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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 Three - Tales from the crypt / a surrealist pantheon 107

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107 Chapter Three Tales from the crypt / a surrealist pantheon In Paris, on 4th April 1791, two days after the death of Mirabeau, the Constituent Assembly ratified a decree proposing that the church of Ste-Geneviève be transformed into a Panthéon as a memorial to the great men of the Revolution. The following day, Marat had this to say of the decision: I shall not dwell here on the ridiculous spectacle of an assembly of vile and inept low-lifes setting themselves up as judges of immortality. How can they be so stupid as to believe that the present generation, much less the future races of mankind, will subscribe to their pronouncements? 1 The ‘ami du peuple’, an arguably popular voice in the context of revolutionary publishing, saw the Panthéon as a transparent testimony to flawed judgement and had little confidence in what it might mean for future generations. This scepticism may have seemed well founded for almost a century until in 1885, the Third French Republic per- manently restored the revolutionary character of the Panthéon with an elaborate ceremony to receive the remains of Victor Hugo. This event however, was clearly intended to resurrect a more literary tradition that began on 11 July 1791 with the addition of the remains of Voltaire and which had then been reinforced by the ‘pantheonisation’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau two years later. It is characteristic of the history of the monument that Marat himself should also have been given the ‘honours’...

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