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

*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.

I have talked at too great a length of the conditions into whose framework the question of the poem is put historically and gradually, and of the reasons enabling us to claim that surrealism is the only valid solution to this question, for me to now be able to devote as much time in this lecture to the question of the fine arts. A substantial portion of the previous meditations could, after all, be used in this matter equally well. As long as the surrealist visual artist has the privilege of reaching the precision of certain shapes of an object really visible, making it thus necessary to take stock of their direct impact onto the material world, it is nonetheless necessary for me first of all to specify a few things and most importantly to judge several impetuses regarding the alleged idealism to whose pitfalls my opinion reportedly falls prey. In so doing I shall also attempt a brief overview of the surrealist visual method.

The basic critique to which Marx and Engels subjected the materialism of the 18th century is well-known: 1) the old materialist worldview was “mechanical”; 2) it was metaphysical (since their philosophy had an anti-dialectic bent); 3) it did not exclude idealism: idealism dwelt here “above”, in the sphere of social sciences (lack of comprehension of historical materialism). It is nonetheless understood that in all other aspects, Marx and Engels’s agreement with the old materialists is undeniable.[1]

It is not difficult to point out, within the area peculiar to surrealism, the “limits” which demarcate not only its means of expression, but even the thinking of realist writers and artists; to substantiate the historical necessity commanding surrealism to cancel these limits and prove that following this, there can no longer be any discrepancy between old realism and surrealism, as concerns the admission of the existence of reality and the emphasis on its omnipotence. As you will see, contrary to what certain detractors of surrealism may espouse, it can easily be proven that of all specifically intellectual movements so far, surrealism is the only one armed against all the appetites of idealistic imagination; the only one pondering the question of how to settle its debts with “fideism.”[2]

If two intellectual movements as different as realism and surrealism can be shown as parallel and advancing, although only through their negative viewpoints, toward a common goal, then quite clearly, arguments striving to pit the two against each other and proclaim them mutually irresolvable, must fall apart.

In the modern times, painting until recently concerned itself almost exclusively with expressing external relations that last between the “self” and the perception of the external world. The expression of this relation, it turned out, became less and less suitable and brought about more and more disappointment, the more it was forced, running around in vicious circles, to abjure the widening of human consciousness and deepening of the “perception-consciousness” configuration. This system, as it offered itself to us, was a closed one, and with the most interesting possibilities of the artist’s reaction having long been exhausted, all that remained was the eccentric care for deifying the external object, which marks the works of so many of the so-called “realist” painters. Photography, mechanising to the extreme the visual mode of representation, had to inflict on it the mortal blow. Instead of undertaking the forlorn battle with photography, painting had to retreat, hiding behind the necessity of expressing the visual perception of the inner world. It needs to be pointed out that painting was thereby forced to occupy the wasteland which had hitherto been lying barren. One cannot emphasise enough that this exile was the only refuge left for painting. One needs to find out what promises this wasteland held and whether it has kept them.

Since the reflection of the external object has been captured mechanically and its immediate similitude was satisfactory and also indefinitely perfectible, painting found itself forced not to consider henceforth as its goal the representation of this object. (Film caused a similar revolution as regards sculpture.) The only area left for the artist to draw upon has thus remained the realm of pure mental ideas, a realm beyond real perception without overlapping with the sphere of hallucination. I have to admit nonetheless that the boundaries here are poorly demarcated and that every attempt at precise distinction becomes a bone of contention. Importantly, wherever we refer to mental ideals (outside the physical presence of the object), according to Freud we gain sensations in relation to processes developing in the most diverse and deepest layers of our mental apparatus.[3] The artistic search, which is necessarily increasingly systematic, aims to dissolve “Ich” in “Es,” hence trying to allow the pleasure principle dominate the reality principle. It strives gradually to release instinctive stimuli, to destroy the barrier towering above the civilised humanity, a barrier unknown to the primitive or the child. The impact of this point of departure cannot be measured socially, considering on the one hand the general disruption of sensibility—brought about by the broadening of a strong psychic charge with elements of the perception-consciousness system—and the impossibility of returning to a previous state, on the other.

Does this mean that the reality of the exterior world has become suspect for the artist, forced to look for the elements of their own specific action in inner perception? Such statement would imply intellectual poverty or extreme malevolence. It is after all clear enough that neither in the mental nor the physical realm can one speak of “spontaneous procreation.” The seemingly freest works of the surrealist painters cannot come into the world other than by means of their return to “visual remnants” coming from outward perception. Only in working on restructuring these disorganised elements can their demands be expressed in both their individuality and collectivity. The question whether these are painters of genius will be answered judging not so much by the always relative newness of the matter out of which their works are created, but rather by the more and less powerful initiative they take in drawing upon this matter.

And so all of the technical effort of surrealism has from the beginning always consisted in multiplying penetrations into the deepest mental layers. “I mean that it is necessary to be a seer, to make yourself a seer” – at stake has been to discover the means whereby to realise Rimbaud’s creed. First and foremost among these means, whose effectiveness has been fully proven over the past few years, is psychic automatism in all its forms (a whole universe offers itself to the painter, beginning with the painter simply giving in to graphic impulses and ending with the painter rendering faithfully the pictures of the dream) just as the paranoiac-critical activity defined by Salvador Dalí as follows:

A spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations. It is through a clearly paranoiac process, that it has been possible to obtain a double image, that is to say the representation of an object which, without the least figurative or anatomical modification, is at the same time the representation of another object that is absolutely different, one that also is free of any type of deformation or abnormality that would reveal some sort of artificial arrangement.Obtaining such a double image has been made possible thanks to the violence of paranoiac thought which has slyly and skillfully used the necessary quantity of pretexts, coincidences, etc., exploiting them so as to cause the appearance of the second image which, in this case, takes the place of the obsessive idea. The double image (for example, the image of a horse that is at the same time the image of a woman) can be prolonged, continuing the paranoiac process, the existence of another obsessive idea then being enough to cause a third image to appear (the image of a /ion, for example) and so on until a number of images, limited only by the degree of paranoiac capacity of thought, converge.    

It is also well known what a decisive role the “collages” and “frottages” of Max Ernst have played in the field of creating special optical regions. Here is Ernst himself speaking of them:

The research on the mechanism of inspiration that has been fervently pursued by the Surrealists has led to the discovery of certain procedures of a poetic nature that are capable of removing the elaboration of the plastic work from the domain of the so-called conscious faculties. These means (of bewitching reason, taste, and conscious will) have resulted in the rigorous application of the definition of Surrealism to drawing, to painting, and even in a certain degree to photography: these procedures, some of which, collage in particular, were employed before the advent of Surrealism, but were systematized and modified by Surrealism, have allowed certain artists to set down stupefying photographs of their thought and their desires on paper or canvas. Having been called upon to characterize the procedure which was the first to surprise us and put us on the track of several others, I am tempted to consider this procedure to be the exploitation of the fortuitous meeting of two distant realities on an inappropriate plane (this is said as a paraphrase and a generalization of Lautréamont’s famous phrase: “As beautiful as the fortuitous meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”, or, to use a shorter term, the cultivation of the effects of a systematic bewildering… This procedure, which has been used, modified, and systematized by the Surrealists, both painters and poets, as they went along, has led to one surprise after another since its discovery. Among the finest results that they have been called upon to extract from it, there must be mentioned the creation of what they have called Surrealist objects. A ready-made reality, whose naive purpose seems to have been fixed once and for all (an umbrella), finding itself suddenly in the presence of another very distant and no less absurd reality (a sewing machine), in a place where both must feel out of their element) (on an operating table) will, by this very fact, escape its naive purpose and lose its identity; because of the detour through what is relative, it will pass from absolute falseness to a new absolute that is true and poetic: the umbrella and the sewing machine will make love. The way this procedure works seems to me to be revealed in this very simple example. A complete transmutation followed by a pure act such as love will necessarily be produced every time that the given facts-the coupling of two realities which apparently cannot be coupled on a plane which apparently is not appropriate to them-render conditions favorable. I must also speak of another procedure that I have been led to use through the direct influence of the specific details concerning the mechanism of inspiration to be found in the Manifesto of Surrealism. In my personal evolution this procedure, which is based on nothing other than the intensification of the irritability of the faculties of the mind and which with regard to its technical side I would like to call frottage, has perhaps played a greater role than collage, from which in my opinion it really does not differ fundamentally. Taking as my point of departure a childhood memory in which a mahogany veneer panel opposite my bed had played the role of optical stimulus for a vision while I was half asleep, and finding myself in an inn at the seashore on a rainy day, I was struck by the way that my eyes were obsessively irritated by the ceiling, whose cracks had been accentuated by many cleanings. I then decided to question the symbolism of this obsession, and to aid my reflective and hallucinatory faculties, I got a series of designs out of the boards by randomly covering them with sheets of paper that I began rubbing with a lead pencil. I emphasize the fact that the designs thus obtained progressively lose–through a series of suggestions and transmutations that occur spontaneously, as happens with hypnagogic visions-the character of the material (wood) being questioned and take on the appearance of images of an unexpected preciseness and probably of such a nature as to reveal the prime cause of the obsession or to produce a simulacrum of this cause. My curiosity being aroused and struck with amazement, I came to use the same method to question al/ sorts of materials that happened to enter my visual field: leaves and their veins, the raveled edges of a piece of sacking, the knife-strokes of a “modern” painting, a thread unwound from a spool of thread, etc. I put together the first results obtained by this process of rubbing under the title Histoire naturelle, from Mer, and Pluie, to Eve, the only one that still exists. Later, by restricting my own active participation more and more so as to thereby enlarge the active part of the faculties of the mind, I came to be present like a spectator at the birth of pictures such as Femmes traversant une rivière en criant; Vision provoquée par les mots: Ie père immobile; Homme marchant sur l’eau, prenant par la main une jeune fille et en bousculant une autre; Vision provoquée par une ficelle que j’ai trouvée sur ma table; Vision provoquée par une feuille de buvard; etc.

The surrealist object, as defined by Salvador Dalí, is an “object capable of certain mechanical actions and movements, which is based on phantasms and notions that can be evoked by carrying out unconscious acts.” Such surrealist necessarily appears as a synthesis of this set of captivations and interests. Suffice it to recall that we have conceived of the idea of construing such objects once, as Dalí again has noted,

Giacometti constructed the first mobile and mute object, a suspended ball, an object that already posed all the essential terms of the preceding definition but kept within the means proper to sculpture. Objects with a symbolic function leave no room for formal preoccupations. Corresponding to clearly defined erotic fantasies and desires, they depend only on the amorous imagination of each person and are extra-plastic.

One must not forget that from another perspective, a considerable contribution to this has been made by Marcel Duchamp. As I have pointed out at length in Minotaur (no. 6), an immensely important role here is played by his “ready-mades” (factory-produced objects elevated to the rank of artworks by having been chosen by the artist), by which Duchamp has been almost exlusively expressing himself from 1914 onwards.

In September 1912, in L’introduction au discours sur le peu de réalité, I suggested that we create “some of those objects we approximate only in dreams and which evidently can be substantiated neither from the viewpoint of utility nor from the standpoint of décor.” I went on to argue:

Thus one night not long ago I got my hands on a rather curious book in my sleep, in an open air market out toward Saint-MaIo. The spine of this book was formed by a wooden gnome with an Assyrian-style white beard which came down to its feet. The statuette was of normal thickness and yet it in no way Interfered with turning the pages of the book, which were made of thick black wool. I hastened to acquire it, and when I woke up I regretted not finding it near me. It would be relatively easy to re-create it. I should like to put a few objects of this sort In circulation, for their fate seems to me to be eminently problematical and disturbing…

Who knows—perhaps I would thereby help to ruin those concrete trophies that are so detestable, and throw greater discredit on “reasonable” beings and objects. There would be cleverly constructed machines that would have no use; minutely detailed maps of immense cities would be drawn up, cities which, however many we are, we would feel forever incapable of founding, but which would at least classify present and future capitals. Absurd, highly perfected automata, which would do nothing the way anyone else does, would be responsible for giving us a correct Idea of action.

It is fairly easy to measure the distance we have traversed in this direction so far.


If one predetermines the goal one seeks to achieve (insofar as this goal falls within the realm of knowledge) and if one adjusts to this goal one’s rational means, this in itself constitutes sufficient refutation of any accusation of mysticism. I posit that mimetic art (depicting places, impressions and external objects) is obsolescent and that the task of today’s art is to present an increasingly accurate depiction of mental notions, this by concerted exercise of imagination and memory. (Clearly, the matter used by these mental notions can be inadvertently accumulated by external stimuli and perceptions.) The biggest success of surrealism so far has been to reconcile dialectically two notions which, for an adult person, are implacable opposites—perception and representation—and to build a bridge over the abyss that separated them. Surrealist painting and constructions of surrealist objects enable us already to organise objective tendencies around the subjective features of perceptions. These perceptions, by their very tendency to assert themselves as objective, are of an epochal character and revolutionary in the sense of calling for something to correspond to them in outer reality. It can be surmised that, by and large, this something will be.

[1] Lenin, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, chap. IV.7.

[2] “Fideism: a doctrine that replaces science with faith, or more broadly, accords faith a certain importance” (Lenin).

[3] Freud, “Ich und Es.”

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


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January 2018
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