MARC CHAGALL Self-portrait with Seven Fingers. 1912
In spite of his independence, Chagall has remained one of the most influential artists of our time; and however much one allows for purely artistic qualities, such as his barbaric richness of colour (what he himself would call his 'primordial palette'), there is no doubt that his essential appeal is to the emotions, which are worked on by means of a more or less nostalgic symbolism. Contrasting himself with the Impressionists and the Cubists he has said: 'I try to fill my canvas with ringing forms filled with passion that are to create an additional dimension such as cannot be attained with the pure geometry of Cubist lines or Impressionist dabs of colour. He cannot so easily disengage himself from the Surrealists, who were to find so much inspiration in his work, but he makes the attempt, accusing them of a literary approach to painting.
These are not, indeed, the sentiments of a Surrealist, in spite of the transcendental significance of the word. The word we again owe to Apollinaire: he used it to describe his own play, Les mamelles de Tirésias (drama surréaliste en deux actes et un prologue), which was first performed on 24 June 1917. When, in March 1919, André Breton and Philippe Soupault founded a review (Littérature), they adopted 'surréalisme' as a word to characterize a method of spontaneous writing with which they were experimenting. Breton was already familiar with the new doctrines of psychoanalysis, and he had come to the conclusion that the symbolic imagery released in dream and dream-analysis might be evoked for poetic effects. The origins of this new movement were therefore literary, but Breton was quick to see that the manifestations of Dada which began to reach Paris in this year were of the greatest relevance to the experimental aims of his magazine. Tzara was invited to contribute and came to Paris; then followed those rowdy demonstrations in which the Dada movement expired. Its cult of absurdity became more and more extreme and by the end of 1922 it had ceased to exist as a coherent group. Breton rallied the remnants, at least those who appreciated his serious purpose, and in 1924, by which time he could count on the collaboration of artists like Arp and Max Ernst, as well as poets like Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret, he issued his First Surrealist Manifesto.
Surrealism, as a movement, was to be as 'activist' and as incoherent in its manifestations as Dadaism, but it had the immense advantage of an intelligent and influential co-ordinator. Breton has always rejected the title of 'leader', and indeed the very concept of leadership is inconsistent with the essential libertarianism of the Surrealist doctrine. Nevertheless it was Breton who guided the modern movement from the Dada phase to the Surrealist phase. This is made very clear in several documents, above all in the pages of Littérature from its foundation in March 1919 onwards. It is true that this journal was edited jointly by Louis Aragon, Breton, and Philippe Soupault, but during the controversies of 1920-2, which saw the decisive separation of Breton and Picabia from the rest of the Dadaists led by Tzara, Breton's well-expressed ideas and scientific spirit were to prove decisive. Breton began with manifestoes of sympathy with Dada, but before 1924 he had declared that he and his friends Soupault and Eluard had 'never regarded "Dada" as anything but a rough image of a state of mind that it by no means helped to create'. Breton realized from this time onwards that an historical situation existed which called for something more constructive than the now futile antics of the Dada group. He conceived the idea of a congress of intellectuals which would 'distil and unify the essential principles of modernism'.15
The consequence has been well described by Georges Hugnet: 'It is easy to conceive that an undertaking of this sort would appear reactionary to Dada and to foresee how each individual Dadaist would interpret it. For Dada the adjective 'modern' was perjorative. Dada had always fought against the modern spirit. As for Breton, his intention was clear. Amid the mounting tide of obscurity, he wished to create light. He wished to investigate the manúuvres of Dada. Dada was at the end of its evolution. It had foundered like a ship in distress. A reorientation was necessary.
This reorientation Breton found in the doctrines of psychoanalysis. As a student of medicine he had been introduced to the work of Freud, and immediately realized its relevance to the manifestations of Dada. Apart from the significance which psychoanalysis attached to dreams and hallucinations, the therapeutic techniques of analysis suggested the use of wordassociation and induced day-dreams as possible methods of artistic creation. Breton himself has described how he was led to make the first experiments in this direction. One evening, as he was going to sleep, he heard distinctly articulated, 'as if it had knocked on the window-pane', the strange phrase: 'There's a man cut in two by the window,' and to reinforce the hearing of the phrase was a visual image of a man cut in two by a window. He then comments:
'Preoccupied as I still was at that time with Freud and familiar with his methods of investigation which I had practised occasionally upon the sick during the War I resolved to obtain from myself what one seeks to obtain from patients, namely a monologue poured out as rapidly as possible, over which the subject's critical faculty has no control--the subject himself throwing reticence to the winds--and which as much as possible represents spoken thought. It seemed and still seems to me that the speed of thought is no greater than that of words, and hence does not exceed the flow of either tongue or pen. It was in such circumstances that, together with Philippe Soupault, whom I have told about my first ideas on the subject, I began to cover sheets of paper with writing, feeling a praiseworthy contempt for whatever the literary result might be. Ease of JOAN MIRó Harlequinade. 1924-5
achievement brought about the rest. By the end of the first day of the experiment we were able to read to one another about fifty pages obtained in this manner and to compare the results we had achieved. The likeness was on the whole striking. There were similar faults of construction, the same hesitant manner and also, in both cases, an illusion of extraordinary verve, much emotion, a considerable assortment of images of a quality such as we should never have been able to obtain in the normal way of writing, a very special sense of the picturesque, and, here and there, a few pieces of out and out buffoonery. The only differences which our two texts presented appeared to me to be due essentially to our respective temperaments. Soupault's being less static than mine, and, if he will allow me to make this slight criticism, to his having scattered about at the top of certain pages--doubtlessly in a spirit of mystification--various words under the guise of titles. I must give him credit, on the other hand, for having always forcibly opposed the least correction of any passage that did not seem to me to be quite the thing. In that he was most certainly right.
This passage shows that Surrealism was above all a question of poetic creation, and indeed painting and sculpture were to be conceived as essentially plastic transformations of poetry. In the manifesto Breton goes on to relate how he and Soupault continued and extended such experiments, and how 'in homage to Guillaume Apollinaire', they decided to give the name Surréalisme to the new mode of expression which came out of them. He then proceeds in dictionary style to define, 'once and for all time', the word:
'Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, whether verbally or in writing, or in any other way, the real process of thought. Thought's dictation, free from any control by the reason, independent of any esthetic or moral preoccupation.
'ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism rests on a belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association hitherto neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought.