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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Politics of Surrealism

Joan Miró. Still Life with Old Shoe. Paris, January 24-May 29, 1937

By Alexandra A Jopp

Art had an important role in Communist revolutionary activity in Europe between the wars through the method of “socialist realism,” in which the French Communist Party tried to “dictate form as well as content to those artists who were Party members.” (Lewis 61) The approach was formulated in 1932 by Stalinist apparatchiks in the Soviet Union and covered all spheres of artistic activity – literature, drama, cinema, painting, sculpture, music and architecture.

Helena Lewis affirms the main principles of socialist realism: “it was to be a historically truthful and concrete depiction of reality with a thematic emphasis on the coming of the revolution.” It was also important, according to the method, for artists to make their works consistent with the themes of socialist ideological reforms and the education of workers in the socialist spirit. As British art critic Herbert Read said, “Socialist realism is nothing but an attempt to stuff intellectual or dogmatic objectives into art.”

Surrealists claimed the revolutionary mantle and asserted that their principles were compatible with the ideas of Marx and Engels. Lenin was different, though, since he “rejected the possibility of any kind of liberation” (Short 21) and was, thus, a danger to art, especially literature. He insisted that, “Today literature, even that published ‘legally,’ can be nine-tenths party literature. It must become party literature.” The repression that began with Lenin grew even worse under Stalin, with writers and artists being persecuted and killed.

Lenin said that art should stand next to the proletariat since, “Art belongs to the people. It must with its widest stretching roots go out into the very thick of the broadest masses. It must combine the feelings, thoughts and will of the masses and uplift them.” This statement illustrates the idea that art and culture are synonymous, and that it is impossible to separate them from the people. Given this, a government that seeks to control its people – as the Soviet regime certainly did – would, obviously, consider controlling the production of art to be crucial.

This, ultimately, is why the alliance between Surrealists and Communists failed. Surrealism focused on new experiments, new ideas and unbarred freedom, things that were clearly antithetical to everything the Soviets were doing.

1. Breton “Political Position of Surrealism (extracts)” pp. 205-278.

2. Greeley, Robin. “Nationalism, Civil War, and Painting: Joan Miró
and Political Agency in the Pictorial Realm” in Surrealism
and the Spanish Civil War (Yale University Press, 2006) pp. 13-49.

3. Lewis, Helena, “Surrealists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists:
Theories of Art and Revolution in France between the Wars”
Art Journal, Vol. 52, No. 1, Political Journals and Art,
1910-40 (Spring, 1993), pp. 61-68. JSTOR.

4. Short, Robert S. “The Politics of Surrealism, 1920-36,”
Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 1, No. 2,
Left-Wing Intellectuals between the Wars (1966), pp. 3-25. JSTOR

Monday, 20 September 2010

Alexandra Jopp on the Agnew Clinic

Artist Thomas Eakins 1889
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 214 cm × 300 cm (84⅜ in × 118⅛ in)
          Location John Morgan Building at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

By Alexandra A Jopp & Ronald Hawkins

For the art historian who embraces semiotics, meaning is ever-changing. Aspects of works of art become wild cards whose interpretations vary across cultures and eras, so that, “An image means one thing in one context, something else in another.” (Hatt 208) In its strictest form, semiotics holds that all verbal “signs” (words) and, less obviously and more controversially, all visual “signs” (images) are arbitrary conventions, names and pictures that we connect to concepts for no other reason than that we, as a society, decided to do so. While this is the orthodox method (as defined by Ferdinand de Saussure), the reform school of semiotics (offered by Charles Sanders Peirce) takes a more realist approach to the interpretation of visual signs, arguing that they can be divided into three general categories that acknowledges at least some connection between a concept and its visual representation. In David Lubin’s examination of Thomas Eakins’ “The Agnew Clinic,” we see the semiotic approach in all its frustrating glory.

For the art historian who embraces semiotics, “meaning is not something already there in the image, but rather something produced by the decoding of signs by the viewer.” (Hatt 206) In “The Agnew Clinic,” a painting ostensibly of a late-19th-century surgery in an operating room populated by Dr. D. Hayes Agnew, a highly regarded Philadelphia doctor, three other doctors, a nurse, an unconscious female patient and roughly two dozen observers, Lubin finds many signs to decode in unconventional ways. After reviewing the literal interpretations of the painting, including those that focus on “its alleged one-to-one correspondence with particular individuals who had a real-life historical existence,” (Lubin 45; emphasis added), Lubin delves into the “virtually endless” figurative analyses. (Lubin 45)

Agnew is generally considered to be a heroic figure who helped to bring surgery into the modern age, and “The Agnew Clinic” is thought to be a respectful portrait of the great man at work. For Lubin, though, this interpretation is not a given. We ascribe meaning to the images in the painting based on certain preconceived notions (“interpretants,” in Peirce’s jargon) that, Lubin argues, cannot be proven. For example, after quoting Schendler’s assertion that the good doctor’s visage shows “a consciousness of intellectual power and of human dignity in the extraordinary living figure, in the study of intelligence and professional competence joined vitally to feeling and to compassion,” Lubin mocks the reading with, “What a lot that is to find in a single face, a single head!” (Lubin 53) It seems that it is not so much that Lubin objects to certain interpretations of the painting as that he rejects any interpretation that is expressed with too much confidence, a hallmark of the semiotic approach that, after all, “does not seek to privilege one meaning over another. What matters is to describe the field of all possible interpretations.” (Hatt 220) Referring to the interpretations of Agnew’s face (though the comment is also more broadly applicable), Lubin asserts that “their truth value in terms of correspondence to a confirmed reality is logically impossible to determine, either by corroboration or falsification.” (Lubin 53) What Schendler was doing in his analysis, Lubin writes, was projecting “onto the face and head of Agnew precisely those modern-anxious or humanitarian-noble qualities and feelings that years of literary conditioning led [him], and might lead any of us, to expect.” (Lubin 54) Lubin goes on to take an opposite approach, suggesting interpretations that are far removed from the standard effects of “literary conditioning.”

Starting off relatively small, Lubin writes that Agnew is painted in such a way that viewers may or may not think he is speaking. Eakins may have meant to depict him in the act of giving instruction, or he may have sought to present him as an ideal, a monument, and such things do not talk. As a result, Lubin writes, “the viewer looking at Agnew can see him both as a teacher engaged in the act of teaching and as the symbol of a teacher.” (Lubin 55) These, though, are but the beginning of Lubin’s reinterpretations of Agnew. He gives the reader fair warning of what is to come when he writes, “Just as a word might have a single denotation but endless connotations, so with the visual image, once we have construed it literally, we find beckoning to us on the horizon a practically infinite number of figurative constructions.” (Lubin 56)

Lubin proposes first that Agnew may be seen as an artist. In semiotic terms, certain “signifiers” in the painting – the white garment he wears and the tool he holds in his left hand – are generally taken to be the “signifieds” of an operating cloak and a scalpel (or, at least, the “concepts” of an operating cloak and a scalpel). But “the relationship between signified and signifier is arbitrary” (Hatt 202), and Lubin suggests that the signifieds may be an artist’s smock and a paintbrush. Alternatively, Lubin offers Agnew as a critic, with the scalpel “interpreted as a symbol of critical instrumentality.” (Lubin 60) Such free association clearly rejects Peirce’s approach to semiotics in favor of the anti-realism of Saussure.

Lubin goes on to bring Freudian and feminist perspectives into his analysis, with critiques that focus on phallic images, masturbation and male domination. The (topless) female patient can be viewed erotically, which would make Agnew a “voyeur” with “a phallic instrument held lightly in his fingers only inches from the joining of his legs.” Lubin suggests that the image might be “postmasturbatory” and ties this to previous interpretations by noting that art creation and criticism can both be viewed as forms of self-gratification. (Lubin 63) He even suggests that the image may represent a gang rape. While conceding that this “was not in the realm of conscious intention,” he insists that “the depiction of masculinity subjugating femininity does seem an essential component of this work.” (Lubin 64)

Lubin also proposes that the painting represents Agnew three times – at different points in his life and in different degrees of sexual participation with the woman depicted – that the scene is “a magic show” and that it is “a live sex show.” He writes that “the creases of the sheet and folds of flesh join together to form an open, vagina-like pocket that invites the viewer to send forth ‘his’ phallic visual shaft.” (Lubin 74-5) This leads to a discussion of the power of the “gaze” that is redolent of the writing of Griselda Pollock: “The stare can thus be seen as an aggressive act, an act of appropriation, domination, objectification.” (Lubin 77) The once professional looks of Lubin and the other doctors have now become ways in which they “possess the woman stretched out upon the table.” (Lubin 77)

After acknowledging that it could be argued that “there is something preposterous” about finding erotica in a depiction of a surgical procedure, Lubin nonetheless asserts that “we must try to divest ourselves of preconceptions as to how things are supposed to be.” (Lubin 72; emphasis in original) Bringing forth multiple – and unconventional – interpretations of a work of art, he writes, helps us to “make visible the invisible, audible the inaudible, indigestible the predigested – and thus better comprehend how social phenomena that are cultural and arbitrary attempt to pass themselves off as natural and inevitable.” (Lubin 72) While discarding preconceptions can be useful when searching for meaning in a work of art, a semiotic approach rejects the very idea that there is any meaning, other than the most ephemeral: “The portrait of Dr. Agnew is never finished. Every time someone discovers a new relationship or meaning, ‘The Agnew Clinic’ has been altered, revised, recreated. … [A]s a figurative object, a psychologically invested object of perception, it is never the same from one moment to the next, let alone from one viewer to the next.” (Lubin 56) Interpreting art with semiotics, then, is little more than an exercise in futility.


Hatt, Michael and Charlotte Klonk. 2006. Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Lubin, David. 1985. Act of Portrayal: Eakins, Sargent, James. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Surrealist primitivism

Le café La Fleur (55 rue des Alexiens 1000 Bruxelles) March 1953. From left to right: Marcel Mariën, Camille Goemans, Gérard Van Bruaene, Irène Hamoir,  Georgette Magritte, E.L.T. Mesens, Louis Scutenaire, René Magritte and Paul Colinet.

By Alexandra A Jopp

The “other” has performed many functions throughout human history. It has variously been a source of fear, fascination, inspiration, exoticism, disgust and many things in between. One consistent theme emerges, though: how one defines the other (whatever it may be in a given situation) often goes a long way toward defining oneself. This self-identification through proxy was never more true – or more intentional – than in the Surrealists’ conception of otherness and their investigation of it through ethnography.

Surrealists went beyond mere curiosity about the exotic features of other cultures that typified movements such as Orientalism. In a world based on modern, rational thought that Surrealists found to be lacking, adherents of the movement looked to the artifacts of primitive cultures for meaning. Like the products of automatism, primitive objects were pure expressions, unfiltered by the (modern and rational) conscious mind.

Statue Uli - Nouvelle-Irlande. Bois et pigments. Ancienne collection André Breton, acquise en 1964 à Drouot. Vendue en avril 2004 à Drouot par l'Etude Calmels Cohen. Actuellement dans une collection privée. Cette statue imposante (1.20m) d'une remarquable facture représente une effigie d'ancêtre, "uli" signifiant grand Dieu. Datant probablement de la fin du XIXème siècle, on est frappé par le très bon état de conservation de l'oeuvre. La raison est simple : les objets une fois créés n'étaient conservés que très peu de temps dans les communautés, les européens en prenant possession rapidement.

“For every local custom or truth, there was always an exotic alternative, a possible juxtaposition or incongruity,” Clifford wrote. “Below (psychologically) and beyond (geographically) any ordinary reality there existed another reality.”

It was this other reality that Surrealists sought, both in their artistic practices and in their ethnography. Society, to them, had, in essence, fictionalized reality with modern inventions that obscured meaning and that led, ultimately, to the barbarism and devastation of World War I. The primitive creations of pre-modern people – as well as the primitive expressions of the subconscious – were thought to be a more accurate reflection of the true nature of being human. There is, perhaps, some irony in this. Surrealists, via the Dadaists, after all, grew out of the war, as an expression of contempt for it and for the rational society that created it. Their embrace of the primitive was part of their rebellion against contemporary values. Yet there is nothing more primal than conflict and aggression.

P.S. Since the 80s, the art market experienced a spectacular boom in primitive art. The Surrealists and primitivism as Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and the Fauves opened the appetite of collectors by giving them taste for representations out of the ordinary, taking a break with five-century classicism.
* Primitivism is a perspective on non-Western Art.

Masque Fang ngil. Bois et pigments. Hauteur : 48cm. Ancienne collection Pierre Vérité. Actuellement dans une collection privée. Vendu le 17 juin 2006, Drouot, Enchères Rive Gauche S.V.V. Ce masque d'une grande rareté est un des chef-d'oeuvre incontournable de l'art africain autant par la pureté de ses lignes que par son histoire. Les masque Ngil authentiques ne sont plus fabriqués après 1924 date à laquelle le gouvernement français au Gabon interdit à la société Ngil d'exercer son pouvoir. Les Ngil terrorisaient les villageois sous couvert de rendre la justice.