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The Surrealist Situation of the Object / The Situation of the Surrealist Object (Part 1/4)

*Lecture presented on 29 March 1935, at the Mánes Gallery in Prague and, later on, at the end of April in Zurich. This translation departs from the Czech translation of the original version delivered in Prague. In the French original, the lecture was published in André Breton, Position politique du surrealisme (Paris: Éditions du Sagittaire, 1935). Translated by David Vichnar.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Comrades,

I am greatly delighted to speak to you in a city outside France which yesterday was still unknown to me, but which of all the cities I had not visited, was nevertheless the least unfamiliar to me. Prague, adorned with her legendary charms, is truly one of those cities that electively pin down poetic thought, which is always more or less adrift in space.

Regardless of the various geographical, historical or economic considerations that this city and the customs of its inhabitants may evoke in me, when seen from afar, with that unique and dense bristling of her towers, Prague seems to me to be the magical capital of old Europe. By the fact that within herself, Prague preserves all the spells of the past for the imagination, it seems to me less difficult for me to make myself understood in this corner of the world than anywhere else, since if I am to speak to you on the subjects of poetry and surrealist art, I present to your judgment the very possibility of the present and past enchantment. “The artistic object,” as has been correctly observed, “is situated between the emotional and the rational realm. It is something spiritual which appears as material. When addressing senses and the imagination, art and poetry create deliberately a world of shadows, spectres and figments of phantasy, and therefore cannot be charged with ineptitude or incapability of creating anything but shapes without reality.”[1] It is my especial delight to introduce, under Prague’s skies, the world of new shadows known under the title of surrealism. I have to admit that it is not only the colour of Prague’s sky, which from afar seems to be more scintillating than many another, that makes this task of mine exceptionally easier: for many years now, I have also been fully aware of a perfect mental togetherness with people such as Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige, whose trust and friendship I treasure dearly. It is thanks to their care that all pertaining to the beginnings and further development of the surrealist movement, which they keep under close and continuous scrutiny, has been elucidated in Prague. Surrealism, most vigorously interpreted by Teige and endowed with the all-powerful lyrical impetus by Nezval, can today boast of the same development in Prague as in Paris. Therefore, first of all, I salute our friends and collaborators in Prague: Štyrský, Toyen, Biebl, Makovský, Honzl, Brouk, and Ježek, not to forget Šíma, who accompanied Paul Éluard and myself on our way to Prague. My heinous ignorance of your language forces me to follow the work of many of these friends by means of translation. I should like to seize the opportunity to hail the work of Toyen, Štyrský and Makovský, which presents a wholly original contribution and at which I could marvel immediately upon my arrival in Prague. Their work has given me a new reason to hope that surrealism, today more than ever, is on its way toward discoveries, on its way of truth.

I shall like to emphasise that the activity of all whose names I have just provided is in no way distinct from mine, and that by virtue of the ever-closer ties connecting us together, just as they connect us to very mobile groups of poets and artists that have established or are in the process of establishing themselves in every country, we will be able to set in motion a truly concentrated movement. This needs to be accomplished if we wish surrealism to speak internationally some time soon, as the ruler of an area proper to it, where even those complaining that surrealism is nothing but symptom of the current momentous social evil, are now willing to admit that nothing of at least some significance can be pitted against it.

In your country, texts have been published that were written with such wonderful understanding and precise documentation as “The World of Smells” by Karel Teige, or his studies on Baudelaire, Lautréamont and Apollinaire, there have also been Czech translations of two of my works, Nadja and Vases communicants; our friends have organised, in Prague and other cities, a few discussions and conflicting lectures, a proceedings from the debates to which surrealism has recently given rise has been published under the title Surrealism in Discussion,[2] a few visual-arts and sculpture exhibitions have taken place, forthcoming is the periodical publication of Surrealism review, edited by Vítězslav Nezval. Accepting the invitation of the “Mánes” artistic group, I therefore believed myself fortunate enough to be able to talk to an informed audience. I think I can be exempt from the task of having to adumbrate for you the history of the surrealist movement since 1920 to the present. Thus, I shall address immediately my topic at hand.

I shall remind you that in a lecture delivered ten months ago in Brussels (in June 1934), I briefly mentioned that a fundamental crisis in the object was taking place in the wake of surrealism. What I said then was as follows,

It is at the object that the open and increasingly far-seeing eyes of surrealism have recently been directed. Only a very careful examination 
of the many current surrealist reflections, to which this object has publicly given rise (the dreamy object, the symbolically disposed object, 
the real and the virtual object, the moveable and mute object, the phantom object, the found object, etc.), allow us to take full stock of the 
current surrealist attempts. It is absolutely essential to focus our attention on this point…

We shall see that, over the past ten months, this conclusion has lost none of its relevance. A few days ago, we have concurred that a highly suggestive proposal presented by Man Ray, deserves careful study. Before dealing with this proposal, I have to pinpoint that the greatest danger surrounding surrealism today consists in how, thanks to the world-wide, precipitate and sudden spread of surrealism—against our will, the name has caught on much faster than the idea—more and less successful products of all sorts are endeavouring to self-apply this label: thus, works of “abstractivist tendencies” in Holland, Switzerland and most recently in England, have been trying to form ambiguous neighbourly relations with surrealist works, so it could come to pass that an unnamed Mr Cocteau could infiltrate surrealist exhibitions in America and surrealist publications in Japan. In order to avoid similar misunderstandings, or to forestall any repetition of such coarse misuse, it is indispensably and urgently necessary to demarcate a line between what is surrealist by its essence, and what wants to pose as surrealist, for advertising or other reasons. It would be ideal if every authentically surrealist thing could be recognised by an external marker: Man Ray has thought of providing all of them with a seal or a stamp: just as a viewer can read on the cinema screen the inscription, “Film by Paramount” (without in this case assuming the unsatisfactory guarantee, quality-wise, of what follows), an uninitiated reader or audience member could find, added to a poem, book, painting, statue, building, an inimitable, indelible tag saying: “This is a surrealist object.” I repeat I immediately found this idea very ingenious and feasible; if in Man Ray’s formulation, it is not devoid of subtle humour, this does not make it the less effective. Supposing it can be put to effect correctly, it is hard to believe judgment regarding whether to accord any given work this label would be, even to a negligible degree, arbitrary. The best way toward agreement seems to me to be to determine the exact situation of the surrealist object. It goes without saying that this situation is correlative to another; it is correlative to the surrealist situation of the object. Only once we have understood the way surrealism introduces the object as such—this table, the photograph in that man’s pocket, the tree in the moment of getting hit by lightning, the aurora, or (if we are to venture into the realm of the impossible) the flying lion—can we raise the question of how to define the place to be taken up by the surrealist object in order for this classification to be justified.

[1] Breton is here quoting from Charles Bénard’s “Introduction” to his two-volume version of G.W.F. Hegel’s Poétique, an extract from the Aesthetics, supplemented by texts from the German romantics such as Schiller, Goethe and Jean-Paul Richter.

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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