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SURREALISM  1 - 2 - 3 - 4

Last issue of La Revolution Surrealiste

Surrealist architecture

Surrealist architecture includes : designs for towns or for houses which the painters and poets of the movement set out in their works : the work of both classical and contemporary architects whom they admired; and finally various constructions from the designs of decorators and builders who were connected with the surrealist movement. It is an irrational architecture which does not fall in with any ideas of comfort; it is figurative, even metaphorical. Its aim is to make habitable monumental pieces of sculpture, preferably representing creatures or objects.

The surrealists were always interested in architecture; but, before making any practical proposals for this form of art, they used it mainly to achieve an effect of exile, of disorientation, in their painting and poetry. Many of their paintings are based on fantastic architectural landscapes, as detailed as the engravings of Piranesi. In La Peinfure аи defi (1930), Aragon remarked that 'a juxtaposition of the early paintings of Chirico would result in the creation of a town whose plan could be drawn'. Andre Masson and Max Ernst both made drawings of imaginary cities, and in the canvases of Dali, Delvaux and Kay Sage there are all manner of unexpected buildings. In his series of Dwellings (1966), Georges Malkine evokes imaginary houses conceived as particularly suitable for various famous people.

The poetic nature of this kind of speculation is established by the survey 'Sur certaines possibilites d'embellissement irrationel d'une ville', published in 1933 in the last issue of Le Surrealisme аи service de la Revolution. This set out to discover how the best-known monuments in Paris would have to be altered in order to turn it into a surrealist city. For example, Andre Breton said that the Place Vendome column should 'be replaced by a factory chimney with a naked woman climbing up it', and that the Egyptian Obelisk should 'be moved to the entrance of the Abattoirs and held by an enormous gloved female hand'. Tristan Tzara suggested that the Pantheon 'should be cut in half vertically, and the two halves set fifty centimetres apart'.

Paul Eluard, commenting on the replies to this survey, predicted that 'one day houses will be turned inside out like gloves', and he envisaged the arbitrary decoration of different sites. 'The most conventional statues would be a marvellous embellishment of the countryside. A few marble female nudes would create a fine effect in a ploughed field. Animals in streams and groups of solemn characters in black ties in rivers would make charming reefs to contrast with the monotony of the water. Dancing figures in stone would be a delightful adornment to the mountainsides. And, since mutilation is indispensable, the ground would be strewn with heads, the trees with hands, and the stubble with feet.'

Thinking along the same lines, Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues wrote a collection of poems, Incongruite's monument ales (1948), describing the various constructions which he dreamt of creating : a fountain for a school playground in the shape of a gigantic bronze revolver, a lighthouse shaped like a woman's leg with a pink shoe for the base. In one chapter of Belvedere (1958), Mandiargues also describes the monsters of Bomarzo, the product of a whim of an Italian Renaissance nobleman, the Duke Orsini, who ordered the transformation of the landscape he could see from the windows of his house at Orto in the province of Viterbo. The basalt rocks all down a hillside were carved into giant figures forming a sacred grove; the confusion thus created between art and nature was the result of an eminently surrealist intention.

The classical architect whom the surrealists saw as one of their most important precursors was Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, a magnificent visionary. His Utopian theories were tempered by many positive and progressive ideas, which were far ahead of his time, particularly on the sanitation of towns. Ledoux started his career in the reign of Louis XV; he designed a pavilion at Louvcnciennes for Madame Du Barry in 1771, and was then appointed inspector of salt-works for the province of Franche-Comte, and architect to the king. In 1775 he began the construction of the salt-works at Chaux, despite the criticisms which were levelled at his ambitious plans. Ledoux considered that luxury was by no means the prerogative of the nobility, but should be applied as much to a craftsman's workshop or to a barn as to a chateau. The sumptuous buildings for the salt-works were laid out in a circle; the houses for the clerical workers were palatial, and even the forges had Doric columns. lie was obliged to give up the project in 1779, but he kept on producing audacious plans : his 'aqueduct-house' and his bridge over the river Loue, with piers in the forms of triremes rowed by oarsmen, were both outshone by his plans for a 'social city'. In this city all the public buildings, such as the Pacifere (or Temple of Conciliation), the Oikema (or Temple dedicated to Love), the Panareteon (or School of Morals), houses and workshops, stock exchange, public baths and market, were reflections of a theory of architecture based on pure form - pyramid, cube, cylinder, sphere - with displays of fountains and flames, urns and statues erected for the sake of the shadows they would cast, or for their effect on spatial perspective.

Other contemporary architects who were dismissed as 'megalomaniacs' - Etienne-Louis Boullee, with his cenotaphs, his city gates, and his library, and Jean-Jacques Lequeu, with his spherical Temple of the Earth - proposed a similar masterful use of symbolism and of the sphere in town planning.


The two most daring and imaginative architects of the Neoclassical era were Etienne-Louis Boullee (1728-99) and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736— 1806). Both believed in the simplicity of geometric forms — spheres, cubes, cylinders, and pyramids — which, according to Platonic ideals, "live in nature". Although Boullees great treatise on architecture was not published until 1953. his prolific teaching meant that he was possibly more influential than Ledoux. He regarded his work as "the architecture of shadows", but his projects became increasingly fantastic and eccentric - and were often unrealized. His design for a library (1783-85) was a Utopian monument to learning, romantic and dreamlike, while that for a monument to Newton (1784) was a 150-metre (500-feet) high sphere - a cosmic globe that was to "sparkle with light and banish all shadows."
Ledoux took up Boullee's ideas and designed other very imaginative works. Again, many of his projects did not progress beyond the drawing board, such as his plan for the "ideal" cemetery including a giant sphere that would act as a central chapel. From his designs for the "ideal" city, Ledoux planned and partly constructed the industrial centre of Chaux at Arc-et-Senans (1774-79); its saltworks remain one of the most celebrated monuments of industrial architecture.

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

Perspective engraving of the farm guards'
bouse at Maupertuis

Symbolic representation of the auditorium of the
theatre at Besancon as seen through the pupil
of one eye

Project for the ideal city of Chaux: House of supervisors of the source of the Loue, 1804


Cimetière de la ville sociale" de Chaux, 1785

Etienne-Louis Boullee

Elevation for Newton's Cenotaph, 1785

Unbuilt design for a Cenotaphe de Newton, 1784
Jean-Jacques Lequeu

Plan geometral d'un temple consace а l'Egalite, 1794



Surrealism brought about a revaluation of the work of the Art Nouveau architects, who had been either forgotten or discredited by the time Dali wrote his celebrated article on the 'terrifying and edible beauty of Art Nouveau architecture', 'De la beaute terrifiante et comestible de l'architecture modern' style'. Dali was seized with enthusiasm for Hector Guimard's decorations on the Paris Metro station entrances, and had them photographed by Brassai to support his views. Above all, he revealed to his friends the originality of Antoni Gaudi , the greatest of the proto-surrealist architects after Ledoux. Gaudi worked in Barcelona; he wished to free himself of the conventions of previous styles and to draw directly on nature - animals and plants - for his decorative forms.

Hector Guimard

Metro station Chardon-Lagache, 1913;
Designed in 1899, the Porte Dauphine station exhibits Hector Guimard's only surviving enclosed edicule of the Paris Metro.

It was not enough for him to reproduce the appearance of natural forms ; he studied their internal structure and the laws governing their organic development in order to improve his representation of them. In 1883 he started the church of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; abandoning the flying buttresses of the Gothic Revival style, he substituted a new method of supporting the diagonal thrust: an inclined pillar. The Parque Guell (1900-14), on a hillside near Barcelona, is an amazing garden laid out in terraces winding along for several miles, with spiral-shaped seats decorated with ceramics, walls following the undulations of the hillside, and viaducts supported by trees carved from stone. Not only did Gaudi make masterly use of polychromy, but he also used architectural collage by incorporating real objects, such as bottles, cups or dolls, in some of his surfaces. The Casa Mila (1905-10), also in Barcelona, is a piece or genuine sculpture, both in its facade and in the details of the roof, chimneys and staircase exits, which are not visible from the street.

Antoni Gaudi
Casa Mila
Barcelona, 1906

Antoni Gaudi

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born June 25, 1852, Reus, Spain
died June 10, 1926, Barcelona

Spanish Antonio Gaudí Y Cornet Catalan architect whose distinctive style is characterized by freedom of form, voluptuous colour and texture, and organic unity. Gaudí worked almost entirely in or near Barcelona. Much of his career was occupied with the construction of the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia), which was unfinished at his death in 1926.


Gaudí was born in provincial Catalonia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Of humble origins, he was the son of a coppersmith who was to live with him in later life, together with a niece; Gaudí never married.

Showing an early interest in architecture, he went in 1869/70to study in Barcelona, then the political and intellectual centre of Catalonia as well as Spain's most modern city. He did not graduate until eight years later, his studies having been interrupted by military service and other intermittent activities.

Gaudí's style of architecture went through several phases. On emergence from the Provincial School of Architecture in Barcelona in 1878, he practiced a rather florid Victorianism that had been evident in his school projects, but he quickly developed a manner of composing by means of unprecedented juxtapositions of geometric masses, the surfaces of which were highly animated with patterned brick or stone, gay ceramic tiles, and floral or reptilian metalwork. The general effect, although not the details, is Moorish—or Mudéjar, as Spain's special mixture of Muslim and Christian design is called. Examples of his Mudéjar style are the Casa Vicens (1878–80) and “El Capricho” (1883–85) and the Güell Estate and Güell Palace of the later 1880s, all but “El Capricho” located in Barcelona. Next, Gaudí experimented with the dynamic possibilities of historic styles: the Gothic inthe Episcopal Palace, Astorga (1887–93) and Casa de los Botines, León (1892–94) and the Baroque in the Casa Calvet at Barcelona (1898–1904). But after 1902 his designs elude conventional stylistic nomenclature.

Except for certain overt symbols of nature or religion, Gaudí's buildings became essentially representations of their structure and materials. In his Villa Bell Esguard (1900–02) and the Güell Park (1900–14), in Barcelona, and in the Colonia Güell Church (1898–c. 1915), south of that city, he arrived at a type of structure that has come to be called equilibrated—that is, a structure designed to stand on its own without internal bracing, external buttressing, and the like—or, as Gaudí observed, as a tree stands. Among the primary elements of his system were piers and columns that tilt to transmit diagonal thrusts, and thin-shell, laminated tilevaults that exert very little thrust. Gaudí applied his equilibrated system to two multistoried Barcelona apartment buildings: the Casa Batlló (1904–06), a renovationthat incorporated new equilibrated elements, notably the facade; and the Casa Milá (1905–10), the several floors of which are structured like clusters of tile lily pads with steel-beam veins. As was so often his practice, he designed the two buildings, in their shapes and surfaces, as metaphorsof the mountainous and maritime character of Catalonia.

As an admired, if eccentric, architect, Gaudí was an important participant in the Catalan Renaixensa, an artistic revival of the arts and crafts combined with a political revival in the form of fervent anti-Castilian “Catalanism.” Both movements sought to reinvigorate the way of life in Catalonia that had long been suppressed by the Castilian-dominated and Madrid-centred government in Spain. The religious symbol of the Renaixensa in Barcelona was the church of the Holy Family, a project that was to occupy Gaudí throughout his entire career. He was commissioned to build this church as early as 1883, but he did not live to see it finished. Working on it, he became increasingly pious; after 1910 he abandoned virtually all other work and even secluded himself on its site and resided in its workshop. In his 75th year, while on his way to vespers, he was struck down by a trolley car, and he died from the injuries.

In his drawings and models for the uncompleted church of the Holy Family (only one transept with one of its four towerswas finished at his death), he equilibrated the cathedral-Gothic style beyond recognition into a complexly symbolic forest of helicoidal piers, hyperboloid vaults and sidewalls, and a hyperbolic paraboloid roof that boggle the mind and outdo the bizarre concrete shells built throughout the world in the 1960s by engineers and architects inspired by Gaudí. Apart from this and a similar, often uncritical, admiration for Gaudí by Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist painters and sculptors, Gaudí's influence was quite local, represented mainly by a few devotees of his equilibrated structure. He was ignored during the 1920s and '30s, when the International Style was the dominant architectural mode. By the 1960s, however, he came to be revered by professionals and laymen alike for the boundlessand tenacious imagination that he used to attack each design challenge with which he was presented.


The architectural work of Gaudí is remarkable for its range of forms, textures, and polychromy and for the free, expressive way in which these elements of his art seem to be composed.The complex geometries of a Gaudí building so coincide withits architectural structure that the whole, including its surface, gives the appearance of being a natural object in complete conformity with nature's laws. Such a sense of total unity also informed the life of Gaudí; his personal and professional lives were one, and his collected comments about the art of building are essentially aphorisms about theart of living. He was totally dedicated to architecture, which for him was a totality of many arts.

George R. Collins

Antoni Gaudi
La Sagrada Familia


Finally, it is in the realm of 'naive' architecture that the spirit of surrealism is most truly found. The marvellous emerges in the raw state in buildings made by men with no knowledge of construction, but who relied on the force of inspiration to make concrete the dwellings of their dreams. The greatest of these naive architects was Ferdinand Cheval, a postman from Hauterives, in the department of Drome, who had always dreamt of an imaginary castle which he thought could never be built. But one day in 1879, when he was forty-three, he was making his round in the country when he stumbled upon a stone whose shape entranced him; he then found others, just as beautiful, in the same place, and decided to make a start on his ideal palace. Each day after delivering the mail he would collect the stones in a wheelbarrow and work tirelessly into the night, undeterred by the mockery of the neighbours. In 1912, after thirty-three years of daily labour, this extraordinary construction, the Palais Ideal, was finished. In its construction Cheval had used a mixture of many styles : a mosque topped with minarets, a Hindu temple, a Swiss chalet, the Maison Carree in Algiers, and a medieval castle. The highest part is thirty feet high and the main facades, twenty-eight yards long, have niches containing sculptures. In this profusion of shapes - there is even a 'Tower of Barbary' supported by three giants - Cheval had made use of the most unusual types of stone, each one in its natural form and selected with loving care. The Palais Ideal is the supreme example of what the unsophisticated imagination can achieve when it is stimulated by a desire for greatness.

Ferdinand Cheval

(From Wikipedia)

Ferdinand Cheval who was born in 1836 and died on 19th August, 1924, was a French postman who spent 33 years of his life building an "Ideal Palace" (French Palais ideal) which is regarded as an extraordinary example of naïve art architecture.
Ferdinand Cheval lived in Chateauneuf-de-Galaure, in the Drome departement of France. He had left school at the age of 13 to become a baker's apprentice but eventually became a postman.
Cheval began the building in April 1879. He claimed that he had tripped on a stone and was inspired by its shape. He returned to the same spot the next day and started collecting stones.
For the next 33 years, during his daily mail route, Cheval carried stones from his delivery rounds and at home used them to build his Palais ideal, the Ideal Palace. First he carried the stones in his pockets, then a basket and eventually a wheelbarrow. He often worked at night in the light of an oil lamp. Locals regarded him as a village idiot.
Cheval spent the first two decades building the outer walls. The Palace is a mix of different styles with inspirations from the Bible to Hindu mythology. Cheval bricked the stones together with wire, lime and cement.
Cheval also wanted to be buried in his palace. When French authorities forbade that, he proceeded to spend eight years building a mausoleum for himself in the cemetery of Hauterives. Cheval died on August 19, 1924, around a year after he had finished building it.

Just prior to his death, Cheval began to receive some recognition from luminaries like André Breton and Pablo Picasso.

Ferdinand Cheval
Le Palais Ideal

Another naive architect was Simon Rodilla, a Neapolitan tiler who emigrated to the United States and built the Watts Towers (1921-51) near Los Angeles. These are huge metal scaffold constructions covered with concrete and encrusted with pieces of broken glass and china. Gilles Ehrmann's book Les Inspires et leurs demeures (1962), with a preface by Andre Breton, contains some other examples of 'naive' architecture : the shell-covered Maison de la Sirene, built by a ferryman in the Vendee, another house built and clad with mosaic by a cemetery worker, and the garden in which a market gardener in Brittany grew plants and flowers all over figures of horsemen and birds.

Simon Rodia
Watts Towers


Some of the surrealist painters decided to put their ideas about architecture into practice. In 1933 Marcel Duchamp invented a door for his apartment in Paris which, in defiance of the French proverb 'a door must be either open or shut', could in tact be both open and shut at the same time. When it was opened to enter the bedroom, the bathroom was closed, and when the bathroom was open, the studio was closed. Salvador Dali, whose conception of architecture was that it should produce 'true realizations of solidified desires', produced a design for an interior representing the face of the actress Mae West (1936, Art Institute of Chicago); the pink divan shaped like a mouth was in tact made from this design by Jean-Michel Frank for the Baron de l'Epee. In 1938 Minotaure featured a plan by Matta for an apartment intended to create psychological effects : the staircase was without banisters (so that the user would learn to overcome vertigo), the walls were as limp as damp sheets, the furniture was movable and could be formed into different shapes, and spatial effects were created by the placing of mirrors. Later on, Matta made a study of various plans for dwellings, and following on this he designed his 'minimal house for the awakened man' in 1962. This is a suspended construction in copper and aluminium, consisting of monastic cells linked by bridges, gangways and corridors. It has neither doors nor windows : some of the walls are transparent and slide open.

Many architects have made plans for a dream-architecture. In his book Alpine Architektur (1919), which contains thirty drawings, Bruno Taut showed how it would be possible to decorate mountains; he envisaged a 'flower valley', with its sloping sides covered with multi-coloured glazed frames which would sparkle in the light. Hermann Finsterlein, in his proposals for the 'Casa Nova' (1919-20), suggested a 'house-sculpture' with a floor in relief and walls which could be inflated to form wardrobes; his 'House of Contemplation' (1920) was to be a marble pyramid topped with a sphere of pink majolica, with windows made of smoked quartz. In his plans for an imaginary country town, 'Broadacre City', Frank Lloyd Wright gave full rein to the forward-looking vision of his poetic genius. Paolo Soleri, one of Wright's disciples, reconciled Utopia and reality in his plans for 'Mesa City' and his models of 'habitable bridges'.

The most surrealist of all was Bruce Goff, an architect in Bartles-ville, Okla. He was a theoretician of 'absolute architecture', which does not accept utility as its aim, and he created buildings whose extravagance is supported by great technical skill. His masterpiece was the Spiral House at Norman, Okla. (1951-7), which consists of a stone wall which winds in a logarithmic spiral around a central pillar. The main rooms are circular wooden volumes, while the first floor is linked directly with the garden by means of a bridge.

Bruno Taut
(1880 – 1938)

Bruno Taut
Pabellon del vidrio en la exposicion
del Werbund de Colonia

Hermann Finsterlin
(1887 - 1973)

Hermann Finsterlin
Casa di vetro (Glass house)

Frank Lloyd Wright
(1867 - 1959)

Frank Lloyd Wright
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York, 1959

Bruce Alonzo Goff
(1904 - 1982)

Bruce Alonzo Goff
Eugene Bavinger House
Norman, Oklahoma, 1950

All these, however, were 'surrealists despite themselves', while the great architect Frederick Kiesler was an open adherent of the surrealist movement. He had already formulated his basic theories before he met Andre Breton in New York, where he illustrated Breton's Ode a Fourier, and took part in the production of VVV, but his contacts with the movement led him to expand his work. Kiesler was Austrian by birth, and had studied in Vienna, where he had been a friend of Adolf Loos; he was devoted to the theatre, and in 1922 he produced Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones with moving scenery. For a festival of drama and music in Vienna in 1924 he projected a double shell building of moulded glass, inside which hotels, car parks and gardens were laid out among a system of ramps which rose to the roof. Instead of lifts there were three platforms which ascended and descended, coming together at each level. In 1926 he went to New York, where in 1927-8 he built a cinema with four screens. The picture could be transferred from one to the other, or even projected on to the ceiling.

In 1933 he finally elaborated his 'Endless House', a project which he was never to be able to bring to fruition. Kiesler wished to create a 'continuous architecture' : he was opposed to the rectangular room, to the box-shaped house, to the use of beams and filling materials. The 'Endless House' is a concrete shell, with walls and ceilings incurving to give a perfectly enwrapping interior. The inside of the house, which appears to be made up of linked cave-like structures, was meticulously worked out. The windows are all of different shapes and sizes, and three kinds of lighting are available.

Frederick Kiesler
Endless House

The furniture is in the form of sculptures integrated with the architecture. There is no bathroom, as each bed has a bath associated with it in the bedroom. The total effect is intended to produce 'inner peace'. Arp, who was a great friend of Kiesler's, wrote : 'In this egg, in these egg-shaped spheroid constructions, human beings will now be able to shelter and live as in the womb of their mother.'

Despite his fame, very few of Kiesler's plans were executed. In 1942 he built the Art of This Century Gallery in New York for Peggy Guggenheim. His first idea was to do away with frames for the paintings, and to replace them by the walls themselves, which he curved and lengthened with wooden supports. In his design for this gallery Kiesler defined 'the eighteen functions of the chair'. He made seats which would stand any way up, and which could also be used as tables, benches and trestles. At this time he came to uphold a style which he called 'correalism', to show that it reconciled different aspects of reality, such as the elements, life and space.

Frederick Kiesler

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born Sept. 22, 1892, Vienna, Austria
died Dec. 27, 1965, New York, N.Y., U.S.

Austrian-born American architect, sculptor, and stage designer, best known for his “Endless House,” a womblike, free-form structure.
After study at the Technical Academy and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Kiesler worked on a slum clearance and rebuilding project in Vienna with Adolf Loos. In the early 1920s Kiesler began to design for the stage. He designed what was probably the first theatre-in-the-round when he was architect and director of the International Music Theatre Festival of the City of Vienna, held in 1924.
At the invitation of two theatre groups Kiesler went to the United States in 1926. From 1933 to 1957 he was scenic director for the Juilliard School of Music, New York City. His designs for the Metropolitan Opera were notable for their imagination and low cost. From 1936 to 1942 he was director of the design laboratory of the Columbia University school of architecture.
Kiesler's “Endless House” was never built full-scale, but a large concrete model was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, in 1960. More sculpture than architecture, the house consisted of a group of joined, rounded, shell structures on piers that could be used as continuous space or as separately defined, closed-off rooms. Inside the Endless House (1966), written as a journal, is basically an account of Kiesler's artistic life. His last important work was the Shrine of the Book (1959–65), which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel.

Frederick Kiesler
The Shrine of the Book

He even drew up a Manifesto of Correalism, in which, in opposition to Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, he denies being Utopian : 'Enough bookish architecture has been invented. We don't want to bring out the latest, and the even later edition. We want buildings which are as flexible as the functions of living.'

Starting from the premise that the content of architecture is more important than its structure, he advocated 'houses which are not just walls with or without adornments, and whose foundations do not rest on a barrack-like mentality'. Instead of using a skeleton framework in a building, he substituted 'continuous tension', and made use of veils and membranes. He was fond of using the word 'galaxy' to show that his architecture consisted of a constellation of differing and contrasting spatial unities. There are examples of 'galaxies' in his plans for a 'universal theatre', which he worked on intermittently throughout his career.

In 1947 he superintended the staging of the 'Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme' in Paris, and himself designed the Hall of Superstitions. He took this as an unexpected opportunity to make known his conception of the synthesis of the arts. Unlike Gropius or Villanueva, for whom the synthesis of the arts is subordinated to architectural necessity, Kiesler insisted that it should be used in the service of poetry. This exhibition, whose ideological theme was outlined by Breton, was thus an attempt to include poetry in the synthesis of the arts, and Kiesler stressed the importance of this attempt : 'This collective work, created not by artists drawn from one single held, but by the Architect-Painter-Sculptor group, plus the Poet (the author of the Theme), represents - even if it fails - the most stimulating prospect for development in our plastic arts'. The design of the exhibition made manifest Kiesler's genius, and it also gave a new direction to his development. In 1953, when I spent a holiday with him at Golfe-Juan, he showed me sketches of a number of audacious projects, including a 'horizontal skyscraper'. From the ideas which he set out in Le Surrealisme en 1947, a catalogue published by the Galerie Maeght, right up to his last project - a Grotto of Meditation at New Harmony, Ind. - Kiesler has never ceased to oppose functional architecture and to preach the principles of a 'magical architecture', which, making use of the techniques and materials of our time, is the most convincing evidence for surrealism in architecture.


The post-war period

The 'Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme' which was held at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in July 1947, under the direction of Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, was a 'spiritual parade', planned to the last detail to establish the directions that members of the group were to follow on the threshold of the post-war period, and to take stock of everything that surrealism had acquired since its beginnings. The exhibition brought out into the open a need which until then had remained unvoiced : the need to create a collective myth.

The layout of the exhibition was conceived as a series of ritual tests, reduced to a minimum, through which the visitor had to pass beiore he could look at the works on show. Progress from one room to another was intended to help in the gradual transformation of the neophyte into an initiate. So the visitor gained access to the upper rooms by climbing a red staircase made up or twenty-one steps in the form of spines of books, whose titles - the Sermons of Master Eckhardt, Frazer's The Golden Bough, Rousseau's Les Reveries du promeneur solitaire, Swedenborg's Memorabilia etc. - indicated the degrees of ideal Knowledge. This staircase was swept from above by the light of a small revolving lighthouse, and above it, Calder's mobiles trembled from the ceiling. Next the visitor passed into the Hall of Superstitions, designed by Frederick Kiesler. This hall was a synthesis of major superstitions, which the spectator was forced to overcome before continuing his visit. Yellow and blue light created a disturbed and disturbing atmosphere, and around the black Lake painted on the floor by Max Ernst were ranged shapes which represented the atavistic fears of mankind. The walls were hung with dark drapes, through openings in which the visitor could catch mysterious glimpses or the paintings. Some of the sculptures in this sanctuary had been made to Kiesler's designs - for instance David Hare's Anguish-Alan and the Totem of Religions, made by Etienne-Martin. (Incidentally, the considerable influence of Kiesler's Dwellings on Etienne-Martin has not been fully recognized.)

The visitor came next to a hall divided into two parts by 'curtains of rain' which poured down on to a floor of duckboards. This room housed magnificent paintings by all the masters of the movement. The only way out of the room was by going round a billiard table, which should have been in constant use — an idea which could not be maintained. Then came the initiatory labyrinth, where visitors were guided by a transparent Ariadne's thread. Here, twelve octagonal recesses, like the cells of a honeycomb, were set out as altars, dedicated, alter the pattern of pagan cults, to beings or to objects capable of being endowed with a mythical life. So they were consecrated to animals (The Condylura, or Star-nosed mole, or The Secretary-Bird), to phantom objects (The Wolftable, by Victor Brauner, which he used in several of his paintings, the Window of Magna sed Apta, which had been described by George du Maurier in his book Peter Ibbetson), and to fictional characters (Jeanne Sabrenas, the heroine of La Dragonne by Alfred Jarry, or Leonie Aubois d'Ashby from Rimbaud's poem Devotion). An electric bell rang continuously.

Victor Brauner
The Wolftable

Kurt Seligmann
Will o' the wisp

Surprise followed surprise - the visitor passed from canvases to sculpture, from masks to 'objects' of every kind, and the whole was surrounded by a luxuriance of feathers, glass, mirrors, light and shadow. Works by newcomers to the movement, including Gerome Kamrowski, Braulio Arenas, Maurice Baskine, E.F. Granell, Seigle, Isabelle Waldberg and Isamu Noguchi, were scattered everywhere. The fact that surrealism had not rejected Dada was shown by the presence, among the exhibitors, of the former leader of the Lyons dadaists, Emile Malespine, who showed 'kissograms' or mouth prints. The last room was crammed with documents, photographs, pamphlets, first editions, and still more objects. Eighty-seven artists from twenty-four different countries took part in this major exhibition, quite apart from the writers who contributed to the catalogue.

Isamu Noguchi

American sculptor and designer. He was the son of an American writer mother and Japanese poet father and was brought up in Japan (1906–18) before being sent to the USA to attend high school in Indiana (1918–22). In 1922 he moved to Connecticut, where he was apprenticed to the sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867–1941). Discouraged by Borglum, Noguchi moved to New York and enrolled to study medicine at Columbia University (1923–5). From 1924 he attended evening classes at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School; encouraged by the school’s director, he decided to become a sculptor. In addition he frequented avant-garde galleries, including Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place and the New Art Circle of J. B. Neumann; he was particularly impressed by the Brancusi exhibition at the Brummer Gallery (1926).

Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi
1968, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Emile Malespine
(French, 1892-1952)

Emile Malespine
Composition abstraite

Emile Malespine

Preparations for the exhibition took place in an atmosphere of intense intellectual excitement, and impassioned discussion went into the smallest details. I recall an entire evening being spent in deciding what should go into the show-window in the Avenue de Messine; everyone put forward ideas for a symbolic display. The choice finally fell on a sculpture by Victor Brauner, Conglomeros, three bodies with one head, which never lost its power to shock passers-by.

It was at this time that Antonin Artaud, who had been discharged from the Rodez asylum, spoke out with a prophet's voice, producing drawings which were like cries in which he expressed the human face, and Rene Char, Julien Gracq, Jacques Prevert and Aime Cesaire produced coruscating examples of the purest surrealist language.

In 1947, to cope with the world-wide interest in surrealism, Andre Breton founded Cause, an action bureau which had the job of coordinating manifestations of interest in surrealism from every country. Cause was charged with the publication of two pamphlets, Rupture Inaugurate (1947) and A la Niche (1948), which defined the distance which separated surrealism from politics and religion. The surrealist group, which met each week at the Cafe de la Place Blanche, was swamped by such a flood of visitors that, in an attempt to eliminate the merely curious, Breton instituted a questionnaire which was submitted to every poet or painter who wanted to join the movement. This questionnaire, which was drawn up in a collective session, consisted of eight questions, including : 'What exactly, at the present time, do you expect of surrealism ?' and 'What confidence do you put in rational means of knowledge?'

The review Neon, which set out to be a kind of poetic newspaper, was founded in 1948. Responsible for its layout was the Czechoslovak poet Jindrich Heisler, who had some most delightful inspirations. Finally, in autumn 1948, another exhibition, 'Solution surrealiste', at the Galerie du Dragon, offered itself as a meeting-place for young artists who were moving towards surrealism, and provided a register for them to enter their claims. So everything was ready for surrealism to become an effective organ of action which would absorb by synthesis the ideas which were in the air at the time.

A series of exhibitions in Paris from 1947 to 1950 confirmed the reappearance of surrealist artists such as Yves Tanguy, Victor Brauner, Francis Picabia and Toyen. Maria's exhibition in 1948, at the Galerie Drouin, gave Breton an opportunity of further formulating his thought. Maria (her full name was Maria Martins) was the wife of a diplomat. During a stay in Japan she had made ceramics in the local tradition, but in 1939 she decided to turn to sculpture, and the spirit of her native Brazil became apparent in her work. The curves and entanglements of her bronzes are derived from the vegetation of the Amazon forests, and evoke 'the quest for a liberation which must, above all, never be obtained'. Breton saw in Maria an example of the message which the tropics have for the Occident, and said 'What is important is that Maria's development has led her from the macrocosm to the microcosm, and has not made her follow the road in the opposite direction, where its path is strewn with ambushes and decoys. It can never be said often enough that it is the universe which must be questioned about man, and not man who should be questioned about the universe.'

Maria Martins


The Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins better known professionally as simply 'Maria,' as she insisted upon being referred to in all matters pertaining to her artistic life is one of the most important sculptors of the Surrealist period, singled out by André Breton in 1948 as the `shining star' of post-war art.

Maria Martins
Don't Forget I Come From the Tropics

Maria Martins
The Impossible

Maria Martins
A soma de nossos dias

Maria Martins
O rito dos ritmos

There were some painters who were caught up with surrealism, but who soon sheered off in an opposite direction. This happened to Jean-Paul Riopelle, a Canadian painter whose work Breton and other members of the group found very attractive, although he did not share their worship of the image. Riopelle was born in Montreal, and had been a disciple of Paul-Emile Borduas, the founder in 1944 of a Canadian group called the 'automatists', who derived their inspiration from surrealism. When he arrived in Paris, Riopelle shared a show called 'Automatisme' with the Canadian painter Leduc, and he took part in the surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Maeght. In pictorial automatism Riopelle was seeking freedom and breadth of gesture; his robust nature gave a special sensibility to his interlacing of colours. When he held his first major exhibition at the Galerie du Dragon in March 1949, Elisa, Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret contributed a portrait in dialogue to the catalogue. 'For me, his is the art of a superior trapper', said Breton, to which Peret added : 'Everything in the work of Riopelle is lit by the sun of the great forests, where the leaves fall like a biscuit of snow soaked in sherry.' When Riopelle abandoned surrealism for lyrical abstraction in 1950, he was one of the most regretted of all the defectors.

Jean-Paul Riopelle

(Canadian Abstract Expressionist Painter, 1923-2002)

Jean-Paul Riopelle

Another was Enrico Donati, an Italian painter who had come to Paris in 1934, and left for New York in 1940. Helped by his friendship with Marcel Duchamp, he stood out among the surrealists in exile in America; Donati was an exponent of a fluid form of painting, with colour glazes diluted on automatist principles, which vaguely evoked rockets or shadows in a night sky (The Cabal, 1944, Gore et Mandro, 1946). This seductive art, which was however rather slight, demanded some form of evolution. Donati turned towards the abstract in 1950, dividing each painting into stripes of granitic or coal-like matter.

Enrico Donati

In September 1948, Andre Breton took part in the foundation of the Compagnie de L'Art Brut, which initially held its meetings in the basement of the Galerie Drouin in the Place Vendome. Jean Dubuffet had been the first, in 1945, to start collecting 'works by people unscathed by artistic culture'. In October 1949, Dubuffet organized a big exhibition at the Galerie Drouin, as a preface to which he wrote a pamphlet on l'art brut (art in the raw or crude state) and its superiority to 'cultural art' : L' Art brut prefere aux arts culturels. The style of this pamphlet recalls Tzara's eulogy of idiocy. 'The wise men would have to commit the great harakiri of the intelligence, launch themselves on the great leap into superlucid imbecility ; that's the only way their millions of eyes would ever start to grow.' Breton encouraged this action, and took an interest in the brut painters like Miguel Hernandez and Aloise, and in the Scots-Canadian naif, Scottie Wilson, whose meticulous and disturbing Hand-made pen drawings are made up largely of minute parallel hatchings within firm outlines.

Breton was fascinated most of all by Joseph Crepin, a plumber who had run a musical society, and who had subsequently discovered that he had the gift of healing. He treated his patients by sending them cut-out paper hearts which they had to lay on their chests. At the beginning of the war Crepin began to paint a long sequence of pictures, all of exactly the same size, because he had heard a voice which had told him : 'The war will end on the day when you have painted three hundred pictures.' He took a great delight in saying that he finished the three-hundredth on 7 May 1945. The same voice instructed him again in 1947 : 'You will paint forty-five marvellous pictures, and then the world will be at peace.' When Crepin died in 1948, he was working on the forty-second. His paintings consist of an infinite number of what he called 'points', which look like studs of colour.

The beginning of the post-war period saw the blooming of the great masters or surrealism, who became international masters of modern art and whose influence can be seen in the new tendencies which formed at that time. Some of them isolated themselves, others stayed in close relationship with the movement, but all of them, even those who seemed to have broken away, moved towards the climax of an evolution which had begun or matured within the group.

After Miro had produced his Constellations, in 1940-1, he went on in 1945 to large canvases with white or black backgrounds, which were followed in 1949 by a double alternating series of 'slow' and 'spontaneous' paintings, and then by extremely poetic pictures, whose light gracefulness is carried over into their titles : The Jasmines embalm the dress of the young girl with their golden perfume (1952), and Rhythm of the passage of the serpent attracted by the breath of the unloosed tresses of the setting sun (1953). In 1954 he stopped painting in order to make a series of ceramics in association with the potter Artigas; then in 1956 he left his Barcelona studio and moved to a house in Palma de Mallorca, where he picked up the thread of his inspiration, working, as he said, 'like a gardener'.

Those who kept in faithful contact with Breton often did so trom a distance. At his home in Connecticut, Yves Tanguy, starting from pictures like The Rapidity of Sleep (1945, Art Institute of Chicago), set off en route for those vertiginous enumerations of stones which ended with The Multiplication of Arcs (1954, New York, Museum of Modern Art), and which seem to describe the depths of the abyss. Hans Bellmer did not lose sight of his Doll theme, but now he carved and polished the image of woman like a rough diamond, as if he were trying to make the strangest jewel in the world. Wolfgang Paalen, in an attempt to found a 'plastic cosmogony', did a series of paintings on the theme of 'Ancestors to Come', and expressed the forces of nature and mankind without using symbolism or figuration.

Hans Bellmer
Tete de femme sur une tour

Rene Magritte pursued his mental adventure, image by image, using the methods which he had perfected to discover the 'never before seen' - the jamais vu - in the banal and commonplace. Max Ernst, who moved with Dorothea Tanning in 1955 to Huismes in Touraine, abandoned anti-painting in favour of painting. His etchings and his sculptures completed his statement of a universe 'in the interior of the view'. Wifredo Lam, who had a studio in Milan and another in Paris, was constantly on his travels, using his vocabulary of forms to evoke immemorial nostalgia.

Andre Masson and Giacometti forged links with the existentialist writers, but their work did not acquire new meaning as a result. From 1947 Masson lived near Aix-en-Provence, and drew his inspiration from the surrounding countryside. He did many etchings and lithographs which formed sequences such as Veminaire (1956). Then in 1962 he returned to his former paroxysmic manner with The Drunken Man, and then a series of India ink drawings.

When Giacometti returned from Switzerland, where he had met his wife Annette, he resumed work at his Paris studio in 1945 on nudes and heads, which, as before, became smaller and smaller the more he worked on them. From 1949 to 1951 he made groups of static or moving figures. His avidity for perfection led him to seek the impossible even in certainty and reality.

Victor Brauner, who stood apart from surrealism from 1948 onwards, moved out of his magic period to the evocation of an extremely varied personal mythology, with astonishing heroes, in a style which was predominantly calligraphic. From A Being retracted... (1948) to The Mother of Myths (1965), he contrived to enclose a poetic or philosophical story in every painting.

Matta lived in Rome in 1949-55, and his painting drew nourishment from his political preoccupations. In Think, no more of fleeing (1953) and Cover the earth with a new dew (1955), he tried to achieve 'the marximum of being' without changing his style at all. His drawings - as in the scries of 1955, Mattamorphose (interieure et exterieure) - became graphic serial stories.

Salvador Dali's 'mystic period', which began with The Madonna of Port Lligat (1950) was nothing but a continuation of his 'revolutionary' period. Both periods derive from the 'paranoiac-critical method'. When in 1951 he published his Manifeste mystique in Latin and French, Dali painted a Soft self-portrait with grilled bacon (1951), which shows the skin of his face hanging on a branch like an empty envelope. The Dali who in the past had said 'Beauty will be edible or will not exist', and who delivered a lecture in Barcelona with a loaf fastened on his head, is still there in toto in the Dali who, in a Sorbonne dissertation in December 1955, drew an analogy between the rhinoceros and the cauliflower, or in the Dal who, in 1956, illustrated Don Quixote by using a blunderbuss with bullets filled with ink.

Some painters who had been attached to the surrealist group for many years made their presence felt only late, in the post-war period. Jacques Herold was a Romanian painter who had joined the movement in 1934, soon after his arrival in Paris, at the urging of Tanguy, whom he admired. When he failed to make the kind of contact with Breton and the group which he had hoped tor, Herold stayed on the fringe of the movement until 1938. At first his canvases showed flayed animals. In his own words he was moving towards 'a systematic flaying, not only of characters, but also of objects, landscapes, the atmosphere'. He even wanted 'to tear the skin from the sky'. Then he became haunted by crystal, and his forms took on a stratified, vitrified appearance, with facets or cutting edges. 'As crystallization is a resultant of the coming together of form and matter, painting should strive towards the crystallization of the object. In particular the human body is a constellation of fiery points from which crystals radiate', he wrote. Dante and Beatrice (1939) is one of the earliest examples of this style, which later, in The Eagle Reader (1942), in Whirlwind of signs (1946) and in The Nurse of the Forests (1947, Paris, private collection), was applied to poetic subjects. In 1951 Herold broke with surrealism, and conceived the ideal of 'painting the wind', which led him to effects of dispersion and luminosity which can be seen in The Initiatrix (1959) and The Pagan Woman (1964). He illustrated several books, and published a 'Maltreatise on painting' (Maltraite de peinture), a series of notes and drawings, in 1957.

Jacques Herold
Crystal amoureux

Clovis Trouille's painting emerged gradually from the shadows, where he had been peacefully cultivating it, and became the delight of a group of connoisseurs. In 1930 his painting Remembrance was exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Revolutionnaires, and was noted by the surrealists, who henceforth claimed Trouille as one of themselves. Trouille was a Sunday painter - and what Sundays! - who worked in a Paris factory which made wax dummies for shop windows. His style was inspired by the Belle Epoque, in which his youth was spent, the gay 1890s and the Edwardian era. His imagery recalls the films of Melies, Art Nouveau posters, Grand Guignol, picture postcards, and the 'news in brief columns of Le Petit Journal. Clovis Trouille wanted to be an 'arbitrary colourist' and to illuminate scenes of passion to the ultimate degree. 'I use academic forms and themes for subversive ends. That is what I find piquant', he has said. He painted 'anti-everything' pictures, to which he returned year after year to perfect some detail, and which he refused to sell. His painting My Funeral caused a sensation at the 1947 surrealist exhibition, and he has done two other versions which are just as remarkable. In 1942, in The Drunken Ship (le Bateau Ivre), where he shows convicts fleeing from a ship which has been wrecked, he painted Cezanne clutching a mast and trying to dodge a sailor's boathook. Since then, he has gone on producing strange and humorous pictures which are all evidence of his wit, which remains fresh, vital and sharp, and of his skill as a painter. In his work the unexpected bursts out like a cymbal clash.

Outside the surrealist group, properly so called, there were several painters who, while not really sharing its spirit, contributing to its debates or submitting to its disciplines, appropriated its methods to lead a parallel existence. They battened on to what was most obvious in surrealism, the way in which it used fantastic imagery, and sometimes they achieved results which led the public to believe that they, as much as say Magritte or Tanguy, were part of the pictorial revolution which was carried out at the instigation and under the control of Andre Breton.

The most notable of the figures on the fringe of surrealism is Leonor Fini. She was born in Buenos Aires in 1908, spent her childhood and youth in Trieste, and finally settled in Paris. In 1936 she took part in the London 'International Surrealist Exhibition', and in 1937 the catalogue of her one-man show at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York included a preface by Chirico. Initially she drew her inspiration from Italian mannerism, with the addition of a modernist accent derived from the influence of Max Ernst. She placed a showy style at the service of an inspiration whose favourite subjects were sphinxes, vampires, witches and ghouls with strange accessories, masks and seashells : The Shepherdess of Sphinxes (1941, Venice, Peggy Guggenheim collection); Sphinx Regina (1946); The end of the world (1949)- Her painting, which is inclined to show Woman reigning over a world of artifice and guile, employs curious effects which can be found in her other work, such as her illustrations for Juliette by de Sade (1944), and her sets and costumes for the play, Le Mai court by Audiberti (1956). Her evolution finally brought her to produce female apparitions treated in the style of Viennese Art Nouveau (Jugendstil), which are similar to Gustav Klimt's figures, and which are certainly her best paintings : The Secret Festival (1964), The Window pane from the other side (1965).

Leonor Fini
Rasch, Rasch, Rasch Meine Puppen Warten

Felix Labisse, who was born at Douai in 1905, is another of these painters who while fluttering around surrealism, and superficially coming under its influence, remain 'painters of the image' whereas genuine surrealists wished to be 'painters of the unimaginable'. In 1923 Labisse went to live in Belgium, first at Heyst-sur-Mer and then at Ostend, where he became a pupil of James Ensor. Later he moved to Paris, and began to work as a theatrical designer. He designed Jean-Louis Barrault's first production at the Atelier in 1934, Аutour d'une mere, after Faulkner. He was a friend of Robert Desnos, who encouraged him from the start. Desnos wrote : 'His paintings already stand out for their sense of theatre, their lyrical inspiration, and, if I dare use the term in speaking of easel pictures, for their feeling of the open air'.

His painting speculates on the theme of metamorphosis, and he plays on the contrast which derives from placing an animal's head on the body of a woman. In this idiom he showed a woman with the head of a praying mantis - Snatched Portrait (1942) - or with the head of a lioness : The Happiness of being loved (1943). In a collection of drawings with an explanatory text, Histoire naturelle (1948), Labisse described a series of hybrid animals he had invented : The Rose-Tears, the Wyvern-Guenegote, the Adrouide, the Arthus of the Sands, and many others, including the Fluviot, a fish in the shape of a human face. He has always remained faithful to this kind of effect, with some variants. His figures later became tree-trunks in human form, as in The Inconstancy of Jason (1955); or his women were concealed behind a veil, as in The Mourning of Salome (1961). When he eliminated figures from his paintings he moved on to the evocation of 'libidoscaphes', which are a kind of meteor fallen in a desert space : an example is Libidoscaphes in a watchful state (1962).

Felix Labisse
Décor pour la salle a manger du Paquebot Laos

Around 1950, surrealism had to take up a definite position on abstract painting. Until this time, the requirements of abstract art had been so fundamentally different from those of surrealist art that the surrealists had not even felt any need to define their position relative to abstractionism; this did not prevent Breton from admiring Kandinsky, or from claiming that Mondrian's Boogie-woogies were surrealist paintings. But after the war, geometrical abstraction gave place to lyrical abstraction : the painting of artists like Wols and Mark Tobey, which implied some inner drama or cosmic preoccupations, escaped from the aestheticism which the surrealists so detested. Action painting, which was derived from American Abstract Expressionism, involved the use of pictorial automatism, and so the surrealists were obliged to examine this automatism to see whether or not it could correspond to their views.

(Abstract Expressionist Painter,1913-1951)
L'homme terrifie

Mark Tobey
(American Abstract Expressionist Painter, 1890-1976)

Titré au dos "landscape"

Their reaction at first was unfavourable. Benjamin Peret, writing in L'Almanach surrealiste du demi-siecle (1950), expressed it in categorical arguments. In his view, abstract art was an abdication of the mind, and he claimed that it was 'an ersatz for plastic science', but not an art. 'In reality, no abstract art can exist, as art tends to represent figuratively either the artist's inner world, or the exterior world, or an interdependence between the two.'

But the critic Charles Estienne, who hovered on the fringes of surrealism, encouraged the development of free abstraction as opposed to geometrical abstraction, which was still dominant. He pushed some young painters, who had been complaining that they had been badly hung in the Salon de Mai in 1952, to found as a protest the Salon d'Octobre, which brought together some abstract pictures of the kind which are known under the designation of 'art informel'', in the context of a tribute to Marcel Duchamp. Shortly afterwards, in an article entitled 'Abstraction et Surrealisme', Estienne wrote : 'If we take into account the death - which to me has obviously occurred - both of decorative abstraction and of surrealist imagery, I think that in the acutest abstract art, and in a surrealism which, far from being broadened, is brought back to its first principles, we hold the two vital keys of modern art, both of that which has already been created and of that which is now in the process of being created.'

Andre Breton gave his assent to this conception. The surrealist gallery, A L'Etoile Scellee, II Rue du Pre-aux-Clercs, opened in December 1952 with a group show, which was followed in January 1953 by the first one-man show of Simon Hantai, whose sixteen large paintings were saluted by Breton in the catalogue : 'Once more, as happens perhaps once in every ten years, we see a great beginning'. Hantai, a Hungarian painter who had been living in Paris since 1949, was at this time making picture-objects such as Solidified Dew (1953) and Collective Narcissus (1953), in which figuration tended to disappear under a riot of colour. In March 1953 Breton mounted a show at L'Etoile Scellee of four members of the October group, Jean Degottex, Duvillier, Matcelle Loubchansky and Messagier.

At the end of this year the second and last Salon d'Octobre, put on at the Galerie Craven with a tribute to Francis Picabia, showed a possible way of fusing surrealism and abstraction. To this, Charles Estienne gave the name of 'tachism'. This was not his own word, but had been invented by Pierre Gueguen, a critic on the periodical Art d'Aujourd'hui, who had used it in a general sense. Charles Estienne gave it the meaning which he wanted; and in an article in Combat, 1 March 1954, he sets out the history of tachism. 'It is plain that if the tachists make taches [blobs] they do so in the same way and to the same extent that the fauves [literally, 'the wild beasts'] were denizens of the 200, or that the cubists made cubes.... The enemies of October know perfectly well that the "blobs of October" have little to do with daubs and smears, but everything to do with a total freedom of expression which starts again from zero every time.'

This birth certificate of tachism provoked all manner of protests from painters and critics who wrote back to Combat. One of them said : 'Surrealism, vintage 1954, running out of invention, has discovered a new recipe, the blob, tachism, for painters, poets and citizens.' Charles Estienne wound up the debate in his article 'Dont Acte' ('Duly noted') on 5 April 1954, which showed that he was only the indirect cause of the uproar. 'It all blew up when surrealism, by which I mean Breton, said that he was in agreement - and all tachism, as everyone certainly knows, goes beyond the principle of unification of the two tendencies in painting today : lyrical abstraction and pictorial surrealism, as they are represented in the work of Simon Hantai and Paalen, for example.'

This attempt to reconcile two movements which were so radically divergent was bound to end in failure. Hantai, to whom Breton had looked to bring it about, joined up with Georges Mathieu, with whom in 1957 he organized a series of exhibitions, commemorating the heresy of Siger de Brabant, which the surrealist group had anathematized in their pamphlet Coup de semonce. The word 'tachism', which no longer defined any kind of abstract surrealism, became synonymous with informal abstraction, and Mathieu himself used it to describe his painting. Breton overrode all these distinctions and returned to the line he had traced long before, proscribing 'the ribbon-work of art, at so much a metre', and praising the 'work of art as event', the only form which surrealism had always sought to produce.

Georges Mathieu ,1921
French painter, sculptor, designer and illustrator

Georges Mathieu
Sterilite hantee

Georges Mathieu
Tenebres deserts


Postscript: Legacies

The legacy of Surrealism is massive and complex: It includes writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, found objects, performances, art, film, graphics, and graffiti. It developed ideas that influenced later movements as varied as Abstract Expressionism, Art Brut, Performance, Neo-Dada, Pop, and Conceptual art. The thinking of modern philosophers, from Walter Benjamin to Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida, as well as psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, all came under the Surrealist spell.

Marcel Duchamp—who by 1920 had turned to machines and motion—coined the word most associated with the work of the American engineer-turned-artist, Alexander Calder. Duchamp christened the first 1932 exhibition of hand and motor driven abstract pieces "mobiles." The balanced forms were eventually engineered to move by the chance occurrence of wind, their biomorphic pieces derived from the basic pictorial vocabulary of artists such as Miro and Arp. Whether in small or large form, the shapes revealed a primordial level, marshaled into a suggested narrative—whether a lobster trap and fish, a child's toy, or some equally real monster of the unconscious mind. The gentle curves of Claes Oldenburg's soft Pop art sculptures from the 1960s and '70s evolved from a similar aesthetic in combination with Dadaist ideas.

One of the most important legacies of the Surrealist aesthetic was the abstract biomorph. As Dali well knew, it could evoke nature and fear simultaneously. And in the right minds and hands it could do far more. The English sculptor Henry Moore combined Surrealist ideas and abstraction with his love of the figure and pre-Columbian art in a lifelong development. His organic abstract figures of women and children are meant to resonate with an earthiness that is both physical and psychological.

The French-born sculptor Louise Bourgeois was exposed to Surrealist theory early in her career. First attracted to abstract totemic shapes, similar in inspiration to those of Louise Nevelson, Bourgeois always incorporated an air of psychological disturbance in her work. Still master of the biomorphic form into the 1980s, she turned more consistently in the 1990s to explorations of the psyche through powerfully evocative installations. Her 1994 Red Room (The Parents) continues the poignant rememberances of psychological states and primal moments. She lays open the privacy of the psyche by reminding us of the psychological resonance we share through everyday materials, scenes, and moments. Ironically, she seems to provide a far more concrete formation of the dream than the Surrealists could manage largely by what is suggested rather than objectified.

Kenny Scharf, tagged as a member of the New York East Village punk-rock scene of the 1980s along with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned the Surrealist biomorph into "fun art." It is also a synthesis of sophisticated art world theory and comic-book culture appropriation that, since the 1960s, has reached into popular culture to challenge a number of assumptions about the nature and experience of art.

The initial legacy of the Surrealists in the United States, however, came during their expatriated status during World War II, where they published articles, exhibited, and provided ideas. At the time when the Abstract Expressionists were searching for new ways to express their passions, Surrealist concerns for primitive mythology derived from the unconscious pointed the way for painters such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and others. Pollock's all-over compositions after 1947 are unthinkable without the Surrealist impetus behind automatism. Interestingly, Allan Kaprow, the founder of the spontaneous art events known as "Happenings," cited his shaping influence as the automatic and liberating gestures of Pollock. Breton called Gorky's 1944 The Liver is the Cock's Comb "marvelously unpremeditated" and "the great gateway open on to the analogical world."

Simultaneously in Europe—the 1940s and '50s— Surrealism provided England's Francis Bacon with the basis for one of the most disturbing uses of biomorphic imagery. His Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, exhibited in the painter's first exhibition in over a decade in 1945, gave full voice to human horror and repression. The same impulse developed in another direction drove the influential theories of Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut or "raw art." His love, and famous collection, of the art of untrained individuals, his repudiation of cultural values, and his reliance on the unconscious and the primitive derived in part from his friendships among the Surrealists. Dubuffet developed a handling of materials that paralleled World War II's destruction in Europe.

Yet another generation in America owed a less direct debt to the Surrealists. Robert Rauschenberg, who, with his colleague Jasper Johns, was seen in opposition to Abstract Expressionism and most associated with a new Dadaism, had been influenced directly by the tradition of the Surrealist object. Breton recognized the challenge they posed and asked both artists to exhibit with the Surrealists.

Building on these new and old traditions, the 1960s "junk" and "assemblage" artists reached back via Surrealism to the found object of Duchamp and Picasso. On occasion, with artists like Lee Bontecou, one also finds the echo of their powerful psychological concerns. In a series of untitled assemblages in the 1960s Bontecou turned the Freudian tables with an obsessive image of a face-vagina transposition, whose frightening zipper teeth held out the countervailing promise and independence of the feminist movement.

Claes Oldenburg

Henry Moore
Reclining Figure

Louise Bourgeois
Red Room (The Parents)

Louise Nevelson
Sky Cathedral

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Mark Rothko
Organge and Yellow

Barnett Newman

Jackson Pollock

Arshile Gorky
The Liver is the Cock's Comb

Gorky was considered the bridge between the expatriated Surrealists in
the United States and the emerging American Abstract Expressionists.
Praised by Breton for his vision, history has judged him more
Surrealist than Abstract Expressionist.

Francis Bacon
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Bacon, an English painter, was one of the few older European artists admired
by the emerging postwar generation because he seemed to register the
horror of the war in a fundamental form of terror.
The biomorph is Surrealist, the psyche his own.

Jean Dubuffet
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Robert Rauschenberg

Jasper Johns
Zero Nine

Lee Bontecou