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Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology Edited by Mary Ann Caws

Saturday, May 28, 2011 § 1

Surrealist Painters and Poets: The Literary Writings of the Inn(o)vative Avant Garde

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology (2001) by Mary Ann Caws is a large collection of Surrealist writings that includes some of the most interesting works of the 20th Century, representing a literary movement that begins in 1924, and continues to the present as an innovative trend that has developed the esthetic theories of the avant garde with a poetic style of writing that includes visual metaphors, which parallel the paintings of the Surrealist artists. This collection includes works by the founding Surrealist members: André Breton, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon, and those who followed afterwards, including Michel Leiris, Joyce Mansour, Max Ernst, and others.

In 1951 Robert Motherwell published a collection of writings called The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology. Conceived as a sequel to that volume, Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology does for Surrealism what Motherwell's book did for Dadaism.
                                                           The MIT Press

The anthology begins with a Mary Ann Caws essay called Remembering Jacqueline Remembering André (2001) about her meeting with Jacqueline Lamba, the former wife of André Breton, and if is the face of André Breton which has attracted many of his followers with his look of intelligent integrity with the trace of a smile.

It was in the beginning, Breton's face I had loved, wherever I saw it... Everyone else seemed to find that face leonine, massive, strong, impressive. I was no less impressed, but found it in the picture to be as vulnerable as it was striking: and so I loved it. 
                                                          Remembering Jacqueline 
                                                          Remembering André
                                                          Mary Ann Caws

Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology continues with Hans Arp "Notes from a Diary" (1932), which shows another side of the Dadaist personality whose poetry and prose is represented in Arp on Arp: Poems, Essays, Memories (1972). These notes show the sense of humor that distinguishes Hans Arp as a Dadaist poet, known for his concrete amorphous sculptures and his esthetic theory of nature.

man calls abstract that which is concrete. yet i find this a good deal in his favor... i understand that he should call a cubist picture abstract because parts have been abstracted from the object which served as a pretext for the picture, but a picture of a plastic for which no object was pretexted i find as concrete and as perceptible as a leaf or a stone.
                                                          Notes from a Diary
                                                          Hans Arp

The pretext for the expression of a picture is the idea that precedes the thought of expression, and is an opportunity for the poet to say something of relevance, or to write a novel based on a pretext. This is similar to my own use of the word in my novel-in-progress The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, a novel where the abstract and the concrete verge on the surreal, a trend in Surrealism that occurred in the 1940s, when it became influenced by abstraction in painting from the New York school of Abstract Expressionism. This converging of esthetic theories produced some of the classic works of Surrealism, when it became a major trend in art and literature.

Hans Bellmer writes about youthful eroticism of girls in What Oozed through the Staircase (1980) with a sense of appreciation. Hans Bellmer is an artist known for his sculpture and his novel The Doll (2005), and for his friendship with the Surrealist artist/novelist Unica Zürn.

...What oozed through the staircase or the cracks in the doors when these girls were playing at being doctors, up there in the attic, what dripped from these clysters filled with raspberry juice, of if I dare say so, with raspberry verjuice, all this could easily take on, on the whole, the appearance of seduction, and even arouse desire.
                                                           What Oozed through 
                                                           the Staircase   
                                                           Hans Bellmer

Surrealist eroticism involves a poetic perspective where the fantasies of the unconscious mind can be expressed in dreamlike passages, and André Breton writes on this theme in Age (1982), where he writes poetic lines with a sense of prophetic foreshadowing.

Dawn, farewell! I emerge from the haunted wood, brave the highways, torrid crosses. An ordaining foliage leads me astray. August is as free of fissures as a millstone. 
     Cling to the panoramic view, sniff the space and reel off the smoke mechanically. 
     I shall chose for myself a precarious enclosure: We will jump the hedge if we must. The provinces full of heated begonias are chattering, tidying things up. How nicely the griffons troop around the ruffled flying of skirts!
     Where to look after the fountains? I'm wrong to put my faith in her necklace of bubbles...
     Eyes before sweetpeas.
                                                           Age
                                                           André Breton

Leonora Carrington changed tense at the age of 94, having lived in Mexico for years. She associated with Max Ernst in Provence, and her Surrealist novels and paintings imply ancient metaphysical realities. In The House of Fear (1988) the narrator describes her meeting with a character who is a horse.

     "Well, you see, I'm really bored by this job. I only do it for the money. I don't really belong in these surroundings. I'll show you, next time there is a party."
     After due reflection, I said to myself that it was easy to see that this horse wasn't just an ordinary horse. Having reached this conclusion, I felt I should get to know him better.
     "I'll certainly come to your party. I'm beginning to think I rather like you."
                                                          The House of Fear
                                                          Leonora Carrington

The Surrealist genre may feature characters who are animals, waves, or waterfalls. Leonora Carrington describes a character who is a horse, Octavio Paz portrays a character who is a wave, and in my own novel-in-progress I describe a character who is a red haired waterfall.

Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology (2001) by Mary Ann Caws has translations of many of the Surrealist writers and artists, and is one of the most interesting collections of Surrealist literature that is available in English, with a multiplicity of Surrealist texts for those who enjoy avant garde poetic writing that is expressing a sophisticated painterly esthetic.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.


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