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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 Six - Surrealism in the streets 295


295 Chapter Six Surrealism in the streets And what distinguishes a society is the fact that – radically differentiating it from a crowd, which is formed by the inter-attraction of similar individuals – it is a whole limited by individuals forming a whole that is different from a crowd (Georges Bataille). 1 The introduction to this book described the necessity of moving beyond the vision of surrealism that has been previously available through an engagement with the forms of historical spectatorship that determined the ideological directions and representational strategies adopted by the surrealist movement. In the first instance, this entailed an exploration of what a surrealist vision of history, or a surrealist historiography, might be. The next step was to consider how these phenomena could be explained with reference to the political pres- sures on academic historians and the representation of the French Revolution for educational purposes. It was against this background, the partisan construction of revolutionary heroes and villains, that surrealist identifications with the concept of grands hommes were developed, and three separate but related arguments were put forward: the first explored the possibility and potential character of a surrealist pantheon; the second concerned monumental representation and the tension between material form and iconography; the third analysed the monumental construction of Sade as a grand homme for surrealism’s revolutionary pantheon. This methodology inevitably resulted in mult- iple movements back and forth, through time, text, archive and image, generating its own distinct form of historical spectatorship: a revo- lutionary vision of surrealism....

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