If you’re looking for a word that combines art and the unknown with unbridled sex and radical politics, it could only be surrealism. Though for most of us the origins of the 20th century movement are shrouded in mists of the past, we often sling the adjective “surreal” around as a marker for weirdness, perversion or any idea that goes out beyond the limits of the normal (whatever that is).
But what’s Freud got to do with it? Or Marx? Who was André Breton and what kind of transgressive process did he set in motion in books such as L’amour fou (Mad Love), Clair de terre (Earthlight), Les vases communicants (Communicating Vases) and Manifestoes of Surrealism? Most of us could only guess, yet we intuitively understand surrealism as a body of experiences that takes us “outside.”
Museums in North America aren’t much help, since they tend to shy away from the subject in their exhibition schedules, particularly if they’ve got a “family” agenda (“Mommy, what’s that skull doing to that piano?”). But it’s also true that surrealist works are a rarity on the art market, with most of the avant-garde classics (a nice oxymoron) in the hands of major collections outside the United States.
Some Midwest exceptions to the accessibility quandary include a great collection of about 80 works at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and various collections in Chicago, which has become known as a surrealist hotbed (but aren’t all surrealist beds hot?). Detroit, which would seem like a perfect place for surrealist activity, can list the Cass Corridor artists as great-grandchildren of Max Ernst and Man Ray, but not too obviously.
So what is surrealism; who are its American agents; how is it relevant to us today; and why does there seem to be so little of it available in these parts?
Answers to these all questions will be forthcoming, at least in spirit, when Ron Sakolsky, editor of the anthology Surrealist Subversions, visits the Cass Cafe at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 29. His book’s subtitle (Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States) and its size (742 pages) suggest that interested individuals will find a mountain of information between its covers. But since things are always more accessible when presented in rant mode, Sakolsky will be joined by assorted surrealist weirdos and practitioners — including those pleasantly unwholesome Detroit disrupters from the Fifth Estate — in a book-release party and performance.
If you’ve ever wondered what the Situationist International was (a French band of creative politicos who believed that minds would be transformed by radical situations), or how surrealism connects to jazz, the women’s movement, black liberation, perpetual revolution or “the ongoing battle against miserabilism,” then Surrealist Subversions is a can’t-miss read.
Among the more than 50 authors collected within it are such key figures in Chicago surrealism as Penelope and Franklin Rosemont and Paul Garon, American poets Philip Lamantia, Jayne Cortez and Ted Joans, and critical theoretician Herbert Marcuse — as well as writings and art by Nancy Joyce Peters, Rikki Ducornet, Leonora Carrington and the editors of ARSENAL, among many others.
The surrealists developed a whole body of strategies and approaches to the writing of poetry and the making of art — automatic writing, dream writing, collage, exquisite corpse collaborations, etc. — and Sakolsky’s anthology presents a healthy (or unhealthy, as the case may be) selection of such practices (e.g. the exquisite corpse drawn by the Rosemonts and Carlos Cortez, pictured above, and the cover collage by Penelope Rosemont, pictured below).
So bring your incredulous mind on a leash, but don’t forget to let it run wild when you get there.
A book-release party and reading by editor Ron Sakolsky for his anthology, Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States, aided by other surrealists, takes place at Cass Cafe (4620 Cass, Detroit) at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 29. Call 313-831-1400.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org