Slicing Open the Eyeball: Rick Poynor on Surrealism and the Visual Unconscious
By Mark Dery
MD: In your Print magazine essay, “The Complex Bonds Between Design and Surrealism,” you touch on Surrealism’s extraordinary influence on Czechoslovakian art and design in the 1930s—“second only to its impact in France, the movement’s birthplace,” you claim. “To this day,” you write, “there is a formal Czech and Slovak Surrealist group of artists and theorists, who organize meetings, exhibitions, and publications. They have their own regular periodical, Analogon, with critical and scholarly articles relating to local and international Surrealism.”
Your exhibition “Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design” explores Surrealism’s influence on Czech, Slovak, and Polish artists and designers. How, in your opinion, does Slavic Surrealism differ from other Surrealisms? Does it have a unique sensibility or stylistic profile?
Also, I’d be curious to hear you tease out the question of why Eastern Europe, specifically the Czech Republic and Poland, proved such fertile ground for Surrealism. Was there something in the Slavic unconscious—whatever cultural, historical, and maybe even geographical conditions helped create, say, Kafka or Bruno Schulz or Jan Svankmajer—that was especially congenial to Surrealism? The designer and critic Steven Heller has speculated that “Eastern Europe was a wellspring” of neo-Surrealism “perhaps because [artists and designers] had become so adept at creating veiled meaning in order to circumvent government censorship,” but his political reading strikes me as too reductionist to explain The Metamorphosis and Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, examples of an authentic Slavic Surrealism that predate the falling of the Iron Curtain by decades.
RP: I’ll concentrate on Czechoslovakian Surrealism because the Czech Republic was where “Uncanny” was shown and my intense reaction to Czech work was a big part of the impetus for proposing the exhibition. You’re right to say that this tendency in Czech culture predates the Communists’ seizure of power in 1948. The Czechoslovakian embrace of Surrealism has its origins in a literary and artistic movement called Poetism, which was developed by the avant-garde Dev?tsil group, founded in 1920 in Prague. In the early 1930s, the group’s leading lights, Karel Teige and Vít?zslav Nezval, came to the conclusion that the differences between Poetism’s poetic program and the aims set out in the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930) were so slight that they would hitch their wagon to the international Surrealist movement. In 1934, they established the Group of Surrealists in Czechoslovakia. The following year, André Breton and Paul Éluard visited Prague; then, Nezval, Toyen and Jind?ich Štyrský visited Paris.
Generalizations about differences between national cultures are always dangerous, since one can usually find exceptions. One thing that leapt out when I started to look more closely at Czechoslovakian Surrealism in 2000, on a first visit to Prague, was its sexual frankness: Toyen’s delicate erotic drawings; Štyrský’s hilarious illustrations for Nezval’s Sexual Nocturne; Teige’s collage cut-ups of female nudes. The work shows a zestful acceptance of the facts of life (it would have been scandalous in Britain or the U.S. at that time) and an exuberant humor that sets it apart from, say, the sense of psychosexual obsession and trauma in the more familiar work of Hans Bellmer. You can see the same gleeful humor decades later, though the imagery is a notch or two less explicit, in the erotic collage illustrations in Bohumil Št?pán’s book Galerie (1968), which I showed in “Uncanny” in its entirety. But again, it’s necessary to add that there is French Surrealist work that many would still classify as pornographic, such as Man Ray’s photographs of the four “seasons” in 1929. Maybe it’s just that the Czechoslovakian work seemed nearer the surface; these weren’t exceptions to be searched for in the back room; they were acknowledged “classics” of Czech Surrealism, easily seen.
Jan Švankmajer suggests that Czech Surrealism was “always rather more sober in the expression of the fantastic” than French Surrealism, with a greater emphasis on the poetic side—as perhaps befits its origins in Poetism. Štyrský’s photographs are a good example from the early years of this apparent sobriety, and they bring us back to the theme of poetic chance encounter in the city. What Štyrský does could seem minimal. He presents us with a false leg in a shop window; a big pair of spectacles projecting into the street outside an optometrist; a painting (presumably an ad) of a man trying on different shirt collars in front of a mirror; a smooth, clown-like mask hanging on a wall. There is nothing overtly fantastic about the pictures’ content and the visual style of the black and white photos is entirely matter of fact. At face value they are simply a record of ordinary objects and scenes that anyone might have come across walking around a European city in the mid-1930s. Yet the pictures, some of the best examples of Surrealist photography from that era, evince a deep sense of strangeness; many are curiously unsettling when studied and, yes, even uncanny. They invite us to recognize that the workaday objects pinioned within these tableaux are mysterious ciphers that only now, as we lean in to look closer, begin to hint at their unfathomable depths.
MD: Your catalog for “Uncanny” includes examples of Surrealism-influenced book jackets, posters, even album covers such as Cal Schenkel’s bizarre, trash-compacted collages for Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and Uncle Meat by the Mothers of Invention, as well as Elliott Earls’s posters for the Cranbrook Academy, digitally deformed photomontages of body parts and hanks of hair that nod to Surrealism’s exquisite corpses as well as the current fascination with taxidermy and medical museums (witness blogs such as Morbid Anatomy).
I’m fascinated by the cultural dynamic in which mass consumer culture appropriates, and thereby serves as a vector of transmission for, highbrow cultural forms such as Surrealism. Case in point: the superlunar dreamscapes of sci-fi book-jacket illustrator such as Richard Powers, the Yves Tanguy of the pulps; the lurid, psychotronic covers of Ed Emshwiller, who drew inspiration from Dali; or any of the innumerable sci-fi magazine covers that beckoned teenage readers across the picture frame, onto Venusian savannahs and Uranian shores whose long shadows were on loan from De Chirico and whose biomorphic rocks were borrowed from Tanguy’s prop room.
Can you talk about the role middlebrow, lowbrow, and even kitsch visual cultures have played in spreading the gospel of Surrealism, and whether you think these dimestore appropriations of Surrealism, for purely commercial purposes, constitute an alternative branch of the movement, a counter-counterculture so to speak, no less legitimate than the official, Andre Breton-approved version?
RP: The relationship between Surrealism as a movement and its applied forms in popular culture fascinates me. It was a central issue in “Uncanny,” which showed popular and (to an extent) commercial uses of imagery derived from Surrealism in graphic art and graphic design.
For a hard-line Surrealist, many of these images would be questionable at best and quite possibly anathema. Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, with members, meetings, manifestos and expulsions, and it sought to transform the conditions of daily life.
For Švankmajer, still at 76 a member of the Czech Surrealist group, Surrealism’s essentially political task means that it must be a collective endeavor. You cannot, in his view, be a Surrealist working only on your own, and imitations of Surrealism’s visual procedures for non-Surrealist purposes should not be seen as Surrealism. Švankmajer thinks that art historians who discuss the history of Surrealism in primarily visual terms, as though its challenge amounted to nothing more than a bag of spectacular stylistic tricks, have misunderstood and misrepresented it. Having said all of this—in Czech through a translator—at our first meeting at his house in Prague, he then surprised me by readily agreeing to take part in the exhibition and offering to lend copies from his collection of Surrealist periodicals. I thought he was about to say no.
Nevertheless, in terms of cultural history, it’s still the case that the Surrealist idea was so irresistible that it penetrated everything—advertising, fashion, design, film, music video, etc.—and if we’re interested in the development of those fields, then we have to take Surrealism into account.
The visual representation of science fiction using imagery derived from Surrealism is a good example of an area that can only benefit from closer critical attention, and there are signs that this is starting to happen. The Courtauld Institute in London recently mounted a conference titled Surrealism, Science Fiction and Comics and it’s a shame that the speaker who was timetabled to give a paper that promised to be a lynchpin in this inquiry—“Space and Inner Space: the SF Pulps and Surrealism”—wasn’t able to come. One imagines that Richard Powers’ science fiction cover images, a remarkable body of work by any measure, would have taken pride of place in this analysis.
I can see the pure Surrealism/applied Surrealism relationship (or dichotomy) from both sides of the table. I was reading science fiction in my pre-teens just before I found Surrealism and this flight training in interplanetary marvels made Surrealist art an easy-to-take next step. Around this time, discovering namechecks in J.G. Ballard’s books of Surrealist paintings that I knew and admired already—Dalí’s Impressions of Africa, Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility, Ernst’s Garden Airplane Trap—clinched the SF/Surrealism connection. Ballard’s persuasive advocacy of Surrealism within the framework of SF still looks farsighted (“the revival of interest in Surrealism . . . bodes well for science fiction,” he wrote in 1967) and Surrealist paintings were sometimes used on British SF book covers of the day, including some of Ballard’s. There is some fabulous (and to English speakers virtually unknown) Czech work from the same era by Adolf Hoffmeister, Teodor Rotrekl, and other graphic artists that fuses Surrealist influences with SF.
It’s hardly a doctrinaire position to take—that’s why I don’t claim to be a signed-up Surrealist—but for me the justification for these offshoots from Surrealism lies in how well they’re done. In the later history of official Surrealism, as this tenacious meme spread around the world, there is a great deal of painting that is corny, derivative, and kitsch: routine weirdness that’s much less convincing than Powers’ SF cover paintings or the mass-produced graphic images shown in “Uncanny.” I wouldn’t call these populist appropriations an alternative to official Surrealism, but the most plangent examples—by Roman Cieslewicz, Franciszek Starowieyski, and Karel Teissig, to name only a few—embrace Surrealism’s quest for the marvelous without reserve and carry it into new areas of public visual expression. Still compelling decades later, these images spout from the same primal depths as early Surrealism and equal its power to enthrall and disquiet.
MD: I’d like to return to your evocative, poetic reverie about your mother’s photo, a throwaway snapshot that for you is nonetheless a portal to “a wonderfully enigmatic tableau, a place both familiar and strange that I yearned to inhabit myself…”
Wandering through coffee-table histories of Surrealist painting, I’m often struck by the centrality of landscape in Surrealist painting. Do you have any thoughts on that point, and more generally on landscape painting’s ability to transport us out of our bodies and into the world on the other side of the frame (an effect cognitive neuroscience or evolutionary psychology might be useful in unpacking)?
RP: It’s often a case of haunting childhood memories transfigured on the canvas into elemental strangeness. Dalí returned in his pictures to the luminous skies and limpid bay of Port Lligat, a fishing village which he loved as a boy and where he later built a house. There are unmistakable connections between the peculiar upright forms in Tanguy’s paintings of alien dreamscapes and the prehistoric stones—dolmens and menhirs—he saw on childhood holidays in Brittany. Ernst’s dense, threatening paintings of forests conjure the exquisite blend of enchantment and terror he experienced as a child when his father took him on forest walks. Paintings of interiors can feel confined, claustrophobic, finite: Magritte exploited this sense of psychic containment brilliantly. Out in the open air, the mind’s constructions are free to spiral upwards into the empyrean. Where does one of Tanguy’s otherworldly landscapes come to an end? These mental spaces of wonder flow outwards, potentially without limit. In Expectation, a superb painting by the German Surrealist Richard Oelze, a group of men and women huddle together with their backs to us—they’re all wearing hats—in a lurid, nocturnal landscape, looking at a sky like lead. Nothing is happening here. Anything could be about to unfold.
MD: Let’s end with a Surrealist parlor game, of sorts.
Imagine a Surrealist’s version of the Atavachron, the time-travel portal in the Star Trek episode “All Our Yesterdays,” which permits the inhabitants of a planet whose sun is about to go supernova to dodge the apocalypse by retreating into their homeland’s past.
You’re standing in a gallery where every Surrealist painting, collage, and illustration ever created now hangs. You must step through the frame, into one, and whichever world you step into will be the place you’ll spend the rest of your life. Which will it be? The convulsive seascape of Dali’s Cannibalism in Autumn, perhaps? The day-for-night street scene in Magritte’s moody nocturne, The Empire of Light? One of De Chirico’s metaphysically melancholy piazzas, architecture machines for freezing time? Or maybe the sleepwalker-haunted boulevard of Delvaux’s The Echo, or the infinite city of Tanguy’s Multiplication of the Arcs, a paleolopolis of seamlessly jigsawed beach stones that stretches as far as the eye can see? Remember, this is the dreamworld you’ll inhabit ‘til the end of your days, so choose carefully! Of course, the inquiring reader will also want to know the why of what you’ve chosen.
RP: A whole life? I’d give a different answer if you’d said a day or a week. My perfect retreat would be a landscape by Friedrich, justified on the grounds that he’s a precursor to Surrealism. But I’ll play the game and pick a later picture that can be properly classified as Surrealist, Ernst’s The Entire City (1936), painted after he visited the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Ernst is the Surrealist whose work I admire most. Once again, this is a painting as much about what we don’t see as what we do. We approach the city through lush green jungle. It’s impossible to tell where the striated rocks on which the city perches end and the city itself begins—Ernst used frottage for this effect, scraping away the paint. This monumental place could be ancient or science fictional, entropic or life-filled. Half of the canvas is given over to an unearthly yellow sky that glows lighter where it touches the distant buildings as though the structure is radiating weird heat. It’s a vision that can be speculated about, but never finally known. Isn’t that the essence of our condition? I’ll take my chances there.
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