Surrealism and the dream
1. A wave of dreams
Fig.1. Front cover of La Révolution surréaliste, no. 1.
The first issue of La Révolution surréaliste [The Surrealist revolution], dated December 1, 1924 [fig. 1], opened with an editorial-style “Preface” signed by Jacques- André Boiffard, Paul Éluard and Roger Vitrac, which began by saying that, “With the trial of knowledge no longer on the agenda, and intelligence no longer entering into account, the dream alone grants man all his rights to freedom. Thanks to the dream, death no longer has any obscure meaning and the meaning of life becomes a matter of indifference.” And concluded with the following words: “Revolution… Revolution… Realism is pruning trees, Surrealism is pruning life.” Further on in the same number there were dream narratives by Giorgio de Chirico, André Breton and Renée Gauthier. Narratives that would abound in later issues of the magazine, thus lending continuity to a genre of writing that, ever since 1919, had had an important presence in Littérature [Literature], the other magazine, Dada in orientation, prior to the forming of the Surrealist Group in 1924.
Georges Sebbag summarized the chronological stages of the pre-Surrealist invocation of the dream as follows: 1. At the end of January 1919, the onset of sleep [présommeil]. Before falling asleep Breton hears the automatic message “There is a man cut in two by the window.” From this message there will derive the automatic writing of The Magnetic Fields [Les Champs magnétiques]. 2. March 1922, the dream [rêve] narrative. In that month Littérature, new series, number 1, publishes “Récit de trois rêves” [Three dream narratives], preceded by the reproduction of the famous painting by Giorgio de Chirico The Child’s Brain [Le Cerveau de l’enfant], in which the corpulent fi gure we see before us, bare-chested, eyelids lowered, appears to have just got out of bed at night like a sleepwalker [fig. 2]. Appearing in the same issue are “Interview du Professeur Freud à Vienne” [Interview with Professor Freud in Vienna] and the record of objective chance, entitled “L’Esprit Nouveau” [The new spirit]. 3. Autumn 1922, the so-called period of sleeping fi ts [sommeils]. The Surrealist Group experiments with hypnotic slumber, as related in “The Mediums Enter” [“Entrée des médiums”] (Sebbag 2004, 9). Sebbag delves into these phases and what happened in them in his contribution to this catalogue.
The text by André Breton, “The Mediums Enter,” later included in his book The Lost Steps [Les Pas perdus], contained what may be considered the first definition of “Surrealism” as “a certain psychic automatism that corresponds rather well to the dream [rêve] state” (Breton 1924, 90). After the evening of September 25, 1922, when the spiritualist sessions invoking the dream got under way in André Breton’s house, these sessions followed one another almost nightly until the end of February 1923 when, after a dreamlike trance in which Robert Desnos locked the others in a room for several hours, Breton decided to bring them to an end once and for all.
Psychic automatism, automatic writing, dream. Along with the desire for an intense poetic renewal, these are the fundamental elements that will finally lead to the formation of the Surrealist Group in 1924. In October of that same year there appear A Wave of Dreams [Une Vague de rêves] by Louis Aragon and the Manifesto of Surrealism [Manifeste du surréalisme] by André Breton. In the Manifesto Breton asks: “Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental problems of life?” In opposition to the primacy of logic and rationalism, he also formulates another question, one which is at the same time a hope for the future: “When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers?” (Breton 1924a, 12). The dream is linked to the imagination, which is emphatically invoked, “Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality” (Breton 1924a, 4), and to the rehabilitation of the marvelous. Breton explicitly indicates that “a great deal more could be said” about the dream, but that on this occasion he had made up his mind “to touch upon” it lightly and in passing, his aim being “to mark a point by noting the hate of the marvelous which rages in certain men” (Breton 1924a, 14). Ultimately, dream and imagination, the means of expression of the marvelous, constitute ways of arriving at the full exercise of freedom on the part of man, the essence and overarching aim of “the Surrealist revolution”: “The mere word ‘freedom’ is the only one that still excites me” (Breton 1924a, 4).
Fig. 2. Giorgio de Chirico, The Child’s Brain [Le Cerveau de l’enfant], 1914.
Oil on canvas, 80.8 × 64.7 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
Fig. 3. The Awakening of the Child’s Brain [Réveil du cerveau de l’enfant], 1950.
Photograph published by André Breton in Almanach surréaliste du démi-siècle.
Looking back almost three decades later, Breton would state that the obstacles, barriers and impediments that Surrealism wanted to overcome “were logical obstacles (narrow rationalism not letting anything pass that hadn’t received its stamp of approval), moral obstacles (in the form of sexual and social taboos), and, perhaps the worst of all, obstacles of taste, governed by sophistic conventions of ‘good manners.’” (Breton 1952, 63). Dream and imagination, then, as coded expressions, in the image, of the total freedom of human mental activity, beyond the restrictions of logic, morality and the conventions of taste.
In the opening lines of the Manifesto Breton had already defi ned man as an “inveterate” or “incurable” dreamer [rêveur défi nitif]. And later he indicated that he felt obliged to consider wakefulness “a phenomenon of interference” (Breton 1924a, 12). In the last analysis, the dream would be the realm of complete human satisfaction; in the dream everything is possible: “The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content” (Breton 1924a, 13). The last formulation, so close to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the dream as an expression of the realization of desire, finally concludes in the belief in a realm of conciliation between the dream and reality:
“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak” (Breton 1924a, 14). Surreality or superreality, a synthesis of opposites behind which there hovers the idealist conception of Hegel’s dialectic, has, then, one of its chief components in the dream.
What I take to be central in the declarations of Breton is that the dream ceases to be considered a void, a mere hole in consciousness, and is understood as “the other pole,” more or less latent or not completely explicit, of mental activity. The “real” is enlarged in the “surreal,” whose most consistent manifestation, due to its continuity and intensity, would be the dream.
It is also important to emphasize the importance of the visual nature of the dream. When in the Manifesto Breton relates the dream in which he hears the phrase “There is a man cut in two by the window,” he indicates that “there could be no question of ambiguity, accompanied as it was by the faint visual image of a man walking cut half way up by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body.” And in a footnote he adds, “Were I a painter, this visual depiction would doubtless have become more important for me than the other” (Breton 1924a, 21–22). It seems obvious that Breton’s dream acts upon the visual material of the picture by Giorgio de Chirico, which had strongly attracted his attention when he first saw it from a bus which was passing the gallery where it was on exhibition in 1914, and which he would end up buying not long afterwards, at a date that has not been completely identifi ed. He kept it until 1964, when he sold it, probably for economic reasons. In 1950, when it appeared in the Almanach surréaliste du démi-siècle [Surrealist almanach of the mid-century], Breton published a retouched photograph of the picture with the title The Awakening of the Child’s Brain [Réveil du cerveau de l’enfant], in which the personage depicted appears with his eyes open, rather than closed as in the painting [fig. 3].
Also in October 1924, Louis Aragon published A Wave of Dreams, although it appears he had fi nished writing it a short time before Breton completed the Manifesto. Breton’s conceptual, much more restrained tone contrasts with Aragon’s exalted lyricism in this beautiful piece of literature. One of his affirmations—“It’s all about coming up with a new declaration of human rights” (Aragon 1924, 10)—would be used as a slogan on the cover of the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste, and it is strange to register the point to which it connects today with contemporary aspirations towards the regeneration of politics in this period of widespread crisis for representative democracy.
Like Breton, Aragon exalts freedom, especially as regards its connection with the marvelous: “Freedom, that wonderful word, at last has a meaning: Liberty begins where the marvelous is born” (Aragon 1924, 7). Here, surreality is also posited as a realm that exceeds what is generally understood as “reality,” like a genus whose species would be chance, illusion, the fantastic and the dream: “There are other experiences that the mind can embrace which are equally fundamental such as chance, illusion, the fantastic, dreams. These different types of experience are brought together and reconciled in one genus, surreality” (Aragon 1924, 3; tr. slightly modified).
Aragon recognizes Breton’s priority in “the discovery” of the new importance of the dream: “It is 1919: André Breton … while applying himself to understanding the mechanism of the dream [rêve] … rediscovers on the threshold of sleep [sommeil] the threshold and nature of inspiration” (Aragon 1924, 3–4; tr. slightly modified). The first few steps towards the Surrealist universe of the dream, linked to the discovery and practice of automatic writing, and to the sleeping fi ts [sommeil] to do with spiritualism, had been taken between 1919 and 1922, within the framework of the activities of the group coalescing around the magazine Littérature. As Aragon admits, “An outbreak of sleeping fi ts [sommeil] swamped the Surrealists” (Aragon 1924, 6; tr. slightly modifi ed).
All the same, he emphasizes that “An idea once formed does not limit itself to just being, it reflects upon itself: it exists” (Aragon 1924, 7). And so for two years the concept of surreality would spin round and round, with a changing set of resolutions in tow. All this, until encountering in the dream its new point of departure: “At its starting point Surrealism rediscovers the dream, whence it came. But now the dream is illuminated by the flash of Surrealism and assumes its meaning” (Aragon 1924, 7). I think it is important to point out once again the extent to which we encounter, here, “the shadow” of Hegel, since as the subject of this entire process Aragon nominates the idea, which is consolidated as “the concept of surreality.” However, there is a crucial nuance that differentiates Surrealist idealism from the philosophical idealism of Hegel: in the case of Surrealism the idea is consolidated and manifested as image. In the realm of Surrealism the image is, and so when it is visualized through the dream or the imagination it is not possible to consider it as a mere illusion, but as that marvelous affair which constitutes the other part of reality.
In 1924 the way is defi nitively paved, the frontier has been crossed. This is the year, the fi gure, that opens “the doors” to the establishment of the “Republic of dreams,” with its “Presidents,” a set of iconic names that Aragon lists (Aragon 1924, 8), and its “dreamers,” the members of the nascent Surrealist Group: “1924: under this number, its dragnet behind, trailing a harvest of moon-bream, under this number adorned with disasters, strange stars in its hair, the contagion of dreaming spreads through city districts and countryside.” Dreams dominate everything:
"Dreams, dreams, dreams, with each step the domain of dreams expands. Dreams, dreams, dreams, at last the blue sun of dreams forces the steel-eyed beasts back to their lairs. Dreams, dreams, dreams on the lips of love, on the numbers of happiness, on the teardrops of carefulness, on the signals of hope, on building sites where a whole nation submits to the authority of pickaxes. Dreams, dreams, dreams, nothing but dreams where the wind wanders and barking dogs are out on the roads (Aragon 1924, 8).
The Surrealist image of the world is expressed in the dream, in which it attains complete freedom, to the point of rubbing shoulders with the infinite: “Free, free: … For he is dreaming, and I am dreaming, swept away, I dream. I am dreaming of a long dream where everyone would be dreaming. I do not know what will come of this new undertaking of dreams. I dream at the edge of the world and the night. … Who’s there? Ah good: let the infinite in” (Aragon 1924, 11).
Although it is not possible to deal with all its moments and manifestations here, it is necessary to point out that the importance of the dream in the Surrealist project of liberation will go on being stressed in the years ahead. A decisive step will be the publication, in 1932, of Communicating Vessels [Les Vases communicants] by André Breton. When Surrealism placed itself in 1929 “in the service of the Revolution,” in a text that seeks to reconcile the tenets of Surrealism with Marxist dialectical materialism, the revolutionary, the man of action, is told that he must dream, that he must love, that a connecting thread exists which enables one to trace the unity of the exterior world and the interior world, which would be attained by the poet of the future: “The poet to come will surmount the depressing idea of the irreparable divorce between action and dream” (Breton 1932, 146).
A further important step would be the publication of another signifi cant text by André Breton, L’Amour fou [Mad love], in 1937. Of this text Gaëtan Picon notes that, “As in Les Vases communicants, so in L’Amour fou Breton tries to bridge two worlds whose separation is intolerable to twentieth-century man. But the two opposite shores now are no longer Dream and Revolution: they are dream (or desire) and the physical existence of the person, and it is love, mad love, unique love, that bridges the gap between them. Love that sheds light and opens the World—not the world of the class struggle but that of ‘the heights aglow in the rising sun’” (Picon 1977, 133).
2. Life's other fifty percent
The Surrealist conception of the dream has specific features which differentiate it from other approaches. It is true that following on from various antecedents—Romantic literature, Symbolist writing and the specific contributions of psychiatry and psychology in the nineteenth century — the decisive impulse behind Surrealist approaches to, and elaborations of, the dream derive from Sigmund Freud and his major work, The Interpretation of Dreams [Die Traumdeutung, 1900]. But the Surrealists did not confine themselves to being mere followers of Freud. For them the dream is what might be termed life’s other fifty percent, a level of experience different to conscious life, the knowledge and liberation of which impinges in a special way on the enrichment and amplification of mental life, which constitutes the Surrealists’ main objective.
Although there are doubtless some connections, the Surrealist conception of the dream is notably different from the ones maintained in Romantic and Symbolist literature. For example, in the lovely and authoritative text by Victor Hugo, Le Promontoire du songe [The promontory of the dream], the dream is identified with the human tendency towards elevation, with the ideal: “The Empyrean, Elysium, Eden, the portico open above onto the far-off stars of the dream, the statues of light erect on cornices of azure, the supernatural, the superhuman, there stands the preferred object of contemplation. Man is at home in the clouds” (Hugo 1864, 94). The realm of the dream is always the sky, although according to Victor Hugo its greater or lesser elevation depends on the “quality” of the mind that is dreaming: “Lowering mind, lowering sky. As one dreams, so one lives” (Hugo 1864, 95).
In the last analysis, the vacillation and incertitude of human dreams would have its corollary in the same vacillation and incertitude that appear in the divine dream. This is why one asks God’s pardon for dreaming:
"From our human optic, the terrible vacillation of the dream [rêve] is mixed up with the beginning of things, with the creation, which before reaching a state of balance oscillated between the formless and the deformed, it was a storm cloud, it was a monster, and even today the elephant, the giraffe, the kangaroo, the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus show us, fixed and living, the form of those dreams [songes] that traversed the immense, unknown brain. O Thou! So Thee too dost dream! Forgive us, then, our dreams [songes] (Hugo 1864, 104–5).
Rather striking, even now, is this naivety in the enumeration of supposedly “deformed” animal species, this creationist vision of life, in a mind so penetrating and profound as Victor Hugo’s. There are limits that the historical and cultural time in which we live do not allow us to transcend.
As Sarane Alexandrian points out, Surrealism actually sought to exclude the “twin defects” of the Romantic conception: “the religious or at very least the metaphysical conception of the dream” and “the factitious quality of the dream account” (Alexandrian 1974, 24). For the Surrealists the dream is not an expression of the supernatural, nor is it something artificial or unnatural, but part and parcel of human life. Proceeding, in Communicating Vessels, from the hypothesis that “psychic activity would be constantly active in the dream [sommeil],” André Breton suggests that only such a perspective can “contribute to helping the dream return some day to its true framework, which could only be human life itself” (Breton 1932, 17).
In the literature on the dream within French culture it is important to bear in mind the contributions of the great philosopher Henri Bergson in “Dream” [“Le Rêve”], the text of a lecture that took place in 1901, and which he would publish, in revised form, in his compilation Mind-Energy [L’Énergie spirituelle]. Bearing in mind the central role he accords to memory in his thinking, it comes as no surprise that Bergson might claim that the dream “is little else than a resurrection of the past. But it is a past we sometimes fail to recognize” (Bergson 1919, 114). According to Bergson, “nothing is forgotten” and our past life is preserved in memory down to its minutest details, although the memories that are preserved “in these obscure depths are for us in the state of invisible phantoms” (Bergson 1919, 116).
What is most interesting is that Bergson already proposes, as we shall subsequently find in Surrealism, a wholly immanent conception of the dream that flies in the face of all notions of transcendence or mystery. Dreams take shape through the action of sensitive, non-conscious memory. Sensation and memory are drawn towards one another, “and the phantom memory, materializing itself in sensation which brings it flesh and blood, becomes a being which lives a life of its own, a dream.” In conclusion, “The birth of the dream [rêve], then, is no mystery. Indeed, a dream [songe] is elaborated almost in the same way as a perception of the real world” (Bergson 1919, 118–19).
We also encounter in Bergson the idea of the continuity of mental life, at the same time as he situates the difference between the dream and wakefulness in a greater or lesser degree of concentration: “The same faculties are being exercised whether we are awake or dreaming, but they are in tension in the one case, and relaxed in the other. The dream is the entire mental life, minus the effort of concentration” (Bergson 1919, 127). And that single difference of intensity or concentration between the state of waking and dreaming is manifested in a number of different ways, which Bergson sums up in three points: “the instability of the dream, the rapidity with which it can pass, and the preference it shows for insignifi cant recollections” (Bergson 1919, 128).
Did the Surrealists know the philosophy of Henri Bergson — winner of the Nobel Prize in 1927 — who was so popular during the formative years of the group? In Communicating Vessels André Breton underlines the absolute immanence of the dream, which is but a manifestation of life, with the exception, perhaps, of the intervention of the imagination, of the poetic, but of course both aspects are nothing but attributes of the human mind: “No mystery in the final analysis, nothing that could provoke any belief in some transcendent intervention occurring in human thought during the night. I see nothing in the whole working of the oneiric function that does not borrow clearly from the elements of lived life … except for those elements that the imagination uses poetically … From the point of view of the poetic marvelous something perhaps; from the point of view of the religious marvelous, absolutely nothing” (Breton 1932, 45). Thus, in the end, “the world of dream and the real world are only one, or, to put it differently, that the latter, in order to constitute itself, only dips into the ‘stream of experience’” (Breton 1932, 55; tr. slightly modified), the last expression being taken from the book by Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism [Materializm i empiriokrititsizm].
From the Surrealist standpoint, nothing in the dream comes from somewhere external to life, to human life. At the intersection of language and representation, of mise en scène, the dream is conceived of as a realm in which the image materializes in psychic continuity with the experiences of the waking state. As a result the vision of reality opens up, is extended, smashes through the frontiers of the night established by reason and consciousness.
While the attention given to, and the recognition of, the importance of the dream goes back to time immemorial and is, of course, manifested in very different ways in all human cultures, with the Surrealists the dream is situated, once and for all, on an anthropological plane as one more area of the experience of life. To be sure, the Surrealist approach springs from poetry and has its ramifications in all areas of aesthetic experience, being articulated, at the same time, at the level of reflection on the dynamic and the functioning of human mental life.
It is obvious, as the Surrealists themselves recognized, that their approach is directly related to the premises of psychoanalysis and to the dream theory of Sigmund Freud. All the same, as Sarane Alexandrian points out, “All too often we are content to think that Breton based himself exclusively on Freud, and that he sought to apply to the means of expression the lessons of psychoanalysis. On the contrary, different teachings were originally utilized and combined to form the Surrealist method, with Freud’s not always the predominant one” (Alexandrian 1974, 47). As well as this combination of other elements, in the particular instance of Breton the complex nature of his relationship with Freud has to be borne in mind. On October 10, 1921, full of anticipation, he went to meet Freud in Vienna but came away so mightily disappointed that when he returned to the café where his wife Simone, Gala and Paul Éluard were waiting for him, he refused to speak about it. In the text he wrote about this meeting, published in the first issue of the new series of Littérature in March 1922, and subsequently included in The Lost Steps [Les Pas perdus], Breton says: “I find myself in the presence of a little old man with no style who receives clients in a shabby office worthy of the neighborhood G. P.,” before finally concluding, “I can get him to speak only in generalities, such as ‘Your letter, the most moving I’ve ever received’ or ‘Fortunately, we have great faith in the young’” (Breton 1924c, 70–71).
According to Alexandrian, “For several years Breton found it impossible to forgive Freud this disappointment. When he wrote his eulogy in the Manifesto of Surrealism it was as an act of intellectual loyalty, because the wound he bore had yet to heal” (Alexandrian 1974, 56). Many years later, Breton himself spoke retrospectively of his “enthusiastic admiration for Freud, which has never left me. Freud had agreed to see me in Vienna in 1921 and, although the account I published of my visit in Littérature was rather derogatory (out of a regrettable sacrifice to the Dada spirit), he had the good grace not to hold it against me and to keep up our correspondence” (Breton 1952, 60).
Of course, may things distinguished Freud from Breton on the personal level: age, predisposition and, above all, education and objectives. In Freud, scientific training and fundamentally therapeutic goals. In Breton, literary formation and primarily poetic objectives. But, in addition, between Freud’s conception of the dream and Breton’s there are also important theoretical differences and divergences of approach. In the preface to Sarane Alexandrian’s Le Surréalisme et le rêve [Surrealism and the dream], the distinguished psychoanalyst Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, after recognizing that the Surrealists “in this essentially ethical bias—that of a generalized poetics— had managed to engender an oneirism of the everyday which, with the years, has retained its power to elicit a sense of wonder,” stresses that for all that, “Freud’s perspective is rather different.” And he goes on to say that, “If the dream is, as [Freud] sees it, also a model, it is as a model of the productions of the unconscious, along the lines of the parapraxis or the neurotic symptom, and therefore like them a compromise-formation: it is a deformed product, the expression of a ‘work’ that transforms and at the same time signifi es the unconscious wish [voeu]” (Alexandrian 1974, v). Furthermore, in Freud we read that the dream is a type of psychosis: “A dream, then, is a psychosis, with all the absurdities, delusions and illusions of a psychosis,” although, of course, a psychosis “of short duration,” “harmless,” and “even entrusted with a useful function” (Freud 1940, 49).
In my opinion, Breton’s relationship to Freud and psychoanalysis has a dual, and to some extent antagonistic, quality. Though seeing in psychoanalysis the starting point of a materialist, anthropological approach to the dream and to the structure of human mental life, it is doubtful that Breton could accept the idea of the dream as “psychosis” or “deformed product,” when it was a question of vindicating it as an expansion of life. It has to be said, however, that the confrontation with Freud mainly occurred in Breton’s case. The other Surrealists adhere to very different positions, and in terms of the visual arts Freud’s theories have an ample and open-ended resonance. What is important is what these theories suggest, open up and facilitate in the realm of artistic work, and not so much any theoretical and conceptual considerations as to their validity.
I think that the central nexus of psychoanalysis and Surrealism is located in the leading, causal function that each of them assign to desire. As we know, Freud considers the dream, in its different types or facets, as the disguised expression of the satisfaction of a desire. As he sees it, a direct relationship exists between dreams and the sexual instinct and desire, the latter being unattainable. “No other instinct has been subjected since childhood to so much suppression as the sexual instinct with its numerous components … from no other instinct are so many and such powerful unconscious wishes left over, ready to produce dreams in a state of sleep.” This aspect, Freud also points out, “is in complete harmony with the principles of my explanation of dreams” (Freud 1900, 406–7).
That said, I also think that regarding the dream in particular, the “mechanisms of secondary elaboration” which Freud establishes in terms of the former have a lot to do with those that artists utilize, in all artistic disciplines, to produce the work of art.
In the dream Freud differentiates between “manifest” and “latent” content. The process of interpretation has to start out from this manifest form before arriving at “the latent thoughts” embedded in the latter, which have been modified or distorted by the mechanisms of “secondary elaboration” of the dream: condensation, censorship, displacement and consideration of representability. In point of fact, Freud accords an important role to representation and pictorial expression in the process of displacement of psychic material in dreams: “The direction taken by the displacement usually results in a colorless and abstract expression in the dream-thought being exchanged for a pictorial and concrete one. The advantage, and accordingly the purpose, of such a change jumps to the eyes. A thing that is pictorial is, from the point of view of a dream, a thing that is capable of being represented: it can be introduced into a situation in which abstract expressions offer the same kind of difficulties to representation in dreams as a political leading article in a newspaper would offer to an illustrator” (Freud 1900, 349). Freud adds, moreover, that not only does such a change of expression favor representability, it is equally advantageous for condensation and censorship, the other two aspects that together with displacement intervene, according to psychoanalysis, in the configuration of dreams.
The psychoanalyst’s couch acts as a stage set, a theater of the psychic spaces of representation, that permits one to observe, like a spectator, the eminently pictorial work of condensation and displacement of mental material that takes place in dreams. The decisive feature is the consideration of representability: “The thoughts have to be reproduced exclusively or predominantly in the material of visual and acoustic memory-traces, and this necessity imposes upon the dreamwork considerations of representability which it meets by carrying out fresh displacements” (Freud 1900, 511). The consideration of representability: in the opposite, or complementary, direction we might also say that Freud teaches us to see the intense aesthetic work that takes place in dream production. (This is not strictly speaking the same as artistic work, since art involves the use of consciousness, and its objectives and function are different to those of the dream.)
Breton was fully aware of the pictorial dimension of the dream underlined by Freud, and of its connection with desire. Although he introduces an important nuance: he considers that the procedure desire follows in its treatment of “the raw material” is the same “in reality or in the dream”: “Desire, if it is truly vital, refuses itself nothing. However, even if it fi nds the raw material it uses indifferent up to a certain point, it is not so richly inclined as to the manner of treating it. Whether in reality or in the dream, it is constrained, in fact, to make the elements pass through the same network: condensation, displacement, substitutions, retouching” (Breton 1932, 109; tr. slightly modified). Via the flux of desire, in Surrealism the doors of the dream remained open wide for its integration in life, and the latter in turn extended the materials it offers to art with the elimination of the frontier zones between day and night. The dream opened up as experiential matter and also as a standard or model of pictorial elaboration that was not subject to the dictates of reason or morality.
3. From dream to art
With Surrealism, then, a whole series of steps are taken from earlier conceptions of the dream to what is posited in it: the dream as an eminently pictorial realm, a privileged space for the viewing of images. Of human images of desire. Left behind are conceptions of the dream as a mythical or religious manifestation of supernatural powers. Or the religious (Christian) idea that “life is a dream,” a mere fleeting illusion, in which “real” life would be what comes after death. And even the psychoanalytic conception of the dream as an unconscious expression of unsatisfi ed desire. In Surrealism the dream is considered a central realm of human existence, in which mental life acts in a way that is free from the limitations and censorship of wakefulness, thus providing a new ambit, a greater density and depth to life.
All the same, it is odd and at the same time extremely significant to verify the lack of attention that has been paid in the world of art to the relationship between Surrealism and the dream. And this despite the fact that from the first, as we have seen, the Surrealists vindicated the dream, along with automatic writing, as one of the main avenues for the liberation of mental life and the poetic enrichment of the experience that inspires its premises. There have been many exhibitions devoted to Surrealism in general, or one or another of its aspects in particular. And quite a few focusing on dreams, from very different premises, which in some instances include a few aspects or sections, necessarily partial, devoted to Surrealism. But up until now an art exhibition has not been held that addresses, in monographic form and with the intensity that this calls for, this central and intensely suggestive subject matter: Surrealism and the dream.
The bibliography on the issue is, moreover, somewhat lacking. Aside from the essential texts by André Breton, Louis Aragon and, later on, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí—the last two being crucial to any understanding of the problem on the specific terrain of the visual arts—there is but one monograph worthy of mention; a theoretical study of great richness, it has to be said. This is the book by Sarane Alexandrian, Le Surréalisme et le rêve, to which I have already referred, published in Paris in 1974, and which has never been translated into any major European language. “If the profound originality of Surrealism,” Alexandrian observes, “is its revalorization of the dream state, one can only be astonished at seeing this important issue sidestepped in the studies that have been devoted to it, in which writers often choose to dwell on the secondary aspects of its trajectory” (Alexandrian 1974, 8).
As a theoretical synthesis the book is excellent, but it focuses on the genealogical reconstruction of the steps the Surrealists took in their interest in the dream and in the analysis of the literary elaborations around this. On the other hand it does not address the issue with reference to the
Fig. 4. Sleeve of Trajectoire du rêve, published by G.L.M. in 1938. Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, Paris.
visual arts, notwithstanding the fact that Sarane Alexandrian is the author of a number of important books on Surrealist artists and on different aspects of Surrealist art. More than three decades later, in 2008, the magazine Supérieur Inconnu [Unknown superior], edited by him, published a special number on La Vie rêvée [Dream life], with texts about writers and somewhat marginal references to a few artists, at all events without focusing on what we might call “Surrealism’s historic period.”
There are also two historic interventions, by now extremely remote in time, which must be recorded. First, the publication in 1938 of a cahier of 132 pages devoted to the dream, entitled Trajectoire du rêve [Trajectory of the dream], whose texts and illustrations were collated by André Breton [fig. 4], and to which Georges Sebbag refers later in this catalogue. The small volume includes a set of very varied texts on the dream, among whose authors are Dürer, Paracelsus, Cardano, Lichtenberg, Karl- Philipp Moritz, Pushkin, Albert Béguin, Ferdinand Alquié, Michel Leiris and Paul Éluard.
The illustrations are twenty-two in number, all in black and white. Noteworthy among them are the photographic reproduction of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, The Purity of a Dream [La Pureté d’un rêve], from 1915 [fig. 5], one of the plates from A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil [Rêve d’une petite fi lle qui voulut entrer au Carmel] by Max Ernst, from 1930, which is identified as “an unpublished collage” [see cat. 66], and drawings by Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Remedios Varo, Jacqueline Breton, René Magritte, Man Ray, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann, Salvador Dalí, Óscar Domínguez, Maurice Henry, Marcel Jean, Espinoza and Matta. Especially relevant, it seems to me, is the inclusion, among the illustrations, of a still from Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935), a film that fascinated the Surrealists. These illustrations suggest two things of importance. Firstly, the relevance oneiric subject matter already had at the time in Surrealist visual art. And, conjointly, the attention paid to the dream in cinema, which must therefore be considered a further element, of no little importance, on the pictorial horizon of Surrealism.
Fig. 5.Giorgio de Chirico, The Purity of a Dream [La Pureté d’un rêve], 1915.
Oil on canvas, 65 × 50 cm. Private collection.
The cahier opens with a note by Breton protesting Freud’s detention in Vienna, followed by the communication denying this detention, claiming that he would be placed under surveillance. Breton describes Freud as “the illustrious master, the mind in which has truly been incarnated the ‘More Light’ demanded by Goethe, the one from whom so many of us in the world take our reasons for being and acting,” and demands that the human spirit remain alert “at every latitude” and symbolically organize itself around Freud’s person (Breton 1938, 4). The final illustration, which closes the cahier, is a reproduction of a handwritten letter from Freud dated December 8, 1937.
Particularly interesting is the text, also included, by André Breton himself, “Accomplissement onirique et genèse d’un tableau animé” [The dream fulfillment and genesis of an animated painting]. Breton recounts a dream in which he observes himself in the house of his friend Óscar Domínguez. Back to the window, Breton sees him painting, happy to be able to devote himself entirely to this activity, and follows “with great interest” the progress of the picture, in which he witnesses the concatenation of repeated knots. However, upon observing them attentively he ascertains that the knots are in reality the hindquarters of a lion, and that each lion is “frantically” licking the genitals of the neighboring lion, the genitals being female (although the lions are male). “What is most admirable,” concludes Breton, “is that as Domínguez causes the lions to appear, they immediately perform the aforesaid operation ‘in reality,’ in such a way that the canvas is increasingly animated. Through the combined effect of the painting and the action of the lions, each lion’s backside is gradually identifi ed with the sun. Before my wonderstruck eyes an aurora borealis unfolds” (Breton 1937, 1215–16; Breton 1938, 54).
Animated painting, painting in motion; Breton’s dream culminates in an encounter with the marvelous: the aurora borealis which shifts before his closed/open eyes. The trace of these “dream lions” is perceptible in the works of Óscar Domínguez to do with Breton’s narrative and which we present in our show [see cat. 79, 80]. It behoves me, lastly, to draw the reader’s attention to how Breton typifi es what we see in dreams as a “spectacle,” a mise en scène, which enables us “to capture live” the process of poetic and artistic creation as conceived by the Surrealists, by being able thereby to distinguish what harkens on the one hand to the erotic and desire, and on the other to the psychological and knowledge: “The admiration the dreamer feels with regard to the spectacle that is presented to him, the wonderment, even, that takes hold of him at this point in its development (and of which the objective relation above can give but a faint idea) would suffi ce to lead to the admission that we are well placed, here, to grasp, on the spot, the process of poetic or artistic creation such as we conceive of it in Surrealism, in order to distinguish therein what is within the erotic province and what within the psychological—what depends on desire and what depends on knowledge” (Breton 1938, 56–57). Eroticism, desire, mental deployment, knowledge: the dream presents as a spectacle of the marvelous, in life itself, the expedients and components that also function in the process of making art.
In addition to this important document, in 1939 the painter Frédéric Delanglade, who had become a member of the Surrealist Group in 1933, organized, at the Galerie Contemporaine in Paris, an exhibition called Le Rêve dans l’art et la littérature, de l’antiquité au surréalisme [The dream in art and literature, from antiquity to Surrealism], which was open to the public from March 24 to April 12. The exhibition had the support of the monthly magazine Visages du monde [Faces of the world], which on March 15 published a number of the same name [fig. 6].
The magazine brings together different texts, artworks and film stills about the dream from classical antiquity to the present, while keeping to a direction not unlike that of Trajectoire du rêve. In less than three pages Delanglade’s article, “Le Rêve dans l’art” [The dream in art], provides a synthesis of the ongoing depiction of the dream in art throughout history. In it Delanglade defines Odilon Redon as a “Surrealist painter avant la lettre,” who had anticipated the dreamlike vision of the man cut in two by Breton’s window. And he suggests that “the disquiet” elicited by Redon’s image “becomes generalized and under the influence of science gives rise to today’s art and its latest, fervent state: Surrealism.” In Surrealism Delanglade, a painter and at the same time devotee of psychiatric and psychoanalytic research into the unconscious and the role of the dream in psychic life, situates the culmination of a process which, from classical Greece onwards, arrives at the present day.
The handout summarizing the exhibition [fig. 7], a mere four pages long and without illustrations, reveals that the show was structured in thirteen parts. The first, which brought together a group of works by Surrealist artists (among whom Ernst, Dalí or Magritte, however, were not represented), gave way to three others featuring earlier artists or precursors and contemporary ones. Following this, and seemingly mainly by recourse to documents, the exhibition included material about works by mental patients, psychoanalysis and Freud, children’s drawings, German Romanticism, peyote, literary texts, cinema and the palace of the Facteur Cheval which so greatly impressed the Surrealists.
Notwithstanding their interest, both the publication of the Trajectoire du rêve cahier and the exhibition organized by Delanglade have but a limited scope with regard to what the modulation of the dream specifically entails on the pictorial horizon of Surrealism. Their limitations have quite a lot to do with the dispersion of the two schemes, probably inevitable given the moment in which they were produced. And yet too much time has gone by without us being able to describe either important theoretical considerations or the organization of exhibitions centering on this decisive question, Surrealism and the dream, with respect to art.
Given what has just been said, this exhibition is situated in “almost virgin” territory. Obviously, the point of departure, the conceptual kernel of the show, needs to rigorously identify and delimit what the title enunciates: what consideration of the dream entails in the deployment of Surrealism and what are the contributions of major import and greatest scope of the Surrealist artists, visà- vis the dream, in the realm of the visual arts.
To this first question I have tried to give a reply, in the form of a summary, in the previous pages. In reference to the second question, inscribed within the Surrealist spirit there is a whole series of artworks of great quality and consistency, and in whose elaboration, approach and thematic development the dream plays the leading role. It is these works that we present in the exhibition. Surrealism, which is not just another “art movement” but rather an attitude towards life, has its master key in the vision of internal images to which one accedes through the flux of desire. And this aspect is decisive as the conceptual kernel of the exhibition. The tenets of Surrealism have left the deepest of traces on all subsequent art, on the arts and on contemporary sensibility tout court.
Fig. 6.Front cover of the magazine Visages du monde, no. 63,
1939. Centre Pompidou-MnamCci-Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Paris.
Fig. 7. Front cover of the leafl et for the exhibition Le Rêve dans l’art et la littérature, 1939.
Centre Pompidou-MnamCci- Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Paris.
Things have never been the same in the culture of our time since the irruption of Surrealism in the image. Surrealism has been, and to some extent still is, a catalyst, a driving force, in the process of liberating mental life and in an expansion of the sentient from which there is no turning back. The exhibition sets out to demonstrate that this trace, that the great wave of this transformation of sensibility, has one of its deepest roots in the Surrealist yoking of dream and image [fig. 8].
Seeking after maximum coherence in the conceptual premise I have just outlined, the exhibition is articulated around the idea of the Surrealist unity of the image. With this I wish to indicate that from writing to the wide range of visual supports, and including what we might call the musical liberation of sound—has the relationship ever been established, up to a point at least, between the musical ideas of a John Cage and Surrealism?—there circulates a single type of image, which takes shape on different perceptible supports.
The exhibition is, in any event, an art exhibition, which means situating the writing, in both its creative and theoretical dimension, the documents or the music in the catalogue and in the complementary activities to the show. Naturally, the latter must address, in all their variety and richness, the different artistic supports in which the relationship between Surrealism and the dream is explored: painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, objects and sculpture, photography and fi lm. As regards cinema, in the rooms we present, as video installations integrated among the other works, clips and an episode from fi lms selected for the exhibition, as well as three short fi lms grouped together. It is worth pointing out, of course, that in these instances it is a question of “curatorial proposals” and not of “works,” in the strict sense of the word, since the latter can only be, obviously, the films screened in their entirety. And so, in parallel to the art and as a complement to it, we have programmed a film season, with the extramural projection, in a viewing theater, of a set of movies in their full versions, among which are all those from which clips have been chosen for the “video installations.”
Fig. 8. Photomontage published in the last issue of La Révolution surréaliste, no. 12, December 15, 1929, illustrated with a series of passport-sized photographs, taken by Man Ray, of members of the Surrealist Group around the likewise photographic reproduction of a painting by René Magritte, The Woman Hidden [La Femme cachée], 1929. Magritte’s painting incorporates a phrase in which the word “femme” is replaced by the image of the naked woman. What do the Surrealists see with their eyes closed?
Instead of presenting the works grouped according to their different supports, or in a chronological or historicist way, which I consider totally inappropriate to the Surrealist spirit and its tenets, I have tried to get to the bottom of the matter with a thematic articulation that keeps to a discourse in which the dream is disseminated and manifested in a plural series of pictorial forms:
– Those who paved the way (of dreams). Key antecedents, by way of an introduction…
– I is another. The variations and metamorphoses of identity.
– The infi nite conversation. The dream is the surmounting of Babel: all languages talk to one another, all languages are the same.
– Beyond good and evil. A world in which neither morality nor reason prevail.
– Where anything is possible. Omnipotence: anything is possible in the dream.
– The harsh glint of desire. The compulsion of Eros freed from the censorship of conscious life.
– Landscapes of a different land. An alternative universe that is nonetheless part of the existing one.
– Irresistible perturbations. The nightmare, the anxiety.
This “itinerary,” these manifold markers in the dream galaxy, are complemented by the meticulous design of the exhibition space, the idea being to empower the works and to create optimum dialogue between them and different types of public. The goal is for spectators to have a dynamic perception, calling on the specific features of their particular sensibility, of the Surrealist images of the dream embodied in the work on display.
Notwithstanding the eminently pictorial nature of the dream, the acceptance of painting and of other means of expression within the visual arts in Surrealism was by no means a matter of course to begin with. Unlike “automatic writing,” the objection was put forward that painting required knowledge and the application of a technique, which supposedly rendered unviable an “automatic” expression that was, however, taken for granted in writing (as if the mediation of the syntactic structures of a language did not in itself call for a fi ltering of mental life). Decisive, once again, on this issue was the intervention of André Breton, who had already displayed an acute awareness and theoretical ability with regard to art, and who began publishing his ideas on Surrealism and painting in the fourth issue of La Révolution surréaliste (July 15, 1925), which were subsequently included in the book of the same name, first published in 1928.
Naturally, this is not the moment to make an in-depth analysis of this issue. But I do consider it necessary to summarize the main points of Breton’s argument. Getting under way, in the first paragraph, with a phrase that is almost a “manifesto” in itself, “The eye exists in its savage state,” he develops a critique of painting (this should be taken to refer, by extension, to the visual arts as a whole) conceived as an imitation of external reality. By way of contrast, he identifies “a wave” or impulse typical of the art of our time disbursed in the expression of the purely internal model: “In order to respond to the necessity, upon which all serious minds now agree, for a total revision of real values, the plastic work of art will either refer to a purely internal model or will cease to exist” (Breton 1928, 4). As he recognizes himself, just what is understood by internal model remains to be seen. In a way that has its parallels in what Lautréamont, Rimbaud and Mallarmé accomplished in the poetic domain, this would involve noticing and accepting in the recent unfolding of art, and with Picasso’s “huge responsibility” in this, the need “our eyes, our precious eyes, have to reflect that which, while not existing, is yet as intense as that which does exist, and which has once more to consist of real visual images, fully compensating us for what we have left behind” (Breton 1928, 5). And so, in the last analysis, one could not speak of “reality” in painting: “There is no reality in painting. Virtual images, corroborated or not by visual objects, more or less fade away before our eyes” (Breton 1928, 28).
The relationship of painting to the internal model, of a painting completely emancipated from the mimetic reproduction of external reality, would situate it, then, on a plane very similar to that of the pictorial representations of the dream. The gates of Surrealism were to open wide to painters, and also to sculptors, photographers and filmmakers of course. The horizon of Surrealism was extended to all artistic registers capable of enriching and expanding the mental life and psychic experience of human beings.
4. The lost images of dreams
Emancipation from the mimetic reproduction of external reality in the visual arts is not, however, an accomplishment exclusive to Surrealism but instead constitutes the transformative red thread of the art of our time, having gathered particular momentum during the second half of the nineteenth century and in the explorations of the artistic avant-gardes. To be sure, the contribution of the Surrealist artists in that process was major, and one of the respects in which this contribution was most decisive is precisely that of giving a letter of validation to the pictorial representation of dreams in art.
But, obviously, not even in that respect was its protagonism unique. In my opinion the start of it all dates back to Francisco de Goya (1746–1828). Goya marks the beginning of the emancipation of pictorial representation with regard to the mimetic reproduction of external reality, which runs through the whole development of the art of our time and also, in a particular fashion, the pictorial representation of the dream as an area of immanent human reality, without the supernatural or mythic echoes with which the dream had been represented in the art of an earlier period. The representation of the dream qua human experience lurks in his entire oeuvre, although in a particularly intense way in his more intimate pictures, those that he himself relates to “caprice and invention,” and of course in many of his drawings, in various sets of prints, and in that limitless incursion into the dark side of life that are the Black Paintings. In any event, if there is an emblematic image of what Goya means in the pictorial representation of the human nature of the dream it is print number 43 of Los Caprichos, with its inscription, incorporated in the image, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters [El sueño de la razón produce monstruos] (and what about the coincidence with the Magritte painting Je ne vois pas la … cachée dans la forêt?) [fig. 9].
Fig. 9. Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
[El sueño de la razón produce monstruos], plate 43 of Los Caprichos (1797–99).
Etching and aquatint, 213 × 151 mm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The interpretations of this work are legion by now. Contrary to the claim that has been made on more than one occasion, my view is that in it Goya, who was enlightened, a man of the Enlightenment, represented the risks reason runs when it sleeps, and the monsters and chimeras that superstition and ignorance bring in their wake force their way in. Although it is true that the presence and intensity of the “monsters” gradually grew, in his life and in his art, as time went by, with the advent of old age and intimations of death. Be that as it may, in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters Goya captures in pictorial terms, with the most intense dynamism, a scene of dreaming in which the man is represented all alone with the monsters that appear in his dream. In Goya dreams—human, all too human—become the pictorial material of art. The way leading to the pictorial depiction of the dream in Surrealism was thus paved.
After Goya, after his foundational depiction of the dream, mention must be made of the drawings of Victor Hugo, which on so many occasions are tantamount to a wish for an immediate, nonconscious expression of the image, although I’ve already mentioned above the subtleties separating the great poet’s conception of the dream from that of the Surrealists. A small yet highly expressive drawing with the inscription le rêve [the dream] in capital letters, contained in an album, was exhibited at the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris in 1930 [fig. 10].
And following that, the animated drawings of J. J. Grandville, with which Georges Sebbag deals in the next essay, with some of them fortunately included in this show [see cat. 1, 2 and fig. 17, 21, 22].
Another “intersection,” another prior reference in the Surrealist understanding of the dream, may be situated in Lewis Carroll (1832–1898). About him, Louis Aragon wrote in the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme [Abridged dictionary of Surrealism]: “At a time when, in the defi nitively United Kingdom, all thought was considered to be so shocking that it hesitated to take shape … what had become of human freedom? It rested entirely in the frail hands of Alice…” (Breton and Éluard 1938, 797–98). Breton includes Carroll in his Anthology of Black Humor [Anthologie de l’humour noir], and says of him: “Accommodation to the absurd readmits adults to the mysterious realm inhabited by children. Children’s games (beginning with simple “word games”), as a lost means of reconciling action and reverie so as to achieve organic satisfaction, thus regain their dignity and validity” (Breton 1939, 104). In the tales of Carroll, Alice’s adventures may be considered a narrative transposition of a dream that transmits the uncertainty, typical of adolescence, of the transitional phase from girlhood to womanhood, in the face of the unstable nature of identity. Further to what we fi nd in his stories, however, I bring up Carroll here due to the trace of desire, due to the erotic dream, that is revealed in his photographs of girls, pictures that give a glimpse of the latent undercurrent in his writings [fig. 11].
Another decisive step, and one which establishes a direct nexus between Goya and the Surrealists, is to be found in Odilon Redon (1840–1916), born in Bordeaux, where Goya had died in 1828, and to whom he would pay explicit tribute in his 1885 portfolio of prints Homage to Goya [Hommage à Goya]. In radical manner, this friend of Stéphane Mallarmé, who confessed to “feeling jealous of his legends,” and who in 1891 told him, “In our silence you stir the plumage of the Dream and of Night,” introduces the swing towards the internal model of which André Breton would speak years later. A long time before, when on July 2, 1913 Frederick C. Torrey, who had bought Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) [Nu descendant un éscalier no. 2], asked Marcel Duchamp, who was embarking at the time on his crucial work The Large Glass [Le Grand verre], if his Nude stemmed from Cézanne, Duchamp replied, “If asked what my point of departure was, I’d have to say the art of Odilon Redon.”
The figures and situations that appear in his paintings and prints are products of the imagination, of a wholly internal world—a far cry from any sort of “naturalism,” from all fi gurative illusionism. Redon felt himself to be swimming against the tide, and he decried the artists of his time as “true parasites of the object,” who “have cultivated art in the visual field alone” (Redon 1913, 21).
Fig. 10. Victor Hugo, The Dream [Le Rêve] (1866?).
Black ink and wash on cream paper, 27 × 17.3 cm.
Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris.
Fig. 11. Lewis Carroll, Xie Sleeping, 1874. Albumen print, 10.2 × 14.3 cm.
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection
of Dada and Surrealist Art in The Israel Museum.
In him we witness the return of “the monsters” of Goya: fantastic animals with human features, eyes, spheres, heads, all redolent with the darkness of the black sun of melancholy. His first album of lithographs was In the Dream [Dans le rêve], from 1879 [cat. 3–13], invented, as he himself confessed, in reaction to the then-dominant tendencies of Impressionism and Naturalism. The mixing and superimposing of unusual figures and situations in these prints constitutes a genuine pictorial anticipation of Surrealist collage.
The dream, Closed Eyes (Outwardly Closed, Inwardly Open) is undoubtedly one of the leitmotifs of his oeuvre. In 1875 Redon had written a poem called “Closed Eyes” [“Yeux clos”] and years later, in 1890, he would use the same title for one of his most impressive works, in which an oversized figure, with eyes closed, looms over a tranquil beach [see cat. 14]. In a letter written on January 10, 1891 in response to a highly favorable article about painting, Redon claimed to be surprised “by all that I have unconsciously put in this androgyne’s head.” The eyes look inward, yet they do not seek to escape from the earth, from matter. According to Redon, “Matter reveals secrets; it has its genius; it is through matter that the oracle will speak. When the painter presents his dream, do not forget the action of these secret lineaments that bind it and keep it on the ground, with the lucid and on the contrary wide-awake spirit” (Redon 1913, 15).
Alongside the work of Redon, another great, independent painter, likewise on the fringes of the contemporary movements of the artistic avant-garde, also developed an oeuvre with his eyes turned inwards: Henri Rousseau (1844–1910), “Le Douanier” Rousseau. One of his best-known paintings, The Dream [Le Rêve], which was shown not long before his death at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris between March 18 and May 1, 1910, is central to our subject matter [fig. 12].
What is a naked woman, stretched out on a divan, doing in this “jungle”? And why, opposite her on the right-hand side of the picture, is there a snake that slithers between the plants, among which we can also observe a monkey-like figure, a snake-charmer, playing the flute? And why, surrounding her, are there different hieratic animals, including a lioness and a lion that stares at us fixedly as we look at the picture? Despite the fact that Rousseau managed to paint more than twenty-five pictures set in the jungle, he never ventured outside France. His sources of inspiration came from exotic images he encountered in the popular literature of the day, in colonial exhibitions and the Paris Zoo. It would seem that the chief elements of this painting come from his visits to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, about which he said, “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream” (Alexandre 1910).
Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote an article about The Dream, suggested that the painting had been inspired in Rousseau by the great love of his youth, a Polish woman, Yadwigha, whom he had never forgotten. Rousseau himself composed a poem, “Inscription for The Dream” [“Inscription pour Le Rêve”], anthologized by Apollinaire and others, that was meant to serve as an explanation of the painting, for as he said in an interview, “An explanation of the pictures is required. People don’t always understand what they see.” This is his poem:
" Yadwigha in a love dream, Having gently fallen asleep Heard the sounds of a musette Of a well-meaning charmer, While the moon refl ected, On the flowers, the greening trees, The wild serpents lent an ear To the gay tunes of the instrument (Rousseau 1914, 57).
In a lucid essay on the verbal art of poet-painters Blake, Rousseau and Klee, Roman Jakobson points out that “a multiple play of concurrent similarities and differences underlies and invigorates, in all its facets, this written and painted Dream: the silence of the brightly lit night interrupted by the airs a dark-skinned enchanter plays; the enchantment of the moonlight and the charms of the music; the two listeners to the magical tunes, the woman and the snake, at once strange and attractive to each other” (Jakobson 1970, 393).
Fig. 12. Henri Rousseau, The Dream [Le Rêve], 1910.
Oil on canvas, 204.5 × 298.5 cm.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller.
The enchantment of the dream describes the province of desire, the dreamed-of woman in the jungle, incapable of resisting the soporific power of an inner music which, propelled by Eros, arrives from the far shores of the imagination. This power of enchantment and surprise also shines through in other paintings by Rousseau, paintings that are likewise illuminated by the light of the dream [see cat. 16]. To appear “naive” doesn’t mean one is. The lack of inhibition, the admixture of diverse worlds and situations, and the palpitation of the unusual that characterize the work of Rousseau are magnificent expressions of the disconcerting vagaries of modern life, in which, still shut off in our tiny domestic world, the dream leads us to ever more remote places. In the image in the painting the divan is clearly a reference to psychoanalysis but, situated in the jungle, the divan is also a kind of imaginary barque that roams the more or less turbulent waters of our dreams, attracted by a hypnotic inner music that comes from some unknown place.
I’ve already referred to the important role the Pittura metafísica of Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) played in the formation of the Surrealist wave of dreams. Although, as in so many other instances, a break would finally be produced with the Surrealist Group, in this case, too, to begin with he was treated with the utmost deference as someone who had anticipated the pictorial vision of what the Surrealists wanted to say. Immediately after the editorial in the fi rst number of La Révolution surréaliste, mentioned above, the section called “Rêves” [Dreams] opens with a dream narrative by de Chirico, a dream of perturbation and anxiety, from which he awakes in an anguished state of mind. Issue number 5 of the magazine (October 15, 1925) includes three of his poems, the second of which, “Une Vie” [A life], opens with the following lines, “Life, life, grand mysterious dream! All the enigmas you exhibit; joys and fl ashes of lightning… Visions which we intuit,” which can be considered a total synthesis of what we encounter in his painting, all of it articulated around the dream and the enigma.
De Chirico’s work was particularly meaningful for the artist who first paved the way, in Surrealist terms, for the pictorial expression of the dream, Max Ernst. As Ernst himself would say, the reproductions of a number of metaphysical paintings by de Chirico in the Italian magazine Valori Plastici in 1919 made a strong impression on him: “I had the impression of recognizing something that had always been familiar to me, as when the phenomenon of déjà-vu reveals to us the entire terrain of our oneiric world which, by virtue of a kind of censorship, we deny ourselves the possibility of seeing and understanding” (Ernst 1970, 26). Immersed, first of all, in the Dada ocean, Ernst settles in Paris and participates from its beginnings in the activities of the Surrealist Group. André Breton, who at different times expressed huge admiration for his work, but with whom he had frequent disagreements, designated him “the illustrious blacksmith, or forger, of dreams.”
These are in flux, in actual fact, and are intensely manifested throughout his oeuvre. In a text published in number 9/10 of La Révolution surréaliste (October 1, 1927) under the title “Visions of Half-sleep” [“Visions de demi-sommeil”], later included in his Beyond Painting and Other Writings [Écritures], Ernst describes a vision that he dates to between the age of five and seven, in which he sees “a glossy black man” who “wears the turned-up moustaches” of his father making “gestures, slow, comical, and … joyously obscene.” At one moment, the man “draws from the pocket of his trousers a fat crayon in a soft material which I find I cannot describe more precisely,” with which he traces black lines on a panel of fake mahogany. Later on, “The crayon becomes a whip. Now I realize that this strange painter is my father.” During puberty, when examining how his father had conducted himself on the night Max was conceived, there welled up in him, like some sort of answer, “precise and irrefutable, the memory of that vision of half sleep that I had forgotten” (Ernst 1936, 126).
Ernst’s account has a number of points in common with what Leonardo da Vinci had written in his own day: “It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.” With a major error in translation, which put “vulture” where the Italian text read “kite,” this synthetic account by Leonardo would become the main axis of the important 1910 essay by Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood [Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci], which in all probability Max Ernst knew. I’ve always had the feeling that, in a conscious or unconscious way, Ernst modulates the account of his vision in keeping with, or in echo of, Leonardo’s childhood memory, in a way not unlike how the more or less legendary aspects of the lives of artists are utilized. The set of allusions suggested by the father’s “fat crayon in a soft material” is expressive enough. This is the way Max Ernst saw himself, and wished to be seen, as a painter, as an artist—like Leonardo.
What I mainly want to stress in Max Ernst is the extraordinary lucidity with which he dealt with the issue of the pictorial representation of the dream. In a text written in 1934, “Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme?” [What is Surrealism?], he rejects the ingenuous and clichéd affirmation, which is all too common even today, that Surrealist artists “copy” their dreams in their works, which would mean replacing one kind of mimesis with another: “When one says of the Surrealists that they are the painters of an oneiric reality undergoing perpetual change, it must not be understood by this that they copy their dreams onto their canvas (that would be naive, descriptive naturalism) or indeed that each of them edifi es, with the elements of his dream, his own little world, and takes things easy or vents his spleen there (that would be a ‘Flight Out of Time’)” (Ernst 1970, 177–78). The Surrealist artists shuttle between the internal and the external world, performing in their works the task of transcription: “they move freely, boldly and completely naturally in the border region of the internal and the external worlds which, although still imprecise, possesses total physical and psychic reality (‘surreality’); … they record what they see there and … they intervene wherever their revolutionary instincts tell them to” (Ernst 1970, 178). This much is clear: to pictorially represent a dream does not mean simply copying it, as Freud states about the dream itself. A fortiori, the utilization of oneiric material in the arts calls for the secondary elaboration of this.
Perhaps something akin to what Max Ernst suggests—a questioning of the commonplace about the “direct” expression of dreams in Surrealist paintings—explains the viewpoint of René Magritte and his reservations about accepting that his pictures might proceed from the dream, notwithstanding the extremely important presence that oneiric material has in them. If in a text from 1938 he remained adamant that “Surrealism demands for waking life a freedom similar to the freedom we have when dreaming” (Magritte 2009, 104), later on his refusal to identify his pictorial work with the dream was to become insistent. In a 1962 interview he declares: “My painting is the opposite of the dream, since the dream does not have the meaning ascribed to it. I cannot work except with lucidity. The latter arrives without me wishing it. It also goes by the name of inspiration” (Magritte 2009, 567).
In another interview in 1965 he says: “I dream the same as everyone else, and on that score I think it’s essential to emphasize the fact that a painting is not a painting of a dream—a dream in inverted commas. The dream is much spoken of, but to be more precise I would say that it is the mind and not the dream that is present. It is a question of the presence of the mind because I am convinced that what is involved in my painting has nothing imaginary about it. It’s a question of the world, the world and nothing more, and one can only speak of the imaginary if a certain fantasy intervenes in order to interpret the world” (Magritte 2009, 604). Using lucidity as the basis of his painting, Magritte sought uniquely to give form to “images that evoke the mystery of the world,” for which it was necessary “to be wide awake” and to avoid entirely identifying oneself with ideas, feelings or sensations. Therefore, like madness, the dream would be something to avoid since “the dream and madness are … conducive to absolute identifi cation” (Magritte 2009, 558).
In spite of everything, I insist that the dream and oneiric material are so central to the painting of Magritte that our map of the Surrealist pictorial continent of the dream would be incomplete were we to leave him off it. What Magritte posits has to do with a recognition of the work of secondary elaboration of oneiric material, which in the arts necessarily involves the intervention of consciousness and the search for lucidity as indispensable ingredients in performing the task of transposition that takes place in the passage from dream to art.
Fully immersed during his Surrealist years in the waters of the dream, Salvador Dalí also noted the play of transpositions between wakefulness, daytime and dream in his first book, La Femme visible [The visible woman], from 1930: “During the day we unconsciously look for the lost images of dreams, and this is why, when we fi nd an image resembling some dream image, it seems we have known it before and thus we maintain that merely seeing it has already made us dream” (Dalí 1930, 190). And this play of mirrors, via the dream, would be decisive in the appearance of love: “All this should make us think that love is nothing but a kind of incarnation of dreams that corroborates the common expression according to which the beloved woman would be the flesh and blood embodiment of dream” (Dalí 1930, 190), lines which would be repeated literally in the “Amour” entry in the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (Breton and Éluard 1938, 789–90). But Dalí also underlines the turbulent, convulsive nature of dreams relating to love: “If love embodies dreams, let us not forget that one often dreams of one’s own annihilation and that this, to judge by our oneiric life, would be one of man’s most violent and turbulent unconscious desires” (Dalí 1930, 190).
The 163 artworks and seven clip projections brought together in this exhibition, along with the film season and the international conference programmed to accompany it, attempt to trace a map of the Surrealist pictorial continent of the dream, a map that had not even been roughed in until now. Apart from bearing in mind the more significant predecessors, those who paved the way for the pictorial representation of the dream on the horizon of Surrealism — basically Francisco de Goya, Victor Hugo, J. J. Grandville, Lewis Carroll, Odilon Redon, Henri Rousseau and Giorgio de Chirico — in order to trace this map it is necessary to take into account, alongside the Surrealist artists, a few others who converge at their temporal and thematic frontiers, in certain cases more distant from, and in others closer to, Surrealism.
Due to their huge importance for what they bring to the pictorial representation of the dream, I will confine myself to evoking just four artworks. Firstly, among the ones “most distant” from Surrealism, a 1908 sculpture in marble, Sleep [Le Sommeil], an early work by Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) that today is in Bucharest, in the National Museum of Art of Romania, but of which the Centre Pompidou conserves a lovely photograph taken by Brancusi himself [fig. 13]. Also highly important for its beauty and intensity is the 1912 painting by Franz Marc (1880–1916), The Dream [Der Traum], in the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum [fig. 14]. If Brancusi’s sculpture reflects the influence of Rodin and an as yet very early stage—he had arrived in Paris in 1904—of what his own style would be, the picture by Franz Marc is a mature work redolent with the Romantic ideal of the harmonious fusion of man and nature, with the idealized forms of four horses and a lion around a naked female figure who sleeps while sitting cross-legged on the grass.
Fig. 13. Constantin Brancusi, Sleep [Le Sommeil], 1908.
Marble sculpture. Photograph by Brancusi. Silver gelatin glass negative, 18 × 13 cm.
Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle.
The classical serenity of the face of the sleeping woman in the Brancusi sculpture and the ideal balance of man and nature in the Franz Marc painting may be read as indications of what differentiates and defi nes the Surrealist pictorial universe of the dream, in which instead of serenity and balance we encounter the convulsive agitation brought on by the lightning fl ash of desire. The desire, above all else, to capture the image.
There are two other artworks—two paintings, neither of them party to Surrealism but much closer to its frontiers—which I think it important to bear in mind for their artistic quality and for the fact that in them there is a potential reflection of Surrealism in two of the great masters of the avant-garde. I’m referring, in the first instance, to a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), The Dream [Le Rêve], that has recently attracted widespread media attention on being sold in March 2013 for €120M, which is tantamount to the biggest-ever transaction of its kind until now in the United States, and the second biggest on a global scale [fig. 15].
Fig. 14. Franz Marc, The Dream [Der Traum], 1912.
Oil on canvas, 100.5 × 135.5 cm.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
This image of Marie-Thérèse Walter, a representation of the plenitude of the erotic desire of Picasso, this portrait with its riven face, with the body openly showing itself, is in reality a mirror. A pictorial mirror that returns the gaze of he who is really dreaming: Picasso himself, that voyeur, an obsessive ogler, here absent, but who repeatedly lets us see him contemplating, with greater or lesser excitement, women who seem to sleep for his eyes alone. Picasso and his desire, caught here not by the tail of words but by the brilliance of the dream, dwell in this painting, which is, if not strictly speaking on the Surrealist continent, then very, very close to it.
The expression of his wish to give life and color to the Romanian blouse of his wife, and thus partner to another picture of that same title which also depicts a woman—in that instance awake but wearing a similar garment—the 1940 The Dream [Le Rêve] by Henri Matisse (1869–1954) must, I think, be understood first and foremost as the transposition of an interior register [fig. 16]. And there is where its proximity to what the Surrealists were also seeking lies. Matisse was obsessed with serial representation, which would lead him to show his paintings in some exhibitions surrounded by photos of their different phases or prior states, images that were blown up and likewise framed. Quite a few years had passed since Matisse had stated (in La Grande Revue of December 25, 1908) that “It is impossible for me to servilely copy nature, which I find myself obliged to interpret and to subject to the spirit of painting. From it there must result a vivid chord, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition.” It is not the external world, nature, which dominates representation but on the contrary internal harmony. The convulsion, here, is located in that attempt to capture life, what the eyes see on the inside: the dream seen from within.
Fig. 15. Pablo Picasso, The Dream [Le Rêve], 1932.
Oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm. Private collection.
Fig. 16. Henri Matisse, The Dream [Le Rêve], 1940.
Oil on canvas, 81 × 65 cm. Private collection.
The Surrealists were obviously not alone in their attempt to give pictorial shape to the dream. But it seems clear that the pathway they widen and walk with that intention broadens widely, and that down it, in the arts and in the sensibility of our time, the winds of a new meaning and experience of the dream blow along.
5. Living is dreaming
Surrealism transmits an intense affirmation of freedom, the hope for a human life of plenitude, the utopia of a mind in command of all its possibilities. In that sense the Surrealist invocation of the dream must be understood, first and foremost, as the manifestation of a revolt against the “realistic” acceptance of an “ill-made” world, against an attitude of resigned acceptance of pain and suffering. The Surrealist invocation of the dream transmits a utopia of total liberation of the mind, the dream of a freedom without limits.
Naturally, the same as in utopia, the maximum value of which lies in knowing that its fundamental essence resides in what it denies, in the questioning of an existing state of affairs, as well as in the awareness that it can always be thwarted, dreams are unverifiable. There is no way to subject them to verification. They can only be shared as the words or visions of the other, as an acceptance based on more or less similar individual perceptions.
In order to trace, in the exhibition, the lines of the map of the Surrealist pictorial continent of the dream, I have focused my attention on works by the artists who intervened, with greater or lesser continuity, in the activities of Surrealism in its historic period. A further potential space of work would thus remain open: the study and presentation of the lines of dialogue and influence of those Surrealist positions on the dream on later art.
In the choice of works and projects I have tried at all times, and with the utmost care, that these should be pieces that specifically address and deal with the subject in hand: Surrealism’s pictorial representation of the dream. In a word, not just “any old” Surrealist artwork would do.
It is also important to stress the diversity of supports and expressive means used by the Surrealist artists. And here an important aspect emerges: in pursuit of the objective of elaborating their works through the representation of an interior model, and in a period which saw the technological expansion of the production and reproduction of images, the Surrealist artists were the first to be fully receptive to a fusion of different types of expression, to a multimedia aesthetic.
Seen thus, the role played by the cinema turns out to be crucial. Breton and his friends used to go to the cinema without previously knowing what they were going to see. In “As in a Wood” [“Comme dans un bois”], a text written in 1951 and later anthologized in Free Rein [La Clé des champs], Breton recalls, “When I was of ‘cinema age’ (it must be acknowledged that there is such a time in one’s life—and that one outgrows it),” and how “Jacques Vaché and I were particularly like-minded in that respect, and there was nothing we enjoyed so much as to choose a theater at random, barge in when the movie had already started, and leave at the fi rst sign of boredom—of surfeit—to rush off to some other theater where we behaved in exactly the same way, and so on (of course, this would be too much of a luxury nowadays)” (Breton 1953, 235–36). In the darkened auditorium the encounter was with the unusual, with the marvelous, without there being any conscious predetermination. Here was, in point of fact, the realm of dreams with one’s eyes wide open, looking at the screen. In a clear allusion to Rimbaud, Breton goes on to state that it is in the movie theater “that the only absolutely modern mystery is being celebrated” (Breton 1953, 237).
Not only were they going to the cinema and submitting to the fascination of the films on display there — for the Surrealists, the cinema turned very quickly into one of the main contexts for the pictorial transposition of the dream. The starting point is, obviously, Un Chien andalou [An Andalusian Dog] (1929) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, where by taking the idea of dépaysement—which we may translate as “denaturalisation” or “deracination,” one of the central concepts of Surrealist poetics — to the limit, they completely break the narrative, discursive order, unleashing a flow of images as open-ended as that of the dream. The script of Un Chien andalou was published in issue number 12 of La Révolution surréaliste (December 15, 1929), and in a few lines of presentation Buñuel pointed out that its publication expressed “without reservations of any kind” his “total adherence to Surrealist thought and activity. Un Chien andalou wouldn’t exist if Surrealism didn’t exist.” Later on, Salvador Dalí would say that the film was “a painting in movement in which all the dreams of his pictorial dream dance a crazy dance.” Nothing would be the same after the irruption of the spirit of Surrealism in the cinema, whose wake is deep and long, and can be discerned until today, even.
Another crucial point: it was within the framework of Surrealism that women artists found themselves for the first time, in the elucidation of the art of our time, in the position of protagonists. Not from the very first, and not without contradictions, of course. They started out as “partners,” being treated as objects of desire: the “femme-muse,” “Melusina, or the eternal femme-enfant,” the “spectral woman.” But beyond the machista horizon of desire, the male Surrealists gradually found themselves with independent women of culture and sensibility, who in many instances developed their creative personality in confrontation with or at a distance from the men. Meret Oppenheim would declare emphatically that “To want the woman to become woman to the power of two is to want to denature her. It is above all to prevent her from creating and joining forces with the masculine spiritual component that forms part of her own nature” (Benayoun 1965, 182). For her part, Leonora Carrington indicated in a 1983 interview that “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse. I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” The considerable number of works by women artists in the exhibition is a sign of the relevance and character typical of their contributions in the Surrealist pictorial representation of the dream.
It is true that there were “remote roads” and “moribund paths” that distracted Surrealism from the promise of liberation it bore. I’m referring, for example, to its flirtation with spiritualism, occultism, astrology and magic, to the temptation of the ready solution via superstition. Yet those roads were nothing more than byways. And, moreover, André Breton’s desire to maintain strict discipline and orthodoxy cannot prevent Surrealism, seen from the perspective of today, from standing revealed as an intensely plural attitude towards life, with very diverse formulations and approaches. There is no question but that such plurality is a sign of richness. Because all its registers are plural, Surrealism produced a profound change in modern sensibility. In a complex, convulsed world, in modern societies defi ned by the expansion of technology, Surrealism posited an updating of the subjectivist voluntarism that already markedly characterized both Romanticism and contemporary idealist philosophies in an early phase of the unfolding of modernity.
The essence of the Surrealist project resides in the image—more specifi cally, in the desire for the image, in what the image transmits as desire and the promise of freedom. In “Le Maître de l’image” [Master of the image], a text from 1925 which forms part of a collective homage to the Symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux, André Breton argues that “It is through the force of images that, over the course of time, true revolutions might be accomplished in full” (Breton 1925, 901). A genuine, idealist faith in the realization of the image is in evidence here. In the Manifesto of Surrealism the image is characterized as being unconscious and fortuitous, and furthermore it is claimed that the strongest image “is the one that is arbitrary to the highest degree, the one that takes the longest time to translate into practical language” (Breton 1924b, 38). Unconscious, fortuitous, arbitrary, difficult to translate into practical language: conceived thus, the image allows us to accede to superreality itself; it is at once its manifestation and its access route. The budding chance encounter is the kernel of the reality/superreality dialectic at work in Surrealism.
Unconscious, fortuitous, arbitrary… What is it that draws us towards images? In what does their force of attraction lie? What draws us towards them is desire, and on that score, the centrality of desire, pace Breton for whom desire is tantamount to love, we could probably find an overlap in even the most distant versions of Surrealism. We would be faced, in any event, with a true circularity: ultimately, the value of the supreme reality of images is conferred on them by the actual flow of desire that gives them life: they are more than real, superreal, because I desire them, because I love them.
Surrealism paved the way, many ways, towards the liberation of desire. And, of course, if it sought to be a means of total liberation of the mind, it drew all its strength, which it still maintains today, from the central role it grants to desirous images, akin to a vision of Eros. At bottom, that is the secret message of Surrealism, a project for the complete liberation of desire, on a trail blazed by poetry and the arts. As Breton wrote in the Manifesto: “Man proposes and disposes. He and he alone can determine whether he is completely master of himself, that is, whether he maintains the body of his desires, daily more formidable, in a state of anarchy. Poetry teaches him to” (Breton 1924b, 18). Surrealism invokes and evokes the restructuring of life through reverie, through the half-glimpsed, through the image. What we wish for, what we desire, is change, a new life that adapts to our desire, and given that we manage to glimpse this new life, albeit still fragmentarily, in the registers of the image, we idealistically declare that what we see will arrive, it will come to pass.
With such eyes, open inwardly and outwardly at the same time, we must look at and see the Surrealist artworks that transmit, following a process of pictorial elaboration, images of the dream.The image glimmers in the lightning-filled night, and due to this it intensely suffuses the dream: “[The mind] goes forward, borne by these images which enrapture it, which scarcely leave it any time to blow upon the fi re in its fi ngers. This is the most beautiful night of all, the lightning-filled night: day, compared to it, is night” (Breton 1924b, 38). This connection of the image with the dream is crucial, because dreaming is a supremely pictorial, visual activity: we dream with our eyes, we see what we dream. The dream, the image, as life’s central components. This cannot simply be reduced to the “reality” that limits and circumscribes us to an “ill-made” world. We cannot renounce the act of dreaming, of going further. Living is dreaming.
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