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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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Chapter One - Surrealism and history 25


25 Chapter One Surrealism and history On May 5 th 1925, anniversary of the opening of the estates general and of the death of Napoleon, la Révolution surréaliste explodes (L’Europe Nouvelle). 1 In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx describes an uncomfortable relationship between past and present, between man-made histories and current circumstances, suggesting that: ‘The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living’. 2 The nightmare clearly held sway over the author of the bizarre historical analogy attributed to the journal L’Europe Nouvelle in la Révolution surréaliste 2, January 1925. The short text was one of many press extracts regarding surrealism republished in the journal, but it is likely to have been authored, rather than found, by a member of the surrealist group. The analogy between revolutions is, after all, noteworthy for an unlikely prescience: the alignment between the convocation of the estates general in 1789 (the birth of the French Revolution), the death of Napoleon in 1821 and the ‘explosion’ of the surrealist revolution on 5 May 1925, having not yet come to pass in the January of that year. The pressure to comply with such illustrious historical precedents seems (predictably) to have inspired a surrealist day of inertia, which is to say that nothing of historical consequence to the surrealist movement has been recorded. 3 The following December, however, Paul Eluard took a leaf from the same book to illustrate his text ‘D.A.F. de...

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