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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 Two - La Révolution surréaliste – the surrealist revolution 65


65 Chapter Two La Révolution surréaliste – the surrealist revolution La République sera conservatrice ou elle ne sera pas (Adolphe Thiers) .1 La Beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas (André Breton). 2 On 15th October 1923, Albert Mathiez, a professor of History at the University of Dijon, appeared at the Club de Faubourg in Paris, a popular venue renowned for lively debates and theatrical perform- ances, to deliver a eulogy entitled ‘Une figure de la Révolution; Robespierre.’ 3 The episode in itself is unremarkable, although a historian of Mathiez’s reputation, who had only recently edited a prestigious new edition of Jean Jaurès’ Histoire Socialiste, might have been used to lecturing in more salubrious surroundings. What is remarkable is that Mathiez, a committed left-wing intellectual and respected authority on the French Revolution should have been depu- tising for Robert Desnos, a twenty-three year old, little-known poet, at that time associated with the avant-garde literary journal Littérature, a platform for Dada poets and writers in Paris. The circumstances which brought Mathiez and Desnos into synchronous orbit in 1923 mark the unlikely intersection of the three terms central to this book: surrealism, history and revolution. Mathiez’s lecture was the result of a missed appointment, an appointment which Desnos, along with his collaborators Louis Ara- gon, André Breton and Paul Eluard, should perhaps have kept. It was not however, the first incursion that Mathiez had made into the world of avant-garde Parisian literature. In March of the same...

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