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LOOK: LARGE AND BAROQUE
Everything on earth is baroque. The boat is no more made for the sea than the sky.
Robert Desnos, Nouvelles Hebrides
Surrealism brought about a new way of looking. Like much else in that movement and manner of thinking, the word has two senses: what it looks like and how it looks at the world outside it and then inward, to an "interior motel." I will look at both kinds of looking, theirs and ours, that is, at what and how those whom we call surrealists saw, as if we could look through their eyes, and also what we see when looking at them and their gaze. Such a double intention seems already to split, consciously, into a willed presence (looking with them) and a certain distance (looking at them). They had "le look" in advance, and a lot more. Borrowing a properly surrealist optimism, I will interweave these looks and lookings.
Surrealism still looks large from here. Whether we concentrate on its images of communicating vessels and glass houses or on its linguistic and famously visible gestures, they all seem to contain within them a kind of spaciousness, radiating the same spirit. Surrealist discourse expresses and incites to excess. Surrealism causes problems. It disturbs, as it wants to, even now. It calls upon whatever energies we have to reread it.
It is not, any more than Dada, a movement that wants to put itself or the observer at ease. I differ from those who construe Dada as totally negative and surrealism as positive. Dada is always Dada, or it is not; in its major moments, it writes itself with a capital letter. Surrealism absorbedmuch dadaist energy, which its own contradictory tendencies were able to sustain.
In surrealism nothing stays where it should or used to. Things keep pouring into each otheras in the image of those Communicating Vessels (1991) by which Andre Breton characterized the surrealist mingling of night and day, death and life, and all other contraries, or in Rene Magritte's The False Mirror (1928) where clouds cross the sight (figure 1.1). Things and people and ideas refuse to stay in their own domains, the way we remember them, the way they are often presented. They arejust look at them!spilling all over the place, no longer willing to be read only "one in the other," as in the crucial surrealist game of curious title, I'un dans l'autre. Instead they insist, across centuries and countries, that they can best be seen not just in but through the other, as in Benjamin Peret's poem "Rosa": "Today I look out through your hair.... And I think through your exploding breasts." I see surrealism's look through the way it looks, thinking this gesture of interpenetration part of the great baroque tradition I associate with the gestures of surrealism.
The ways the baroque approach teaches us to think about reversals, upside-downness, and in-outness I would summarize briefly as fascination with what is complex, multiple, clouded, and changeable. As for traditional or "classic" definitions of the baroque I will cite a few sources: Heinrich Wolfflin's celebrated distinction between Renaissance and baroque, with the well-marked polarities of linear versus painterly, planar and clear versus recessional and unclear construction:
Every picture has recession, but the recession has a very different effect according to whether the space organizes itself into planes or is experienced as a homogenous recessional movement ... The great contrast between linear and painterly style corresponds to radically different interests in the world. In the former case, it is the solid figure, in the latter, the changing appearance; in the former, the enduring form, measurable, finite; in the latter, the movement, the form in function; in the former, the thing in itself; in the latter, the thing in its relations.... The former represents things as they are, the latter as they seem to be.
Jean Rousset arranges his analyses of baroque images and themes around changeability or mutation, including indeterminacy and cloudiness, and disguise. Baroque poetry relies on such images as soap bubbles for their formal change and their fragility, water as it reflects and alters in form, and water's imagined hard form, the mirror. Associated with change or material conversion is psychological conversion: thus the appropriate figure of Mary Magdalen, rendered and rerendered by Georges de La Tour. To the list of baroque figures, Christine Buci-Glucksmann adds Salome, as the baroque heroine staging her desire. In La Raison baroque, Buci-Glucksmann illustrates the aesthetics of otherness, in which the feminine acts as the place and origin of knowledge for baroque male poets. It is clearly preferable to render her mute, as Andre Masson does his mannequin (1938) (figure 1.2).
No figures better illustrate changeability than Proteus, on one hand, and Don Juan on the other. Rousset sums up the baroque:
To the intuition of an unstable and moving world, of a multiple and inconstant life, hesitating between being and seeming, fond of disguise and of theatrical representation, there correspond, on the expressive and structural level a rhetoric of metaphor and trompe l'oeil, a poetics of surprise and variousness, and a style of metamorphosis, of dynamic spread and dispersion in unity.
In order to produce the desired effect of motion and expansion, of an action constantly beginning over and never completed, of perpetual transmutation central to the work, the baroque creator will have recourse to several stylistic means: open and complex forms, the elimination of articulations, a construction on several levels at once, an unstable equilibrium due to the multiplicity of perspectives, of organizing centers, and of mental and imaginative registers.
Such complex forms as the play within a play, an obvious part of this aesthetic, have definite implications for the mise-en-abyme, as for the associated theory of fractals. Whether we view the baroque as a period spanning 1520 to 1680 and include in it mannerism (1520-80) or identify its characteristics as illusion and mutability the baroque sensibility pictures the world in reverse and upside down. The baroque is generally associated with the visual: in Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay describes the baroque as "the art of the thing seen" and views theatrical baroque performance as directed at that art, as authoritarian controls over the people and their festivities. He refers to Buci-Glucksmann's study of la folie du voir (madness of vision), which disparages "lucid clarity and essential form," celebrating instead "dine confusing interplay of form and chaos, surface and depth, transparency and obscurity."
The baroque sensibility and techniques have an urgent application in the world of surrealism and its reversal of words, thoughts and concepts and its exuberant ways of thinking and expressing in general. Already in the first number of the luxurious surrealist journal Minotaure, Max Raphael presents a telling "Remarque sur le baroque," with Tintoretto, Rubens, and Poussin as illustrations. Just as those great Renaissance wordplayers, the Grands Rhetoriqueurs, put a combinatorial verbal spin on their world, so does Robert Desnos speakgrand-rhetoricallyas Rrose Selavy, the alter ego of Marcel Duchamp. Meet Rrose in 1920 (figure 1.3). The affection that Desnos shows for the Spanish mannerist/baroque poet Luis de Gongora and his reversals, twists, and serpentine constructions testifies to the link I hope to reinforce here, in which the contortions of the famous Laocoon (figure 1.4) and of Tintoretto's Leda (figure 1.5) do a remarkable double twist and turn. Compare the swerves of a Gongora poem, in which Leda is compared with the peacock and Juno with the swan, with the normal associations reversed: "pavon de Venus es, cisne de Juno" (peacock of Venus she is, swan of Juno). Similarly, in the dream poems or Songes of the Renaissance poet Joachim Du Bellay, everything is constructed only to be deconstructed and decomposed.
No image better links surrealism and the baroque, I think, than Andre Breton's phrase of optimism, reversal, and openness: "Les oiseaux n'ont jamais mieux chante que dans cet aquarium" ("The birds have never sung better than in this aquarium"). Indeed they have not, and it is up to us to learn how to listen. Breton, tone-deaf and totally impenetrable to musical sound in generalthink of his categorical demand: "Let the curtain fall on the orchestra!"knows how to hear, from inside, what matters for the tone of surrealism. "le la." This does.
We have to learn to listen, but also to look. One image seems to me perfectly to introduce the surrealist experiment within the baroque one. In Man Ray's extraordinary Indestructible Object, (1958) (figure 1.6) the cover of the metronome box is unhooked and laid aside, although still touching the box, in which a photograph of one eye with its lashes is detached from its face, and flimsily attached with a homely paper clip to the pendulum of a metronome. So, it would seem to say, seeing takes its own time. If the look is inseparable from its timing, it is remarkably and uncomfortably separable from its agent. The eye as emblem or icon, once it is set in motion, will tick right along. Things do not necessarily belong in their human context. The surrealist look exists independent from the looker. All of this is, for the time and space of this one image, true. Fecit Man Ray, as so often.
MODE: SEEING THROUGH
What one would like to say is "seeing by seeing."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel
The act of seeing one thing through another, this mode of interpenetration, is presided over by the figures of the child-woman and the mermaid Melusine, these boundary figures whom Breton places at the center of his meditation on flexibility and revolution against the mechanistic way of seeing. Here in The Surrealist Look Melusine as model and heroine opens the way for three chapters on the problems of female creation and self-portraiture as exemplified in the work of Dorothea Tanning and Claude Cahun, as opposed to Man Ray's representation, manipulation, and fashioning of the female body.
I choose to move from personal to impersonal, reading the body of surrealism against a decor of high and often lonely lyricism, as in Robert Desnos's Deuil pour deuil (Mourning for Mourning), and then its absolute contrast: an excessive and violent surrealist painting by Francois de Nome (often confused with Monsu Desiderio or "Monsieur Desir"), read in the light of Antonin Artaud's reflections on repassioning the universe via an explosive sensibility.
Continuing with excess, I then take up the emblematic game of surrealist collective excess, cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse). The kinds of philosophical games or toys that Joseph Cornell invents are seen as containers of memorable scenes and as architectural structures of containment. More subtly, they are also transgressions against the architecture of things, as is his feminized representation in Laundry Boy's Charge (1966) (figure 2.1) of Man Ray's representation of Breton, to be compared with Duchamp's representation of Man Ray's representation of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy (see figure 1.3). These transgressive figures perform the central play of surrealism as I see it, baroque as they can be and as it can be.
My concluding discussion concentrates on the surrealist look in its different possible rhythms, exemplified by how Rene Char reads the painters around him, and then on its sharp focus on a point, as does the Dada subject/object of Marcel Duchamp's pointing finger of Tu m' (1918) (figure 2.2), illustrated by Wittgenstein's meditation on the subject. Finally, I look at its own language in the baroque light already mentioned, the light of willed and willing change that Melusine emblematizes in the initial chapter and continues to represent.
Baroque and surrealist views and representations reflect upon each other in an interconnecting perspective, each through the other. If Man Ray's picture of Lee Miller's Neck in 1929, later portrayed in Anatomies 1930 (figure 2.3) looks like a penis, so be it. More power to the neck, as it were, or to both. Fluid interpenetration is a major point of surrealism, too often overlooked in favor of the more easily explained automatism that was the object of the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Indeed, Breton's philosophical, alchemical, playfully serious game title "one in the other" was leverage enough to reverse elements into each other, but his emblematic metaphor of communicating vessels went still further.
So The Surrealist Look is about accepting the invitation to communication and interpenetration that Desnos implicitly holds out in his invocation of the baroque, taking the sky as a potential container for a boat and the sea for a plane. When Breton demandsfor his tone goes far past an askingthat we learn to see afresh, to replace things anew, we may well find that the sort of birds he invites us to hear "have never sung better than in this aquarium." So Rene Char draws a bird and labels it a snake (figure 2.4). If the relation of the baroque and the surrealist spirit and text is close, it has always been so. It is up to us to hear and see that relation right now.
PROBLEM: THE PERSONAE SURREALIST
We are very high up, and not at all disposed to come down.
Andre Breton, Nadja
Surrealism was surely as personalized as it was collective. This is as clear as it is seldom discussed. So a question arises straight off: How does the reader of this movement reconcile the vastly differing individual surrealist profiles of the selves making up the movement with the collective revolutionary style that surrealism promised, believed in, andat its best momentsdelivered? When and how does the objective spirit dominate the subjective differences? To the extent that the personal is now political, as we are so relentlessly cautioned, should we read this consideration back into the heyday of surrealism? How would it then affect the wonderfully eccentric enthusiasms of the personalities through whom we latter-day readers have often found our most appealing entry into the matter?
What sort of self are we expecting ourselves to find, along this path we choose to call surrealist? Aren't we really discussing a losing of the self, in our difficult knowledge that we must either renounce any fixity or ignore the fluidity that surrealism cherishes? Surrealism's overall motto, after all, was that of the freedom to change by the moment, to address the passerby in the street for an always possible encounter. This is set up, albeit implicitly, as the opposite of Baudelaire's romantically tragic sense, his already inbred nostalgia about what was always marked as impossible, never going past the past conditional ("Oh how I would have loved you, Oh how you knew ..."). To find oneself but to find oneself other would be the great project of the whole surrealist enterprise. Altogether other but not always other together with all the others, for that would seem an odd principle of freedomand yet. And yet.
This is precisely one of the inbred contradictions that fascinate us about the surrealist movement. We know how the surrealist group always met in the same cafes, like the Cafe Certa, and always drank the same thing, like a mandarine curacao, and celebrated the same passages, like Aragon's salute to the Passage de l'Opera in his Paris Peasant. Open to chance, to the large as to the small, the surrealists maintained their belief, as in Breton's Nadja, in a world willed as "sudden encounters, petrifying coincidences ... flashes that could make you see, but really see, if they were not still more rapid than the others" (N, 18-19).
Of course, as with so many other instances, this was already the dada perspective. Breton's manifesto of those years, his "Disdainful Confession," reads as a salvo against stasis and settling down: "I used only to leave my dwelling after having said a definitive farewell to everything that had accumulated there in the way of enveloping memories, everything of myself I felt like perpetuating." "You must forgive me for thinking," he continues, that "quite unlike ivy, I'll die if I get attached to something" (PP, 131).
At least two questions arise here, even at the outset. This is plainly, in spirit as in date, a "confession" in the dada and not the surrealist spirit. To be attached to nothing speaks more loudly of refusal than of a relatively ordered revolution of the sort Breton will later formulate for surrealism. For the members of the surrealist group, originally and later, were supposed to be attached to the movement and its beliefsto its games and projects as to its leader. But who is to assert that attachment to one movement is any less conformist than to another? A second question arises even within the tenets of surrealism: What does openness to everything leave you with? Of what does the surrealist personality consist, when interesting in itself rather than just a self-discipline along the lines laid down by collective or party credos?
The most reliable model, at least for surrealist feminism, is Melusine the shape-shifter. She was Breton's favorite figure; she is mine too.