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Sunday, 11 April 2010

Surrealism in the USA

By Alexandra A. Jopp

In the United States, Surrealism moved from a political and literary movement toward one that focused more on visual style. European artists in America explored low and high perspectives, moving from the metropolitan modernity of New York City to the “fantastically shaped landscapes and cactus-shaped deserts” of Arizona (Tythacott 160). The Surrealist artists’ experiences also included collecting exotica in New York shops and encountering members of the Hopi, Inuit and other native cultures. However, if Orientalism for European observers was largely a study of imagination, then for Surrealists, the interaction with the native peoples of North America remained not fully experienced. For example, Breton’s brief encounter with the Hopi included an ancestor worship ceremony during which he took notes on the tribe’s customs and beliefs that he later compared to those of Surrealists. Similarly, Max Ernst had a fleeting encounter with the native people of Arizona in which he observed their dances. Penrose noted that, “most impressive of all was the Hopi reservation where from a house-top we joined in the compulsive rhythms of the masked katchina [sic] dancers.” While this is an interesting approach, the common ground between “the art of the red people” and Surrealists is that Surrealism itself begins with the sacred. Surrealist artists were themselves poets and they were interested in the emergence of a poetic image, or as Apollinaire put it, in “the new spirit of poetry,” with an emphasis on “spirit.”

Vogue June 1, 1939 cover, by Salvador Dalí.
Models in surreal landscape, photographed by André Durst in the January 15, 1936 Vogue.

Actress Merle Oberon posed against Christian Bérard’s setting design for “Symphonie Fantastique,” photographed by Edward Steichen in the March 1, 1937 Vogue.

French Surrealism was a reaction to Dadaism and came to the United States in the middle of the country’s avant-garde movement. Surrealists began to gain acceptance in New York in 1932, with the exhibition Surrealism at the Julien Levy Gallery, a show that both introduced the American audience to Surrealist art and initiated Surrealist artists into the American art scene. These artists would set a new tone for American art, especially Dali, whose works were reinterpreted and commercially exploited by American culture, high fashion, advertising and media. In the late-1940s and early-1950s, Surrealism became not simply a fashion but, rather, a lifestyle. Unlike Spanish Surrealism, however, Surrealism in America was unable to impart significantly its fundamental principles onto the nation.