Surrealism, Freud and Trotsky

Although I attended the Metropolitan Museum Surrealism show  without any preconceptions, I found myself troubled by the artwork in a way that I had not anticipated. While I had previously seen many of the individual paintings, massed together they conveyed a very troubling image of women often erupting into open misogyny. Since I was aware that Surrealist leader and poet André Breton was a life-long Trotskyist, I wondered how a generally progressive social outlook could co-exist so comfortably with such a degraded view of women. Now that I have had a couple of weeks to review some background literature, including the show's informative but one-sided catalogue, I understand that the bastardized Freudian origins of Surrealism offer a partial explanation. When you factor in the boy's club milieu of Surrealist art, with its decadent Romanticist notions of Ideal Woman, it all begins to make sense.

Surrealism emerged in the aftermath of WWI. Along with the Dadaism that prepared the way for it, it was a rejection of bourgeois values, especially the rationalism that supposedly accounted for the wholesale destruction of life and property just concluded. It attacked the pretensions of high art, while retaining many of the painterly flourishes of earlier generations. When Marcel Duchamp painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa in the Dadaist "L.H.O.O.Q" in 1919, he captured the spirit of this movement. In many ways, it was to the radicalization of the 1920s as people like Abby Hoffman and the Fugs were to the 1960s radicalization.

While Surrealist painting tended to avoid any obvious engagement with the class struggle, the writers were deeply involved with radical politics. Breton and Louis Aragon were prominent CP intellectuals. As the Stalin-Trotsky fight divided poets as well as activists, Aragon became an apologist for Stalin, while Breton chose Trotskyism. Trotsky, who saw proletarian art and socialist realism as inimical to the goals of the 1917 revolution, found a natural ally in Breton and wrote a manifesto for artistic freedom that Breton circulated under his own name. Even if Surrealist fiction and poetry had the same cloistered and solipsistic quality as the paintings, Breton and others issued thousands of proclamations taking positions on the Spanish Civil War and other burning questions.

Reflecting the multifaceted character of the 1960s radicalization, and long before it "corrected" itself with the turn toward industry, the American Trotskyist movement published Franklin Rosemont's Breton collection titled "What is Surrealism: Selected Writings". Along with books like Frank Kofsky's "Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Jazz," it was a short-lived bid by a sectarian group to show that it was hip. No such pretensions exist nowadays.

Breton's 1935 interview with Indice, a socialist journal published in the Canary Islands, contains a succinct statement of Breton's beliefs, that were widely accepted by the Surrealist intellectuals and artists. Asked "What is the attitude of surrealism towards the most important theses of dialectical materialism and of contemporary psychology," Breton replies:

"We have long asserted our adherence to dialectical materialism, of which we embrace all the theses: primacy of matter over thought; adoption of the Hegelian dialectic as the science of the general laws of movement of the external world as well as of human thought; the materialist conception of history ('All social and political relations, all religious and legal systems, all theoretical conceptions which appear in history, can be explained only by conditions of material existence of the epoch in question'); necessity of social revolution as the resolution of the antagonism which arises, at a certain stage of their development, between the material productive forces of society and the relations of existing production (class struggle).

"Of contemporary psychology, surrealism retains that which tends to give a scientific basis to research into the origin and mutation of ideological images. In this sense it has attached a particular importance to Freud's investigations into the processes of dreaming and, more generally, to all of Freud's work which is the clinically based exploration of unconscious life."

While the Marxist elements of surrealism remained underdeveloped, Freud's "insights" informed nearly everything that both the writers and painters produced. It is important to understand that surrealism did not take a literal-minded and clinical approach to Freud's theories. For the most part, it did not look at psychoanalysis as a means to achieving mental health, something largely unattainable in bourgeois society in any case. Instead, they saw it as a way of tapping into the deep psychic reservoirs that can produce memorable art. More to the point, mental illness--and hysteria in particular--was a normal response to the insanity of capitalist society. Their notions on this relationship anticipated not only R.D. Laing but the postmodernism of Deleuze-Guattari and Lacan. Indeed, it was probably the postmodernist angle with its focus on 'subject' and 'desire' that probably motivated the curators of the Metropolitan Museum to organize such a show.

Edited by Jennifer Mundy and titled "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," the catalog dwells at length on the Freudian elements of surrealism. It reveals that postmodernist icon and psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan was close to surrealist circles himself. Reviewed in the April 13, 1997 NY Times, Elisabeth Roudinesco's biography of Jacques Lacan provides some additional details:

"Born in Paris in 1901 to a prosperous Roman Catholic family of vinegar merchants, Lacan had a temperament and demeanor that reflected the source of his ancestors' rise to position. The missing limbs and dazed faces of World War I veterans that he saw as a schoolboy made him want to be a doctor, but he had, as a teen-ager, also begun to despise his family, and, as Ms. Roudinesco puts it, dress 'like a dandy.' As a young psychiatrist, Lacan fell under the sway of Salvador Dali and by 1931 began to synthesize psychiatry, psychoanalysis and Surrealism."

For Mundy, such connections are paramount. Her index has 13 pages of references to Lacan and only two for Leon Trotsky. She writes:

"The surrealists' exploration of desire was influenced by psychoanalysis but not subservient to it. Freud was regarded, with but a few reservations, as a pioneering figure of incalculable importance, but the surrealists rejected the notion of 'cure' and the standards of 'normalcy' implicit in psychoanalysis. They also ultimately - and in their poetic texts quite insistently - preferred a vision of desire as an active, ever-creative force, to a concept of desire founded on the notion of lack. Nonetheless, the two principal images used within Freudian psychoanalysis to conjure desire and its effects - 'unbound' energy within the unconscious, on the one hand, and a compulsive, fetishistic process, on the other - find strong echoes in the surrealists' explorations of desire. Through the techniques of automatic writing and automatic drawing, for example, the surrealists tapped into, or came close to, the energies and half-formed thoughts and impulses of the lower levels of the consciousness. Breton once described automatism as leading to the psychophysical region characterised by the 'absence of contradiction' and 'the relaxation of emotional tension', that, he said, alluding openly to Freud, was ruled by the pleasure principle alone. The fetishistic model of desire corresponded to the surrealists' trompe d'oeil visual images remembered from dreams and fantasies, and to their specifically constructed 'objects with a symbolic function'. In these works the image or object stood in the place of veiled or sublimated impulses and desires, as a recompense for, or an intervention in, what the surrealists saw as the inadequacies of reality."

Keeping in mind that the surrealists had no intention of "healing" sexual obsessions but rather tended to nurture them in order to make artwork out of them like an oyster makes a pearl from a grain of sand, it should come as no surprise that some of their most famous paintings objectify and degrade women--all in the name of tapping into "the lower levels of the consciousness" as Mundy puts it. Unfortunately, the lower levels of consciousness often amount to carriage trade versions of what you might find in Larry Flynt's "Hustler".

René Magritte's aptly named "The Rape" superimposes the midsection of a naked woman's body on her face. Her eyes are the breasts and the vagina is the mouth. The catalog states, "In transforming the face into a body, Magritte makes it a fetish." It also states that although Breton did not write about Magritte's work until the 1960s, he regarded "The Rape" as a key surrealist image.

Turning to a highly regarded, but lesser-known work, André Masson's "Gradiva" depicts a woman whose stomach and pelvis has been transformed into a raw steak, and her vagina into a rather menacing looking clam equipped with what looks like a set of fangs. Her half-rotting body has attracted a swarm of bees. Behind the supine woman is an erupting volcano, no doubt symbolizing the menace of female sexuality. Based on a character in a 1903 novella that Freud had analyzed, the figure represents unconscious desire and all the other psychoanalytic boilerplate. The catalog solemnly declares that Masson's grotesque figure represented "male longing and displaced desire."

Finally, when we turn to the German sculptor Hans Bellmer, we see graphic images of cruelty toward women that no artist could represent today, at least in the name of social and political emancipation. During the 1930s, Bellmer constructed life-sized dolls out of wood, metal, plaster and ball joints that were then twisted out of shape. He published photos of his work in surrealist journals to produce, as he put it, a mixture of "joy, exaltation and fear." The knotted-up sex dolls were supposed to help the viewer recover the "enchanted garden" of childhood. They also were meant as protests against Nazism, because they rejected the Ideal Form of the Aryan body. If this was his goal, one can only wonder why they only assaulted women.

Not only does Bellmer's work draw from Freud, it also hearkens back to Marquis de Sade, who was a patron saint of the Surrealist movement. The catalog explains, "Apart from these photographic records of imaginary misdeeds, Bellmer writes openly of a drive to master 'victims', and to this end he poses all his poupées very voyeuristically. With the first doll he goes far as to design an internal mechanism filled with miniature panoramas as a means to 'pluck away the secret thoughts of the little girls'."

When the surrealist artists were not twisting women apart or turning their vaginas into man-eating clams, they were putting them on pedestals. To a large extent, this reflected the disenchantment with Futurism and other forms of modern art that celebrated technology and progress. In some ways, surrealism represented a kind of Late Romanticism that rejected modernity in the same way that earlier versions did. So, for many surrealists, courtly love is a natural outcome for a psyche that refuses to conform to a bourgeois society that has enshrined science and logic. If bourgeois society promoted Enlightenment values, the surrealists would have none of it. If so much of modern culture stressed progressive values, surrealism for its part would champion dreams, fetishes, hysteria, mystery and nostalgia for the past.

This being the case, it is something of a mystery why there would be such a powerful affinity between Leon Trotsky and André Breton, its leading theoretician.

At the outset, Breton's enthusiasm for psychoanalysis would not present any sort of obstacle since he had expressed a friendly interest in Freudian theory in the 1920s, long before both he and Freud had become personae non grata in the USSR. Trotsky looked to those elements in Freud that were of least interest to the surrealists, namely the almost mechanistic relationship between the material environment and the mind. It should come as no surprise that Trotsky looked favorably on both Freud and Pavlov in his "Culture and Socialism," since both figures resonated with his own biological reductionist tendencies. Trotsky writes:

"The school of the Viennese psychoanalyst Freud proceeds in a different way. It assumes in advance that the driving force of the most complex and delicate of psychic processes is a physiological need. In this general sense it is materialistic, if you leave aside the question whether it does not assign too big a place to the sexual factor at the expense of others, for this is already a dispute within the frontiers of materialism. But the psychoanalyst approaches the problems of consciousness not experimentally, going from the lowest phenomena to the highest, from the simple reflex to the complex reflex, but attempts to take all these intermediate stages in one jump, from above downwards, from the religious myth, the lyrical poem, or the dream straight to the physiological basis of the psyche."

Obviously, Breton and his colleagues theorized Freud in a completely different manner, but at least both sides saw something good. Furthermore, when Trotsky was in exile, and when Soviet art was becoming ever more pedestrian and didactic, it is understandable that he would reach out to a major figure in the French intelligentsia. According to Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky "accepted the Surrealists' quasi-Freudian concentration on dream and subconscious experience, but shook his head over a 'strand of mysticism' in the work of Breton and his friends."

You can find an altogether touching description of how the two engaged with each other in Breton's account of his visit with Trotsky in Rosemont's book. They are discussing "objective chance," a key element of surrealist ideology. It is not easy to capture in words, but it deals with serendipitous and unpredictable moments when incongruous elements encountered in everyday life combine together to produce a kind of mystical insight, like in a waking dream. Here is Breton's account of their discussion:

At other times he took up this or that concept which he considered worthy of putting before me, submitting it to a sharp critique. He thus said one day: 'Comrade Breton, your interest in phenomena of objective chance does not appear clear to me. Yes, I know well that Engels referred to this notion, but I ask myself if, in your case, it isn't something else. I am not sure you aren't interested in keeping open [his hands described a little space in the air] a little window on the beyond.'

"I hadn't finished defending my position when he reproved me: 'I'm not convinced. Elsewhere, you have written something - oh yes, that these phenomena present characteristics disturbing to you.'

'Pardon me,' I replied, 'I wrote "disturbing in the present state of knowledge". Would you like to look it up?'

He looked up a little nervously, took a few steps, and turned back to me. 'If you said "in the present state of knowledge", I see nothing more to argue about. I withdraw my objection.'

Surrealism remained a powerful element in bohemian art and culture long after it had lost its novelty. It always remained an attractive option for leftist artists and writers who were not comfortable with the Stalinist cultural model. Among them is the Martinique poet and playwright Aimé Césaire who served on the editorial board of VVV, a surrealist journal based in the USA. Breton was an avid admirer of Césaire, whose 1955 "Discourse on Colonialism" was republished recently by Monthly Review. Along with CLR James, Césaire served as a revolutionary alternative to Stalinism for an entire generation of Caribbean intellectuals.

Another editorial board member at VVV was Philip Lamantia, who was to become best known as a leading figure of the new poetry of the 1940s and 50s that included the beats and the San Francisco Renaissance writers. It would not be much of a stretch to argue that Lamantia represents a link in the chain between the counter-culture of the 1930s and that of the 1960s. Surrealist poetry and culture were definitely read by young people in the 1950s and 60s, who were searching for an alternative to the Rationalism of their time, which amounted to Cadillac tailfins, the H-Bomb, conformity and Madison Avenue for all practical purposes.

As surrealist poetry and writing lived on in this fashion, so did surrealist art even if it went through permutations. One of the other editors at VVV was Robert Motherwell, who became a leading figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Not surprisingly, the transition between surrealism and abstract expressionism was relatively seamless. Although the latter school eschewed figurative elements, even in the off-kilter manner of a Magritte or a Dali, it retained the obsession with psychoanalysis. Where a surrealist painting might tend toward an open representation of Oedipal themes, for example, the abstract expressionist would dispense with the symbols and concentrate more on the raw energy generated by an inescapable neurosis. Robert Hughes describes their relationship as follows:

Some of their tracks were obviously parallel. Many of the American painters had read Freud and Jung; Jackson Pollock spent two years (1939-41) in Jungian analysis, and they all lived in a city whose cultural circles accepted going to the shrink as a normal feature of the social landscape, as Paris did not. The deep interest that early Abstract Expressionism showed in preconscious and unconscious images as the very root of art was not, therefore, simply a mimicking of Surrealist procedures. Nevertheless the example, and presence, of André Masson mattered a good deal to the younger American painters, for he - more than any other member of the Surrealist group -had tried to close the cultural gap between the fantasies of urban, modern man and the old dark imagery of prehistoric cultures, the recurrent content of myth from the caves of France to the labyrinth of Minos. When Mark Rothko in 1943 declared his belief that "the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless," he was appealing to the kind of archetypal imagery that Masson's paintings of massacres, labyrinths, and totems had invoked for the past fifteen years. This was D. H. Lawrence's "knowledge of the blood" given pictorial form.

Oddly enough, for all its hostility to bourgeois civilization, the very hand it would bite has adopted surrealism in a way it probably never would have anticipated. One cannot watch more than a few television commercials or look through the pages of a fashion magazine without seeing some element of surrealism.

In a profile on fashion photographer David LaChapelle in the November 29, 1994 NY Times titled "Mixing Dada, Cher, Middle America", we learn that LaChappelle distinguishes himself by breeding contempt. A shooting seems to owe more to Hans Bellmer than Richard Avedon, as the Times reports:

A model posed between two steely generators that were props but were just as officious as the meat-locker-looking chamber itself, especially with signs attached warning "Danger Electrical Equipment. Authorized Personnel Only." Then there was the figure dressed as a laboratory worker, who kept darting in front of the camera, wielding an elongated ray gun and poking Ms. Claussen at intervals.

"It's a very contemporary surrealism," said James Truman, the editorial director of Conde Nast, who published some of Mr. LaChapelle's first work for Details magazine. "He's perhaps just working from a different set of traditions than Peter Lindbergh. It's not about Belle Epoque remembered. It's sort of Dadaism, Surrealism, 50's kitsch to 70's bad taste, and 90's cyberculture."

On October 2, 1998, the Times reported on "A new spot for Chanel No. 5 dabs on some sex and surrealism." The Chanel No 5 ads always featured the work of leading-edge photographers, who would go into filmmaking like Ridley Scott. That year Chanel hired Luc Besson, the director of the rather superficial but visually arresting "La Femme Nikita", to create a new ad based on Little Red Riding Hood.

The spot starts with music from the film "Edward Scissorhands" and a shot of Ms. Warren treading a footbridge to an armored door marked with the "5" from the No. 5 logo. She gains entry with an access code -- yes, 5. Taking a bottle from the wall, she proceeds to the exit. The Eiffel Tower amid cinematic snow reveals the setting to be Paris.

"We looked at not having a French element," Mr. Kopelman said, "but it's key to remind people that this product, the first designer fragrance, is after all French."

Suddenly a black wolf emerges, ready to pounce. But beauty prevails over the beast, defusing the attack with a tender shush. As Ms. Warren departs, the wolf howls and the camera pulls back to show an oversized "5" on the floor, which then becomes a bottle of Chanel No. 5.

Sounds a little like "Objective Chance", doesn't it?

In hailing Breton's heroic attempt to strike a blow for freedom through a highly personalized art based on fetishes and dreams, Trotsky could not have anticipated the final outcome of this aesthetic in glitzy TV and magazine ads. Neither could the Trotskyists of the 1940s around Partisan Review have anticipated the evolution of abstract expressionism into a kind of official art of US imperialism.

In retrospect, we can see that Trotsky bent the stick too far. In identifying himself with art and literature that avoided "messages" like the plague, he wound up with a current that ultimately had little to offer the world except an artist's private obsessions.

In contrast, the CP put pressure on the artist to strive for exactly such messages. The difference between a Ben Shahn and a Max Ernst could not have been greater. In reality, as with so much of the Stalin-Trotsky divide, positions were taken not necessarily on the merit of the questions under debate but on the need to distinguish oneself in the marketplace of ideas broadly speaking. Now that this divide no longer exists, it is up to artists of the current generation to begin to develop brand-new approaches. As in the case of revolutionary politics in general, the issues that divided the left in the 1930s are no longer germane. Revolutionary politics and revolutionary art has to move forward or die.


Robert Hughes, "Shock of the New"

Franklin Rosemont, "What is Surrealism"

Jennifer Mundy, "Surrealism: Desire Unbound"

Leon Trotsky, "Culture and Socialism" (in Deutscher's collection "Age of Permanent Revolution")