Monday, May 30, 2011

Fowlie's Age of Surrealism

I've had Wallace Fowlie's Age of Surrealism (1950: The Swallow Press and William Morrow) on my shelf for a while, having found it a few years ago at the dump. In it there are some very thought-provoking passages.
The word surrealism . . . has one closed and confining use to describe the artistic movement centering in Paris in the years between the two World Wars, 1919-1939. In the 20's and the 30's, surrealism was an organized movement, iconclastic and revolutionary in nature, with its leaders and disciples, its manifestos and publications, its exhibitions and even its street brawls. It became international during those years to such an extent that fourteen countries were represented in its 1939 exhibition. But surrealism has another meaning, perhaps even an eternal meaning, and a context far wider than that of the Andre Breton group which chronologically succeeded dadaism about 1924. . . The importance and the seriousness of surrealism equal now the seriousness granted the other two contemporary movements of communism and neo-thomism. These three "revolutions" seem to be the most important for an understanding of our modern world, and although they appear to us now of almost equal importance, I shouldn't be surprised that in time surrealism, because of its subtle alliance with communism and the problem of spirituality, will grow into its real stature of the most vital and renovating movement of modern thought and art. [pp. 11-13]
Fowlie then places surrealism "beside the two words 'classicism' and 'romanticism' which for so long have been the cause of controversy and definition in Western art."
The immediate words which come to mind when we think of classicism are order, control, condensation, choice, synthesis, rules. The classical movement is that one when the artist is faithful not only to the rules of his art, established by such an authority as Aristotle, but faithful also to the government of his political state. As an artist he is in accord with the moral, political and aesthetic beliefs of his society. [p. 14]
Romanticism, according to Fowlie, is the opposite of classicism and as such is associated with revolution and liberation.
The classicist is closely bound up with society and the romanticist is the artist quite alone and apart, the individual who is opposed to society and who finds the rules for his art in himself. In its highest sense, romantic art is created by a single artist, as opposed to classical art which is created by a society. [p. 14]
Surrealism follows from romanticism in its belief in the autonomy of the artist, along with his isolation and uniqueness. The surrealists extolled automatism or automatic writing:
. . . as being the legitimate method of the creative artist. To seek in oneself, on all the various levels of consciousness of oneself, the rules and the form of one's art is the romantic method, but it is also the surrealist method. [pp. 14-15]
Fowlie explains that the conscious state of man is not sufficient.
His subconscious contains a larger and especially a more authentic or accurate part of his being. It was found that our conscious speech and our daily actions are usually in contradiction with our true selves and our deeper desires. The neat patterns of human behavior, set forth by the realists. . . were found to be patterns formed by social forces rather than our desires or temperaments or inner psychological selves. This discovery or conviction that we are more sincerely revealed in our dreams and in our purely instinctive actions than in our daily exterior habits of behavior. . . is of course basic to surrealism. . . A new kind of absolute is in sight, which, although it contains a refusal of what we usually call logical intelligence, it is an elevation of the subconscious of man into a position of power and magnitude and (the word now forces itself on us) surreality. [pp 16-17]
There are chapters on various surrealist writers, poets and playwrights (Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Apollinaire, Breton, Cocteau and Eluard, the friend of artist Max Ernst) followed by a chapter on the art of Picasso.

Interesting to note that the volume passed through the hands of two Manchester, New Hampshire booksellers.

Here's a bit on solitude which I found to be particularly interesting:
The word most often used to describe the romantic temperament is individualism. The romantic is generally considered the type of artist who has broken the rules and constraining bonds of an established order. . .But before attaining to this experience of himself, the romantic has had to go through a longer, and I believe, a far more significant experience which is that of solitude--a very particular kind of solitude which results in forming the prevailing temperament of the great modern artists. . . each one had to become a new and unique solitary hero, discovering in his own conscience and his own memory the subject matter of his works. The experience of solitude probably explains more about modern literature and art than any other single experience. In his solitude, which is his inheritance, the modern artist has had to learn that the universe which he is going to write or paint is in himself. . . The romantics held this belief partially and intuitively. The surrealists make it into a creed and a method. [pp. 26 & 29]
And this statement on the intrusiveness of the new media made me wonder how the surrealists of that time would react to television's ubiquitous presence in restaurants and Wal-Marts!
They were tired and disgusted with the literary eloquence and verboseness of the 20th century. Their age had become a verbal nightmare for them. The radio, with its perpetual flow of words, was converting the world into a delirious cacophony. The language of man was being prostituted and degraded as it had never been before. [p. 105]

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