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The Future of Surrealism

29 August 2015

From the May 2015 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here 

During the Second World War, at the height of the London Blitz, the novelist Inez Holden paused in the street by a bombed-out hotel. Across the road, the trees in the park were newly decorated with the contents of a burst wardrobe: a length of marabou, two or three stockings, a bowler hat. Also looking at this bizarre tableau was an acquaintance of hers, a surrealist painter. As they stood there, taking in the wrecked building, the draped trees and the bowler hat, the painter remarked: ‘Of course we were painting this kind of thing years ago, but it has taken some time to get here.’

Cover of ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories (July 1940), with an illustration by Howard V. Brown (1878–1945). UCR Libraries, University of California, Riverside

Surrealism always had one of its misshapen, compound eyes on the future, as if by reading the runes of the unconscious mind and making them manifest in art, the course of things to come could be brought into view. For many, like Holden’s painter friend, the war made surrealism into prophecy. Twisted parts, unexpected juxtapositions in empty landscapes: the tangled viscera of a Max Ernst painting begged a kind of haruspication. When that prophecy came true, however, surrealism itself began to seem historical. What good was prophecy? To Sartre, the surrealists had been ‘the heralds of catastrophe in the time of the fat cows; but when the cows are lean they have nothing left to say’. They had dreamed the dream of Pharaoh, with no existentialist Joseph to show them what to make of it. Adorno put it more straightforwardly: ‘After the European catastrophe the surrealist shocks lost their force.’

And yet surrealism didn’t go away. In Futures of Surrealism, Gavin Parkinson sets out to recount the ‘still almost entirely untold history of surrealist encounters from the 1940s to the 1960s and beyond’. Parkinson clearly agrees with surrealism’s de facto founder André Breton, who continued to insist in 1947 that surrealism ‘is what will be’, and his book proves a valuable guide to some of the movement’s most important offshoots and transformations in the years of the Cold War. The emphasis falls heavily on science fiction and fantasy, and Parkinson makes a persuasive case for surrealism as a vital force in French postwar culture and a key influence on both Nouvelle Vague cinema and the nouveau roman.

Cover of ‘Astounding Stories’ (June 1936), with an illustration by Howard V. Brown. University of Liverpool

If that is not in itself a very surprising claim, the way it is made is fresh and illuminating. Across six loosely connected chapters, Parkinson traces an extraordinarily dense web of connections between surrealist art and science fiction, showing how postwar surrealism was revitalised by its encounters with Anglophone pulp fiction and parapsychology. H.P. Lovecraft becomes – revealingly, and surprisingly – a guiding spirit for the anti-rationalist thinking of a movement attempting to come to terms with the failure of the Enlightenment, as represented by European fascism. In some ways, this seems an odd place to start: Parkinson spends a lot of time showing how indirect were the connections between Lovecraft and the French surrealists, and indeed begins with the disclaimer that there was ‘no actual exchange between the first generation of Surrealists and H.P. Lovecraft’.

It’s possible that England, rather than America, might have offered a better foothold, given that, in novels by Anna Kavan, Alan Burns and others, the tradition of surrealist fiction in England constituted a significant, if neglected, response to precisely the Cold War conditions that this book proposes to examine. The claiming of such unexpected affiliations has precedent – England’s first surrealist novelist, Hugh Sykes Davies, used to insist (quite rightly) that Coleridge and De Quincey had got there long before Breton. Nonetheless, Parkinson’s enquiry might have been enriched if he had abandoned or extended what prove to be rather arbitrary limits. By beginning with Lovecraft and ending with J.G. Ballard, he highlights the absence of other figures who might have been part of this fascinating story. The exclusion of the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, perhaps the single most recognisable figure of the postwar surrealism-science fiction nexus, seems a particular shame.

Cover of the first issue of ‘Planete’ (October 1961). Archive of Gavin Parkinson

Parkinson goes on to give a stimulating reading of the influence of pulp science fiction on post-war French artists, and the contraflow of what might be called demotic surrealism, which produced so many striking visualisations of science-fiction worlds on the covers of paperback novels. He discerns the influence of Yves Tanguy, in particular, in the alien landscapes of cover artists like Richard M. Powers, Frank R. Paul, and Howard V. Brown – the middle initial was, it seems, de rigueur – and gives a valuable account of the long-running spat between later surrealists and the ‘fantastic realism’ movement inaugurated by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels in their magazine Planète. It isn’t always clear, in the course of these readings, what kind of audience is being addressed: sometimes the approach seems highly specialised, assuming a good deal of knowledge on the part of the reader; at other times considerable space is given to what seem relatively straightforward claims. I also found myself wondering what to make of the geopolitical angle: the introduction promises a book that will deal with the Cold War-era implications of surrealism, among other topics, but many questions remain unanswered on that front. What happens to surrealism once it has been commodified into cover art for mass-market paperbacks? What cultural struggles, if any, can be discerned in the American influence on French surrealist circles after 1945? Was surrealism affected by the Marshall Plan, or by the cultural manoeuvrings of the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom? Who knows.

These are tantalisingly broad questions, which deserve as much attention as Parkinson gives to detailing the specific points of who introduced whom to what key text. All in all, though, Futures of Surrealism does what it sets out to do, making a strong case for the continued importance of surrealist aesthetics in postwar France, and the richness of the material is enough to excuse an occasionally sticky prose style. If it raises questions it can’t answer, well, no shame in that. How else but by asking such questions would we find our way to what Breton himself described as ‘the sweet escape called the future’?

James Purdon is a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge.

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