Modernism, Surrealism, and the Political Imaginary

Surrealism had the longest tenure of any avant-garde movement, and its members were arguably the most “political.”1 It emerged on the heels of World War I, when André Breton founded his first journal, Literature, and brought together a number of figures who had mostly come to know each other during the war years. They included Louis Aragon, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Francis Picabia, Pablo Picasso, Phillippe Soupault, Yves Tanguey, and Tristan Tzara. Some were “absolute” surrealists and others were merely associated with the movement, which lasted into the 1950s. The intervening years saw a shift from the original concern with the purely intuitive to a somewhat more rational—and perhaps more political—standpoint. But there were always journals intent on providing philosophical justification for surrealist artistic experiments, including La Revolution surrealiste and Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution. These were also edited by Breton. His novel Nadja (1928) is in this regard far less important than his countless essays, speeches, and manifestos.

Other writers offered important pronouncements and views about the character, interests, and politics of surrealism. Nevertheless, André Breton was its leading light, and he offered what might be termed the master narrative of the movement.2

No other modernist trend had a theorist as intellectually sophisticated or an organizer quite as talented as Breton. No other was [as] international in its reach and as total in its confrontation with reality. No other [fused] psychoanalysis and proletarian revolution. No other was so blatant in its embrace of free association and “automatic writing.” No other would so use the audience to complete the work of art. There was no looking back to the past, as with the expressionists, and little of the macho rhetoric of the futurists. Surrealists prized individualism and rebellion—and no other movement would prove so commercially successful in promoting its luminaries. The surrealists wanted to change the world, and they did. At the same time, however, the world changed them. The question is whether their aesthetic outlook and cultural production were decisive in shaping their political worldview—or whether, beyond the inflated philosophical claims and ongoing esoteric qualifications, the connection between them is more indirect and elusive.


Surrealism was fueled by a romantic impulse. It emphasized the new against the dictates of tradition, the intensity of lived experience against passive contemplation, subjectivity against the consensually real, and the imagination against the instrumentally rational. Solidarity was understood as an inner bond with the oppressed. Surrealism took shape around 1924. Its influences reach back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, and Guillaume Apollinaire.3 Ultimately, however, the surrealist enterprise rests on one basic claim: “To each according to his desire!” Intent on heightening human powers and making each person cognizant of his or her repressed feelings, the surrealists appropriated cubism and Dada to explode the established habits and perceptions of everyday life. But the latter was surely closer to their heart. Cubism was already established when surrealism was born, and that made it a target. Breton surely smiled at Picabia’s 1920 Dadaist “portrait” of Cezanne as a montage of a stuffed monkey. The surrealists also had no interest in reducing reality to its elemental geometric forms. But they did employ an invention of Picasso and Braque’s: the collage composed from different shards of reality. The cubist collage elicited a reconstruction of the canvas—and the meaning of the work. The arbitrarily constructed character of everyday life was thereby rendered manifest. The associative moment within the cubist collage ultimately led the surrealists to look beyond the real—not simply “above” it, as the word sur literally implies. They were concerned with deepening our understanding of what comprises reality. Breton called for the “great refusal” of what is taken for existence in order to evoke and cultivate the dream element within the experience of everyday life. In jokes, slips of the tongue, and unpremeditated actions surrealists insisted that hopes for liberation were protected from the “reality principle.” Even if the surrealists ultimately rejected the clinical aspect of psychoanalysis, it only makes sense that they should have been led to Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams (1899).

But first there was Dada. Committed to anti-art, addicted to the outrageous and the satirical, Dada began at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Switzerland was neutral during World War I, and Zurich’s geographic proximity to all the European combatants made it a center for dissidents and resisters of all sorts. Lenin lived across the street from the Cabaret Voltaire, where after learning of the capitulation to the war fever by international social democracy, he suffered a near breakdown and then began a close study of Hegel.4 Famous writers preaching pacifism like Hermann Hesse, Romain Rolland, and Stefan Zweig were in Zurich as well. But they were already established […]. The young and unknown artists with a radical temperament were brought together by Hugo Ball, who invented the “sound poem,” and Emmy Hennings. These [new] artists were of different nationalities: Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco came from Romania, Richard Huelsenbeck from Germany, Jean Arp from Alsace—and there were many more. As Lenin and his few comrades ruminated on revolution, and pacifists sought to dampen chauvinist attitudes, the young rebels blended these two positions with bohemian contempt for the civilization that had produced the conflict.

Dada was a meaningless word supposedly picked arbitrarily from a children’s dictionary either by Tzara, Arp, or Ball.5 The term was meant to reflect the meaninglessness of language and rationality in a world that had become meaningless—and that needed this meaninglessness thrown in its face. The Dadaists complied. Its founders had as little interest in psychoanalysis as they did in historical materialism or anything systematic. They instead looked for inspiration to poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine—whose relationship was satirized in Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal (1918)—and Apollinaire, who sought a language of immediacy devoid of syntax, punctuation, adjectives, or embellishment. But what made the Dadaists famous was a kind of performance aesthetic that poured scorn on established aesthetic conventions as well as the audience. Entering such a performance might involve walking through a huge urinal only to find a Dadaist “poet” declaiming poetry composed of nonsense words that were arbitrarily strung together, while another poet talked loudly over him. Unscripted Dadaist “dance” might follow in concert with improvised Dadaist “music” that was little more than noise or the thumping of a drum. All of this constituted a new kind of performance art predicated on shock and immediacy—and spiced with what Tristan Tzara termed “Dadaist disgust” for the established order of life and art.

Dada mirrored a world gone mad with its own madness: its pranks, jokes, irony, playful barbarism, rejection of society, celebratory individualism, and expansion of the material and methods employed by the visual arts all served its protest (and served to define the political limits of that protest). The aesthetic violence directed by Dada against art was meant to yield anti-art. Defined by what it opposed, indeed, anti-art was soon bound for the museum. Certain members of the movement were explicitly political from the beginning, such as George Grosz and John Heartfield. [Few] of the Dadaists, however, were ever connected with pacifist or even revolutionary elements of the international labor movement.6 [Few] of them were particularly concerned with the important antiwar gatherings that took place at Zimmerwald and Kienthal in 1915–16, let alone the postwar proletarian rebellions that rocked Europe in the aftermath of World War I.7 Dada was uninterested in organized political engagement. Its resistance was bohemian in style, vague in purpose, and without any connection to the masses. Indignation rather than resistance best defines the sensibility of the Dadaist, which emerged just as trench warfare was turning men into material and individual battles were costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Civilization thus did appear at an end—and Dada celebrated its passing. Nevertheless, for better or worse, it was ultimately “civilization” that lived and Dada that died.

Surrealism was Dada’s heir. The new movement was more conscious of its aesthetic influences and more explicit in its political posture. The basic idea of surrealism is simple enough, and that defines its power. Everyday life or the habitual reality we experience is, according to Breton, a barrier to the expression of those manifold and unspoken desires encoded in dreams. Art should bridge the antithetical relation between reality and the dream—fuse them in the name of a new and superior reality, or the “surreal.” What Walter Benjamin termed the “poverty of the interior” becomes the target of surrealism and its attempt to transform everyday life.8 Evoking the consciousness of that poverty—or, to use another famous phrase from Benjamin, winning “the energies of intoxication for the revolution”—thus becomes the purpose of the surrealist enterprise. 9

Creating the associative conditions for the exercise of the imagination—or, better, producing a kind of twilight or daydream—was seen as breaking down the wall between artist and audience. The audience becomes an integral part of the artwork. Montage [is] crucial in destroying the barrier between the normal and the abnormal. The juxtaposition of dissimilar objects in [, say,] the Lobster Telephone (1936) of Dalí [does not] provide a work whose meaning can be objectively determined by individual members of the audience. There is, in short, no “message.” Shock may inspire viewers, but the signification each gives to the montage will differ. Insofar as this multiplication of significations is achieved, each member of the audience will complete the artwork in his or her own way. This purpose underpins automatic writing. Many might collaborate on a surrealist novel: one writer stays up all night, exists in the twilight, and lets the unconscious dictate his thoughts, while the next writer prepares to take up the pen once his friend collapses from exhaustion. The point is to subvert the idea that writing (or art) is reserved for the “writer” or the “artist.” With automatic writing, indeed, anyone can write and everyone is an artist. Syntax, punctuation, and coherence—let alone narrative structure—are unnecessary. “In this regard, the will to open the floodgates doubtless will remain the generative idea of surrealism.”10

The artist liberates the unconscious, creates the proper ambience, and thereby provides a free association of thoughts whose connection is determined by the reader in variable fashion from one moment to another.11 Coincidence, chance, and the arbitrary thus become enduring themes of surrealist art and literature. Things will no longer be what they seem. Cartoons like Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) can make mushrooms dance. Hashish, heroin, and opium can aid the creative process. Everything must be rendered transient and the objects of everyday life open to interpretation and reinterpretation. Breton made this clear when he wrote that “the earth, draped in its verdant cloak [,] makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.”12 Only from the perspective of “elsewhere” can the surrealist overthrow the established habits and perceptions of everyday life.13 And such a task demands a concern with the “alienation of sensation,” an obsession with “objective chance,” and the use of “black humor.”14 Aesthetically expressing these concerns [fosters] a new solidarity between the artist and the audience, in which, following Lautreamont, “poetry must be made by all, not by one.” Whether any of this has anything to do with dialectics, however, is another matter—one that deserves scrutiny.
Interlude—The Myth of the Surrealist Dialectic

None of the surrealists, ultimately, had anything more than cursory knowledge of the dialectical tradition. Though Breton first published Lenin’s “Philosophical Notebooks,” which highlighted the importance of Hegel for Marxism, Hegel had no influence on French intellectual and cultural life prior to World War I. Genuine intellectual interest in Hegel, indeed, began only during the 1930s when Alexandre Kojève—Wassily Kandinsky’s cousin—gave his legendary lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (1807).15 The surrealists gained their knowledge about dialectics neither from the classroom nor from the political struggle; they learned about it in cafes. Unlike Hegel and Marx, the surrealists never considered freedom as the insight into necessity, and they had no use for […] basic dialectical categories like mediation and determination. Breton was content to insist on the mix, or twilight, that exists between the conscious and the unconscious, the real and the imaginative, the aesthetic and the political. Thus he wrote,

Everything leads to the belief that there exists a certain point of mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are not perceived as contradictions. It would be vain to attribute to surrealism any other motive than the hope of determining this point. It is clear, moreover[,] that it would be absurd to ascribe to surrealism either a purely destructive or a purely constructive character—the point at issue being precisely this: that construction and destruction can no longer be brandished against each other.16

Surrealism called for total revolution. It highlighted the blending of the real and the surreal. Critical consciousness requires something more, however, than the evocation of the surrealist twilight or insight into “the crisis of the object.” The dialectical method is not intent on making reality more arbitrary in its associative possibilities, but of (thematically) rendering it more transparent and comprehensible. For Hegel and Marx, indeed, it was a matter of determining how the object was constituted in its historical specificity and how its workings might be rendered consensually visible.17 Admittedly, Breton wished to move beyond philosophy and stated openly that “at the point where [the surrealists] found it, the dialectical method in its Hegelian form was inapplicable.”18 But he elided the question of whether surrealism and the dialectical tradition began with mutually exclusive assumptions. He simply insisted that surrealism was the application of dialectical materialism to art.

Most critics took him at his word. Herbert Read, among the most famous English art critics of the twentieth century, saw surrealism as dialectically bridging the gap between aesthetic radicalism and a socialist outlook. A staunch defender of modernism and an anarchist who was later knighted, he tried to fit surrealism into a conventional rationalist tradition with which it had nothing in common. Breton and his friends were always explicit in their rejection of reason in any guise related to systems or methodological coherence.19 Read’s identification of reality-dream[-] and “supra-reality” with the famous thesis-antithesis-synthesis model offered by Hegel and Marx is also mechanical and misleading.20 The same holds for using the “romantic principle,” the primacy of imagination, as a form of agency. English philosophers bred in the analytic and empiricist traditions have always had a difficult time with Hegel and the idealist interpretation of Marx. Neither Walter Benjamin nor T. W. Adorno, however, had any such excuse. Both were deeply committed to the modernist enterprise, and they sought to justify surrealism in the same terms that they used to justify their own work.

Benjamin, in his 1929 “Surrealism” essay, praised Breton and his friends for providing the “dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable and the impenetrable as the everyday.” Benjamin was struck by the way surrealist novels fastened onto seemingly insignificant objects and, through montage, created an overarching “atmosphere” that generated a reinvigorated sense of everyday life. […]He later employed similar techniques in his vast and unfinished Arcades Project (1927–40) that sought to illuminate modernity by juxtaposing cited texts without authorial comment. Benjamin praised the surrealists for generating the kind of “intoxication” that might fuel revolutionary politics. Adorno was more skeptical. He shrewdly noted that surrealist constructions are merely analogous to dreams, and that people do not dream the way surrealists seem to think they do. What Adorno rightfully admired was how surrealism suspends conventional logic and “rules of the game of empirical evidence” in favor of a shattering—a regrouping and dissolution of objects. He was content to note that surrealist images merely express the “dialectic of subjective freedom in a situation of objective un-freedom.”21

But this has nothing to do with political practice. Breton would surely have condemned such a metaphysical view of resistance. He wanted the total revolution and he wanted politics too. Neither Hegel nor Marx, however, believed that “existence is elsewhere” or that the struggle for liberation could be furthered by some indeterminate juxtaposition of dream and reality. They knew that the denial of necessity is the denial of politics—and, thus, of the dialectic.


The Political Imaginary

Expressionism and Dada made way for the New Sobriety around 1921 in Germany. Utopianism and pathos, wild rebellion and satirical lunacy, made way for a colder and more reflective outlook. Most point to the devastating impact of World War I, the improved economic situation in the aftermath of terrible inflation, and the calm that followed the failure of extremist uprisings. But France suffered as much, if not more, than any other nation from the Great War: the bloodiest battles were fought on its territory, one in four families suffered a death at the front, and victory was as costly as defeat. French economic life was also devastated by the war, and victory did little for the reputation of the Third Republic. Postwar protests were relatively tame in France, but like Germany, it witnessed the Communist Party emerge as a significant minority within its labor movement. Both countries experienced an economic recovery around 1924, seeming stability, and the return of the working class to its social democratic roots, or what Leon Blum termed “the old house.” A movement like the New Sobriety should have taken over in France. But French bohemian and anarchist traditions changed the equation. Surrealism, instead, proved triumphant.

Imperial Berlin was not Paris; Germany lacked a bohemian tradition that in France was idealized in Henri Murger’s Scenes of Bohemian Life (1847)—which served as the basis for Giaccomo Puccini’s La Bohème (1896)—and extended over Georges Sand and Baudelaire to Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Apollinaire. Anarchism also had an importance in France that it lacked in Germany, whose socialist movement was the organizational model for Europe. The expulsion of a tiny, rambunctious minority known as “The Youth” (Die Jugend) from the German Social Democratic Party in 1882 deprived anarchism of any further political influence. With its emphasis on nonparticipation in parliamentary politics, by contrast, anarchist syndicalism had great power in the French labor unions, and many radicals were sympathetic to individual acts of terror, or what was known as “the propaganda of the deed.” The anarchist tradition in France stretched back beyond the Paris Commune of 1871 to Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals in 1796. Bohemianism and anarchism set the stage for surrealism and its overarching contestation of reality.

“Surrealism,” wrote Breton, “asserts our absolute non-conformism so clearly that there can be no question of claiming it as a witness when the world comes up for trial.”22 The ultimate expression of nonconformism, of course, is the gratuitous act. Breton made use of the idea to épater le bourgeois with his notorious claims that “the perfect surrealist act would be to go into a crowd and start shooting” and that his ultimate desire was to “blow up” the Arc de Triomphe “after burying it in a mountain of manure.” Bohemian radicalism fueled the surrealist attempt to pit the pleasure principle against the reality principle. French anarchism highlighted the radical empowerment of the proletariat through unions and the general strike; it sought to abolish the state and break society’s longstanding reactionary attachments to nationalism, religion, and militarism. Surrealism blended these two currents in a new theory of total revolution.

Breton and his friends openly attacked the rising chauvinism of the French Right in their “Open Letter to Paul Claudel” in 1925 and staged a mock trial for Maurice Barres, a founder of the protofascist LAction francaise and a famous writer. There is no reason to doubt that Breton joined the Communist Party in 1927 [in a quixotic and romantic attempt] to support the fading “Workers’ Opposition” that stood for proletarian democracy and artistic freedom during the radical decline in Trotsky’s influence and Stalin’s tightening of the reins of power in the Soviet Union. Breton, along with a minority of his surrealist friends such as Benjamin Peret and Gerard Rosenthal, remained not merely subversive of bourgeois culture but also of all attempts to impose a proletarian art.23 Identification with the outsider and the heroic underdog obviously played a role in all of this. Trotsky remained the surrealists’ political muse.24 Breton endorsed virtually all of his political choices: his pluralistic position on art, his call for a “united front” in the 1920s, his identification with the strikes that greeted the Popular Front of 1936 and opposition to its “continuation of politics as usual,” his support for the anticommunist Unified Marxist Workers Party (POUM) and the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War,25 his contempt for the Moscow Trials,26 his view of the Soviet Union as a “degenerate workers’ state,” his loyalty to the original vision of 1917, and his commitment to international revolution.27

These are positions on which it is possible to agree or disagree. None of them, however, has anything intrinsically to do with surrealism. Supporters of Trotsky came with the most diverse aesthetic and political views. Many of the original surrealists like Aragon, Eluard, and Tzara (it is worth noting) ultimately renounced their bohemian past and became dogmatic adherents of the Communist Party. But there is a way in which the surrealists were always uneasy about their connection to political organizations, and the organizations were also uneasy about them. Aside from those who were abject in their surrender, in fact, there is a general truth to what Sartre said of Picasso with respect to his association with the Communist Party in the 1930s: “The party can neither swallow him down nor vomit him up.” The Comintern understood the public value of famous artists like Picasso, who during the 1930s and ’40s tempered the more radical surrealist use of montage and old ideas about the unconscious and dreams in works like Guernica (1939). Indeed, the title serves as an avenue into the painting and sets the context for the feelings it evokes.28

Surrealism was aesthetically innovative, intellectually daring, and scandalous. But there is nothing intrinsically revolutionary or even political about any of this. Acting as the guilty conscience of society can be achieved through the naturalism of Emile Zola, Upton Sinclair, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn just as easily—and perhaps more easily—than through surrealism.  Breton was candid in noting that surrealism explores “the other side of the real.” His own collages, montages, and “poem objects” highlight the “uninterrupted becoming of any object.” They don’t illuminate real conflicts of ideological and material interest between competing social and political forces. Surrealism interrogates the latent content of everyday life, questions the “givenness” of things, and expresses the disorientation that modernity produced in the aftermath of World War I. Dalí employed a host of innovative techniques like montage for just this reason in his most famous paintings as well as in the dream sequences he composed for Alfred Hitchcock in his commercial film Spellbound (1945).29

None of this had anything to do with politics. Surrealism generated a sense of fun and wonder in the audience. Its artists still evoke a sense of discomfort with reality and the feeling that things can be different. Surrealism may thus foster a psychological or subterranean desire for change. All this, however, requires no further justification. Neither a dialectical foundation nor a revolutionary politics is necessary in order to exercise the imagination. Surrealist art offers its own reward.


Beyond Europe

Do you wish to see with your own eye, the hidden springs of the social revolution? Look at the frescoes of Rivera. Do you wish to know what revolutionary art is like? Look at the frescoes of Rivera.
—Leon Trotsky

Surrealism is still associated with “the great refusal.” Herbert Marcuse and other cultural radicals of the 1960s embraced the term, originally coined by Breton: it sealed the identification of nonconformism with politics. Through the lens of the cult-like popularity of the situationists,30 whose idea of politics rested on disrupting and reinventing the “spectacle” of everyday life, the surrealists only gained further revolutionary credence. Forgotten were other artistic groups, whose members often overlapped with the surrealists in the bohemian cafés of Paris during the 1920s, and who understood anarchism and the revolutionary political character of their art very differently. That is especially the case with Latin American painters of the 1920s [who, while] deeply affected by indigenous sources like Jorge Posada, were also influenced by Cezanne and his (politically quiescent) cubist followers. The most politically important of them was Diego Rivera. But his wife, Frieda Kahlo, painted striking portraits and scenes of everyday life. David Alfara Siqueiros produced ominous propaganda paintings and left a host of unfinished murals. There was also José Clemente Orozco, whose singular works evidence not only a frustrated Christian vision of redemption but also a deep attachment to the fight of the oppressed and the experience of oppression in Mexico.

These artists, too, had only the most superficial knowledge of the political conflicts raging in the Communist International during the interwar period, never mind the theories of Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky.31 Most drifted in and out of the Communist Party, and Siqueiros even played a prominent role in a plot to assassinate Trotsky. Others like Kahlo and Rivera, who became friendly with Breton, associated themselves with the bitter rival of Stalin who would become exiled in Mexico. Neither painter was obsessed with immediacy or the shocking effect for its own sake, as in the case of, say, the famous cutting of the eye in the film The Andalusian Dog (1929) by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dalí. Conscious of themselves as “revolutionary artists” (in the dual meaning of the term) and banding together during the heroic years of the Russian Revolution, Rivera and his comrades were adamant in their rejection of both abstraction as an end unto itself—the pathos so often associated with expressionism—and any doctrinaire form of socialist realism. They expressed their politics and their dreams in their work (often using surrealist techniques), even as they embodied unique mixtures of the personal and the political in a painterly anticipation of what would become known as “magic realism.” This was especially the case with Kahlo, but also with Rivera, who introduced some of “the most important development in murals since the Renaissance.”32

Reinventing the fresco and evidencing a genuine desire to communicate the struggle of the exploited and disenfranchised, Rivera wished to “paint the revolution” on the walls of world capitals. He showed the constraints, limits, and explosive possibilities of change in the 124 panels decorating the Education Building and the National Palace in Mexico City, as well as those in the Agricultural School at Chiapingo.33 The Earth Oppressed (1925), Night of the Rich (1926), and Night of the Poor (1926) were anything but beautiful, and critics coined a new word, feismo (uglyism), to describe them.34 Works like these, precisely because they do not translate into book illustrations or wall posters, evidence the singularity of painting for a new age. They are not painted for the singular buyer or intended for the museum or private collection. They are painted so that anyone can see them, and insofar as they exist on public walls or public buildings, they alter the experience of everyday life. They are not self-referential in their revolutionary aspirations, but portray a lived collective experience through an individual vision. With his wonderful murals, Rivera brings about an encounter with history, fosters an anti-imperialist sensibility, and—perhaps above all—builds a sense of radical political tradition.

Rivera’s dreams always enter the story and fashion the vision. But the associations are never free; they always have an objective referent: the Paris Commune, the First International, or the Mexican struggles of peasant revolutionaries and the betrayal of their hopes. Rivera’s magnificent historico-allegorical mural of Mexican history that began with Before the Conquest soon enough resulted in “not a painting but a world on a wall [that] became a treasure mine of iconography . . . [and that] an archaeologist of the future could use to lean more of Mexico, actual and legendary, than any other single monument in history would reveal of any other civilization.”35 In a somewhat more modest vein Rivera’s Communist Unity Panel (1933)—destroyed at the behest of the buyers after it was commissioned to adorn Radio City Music Hall in New York—creates an objective referent for onlookers by depicting the great political figures of an international movement, including “Stalin the Executioner.” Rivera and his comrades were concerned with the concrete hopes that still fuel the struggle of the exploited and the disenfranchised. Their artistry carries forward not only the dialectical legacy of Hegel and Marx but the [most] genuinely political legacy of modernism as well.



1. Note the excellent survey by Mary Ann Caws, Surrealism (London: Phaidon, 2010); and the standard work by Maurice Nadeau, A History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

2. André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Lane and Helen Seaver (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), and What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont (New York: Pathfinder, 1978).

3. Note the listing of authors according to the criterion of “Read . . . Don’t Read” in André Breton, “The First Dalí Exhibition,” in What Is Surrealism? 46.

4. Lenin [highlighted the primacy of consciousness in revolutionary theory and thereby legitimated] carrying through the proletarian revolution in Russia under conditions of economic underdevelopment with his [famous] claim that “intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism.” Lenin, “Philosophical Notebooks,” in Collected Works (Moscow: International Publishers, 1961), 38:276.

5. William S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art (New York: Abrams, 1968), 64.

6. “My ‘politics’ is only concerned with the ‘spiritual’ [Geistigen] and, in Germany, it’s useless to upset oneself.” Hugo Ball, Briefe, 1911–1927 (Zurich: Bensinger Verlag, 1957), 41.

7. Julius Braunthal, History of the International (New York: Praeger, 1967) 2:36ff.

8. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism,” in Reflections: Aphorisms, Essays, and Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz and trans. E. Jephcott (New York: Harcourt, 1978). Also note the fine discussion by Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 126ff.

9. “The immoderation of the Surrealists attracted [Benjamin] more profoundly than the studied pretentiousness of literary Expressionism, in which he discerned elements of insincerity and bluff. . . . Benjamin was not an ecstatic, but the ecstasies of revolutionary utopias and the surrealistic immersion in the unconscious were to him, so to speak, keys for the opening of his own world for which he was seeking altogether different, strict, and disciplined forms of expression.” Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1981), 135.

10. Breton, “The Automatic Message,” in What Is Surrealism? 101.

11. “An appeal to automatism in all its forms is our only chance of resolving, outside the economic plane, all the antinomies which, since they existed before our present social regime was formed, are not likely to disappear with it. . . . [These] are the contradictions of being awake and sleeping (of reality and dream), of reason and madness, of objectivity and subjectivity, of perception and representation, of past and future, of the collective sense and individual love; even of life and death.” Breton, “Limits Not Frontiers of Surrealism,” in What Is Surrealism? 155.

12. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, 47.

13. For some interesting reflections, see Herbert Marcuse, “Letters to the Chicago Surrealists,” in Arsenal 4 (1989): 31–47.

14. Breton, “Interview with ‘View’ Magazine,” in What Is Surrealism? 203–4.

15. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the “Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. Allan Bloom and trans. James H. Nichols Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

16. Breton, “What Is Surrealism?” in What Is Surrealism? 129.

17. Stephen Eric Bronner, “Sketching the Lineage: The Critical Method and the Idealist Tradition,” in Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 16ff, 21ff.

18. Breton, “What Is Surrealism?” 130; italics added.

19. Surrealism in “its very definition holds that it must escape, in its written manifestation, or any others, from all control exercised by reason.” Ibid., 128.

20. Herbert Read, “Surrealism and the Romantic Principle,” in The Philosophy of Modern Art (New York: Meridian Books, 1955), 110ff.

21. Theodor W. Adorno, “Looking Back on Surrealism” in Notes to Literature, 2 vols., trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 88.

22. Breton, “What Is Surrealism?” in What Is Surrealism? 125.

23. Breton, “On Proletarian Literature,” in What Is Surrealism? 89ff.

24. See Breton’s beautiful “Visit with Leon Trotsky” in What Is Surrealism? 173ff.

25. Ibid., 175ff.

26. Breton, “Declaration on the Second Moscow Trial,” in What Is Surrealism? 168ff.

27. Note Breton’s “Speech to Young Haitian Poets,” which inflamed the intellectuals of that impoverished country in 1945 and sparked a successful uprising against a dictatorial regime. What Is Surrealism? 258ff.

28. “But the painting quickly became legendary and has remained legendary. It is the most famous painting of the twentieth century. It is thought of as a continuous protest against the brutality of fascism in particular and modern war in general. How true is this? How much applies to the actual painting and how much is the result of what happened after it was painted?” John Berger, Success and Failure of Picasso (Penguin: Baltimore, 1965), 165ff.

29. Sara Cochran, “Spellbound,” in Dalí and Film, ed. Matthew Gale (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 174ff.

30. Fixing a call for radical forms of worker democracy with a critique of “total consumption” and the prefabrication of experience through the “spectacle” of commodity culture, the situationists were a blend of vanguard and avant-garde who sought to bring the revolution into everyday life by staging what might be termed counterspectacles and deconstructing the givenness of our perceptions. Their most famous representative, who became something of a cult figure [in the 1960s], was Guy DeBord. See his book The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Fredy Perlman and John Supak (Chicago: Black and Red, 1983).

31. “None of the painters ever took the trouble to study the writings of Marx and Lenin whose names on occasion they evoked. Even Modigliani, whose brother was an outstanding leader of the Italian Socialists, knew nothing of the literature of Marxism. Mastering political and economic treatises was not their métier. All that Diego [Rivera] ever knew of Marx’s writings or of Lenin’s, as I had ample occasion to verify, was a little handful of commonplace slogans which had attained wide currency.” Bertram D. Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (New York: Stein and Day, 1969), 419.

32. Ibid., 142.

33. Luis Martin Luzano and Juan Coronel Rivera, Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals (New York: Taschen, 2008).

34. Ibid., 203.

35. Ibid., 263.


Stephen Eric Bronner is Distinguished Professor (PII) of Political Science at Rutgers University and the Senior Editor of Logos. This article is a chapter from his forthcoming Modernism at the Barricades that will appear with Columbia University in the spring of 2012.



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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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