Automatism, the Touchstone of Time



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In the history of the surrealist movement, what does the period spanning through the Spanish civil war and World War II represent? More precisely, what happened in Paris from January 1938 to December 1943, from the International exhibition of surrealism at the gallery of the Beaux-Arts until Domínguez’ exhibition at the gallery Louis Carré? And what became of surrealism in Santa Cruz of Tenerife, Brussels, Marseilles or New York? From the artistic and poetic point of view, as for the relations between members of the surrealist group, was it an unproductive period or, on the contrary, a real turning point despite the storm? In fact, with the outburst of war and after the capitulation of the French Army, many surrealists could be seen fleeing Paris towards Marseilles, some of them, like Andre Breton, exiled themselves to New York. All throughout these years, mostly three residual themes of surrealism were reused and expanded: 1. the crisis of the object ; 2. the discovery of a new myth ; 3. the recourse to automatism. As far as the theme of the object is concerned, even if it was widely exploited, it also seems to have been exhausted. As for the discovery of a new myth, Breton and Matta first needed to escape the evil circle of war. When it comes to automatism, something considerable was at stake, especially for painters, because the challenge was nothing less than to reach an absolute automatism.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Surrealism in 1938

From 1933, the surrealists were the key managers and writers of the luxurious and prestigious Minotaure publication. They could even boast, with the « Winter 1937 » issue of Minotaure, to have conquered the Planet, as is testified by dozens of publications printed on three pages coming from England, Belgium, Denmark, Egypt, Spain, the United States, France, Greece, Japan, Peru, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. In the same way, it is unarguable that from 1935 to 1937, many International Exhibitions of surrealism followed one another, and with great repercussions, in Copenhagen, Santa Cruz of Tenerife, London and Tokyo. Besides, it was to become the surrealists’ trademark to create an exceptional atmosphere and to take the visitor by surprise on the occasion of these international exhibitions, particularly in New York and Paris. The scenography and the installations relied on the talents of a creator like Marcel Duchamp or an architect like Frederick Kiesler.

In January 1938, the International Exhibition of Surrealism was organised by André Breton and Paul Éluard, with Marcel Duchamp as the «referee-generator», Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, as special counsellors, Man Ray as the master of lights, Wolfgang Paalen in charge of « Waters and undergrowth ». In the autumn of the same year, however, despite having been André Breton’s friend for twenty years, Paul Éluard would no longer be one of the surrealists and in the spring of 1939, Salvador Dalí, whose originality and sense of humour had created a stir among the surrealists before seducing or scandalising the art, media and cinema circles in the United States, would also be dismissed.

On the eve of World War II, the strength of surrealism laid in its international promulgation, particularly to London and New York, but its weakness came from the fairly reduced number of participants in the group, added to internal disputes. Something was broken between André Breton and Paul Éluard, the main leaders of the surrealist movement. Incidentally, in September 1936, Paul Éluard did not join the twelve individuals who signed a surrealist leaflet radically condemning the trial taking place in Moscow at the time. In any case, in the last issue of Minotaure, in May 1939, the name of Paul Éluard is nowhere to be seen in the editorial board. Alongside an old quarrel on the question of libertinism between both surrealist men, the gap was widening on the political ground between Breton, claiming to be revolutionary and libertarian, a supporter of Trotsky and Fourrier[1], and Éluard who was becoming more and more attracted by the call of the communist party. When Paul Éluard told Gala about his absolute split from André Breton, he made a point of listing numerous surrealists who supported him, thus showing that followers of Breton were not so numerous and implying that the most illustrious painters and the Belgian surrealists would rather take his side: « My long relationship with Breton and the surrealists is well over. […] I am only on good terms with Ernst, Maurice Heine, Man Ray, Penrose, Mesens, Hugnet, Hayter, Pastoureau, Duchamp, Scutenaire, Nougé, Magritte, Chavée, Arp, Bellmer, Matta, Miró, Picasso and the little Darys [Dalí][2]. » From this list, one can conclude that painters such as Brauner, Hérold or Domínguez had ranked with Breton and one can also note that among the numerous friends or supporters of Paul Éluard, only Georges Hugnet and Salvador Dalí would leave the surrealist movement as the Second World War approached.

Incidentally, it should be said that, unlike the common assumption, exclusions or departures from the surrealist group were neither usual nor hasty. The case of Salvador Dalí is a good example. The irreverent behaviour of the Catalan painter during the surrealist gathering of February 5, 1934 invalidated his exclusion. Despite having raised numerous suspicions, Dalí would still benefit from a five years lease with the surrealists. In the same way, considering his political disagreement with Breton in 1936, Paul Éluard could have left him that very year. Not only did it not happen this way, but the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (Abridged dictionary of surrealism), used as a catalogue for the Exhibition at the Beaux-Arts Gallery in January and February 1938, was the result of a collaborative work between both men. What is noteworthy in this dictionary, counting a few hundred definitions, is that none of these has a political connotation. The word « Revolution » is not even included. At the most, the word « Red » is celebrated only through a witty quote from Alphonse Allais that, besides, could be read as a groundbreaking forecast of monochrome painting: « tomato harvest by apoplectic cardinals on the shores of the Red Sea (Aurora borealis effect). »

Breton, Bataille and Masson

It is easy to envisage the attraction and the rejection induced by surrealism through the -initially stormy and then peaceful- relations between Georges Bataille and André Breton. Leaving aside Bataille’s contribution to publishing Middle Age fatrasies in La Révolution surrealiste[3], it is obvious that in 1929 and 1930 Documents, the review run by Georges Bataille attracted many survivors from dada-surrealism including Michel Leiris, Robert Desnos, Roger Vitrac, Jacques Baron, Georges Limbour, Jacques Prévert, Alejo Carpentier or Raymond Queneau[4]. This would not prevent the surrealists, a few years later, from joining supporters of Georges Bataille and forming the Contre-Attaque group. However, after the dissolution of Contre-Attaque in April 1936, two groups coexisted, respectively led by Georges Bataille and André Breton, two rival groups but that had given up on fighting. Bataille even found his singularity in running all at once, the Acéphale review, the Acéphale secret society and the Collège of Sociology. As for Breton, he continued to run the Minotaure publication and to keep a link with numerous surrealists abroad. Incidentally, André Masson, who had designed the Acéphale character, was also part of Minotaure, notably when he published « Montserrat » in collaboration with Georges Bataille in June 1936 and in may 1939 he created, the ultimate front cover of Minotaure, supplanting, at last, Salvador Dalí.

Three texts followed one another in Minotaure in June 1936 : « from a decalcomania without a preconceived object (decalcomania of desire) » by Breton, « Between dog and woolf» by Péret, both of which praised the discovery of decalcomania by Domínguez, and « the star-studded castle», in which Breton recounted his trip to Tenerife. The three texts interact with each other because the landscape and the compact images generated by Domínguez’ process fit perfectly the sublime nature of Tenerife, the volcanic island. One must also add « Montserrat » by Masson and Bataille, which, in turn, deals with the sublime nature of the nocturnal and diurnal sides, alternating until the break of dawn[5].

There are two interesting moments in the relations between Breton, Bataille and Masson. At the turn of 1939, as he was due to choose twenty poems for a survey on «essential poetry», Breton referred twice to Georges Bataille, in quoting an extract from Histoire de l’œil (History of the Eye) and a fatrasie by Philippe de Beaumanoir[6]. As for André Masson, he drew portraits of André Breton during Winter 1940-1941, and above all, after joining Breton in Fort-de-France, he collaborated with him in writing and illustrating Martinique charmeuse de serpents (Martinique serpents charmer). These clues alone tend to indicate that a shift occurred after 1938 within the surrealist group, especially with the growing role of characters like Maurice Heine and Pierre Mabille, who were somehow close to Georges Bataille. Before 1938, Breton, Éluard and Dalí were the leading surrealist trio. After 1938, Breton felt a lot closer to Mabille and Masson. In fact, at this point in time, Breton, Bataille, Masson and Mabille shared similar concerns. Breton was striving to discover the modern myth in the making. Bataille was paving the way for a sociology of the sacred. The painting of Masson, as shown by Le Fauteuil de Louis XVI (Louis XVI‘s Armchair) or Métamorphose des amants (Metamorphosis of the lovers), conveyed a mythological outreach and dimension. As for Mabille, he could simultaneously unveil the premonitory aspect of Brauner’s painting in « L’œil du peintre » (the eye of the painter), and analyse the mutation of a civilisation reaching the end of the Christian era in Égrégores[7].

As far as the modern myth was concerned, Breton had already shown, as early as January 1920, that Lautréamont’s umbrella and sewing machine, the top hat introduced by Apollinaire in a poem, the omnipresent mannequin in the metaphysical paintings of de Giorgio de Chirico, were all objects feeding the « mythologie moderne en formation[8] » (modern mythology being formed) with images. The mannequin-object, this icon of modernity and surrealism [9], was indeed going to be widely reproduced, and from all angles, during the exhibition of the Beaux-Arts gallery in 1938. Nonetheless, the smooth and asexual body that supported many reveries, even though it was to become a modern cult object, can only show us one aspect of the surrealist realm of imagination. Other representations of the human body were undeniably at work within the modern myth being formed. And this is where the provocative image of the Acéphale character drawn by André Masson steps in, provocative in that it is an athletic naked body, with a severed neck, outstretched arms, brandishing a dagger in one hand and holding a burning heart or a grenade in the other, its bowels concealing a maze, and with a cranium instead of genitals. The body gone headless or brainless; such is the emblem of the Acéphale secret society, of this passionate community free from leaders, challenging death. Yet, when Bataille’s most intimate friends identified with a community of headless bodies how did the surrealists position themselves? The answer is obvious, the surrealist group was a collagist fellowship of bodiless heads.

First of all, let us remember the automatic message, « through the window, there is a man cut into two», which was to be the starting point for automatic writing. This first sentence from pre-sleep probably was a reminiscence of the news item about a man or a woman cut in pieces. In addition, it is useful to recall the cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) game, where the players stick back together, either slices of sentences, or the head, the bust and the limbs of a human body. Useful, also, to remember that the photomontages of the surrealist group mostly associated heads without bodies. All tends to show that the surrealists were collagists of the dismembered body and non-linear time. They regularly practiced three types of collages: the formal and material collage of words and images, the collective and passionate collage in a small or a large assembly, sometimes incorporating a dead person, and, at last, the temporal collage of chanced durations. From then, it is not surprising that in his poem of December 1940, Fata Morgana, André Breton had a vision of a crowd made of bodiless heads directly laying on the ground:
Entre le chaume et la couche de terreau
Il y a place pour mille et une cloches de verre
Sous lesquelles revivent sans fin les heads qui m’enchantent
 (Between the stubble and the layer of compost
There is enough space for a thousand and one glass bell jars
Under which, the heads that enchant me, endlessly relive) 

In fact, Breton’s vision of a multitude of heads coming back to life under a glass cover shared close similarities with the Crowds subsequently painted by Antonio Saura, where monadic heads thrive in a hazy environment, where mugs deprived of their bodies are joined together in an organic, orgiastic and plastic way. But there is a difference. The thousand and one heads under the glass covers seem to stand for many predecessors or intercessors of the surrealist assembly, whereas the display of the monadic and anonymous mugs by Saura is nothing else but the Exhibition of a demographical corpus, the overExhibition of a dismembered political body.

Absolute Automatism

The ultimate issue of Minotaure in May 1939 started with a hilarious list, done by Lichtenberg, that described in detail not less than forty two lots meant for auction sales, the very first lot was the famous « couteau sans lame auquel manque le manche » (knife without blade and without handle). Besides this introduction occurring on the double ground of the object and  black humour, in this issue of Minotaure there were three essential texts by André Breton : 1. « Souvenir du Mexique  » (Remembrance of Mexico), notably illustrated by Alvarez Bravo’s photos ; 2. « Prestige d’André Masson » (André Masson’s prestige), with whom, according to Breton, « we ­are approaching the myth in progress of this time », an idea that will be used again in January 1946 regarding Wifredo Lam, through whom, equally,  « today’s myth {was} being elaborated[10] » ; 3. « Des tendances les plus récentes de la peinture surréaliste » (about the most recent trends in surrealist painting), a masterly article from which came the notion of « absolute automatism ». Once can remember that, in the Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton had defined surrealism as a « pure psychic automatism» and that, while drawing up the list of those who acted in « ABSOLUTE SURREALISM », he had just kept the poets, barely mentioning in a note old and contemporary painters who, he thought, had acted in relative surrealism. In fact, even though the birth of surrealism coincides with the invention of automatic writing, automatism would only be fully exploited in painting after a series of discoveries recapped by Breton : 1. « collage » and « frottage » (rubbing), notably used by Max Ernst; 2. The « critical-paranoiac » disposition or activity precious to Dalí ; 3. Domínguez’ « decalcomania without preconceived object» ; 4. Paalen « fumage » (smoking); 5. This is when, from 1938, a noticeable germination or an irresistible surge of absolute automatism took place, particularly with young painters joining surrealism. Breton reported on the phenomenon stating that the newcomers positioned themselves under the tutelary shadow of Tanguy rather than Dalí’s whimsical sun. Or to put it differently, he carefully granted a part of discovery to each one while still acknowledging the existence of a collective emulation process.

But before dealing with the three new surrealists, Esteban Frances, Matta Echaurren and Gordon Onslow Ford, Breton underlined that he who discovered the decalcomania of desire just like the inventor of the smoking process succeeded in renewing their prowess, always doing so by means of automatism. By comparing Domínguez’ new process to the rapid gestures of the window cleaner or the white sign left on a brand new window pane, Breton was of course referring back to the swirls, to the dishes, to the kinetic effects injected by the Canarian painter in his cosmic painting. But he also went further into a reflection initiated in 1936 on animated drawings and his own dream of the February 7  1937, during which he was contemplating Domínguez while the latter animated a grid of fellator lions on his canvas, stunningly erotic images that were turning, in the end, into an aurora borealis. As for the new automatic process used by Paalen, it was made of dribbling coloured inks on a white sheet of paper, which, in turn, was subjected to various rotational movements, with the occasional blowing in order to create a dispersion or irradiation effect.

Mainly following Domínguez’ path, Esteban Francés also became involved in absolute automatism, randomly mixing colours on a wooden board and modifying this preparation via a frantic and equally random scrubbing process. This, according to Breton would create « sizzling landscapes ». Matta Echaurren, whose exceptional gift for colour was praised by Breton, had published in the previous issue of Minotaure, an unusual article titled « Sensible Mathematics–Architecture of time », as an illustration of an interior design project drawn by the young Chilean. Matta’s audacious project is remarkable for three reasons. First of all, in this model for an apartment organised on three levels, no railing was set above the large well of light looking onto the plane below, no banister either on the staircase piercing the different planes, and this with the obvious intention to face the heights and overcome one’s vertigo. Then, a « psychological ionic column », raised within the dwelling like a totem, would help to become aware of the vertical dimension. Lastly, the only apparent furniture comprised inflatable beds and armchairs closely fitting the human body. Besides implied references to Dalí’s soft part of the bread, to Paalen’s smoke, to Mabille’s mirrors or to Le Corbusier’s silo, something is added within the text; a systematic rejection of the right angle and the tenacious affirmation of an emotional experience of space and movement, of matter and time. For example: « and let us remain still among circulating walls […] we need walls like wet sheets that are changing shapes and matching our psychological fears ».

The reflection on absolute automatism is getting even more important towards the end of the text titled « the most recent directions in surrealist painting ». Besides enrolling Brauner and Ubac among the automatician artists, Breton noted that notions of space-time and fourth dimension haunted painters dealing with automatism. All this is perceptible in the « paysages à plusieurs horizons » (landscapes with several horizons) by Matta, in the curve of « merveilleuse de souplesse » (exquisitely supple) by Onslow Ford, or in several lithochronic pictures by Domínguez. He quoted a long text from the latter, written in collaboration with Sábato, about the lithochronic surfaces and petrifaction of time. And in order to reinforce the –lithochronism concept that could have appeared to be odd, he referred to the painting of Kurt Seligmann and particularly his early objects, as, for instance L’Ultrameuble (the ultra piece of furniture), which is a seat or a low table resting on four woman’s legs wearing high heels.

The Petrifaction of Time

All through his life, Breton only heard in his half-sleep about twenty or thirty automatic messages, whose prototype is the sentence from the hypnagogic state, « there is a man cut into two pieces through the window». On the other hand, in practicing automatic writing, alone or with another person, as in Les Champs magnétiques (Magnetc fields), he was able to fill hundreds of pages. However, he soon came to realise that the plethora of so-called surrealists texts created an obstacle to automatic writing. Because automatic writing is not comparable to the psychoanalytical rule of « saying everything », it cannot even be assimilated to a product of the unconscious. But then, how could one decipher an automatic message? How to read a page of automatic writing? It seems to us that automatic writing is less a fact of language than a temporal fact entering the category of disturbing events, full of coincidences, that the surrealists called ‘hasard objectif’ (objective chance).

Let’s say a word about the specificity of ‘hasard objectif’. The facts generated by objective chance, provided they were authenticated, revealed the existence of a strong link between various events whether they be contemporary or not, as if they did not belong to the natural course of things and could not be part of a known explicative frame. The ‘hasard objectif’ can be defined as an automatic duration or a time-based collage randomly gluing together parts of the present, the past or the future. This is why I chose to place in the same automatic durations section both the facts recorded as ‘objective chance’ and automatic writing texts or messages. In this respect, the best example, that both immerses us into ‘objective chance’ and automatic writing, is deciphering the initials A B in André Breton’s signature as an equivalent for the year 1713.

In the end, automatism, and a fortiori absolute automatism, is inseparable from a magnetisation of events along non-linear time. And this as much for painting or sculpture as for writing. It helps us understand why Breton dealing with absolute automatism in painting ended his article with lithochronism, which is nothing else but a theory and practice of automatic petrifaction of time. Then again, the automatic collage of events observed within ‘objective chance’ has an exact counterpart in a painting, a sculpture or a lithochronic object. In the same way that cinema is a collage of filmic durations, and that filmed animation sets inanimate objects into motion and freezes animated characters, one should look at the lithochronic painting of Domínguez, Matta, Onslow Ford, or Esteban Frances, the lithochronic photography of Raoul Ubac, the lithochronic drawings or objects by Seligmann and Domínguez, as expressions of automatism but also as a synthesis or collage of durations.

If one admits, after Breton, that Seligmann’s L’Ultrameuble is the prime example of the lithochronic object, and that a lithochronic object results from the irresistible attraction of two bodies -just like the swan and Léda- therefore, one will see lithochronism equally at work in Domínguez’ famous object Jamais, where the body of a woman wearing stiletto heels is being swallowed  by the sounding horn of a gramophone, and in the drawing entitled Le Souvenir de l’avenir (remembrance of the future), where a gramophone and a swan-woman in a ballerina pose coexist, not to forget that time is signaled in the title of both works. As far as  Domínguez is concerned, it would be possible to investigate even further, by referring to paintings like Souvenir de l’avenir (remembrance of the future), or L’Estocade lithochronique (lithochronic deathblow) and particularly by focusing on the last paragraph of « La pétrification du temps »  (petrifaction of time): « the strange stuffed crayfishes, the fossils, the seashells, the elephants filled with bristle, etc., are waiting with the strongest anxiety for the hands of the poet to come and surrender them to space, this space where Marie-Louise eternally left the authentically lithochronic and convulsive surface of her suicide, on the day where she threw herself into the void from the top floor of the great tower[11]. » However one of the wood etchings made by the Mexican Posada and reproduced in 1937 in Minotaure, was entitled Marie-Louise, la suicidée (Marie-Louise, The Woman Who Committed Suicide), and represents a woman throwing herself into the void from a tower of Mexico-City cathedral. Exactly on the same theme, in 1939, Frida Kahlo painted Le Suicide de Dorothy Hale (Suicide of Dorothy Hale), where, this time, the young woman jumps into the void from the top of a New York building. In 1942, Domínguez dealt with the same subject when drawing a naked woman in an unsteady equilibrium on the edge of a terraced roof, with the inscription « LA SUICIDÉE » (Suicide Woman) traced on the gable of the closest building, with an arrow that prefigured the direction of the fall.

In fact, one finds out that the swan woman and the ballerina from the drawing Le Souvenir de l’avenir, the woman wearing stiletto heels diving into the Jamais gramophone, Marie-Louise and Dorothy Hale jumping into the void or the naked woman drawn by Domínguez on the edge of a roof, that all these women are not only diving into the void but also into time, and that this empty space defines for Domínguez and Sábato a lithochronic surface or a petrifaction of time.

When Domínguez wrote: « {…} this [empty] space where Marie-Louise left for ever the genuinely lithochronic and convulsive surface of her suicide {…} », he thus turned the surrealist object Jamais, where a young woman is being swallowed by a gramophone, into the lithochronic object À tout jamais, where a young woman jumps into the void and endlessly commits suicide, thus shifting from a certain denial of time to an affirmation of duration. Neither a fascination for death nor the act of suicide are actually depicted here. On the contrary, the lithochronic painting, like lithochronic sculpture, aspires to be the most accurate and the most genuine record of automatic durations.

Let us go one step further: Through her jump into the void, Marie-Louise the suicide woman reactivates the experience often quoted by the philosopher Bergson of the hypermnesia of the dying. According to the survivors of a sure death, the mountain climber is believed to see an accelerated version of his whole life flashing by during his fall, and the drowned person allegedly sees the complete film of his existence while sinking. In fact, Breton, Domínguez and Sábato shared Bergson’s thesis of the total conservation of memories within memory itself, which, as a consequence transforms time into duration. Undeniably, as the frontispiece of Introduction to the discourse on the scarce reality testifies, Breton was reflecting upon the « memory of the future» and non-linear time. With the drawing Le Souvenir de l’avenir (the remembrance of the future) and the painting Souvenir de l’avenir (Remembrance of the future), Domínguez attempted, as we have just suggested, to depict an automatic duration. As for Sábato, who invented lithochronism with Domínguez, he would defend its relevance and fecundity a lot later, adding that an illumination of our existence and time petrifaction occurs at the very moment of our death: « [My] encounter [with Domínguez] was of huge importance, even though at that stage it did not seem so. […] The past is not something crystallised, as some people assume, but a configuration that shifts while our existence is progressing, and that reaches its true meaning at the very moment of our death, when it will stay eternally petrified. […] And even what we thought were only jokes or mystifications can become sinister predictions[12] within this perspective of death. »

The Meshing of the Planet

Following André Breton’s advice, we can try and apply the automatism of Paalen, Domínguez, Brauner, Matta, Francés, Onslow Ford, Jacques Hérold or Remedios Varo to the world of Yves Tanguy. In Merveilles des mers, La Lumière de l’ombre (Marvels of the seas, The Light of shadow) or Le Grand nacré (The Large pearly one/The Dark Green Fritillary) the vision or panorama proposed by Tanguy tends to be mineral and sidereal, geological and cosmic. Over a sandy and deserted ground, smooth and washed out, where the horizon is pushed back towards the infinite, pleated or frayed stones, polished, eroded or pierced pebbles, are erected like steles, the only difference being that these stone samples, monoliths and aeroliths, seem to have been thoroughly cleansed and violently coloured on occasions. Even though Tanguy’s nature is bare and luminous, it displays a few shadows and a few tricks. Sometimes, also, in a very discreet manner, rays of light emanate from sculptures or a fragile thread is weaving a link between two of them. Nevertheless, among his surrealists friends, and despite their immobility, Tanguy’s painted sculptures – one could also refer to Hans Arp’s sculptures – engendered an « absolute automatism » somewhat dabbling into movement and often accompanied by an exaggeration of colours.

In order to faithfully render the pleats and relief of the planet, Esteban Francés and Gordon Onslow Ford chose to throw a whole mesh of geodesic lines over it. In Francés’ case, the reticular net sometimes imprisons its prey in a violently physical confrontation, as in Alambradas, and at other times, like in Laberinto 39, the scenic apparatus alleviates the hideousness of excrescences and trapped creatures. From a more geometrical and playful point of view, Onslow Ford advocated a meshing of mountains or volcanoes, as in Mountain Heart and Pollination of Mountains, where the curve and the straight line co-exist in harmony. With titles resorting to violence or desire, like Crime meets Crime, Propagande pour l’amour (Propaganda for love) or The Transparent Woman, the ambitious painter resorted to concentric or spiralling devices, sprinkled with geological or vaguely organic shapes, that a beam of dots divides into regular sections. It looks like Tanguy’s work revisited by the geometry of Descartes and his physics of whirls. Sometimes, as in The First Five Horizons, the panorama of desire or the cartography of the planet have been sliced into horizontal strips that follow the dotted lines. Onslow Ford pushed his idea of ‘cutting-out’ to its limits, by extracting several samples or fragments from Propagande pour l’amour (Propaganda for love), in order to clarify them within a narrative discourse.

Opting for triangles encrusted with teeth, Remedios Varo occasionally inserted an eye. But in La Faim(Hunger) and La Lutte pour la vie (Fight for life), what does such a network of hatched triangles and translucent figures stand for? The crisscrossing of geometric figures might not be the worst model to express the intricacy of instincts and the brutality of needs. Besides, a painting by Domínguez, La Aparición sobre el mar (The Apparition above the sea), brings up once again the key-question of transposition. On a ground, that could be made of sand or seaside rocks, treated by the painter like a decalcomania, a human creature stands up, completely wrapped, apart from both feet and one hand, in a garment of cardboard paper and in place of the head, this strange costume is toped with a paper hen. Even more puzzling, the pleated and tangled up garment is stretched by threads, at several ends, like a kite or a camping tent. Into the background, behind this apparition, sea-birds seem to have been treated likewise.

The dotted lines, the threads or ropes, the geometrisation of shapes, the triumph of matter, the equivalence of the high and the low, the withdrawal of horizons, all from Onslow Ford to Domínguez, via Remedios Varo and Esteban Francés, contributes to meshing the planet and, why not, the universe. It all shows that the history of Mankind is kept further in fossil matter than in images or reports. Thinking only about Domínguez’ Soucoupes volantes (flying saucers) or Souvenir de l’avenir (Memory of the future): in an environment of geologic strata, of still ocean and mist, one can discover rotating saucers or a dishevelled typewriter that look like the remains of a book or circus civilisation or the mischief of an extraterrestrial spaceship.

Scorched Earths

It is not surprising that Jacques Hérold painted Au-delà de l’horizon (beyond the horizon), in compliance with the agenda of absolute automatism. But the fact that he also painted Les Têtes (The Heads) brings us back to the question of the surrealist group, who we previously defined as a collagist association of bodiless heads. Indeed, the pending question, before and during the Second World War, concerned the shape and existence of the surrealist group. There is another illustration of bodiless heads in an automatic drawing done with ink by Matta, an image even more grotesque and provocative in that the enormous grimy heads are resting on limbs reduced to single stumps. The most surprising thing is that later on, Antonio Saura would use the same ink and the same automatism for his bodiless heads.

When resorting to automatism, the surrealist painters were not mimicking history but petrifying time. Two images imposed themselves upon them. On one hand, cross sections or curves from a geology of the planet. On the other hand, the phantom presence of the human body. This is illustrated by Domínguez’ La Aparición sobre el mar (The Apparition above the sea), that only retains the large soles feet from Picasso’s Dinard bather. In the same way in Victor Brauner’s Rénombrement II (Renumbering II), the human body, apart from two agitated eyes, would wear the rags of a jester or a corpse. The same Brauner, a few years later, would rightfully entitle a waxed canvas where the resurrection of two human figures could be seen Tableau optimiste (optimistic painting). In any case the, ‘exquisite corpse’ game had already convinced the surrealists that the human body could be dismembered and put back together again at will. Therefore, the loving Wifredo Lam, in Estudio para un retrato de Helena (Study for a Portrait of Helena), and the passionate Domínguez, in La Rêveuse (The Dreamer), could not help turning around the body of the beloved or desired woman. In the same way, the painting Bâle via Tahiti-Paris (Basle via Tahiti-Paris) by Kurt Seligmann, which is a brilliant ‘exquisite corpse’ only retains from the human body the odds and ends of a fatrasie. And the same could be said about the three squealing graces in Jubivillad. But above all, between the deathly dance, the Sabbath of witches and perhaps even the scorched earth strategy of Orages magnétiques (Magnetic Storms) by Wolfgang Paalen and photographs by Raoul Ubac like Nébuleuse (Nebula) and Combat de Penthésilée (Penthesilea’s Fight), where women « brandishing the spear[13] » are burnt and defeated, between the visions of the master of ‘smoking’ and the expert on ‘burning’, absolute automatism seems to have delivered a farewell to the body, broken or gone up in smoke.

After returning to the American continent, where they were safe from the torments of the war, Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta, even though they could not prove these dark predictions wrong, took part in a ‘new myth being formed’. Lam renewed the myth of the horse-woman in a trance as well as the one of bodies and gods cut into pieces[14]. As for Matta, advocate of « psychological morphology », rival of the lithochronism of Sábato and Domínguez, with the « fossilisations » or the « photo-relief » of Ubac’s Mur sans fin (endless wall), he tamed space according to his will and diluted matter to suit him, until he discovered, with Breton, the myth of the « great transparent ones ».

Situation of Surrealism in 1942

During winter 1940-1941, the surrealist company formed up again in Marseilles. While the circumstances were serious and tragic, particularly for the Jews and foreigners, the collective activity was at its height again. André Breton even saw in the military defeat an argument for reactivating the card game. This would result in the game of Marseilles. It seemed vital for these painters and poets linked to surrealism to loudly reiterate their values, their colours, in these times of disaster. And all the paradox lies here: a collective creation placed under the sign of the game could give their strength back and bring some joy to threatened individuals who hoped to find refuge in America. Who, they thought, would not want to hold between their fingers the cards of the surrealist mythology, the cards of Baudelaire, of the Portuguese Nun, of Novalis, respectively, the genie, the siren and the love magus, those of Lautréamont, Alice and Freud, the three black stars of dream, those of Sade, Lamiel, Pancho Villa, the three bleeding wheels of revolution, and, finally, those of Hegel, Hélène Smith, Paracelsus, the triad of knowledge, not to forget the joker Ubu?

However, in Marseilles, the proper surrealist activities and meetings with various artists and intellectuals only lasted for one winter. From then on, one can bluntly ask this question: the following year, in 1942, was there still a surrealist group in Paris or New York, just to mention the capital city Breton had left and the metropolis he had finally reached? When it comes to Paris, there is no need to re-write the story of ‘la Main à Plume’, but a few landmarks can be suggested:

  1. The label « Éditions Surrealistes », that validates the belonging to the surrealist group, disappeared under the Occupation. The two poetry booklets …hurle à la vie(scream to life) by Léo Malet and Frappe de l’écho (blow of the echo) by Robert Rius were the last to bear this label[15].
  2. La Conquête du monde par l’image (the conquest of the world by the image), the only collective publication of ‘la Main à Plume’ in 1942, brought nothing new to be seen or read. Indeed, the debate over the image brings us back to the early days of surrealism. Nonetheless, the complete text by Óscar Domínguez on « petrifaction of time » and Léo Malet’s one, narrating his invention of unsticking posters and defining himself as a « lithophagous », that is to say as a poet eating bricks or walls, both of these texts bring us back to automatism, the touchstone of time.
  3. Even when they resorted to beautiful titles like Capitale de la douleur (Capital of pain) , Ralentir travaux (slow down works), Les Champs magnétiques (Magnetic fields) or Légitime défense (self-defence), the collective poems of ‘la Main à Plume’, gathered under the hardly appealing heading « L’usine à poèmes » (Poem Factory), unsurprisingly replicated old images.
  4. Still in this collective publication of 1942, Paul Éluard, whilst bringing some support to the collective poetry, gathered a mass of quotations, where he opposed, in two columns, « involuntary poetry» and « unintentional poetry ».
  5. The publication of ‘la Main à plume’ was undeniably surrealist, but in Éluard’s way, where the pending questions of the new myth and of absolute automatism were not to be dealt with as priorities.
  6. This is why, when Paul Éluard and Georges Hugnet, who were at the heart of La Conquête du monde par l’image (the conquest of the world by the image), were excluded from ‘la Main à Plume’, nothing proves, nevertheless, that the remaining members of the group ever crossed André Breton’s path or even shook his hand.
  7. Even if they were keen on Marx and the epistemology of Gaston Bachelard, the rhetoricians of ‘la Main à Plume’ were not necessarily better armed to compete with Messages, the publication of Jean Lescure, to which, Paul Éluard and Raoul Ubac incidentally collaborated.

But if, in 1942, the existence of a surrealist group in Paris was somehow problematic, what was happening in New York? If we only consider « Prolégomènes à un troisième manifeste du surréalisme ou non » (Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism or Not) published in the first issue of VVV in June 1942. André Breton clarified his reflection about lines of writing and the point of the mind. Regarding the lines, he developed two ideas:

  1. Unlike partisan minds, Breton himself, did not follow « the line». He acknowledged that his « own line, forcefully sinuous » (here come the « serpentine lines » again, from the first Manifesto) takes an unusual route, since it « goes through Heraclites, Abélard, Eckhart, Retz, Rousseau, Swift, Sade, Lewis, Arnim, Lautréamont, Engels, Jarry and a few others». It is worth noting that at the same time in Paris, most members of ‘la Main à Plume’ swore that they were following the straight line of surrealist orthodoxy.
  2. Breton stressed his defiance towards systems, because if these abstract constructions are still standing while their author is alive, it is totally different as soon as the line is extended and disciples get involved. And Breton enumerated « charlatans and counterfeiters» of the principles of Robespierre and Saint-Just, the divisions between Hegelians from the left and right wings, « the enormous dissidences within Marxism ». This is how the surrealist poet detected a « fallible point » in the continuation, over time, of any philosophical line. Indeed, the reflection on the line is inseparable from the detection of the « point of the mind». There are at least four types of points to determine:
  3. Man is probably not the centre, the « focus point of» the universe.
  4. Breton only granted his adhesion after having subjected it to his own magnetic « north ».
  5. And it is this magnetic north or this « point of the mind » that enabled him to detect here or there, the « fallible point ». Nothing to do with the fallible man from the original sin. Breton pointed to the flaw in the transmission of ideas and the reinterpretation of his works.
  6. Lastly, Breton evoked the « point of honour » in « Petit intermède prophétique » (short prophetic interlude), a physical and allegorical point of honour, moving « at the speed of a comet » and simultaneously tracing « two lines », specifically two sinusoidal lines, « flamboyant 8s », in other words, the symbol of infinity.

In 1942, Breton was overwhelmed by doubt. In the turmoil of the world war and without a real collective activity, it seemed presumptuous for him to write from New York a Third manifesto of surrealism. Of course he could really count on new surrealists, like Matta, Wifredo Lam or Aimé Césaire. But when Breton listed the names of « Bataille, Caillois, Duthuit, Masson, Mabille, Léonora Carrington, Ernst, Étiemble, Péret, Calas, Seligmann, {or} Henein », with whom he shared the postulate « No society without a social myth », he did not limit himself to an exclusively surrealist list. This is why, considering the problematic nature of a Third Manifesto, he preferred to stick to the Prolégomènes.

In 1943, initiated by surrealists from New York as Péret was still living in Mexico, La Parole est à Péret (It is Péret’s Turn to Speak) was published, under the ‘Éditions Surréalistes’ label. As an introduction one can read a declaration dated of May 23, 1943 and signed by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Charles Duits, Matta, and Yves Tanguy. The signatories, who declared “to make all the conclusions from Péret’s text their own”, joined to their signatures the names of other surrealists: “J B Brunius, Valentine Penrose (England), Rene Magritte, Paul Nougé, Raoul Ubac (Belgium), Braulio Arenas, Jorge Caceres (Chile), Wifredo Lam (Cuba), George Henein (Egypt), Victor Brauner, Óscar Domínguez, Hérold (France), Pierre Mabille (Haiti), Aime Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil (Martinique), Leonora Carrington, Esteban Francés (Mexico)”. No trace here of the young tenors of ‘la Main à Plume’[16].

Despite the return trips of Patrick Waldberg, (the talented war correspondent of the New York surrealists in North Africa and in Europe), communications between the surrealists in exile in New York and the aspiring surrealists in Paris were interrupted during the Occupation. On the other hand, absolute automatism found a way to extend and renew itself, because the touchstone of time could not be left pending.

Georges Sebbag


[1] In his Ode à Charles Fourier written in 1947, André Breton dates back to 1937 his interest for the utopian man (« and there, in an early morning of 1937 […] / Passing by I saw a fresh bunch of violets at your feet»).

[2] Letter from Paul Éluard to Gala – end of November-early December 1938, in Paul Éluard, Lettres à Gala, 1924-1948, éd. established by P. Dreyfus, Gallimard, Paris, 1984, p. 292.

[3] Voir « Fatrasies », La Révolution surréaliste n° 6, 1er mars 1926.

[4] Rappelons aussi que, le 15 janvier 1930, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Prévert, Queneau, Vitrac, Leiris, Limbour, Boiffard, Desnos, Morise, Bataille, Baron et Alejo Carpentier répliquent vertement aux attaques du Second manifeste du surréalisme dans le tract Un cadavre.

[5] Published in Minotaure n° 8 – 15 June 1936, « Montserrat », by André Masson and Georges Bataille, comprises two texts, « Du haut de Montserrat » by Masson and « Le Bleu du ciel » by Bataille, and two paintings from 1935 by Masson, « Aube à Montserrat » and « Paysage aux prodiges ».

[6] End of 1938, Les Cahiers GLM n ° 8 launched the investigation on  « poésie indispensable »(indispensable poetry). Breton’s answer was published in the following issue of March 1939.

[7] Pierre Mabille, Égrégores ou la vie des civilisations, éd. Jean Flory, Paris, 1938. Also P. Mabille, « L’œil du peintre », Minotaure n° 12-13, May 1939.

[8] See André Breton, « Giorgio de Chirico, 12 Tavole in Fototipia », in « Livres choisis », Littérature n° 11, January 1920. This text, reused as a preface to the catalogue of the exhibition Giorgio de Chirico in March-April 1922 at the gallery Paul Guillaume, was gathered in Les Pas perdus (1924).

[9] The mannequin-object, that originates from Chirico, marks the history of surrealism. Here are a few occurrences. During Maurice Barrès trial on May 13, 1921, a made up mannequin in fancy dress represented the accused person. A mannequin photographed par Man Ray appears on the front cover of La Révolution surréaliste n° 4, July 15, 1925.  In Nadja, Breton evokes a wax character from the Grévin Museum, « a woman fastençing her garter in the shadow ». Various types of mannequin appear on stage, in Le Trésor des jésuites by Aragon and Breton.

[10] André Breton, Preface to the catalogue of the Lam exhibition in de Port-au-Prince, 1946. Again in Le Surréalisme et la peinture, Gallimard, Paris, 1965, p. 172.

[11] Óscar Domínguez, « La pétrification du temps », in La Conquête du monde par l’image, Les Éditions de la Main à Plume, Paris, 1942, p. 27. let us remember that André Breton had quoted in  « Des tendances les plus récentes de la painting surréaliste » published in  Minotaure – May 1939, under the signature of Sábato et Domínguez, an extract from « La pétrification du temps », more precisely, the second part, except for the last paragraph, that could have been added by Domínguez, introduced in 1942.

[12] Ernest Sábato, Abaddón el exterminador, Editorial Sudamericana, Buenos Aires, 1974.

[13]   André Breton concludes his article « About the most recent trends in surrealist painting » in Minotaure n° 12-13 – May 1939 like this: « One should observe that photography in its most audacious, most alive aspects, has followed the same path as painting. Through the blond hyphen of Raoul Ubac, the past ruins join ruins to come, forever reborn. His women brandish the spear and defeated are the sisters of the dark Penthesilea by von Kleist. They are the incredible fossil flower, the fishing woman who tames quicksand. »

[14] See Wifredo Lam catalogue, Orichas, preface by G. Sebbag, Galerie Thessa Herold, Paris, 2006.

[15] The colophon of …hurle à la vie is dated : 23, february 1940, and the  Frappe de l’écho one : 26, May1940. See G. Sebbag, Les Éditions Surréalistes, 1926-1968, Imec éditions, Paris, 1993.

[16] Under the title « Surrealist Bibliography », Kurt Seligmann published in VVV n° 2-3, of March 1943, another list of surrealists, where the emphasis is put on the artists : Artaud, Breton, Calder, Carrington, Crevel, Domínguez, Duchamp, Ernst, Francés, Giacometti, Hare, Mabille, Masson, Matta, Miró, Péret, Picasso, Seligmann, Tanguy.



« Automatism, the touchstone of time », in catalogue Éxodo hacia el sur, Óscar Domínguez y el automatismo absoluto, 1938-1942, Iodacc, Tenerife, 2006.