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Surrealism, History and Revolution

Simon Baker

This book is a new account of the surrealist movement in France between the two world wars. It examines the uses that surrealist artists and writers made of ideas and images associated with the French Revolution, describing a complex relationship between surrealism’s avant-garde revolt and its powerful sense of history and heritage. Focusing on both texts and images by key figures such as Louis Aragon, Georges Bataille, Jacques-André Boiffard, André Breton, Robert Desnos, Max Ernst, Max Morise, and Man Ray, this book situates surrealist material in the wider context of the literary and visual arts of the period through the theme of revolution. It raises important questions about the politics of representing French history, literary and political memorial spaces, monumental representations of the past and critical responses to them, imaginary portraiture and revolutionary spectatorship. The study shows that a full understanding of surrealism requires a detailed account of its attitude to revolution, and that understanding this surrealist concept of revolution means accounting for the complex historical imagination at its heart.

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Introduction - Surrealism, history and revolution 21

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21 Introduction Surrealism, history and revolution How could Breton’s revolutionary attitude ever be anything other than a swindle? […] nothing is ever changed by a great big soft strumpet armed with a gift-wrapped library of dreams (Georges Bataille). 1 The 1917 English translation of Auguste Cabanès’s compendium of French historical curiosities, Le Cabinet Secret de l’Histoire, was entitled ‘The secret cabinet of history, peeped into by a doctor’. 2 Doctor Cabanès was a medical historian, a quintessentially late nineteenth-century man of letters whose authority was drawn from his experience as a practising doctor. The diagnostic tone of his earlier work La Santé des Grands Hommes (The Health of Great Men) offered an alternative vision of history as a series of hitherto un- suspected ailments. 3 In Le Cabinet Secret de l’Histoire, the qualified status of the peeping historian is just as vital. Cabanès lists intriguing possibilities about the disease that had afflicted Marat, recalls the activities of one of Robespierre’s doctors and digresses through di- verse examples of medical ephemera peripheral to ‘serious’ historical moments. 4 This book and its contents might also be understood as a secret cabinet of history, constructed through selective research but tending deliberately towards the obscure, the forgotten and the unpalatable. 1 G. Bataille, ‘The Castrated Lion’, Bataille’s contribution to the pamphlet ‘Un Cadavre’ (1929), G. Bataille, The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, M. Richardson (ed., trans.), London and New York, 1994, p.29. 2 A. Cabanès, The Secret Cabinet of History,...

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