of Surrealists at Tristan Tzara’s House of 1930, and Dorothea Tanning’s collage with three photographs by Julien Levy entitled Chess Tournament at Julian Levy Gallery, January 6, 1945 (a rather different event from a more recent January 6.)
About the cadavre exquis/exquisite corpse: the French title exists because of an original sentence about that deliciously named departed body consuming new wine, appropriate for these freshly harvested word and image objects: “le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” The joyous group activity, at the origin of a Surrealist group under the aegis of André Breton, transpired as the participants were seated around a table or not, sometimes in a café or bar, sometimes in someone’s home. They would make a collective drawing roughly in the shape of a body or architectural construction. Each participant would fold the paper, of whatever color or texture, so that the following participant would not see what the previous one had drawn, approximately composing in this order: head, torso, legs, feet. Your creation of your part, spontaneous, if possible, might be in some sense convergent with your personality, or at least a sort of key to your thoughts, occasionally an obsession.
With these instances of the celebrated game or play of the hand and mind wobbling around in my imagination, I was remembering how, in the more recent groupings of surrealizing nature in Paris or New York, not so very long ago, I would be chastised if I seemed to be thinking, not allowing my undercover unconscious to do the deed. But last night at the Kasmin Gallery, I wandered, alone or with others, from display to next display, consciously aware of the pictured eyes seeking each other in various constructions along one wall, with a flourish featuring three blue-papered squares and six lighter ones, by Remedios Varo, Esteban Francés, Benjamin Péret, Breton and three more, and then culminating in a drawing by Remedios of a single eye. It was rather like being quietly watched.
Like the cadavre exquis, these “dessins communiqués/communicated drawings” played upon the collaborative sense and upon the famous experiment of the “vases communicants/communicating vessels,” bestowing that title on Breton’s volume dealing with the surrealizing subterranean subconscious and even a visit to Freud, who, alas, wasn’t really interested in the surrealist discoveries. If the translation of the text was a bit tedious,1 this exhibition had nothing at all tedious about it. A magnificent display of collaboration between the gallery Kasmin and Timothy Baum.
Look how witty is the outlay of the umbrellas in one of the dessins communiqués, as if a reference to the famous Surrealist example of “the sewing machine and the umbrella meeting on the dissection table of the hospital,” and I especially relished Breton’s drawing with the opened umbrella lifting a folded one closed in a square, just taking off. Among the guests in the gallery there was much congenial laughter, as well as recognition of the artists in the group photographs and the texts of the relevant documents and the journals, my favorite being NEON the capital letters reading right side up and then upside down of N’être rien Etre tout Ouvrir l’être Néant Oubli N (more or less rendered as Being nothing Being everything Open being forgetting Nothing).
An all-star cast figures in some items, like the four-square marvel of the great period 1937–39 with Péret, Remedios, Breton, and the tall, dynamic Greek Nicolas Calas, sharing their idea of a horse. There are other celebrated items, like a 1930 Cadavre exquis by Valentine Hugo, Tristan Tzara, and Breton, pastel on black construction paper, gorgeously framed, thus already celebrated. And then one from 1932 by Nusch and Paul Éluardon that same paper, and a late example by Elisa Breton (Breton’s last wife) with Péret and Breton, simply a pencil and frottage or rubbing on paper of 1949 and pastel color made at St. Cirq-Lapopie. Of course all these traces have their narratives attached, which we may or may not know, such as who among the participants might be involved with which others, and like which café might the game have been played in, like the Café Mahieu for example, in that 1937–39 period in Paris. Or some constructed at home on a rainy day with some friends simply cutting out images from various magazines. It makes for a great literary artistic nostalgia.
One example among so many others points out the ingenuity of the gallery’s layout, its choreography. Four elaborately constructed collages on graph paper of 1938, in cadavre exquis form, by Yves Tanguy, Breton, and his then wife Jacqueline Lamba, are totally different from the others, scissored and pasted into architecturally complicated collages whose details the art historian Charles Stuckey helped me detect. They stand two on each side of a humorous cadavre exquis by Victor Brauner, Jacques Herold, and Tanguy from 1935, of pencil and collage paper. The observation that in those complicated 1938 collages, one has scales and two have a man’s shoe led me to my own communicated memory. I remember clearly my friend Jacqueline Lamba, Breton’s wife, who left Breton without ever forgetting him, reminding me how he never would take off his shoes, let alone his socks, whereas when she was with David Hare the painter, they would walk naked along the beach… Here is a shoe or two, and here are scales, as if any of us observing or remembering might weigh which of the men to choose. But that again is permitting a narrative in our imagination to impose itself upon the work of art. So I leave off to conclude by a poem and its colorful other mode.
In a corner of the wall by the door, there blossoms a lovely and energetically colored poem-print in a collaboration by Marcel Jean and Henri Pastoureau from the late 1950s, entitled arrête-toi/stop. The poem, inscribed on the top and the two bottom corners, has us stop to think, and read:
arrête-toi esclave et regagne ta terre
la source tant recherché
n’abreuve que les yeux
arrête-toi indécise et petite
comme l’aigle humilié qui las
découvre la lumière
arrête-toi sans connaître le secret la magie la musique
des émaux coloriés
qui bruissent entre tes doigts
stop slave and take back your land
that spring so desired
quenches only your eyes
stop uncertain and small
like the tired eagle humiliated
who discovers the light
stop without knowing the secret the magic the music
of the colored enamels
rustling between your fingers
And the bright colors energize the halt called for as a forward move into hearing and seeing, just as the proceedings of art and poetry in this and perhaps every period demand. These are the truest communicating vessels in which we might choose to believe, quite like life itself.
- André Breton, Les Vases communiquants of 1932, translated by Mary Ann Caws and Geoffrey T. Harris as Communicating Vessels, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1990. In my “Introduction: Linkings and Reflections,” I point out that the image is taken from the scientific experiment in which “vessels joined by a tube, a gas or liquid passing from one to the other rises to the same level in each whatever the form of the vessel, as the passing back and forth between two modes is the basis of Surrealist thought and Surreality itself,” like the interior vision and exterior fact, night and day, sleep and waking. (p. ix)