it came to politics, the Surrealists had a fascination with “the
Other.” This they expressed through their radical anticolonialism
or else via the production of poetic representations of the Negro,
the Savage, the East, and so on.(1) Yet the primary contact they
had with distant cultures was mediated through objects. Beyond
this admitted taste for “primitive” objects, it seems
that the Surrealists--and, in the first place, their leader--were
tempted to associate their own image with those objects in an
effort at mutual identification, even appropriation, that was
played out during the interwar period.
The Search for Novelty
In collecting “fetishes” very early on, the Surrealists
fit into a history of collector-artists that preceded them--that
is, the first generation of Primitivism. This collected exoticism
little by little came to be associated with the idea of modernity.
Carl Einstein had already remarked that the interest in “Negro”
sculpture gave rise to an “interpretation” of these
objects. Concerning this strong infatuation on the part of the
Surrealists with “primitive” art, one may ask oneself
whether what was expressed was a kind of anticonformism or, on
the contrary, a certain sort of herd instinct, an adaptation to
the trend of their milieu. Was there not already an awareness
of “going modern” when cultivating this taste?
Whereas the market
for “savage” art basically gathered objects from Africa
and Oceania or from pre-Columbian America, the interest several
Surrealists had in this area very soon bore on Amerindian art
and, in particular, on the art of North America. As early as the
1920s, a number of them took an interest in Kachina dolls and
Inuit masks. In 1927, Paul Éluard spoke of Pueblo dolls
as “what is most beautiful in the world”(2) and one
of these was reproduced in La Révolution surréaliste.(3)
The exhibition Charles Ratton organized in 1935, “Ancient
Masks and Ivories of Alaska and of the Northwestern Coast of America,”(4)
certainly prompted them to welcome Yup’ik masks in their
own exhibition, which was held the following year in the same
gallery. Yet it was presented as “the first exhibition of
the kind ever organized.” While attendance at the show did
not match the show’s novelty, this show did, on the other
hand, arouse the enthusiasm of the Surrealists.(5) On this occasion,
Éluard published in the Cahiers d’art “La
Nuit est à une dimension” (Night is one dimensional),
which he illustrated with numerous reproductions of masks that
had been exhibited at Ratton’s.(6)
While the idea
of an aesthetic affinity between Surrealist art and the objects
from these regions has its validity, it does not on its own explain
the Surrealists’ biases. One can also see therein a search
for novelty as much on the sociological level as in efforts at
poetic creation. The search for the unheard of, for the completely
new, played a large role in those efforts and found poetic expression
in their fascination with found objects--which, as André
Breton explained, incites the “precipitate of desire.”(7)
This criterion of novelty played a role in the predilection Surrealists
had for Indian America. Even if it is recommended that one relativize
their rejection of African art--since, for some of them, it remained
the object of their desire --such art, already canonized and associated
with the idea of modernity, could not represent a properly Surrealist
who were interested in “savage” objects were fully
engaged in the activities of buying and selling. They could travel
quite far within Europe for the purpose of enlarging their market.
Their relations with dealers and their correspondence, just like
the abundance of Hôtel Drouot auction catalogues kept by
Breton and Éluard--quite a number of them, in fact, between
1926 and 1931--as well as the numerous annotations these catalogues
include, reveal to what extent attendance at auctions was part
of their way of life.(8) The speculative aspect was never totally
avoided. In 1929, Éluard wrote, for example, to Gala: “In
Holland, I bought a fetish that is unique in the world, from New
Guinea (2.50 meters), for 20,000 francs. It’s magnificent.
One day, I will sell it for 200,000. Definitely.”(9)
During the auction
of the Éluard and Breton collections in 1931, the press
did not fail to note, either, that such a sale could only be reinforced
by the burning issue of the Colonial Exhibition, which was being
presented at the same time.(10) Now, Éluard and Breton
were aware of “the Colonial Exhibition effect,” as
the February letter to Gala testifies.(11) While in other respects
they violently attacked the Colonial Exhibition, they were aware
of the advantage they could gain from the infatuation with a certain
sort of colonial faddishness.
In 1937, a notary
public from Versailles put Breton in charge the gallery he named
Gradiva. The gallery, of which Breton was the director,
presented Surrealist works and “savage objects” side
by side. This commercial venture quickly folded, but it is revealing
of an at least partial acceptance of the art market that contrasts
with his stark rejection of capitalism. Even though this activity
of selling “primitive” objects, just like that of
commerce in Surrealist paintings, was not considered to be a compromise,
some Surrealists could be expelled for “journalism.”
Aragon and Breton decreed that it was impossible for a Surrealist
to be “at the beck and call of money.”(12) In their
minds, there were lucrative activities that harm the Surrealist
spirit and other ones that are deemed acceptable, like the sale
Of course, while
commerce in these objects secured some revenue for certain ones
among them, the purchase thereof proceeded no less from a genuine
election. Moreover, the Surrealists attached little importance
to the authenticity or antiquity of such objects, and they rejected
“patina” as a criterion of value.(13) Their passion
for popular objects partook of the same logic of removing the
art work from its expected settings.(14) Thus, their collections
were made up not only of masterworks but contained also some Surrealist
bric-à-brac. For this reason, the Surrealists were atypical
collectors and atypical dealers, but their poetic grasp of such
objects was not something that shunned a possibly opportunistic
relation to them.
The Surrealist Appropriation of the “Savage Arts”
On a more basic
level than commercial appropriation, the appropriation of savage
art was played out symbolically through an explicit and repeated
effort to make a connection [rapprochement] between these
objects and the movement itself at the time of exhibitions as
well as in reviews and texts. Evocatively entitled exhibitions
wherein Surrealist works stood in juxtaposition to non-Western
objects were organized. As early as 1926, the “Pictures
of Man Ray and Island Objects” exhibition was presented
for the inauguration of the Surrealist Gallery. The catalogue’s
cover reproduced a sculpture from the island of Nias.(15) The
catalogue itself was illustrated with objects from Oceania, the
captions being reworked by the Surrealists--such as “Easter
Island, the Athens of Oceania”--which testifies to their
will to substitute these objects for the classical heritage of
the West as well as to sift out new canons and new classics.
year, it was America’s turn to be honored. The “Yves
Tanguy and Objects from America” exhibition presented, side
by side, pictures by this Surrealist and objects from America,
both pre-Columbian objects and more recent ones, like those of
British Columbia.(16) In the text written for the catalogue, Breton
established a bridge between the “ancient cities of Mexico”
and the painter’s universe, which “today invites us
to meet him in a place he has truly discovered.” In “D’un
véritable Continent,” Éluard connected up
Amerindian cultures with such Surrealist concerns as dreams and
the imagination. Their comments legitimated the presentation of
American objects by relating them to realms privileged by Surrealism.(17)
of non-Western objects and Surrealist products was also to be
found in journals. In La Révolution surréaliste,
a New Mecklenburg mask was used to illustrate “Surrealist
texts,”(18) and then a set of finery and masks from New
Ireland accompanied a poem by Philippe Soupault.(19) In another
issue, two illustrations presented opposite each other seemed
to compose a diptych, so much did the two representations formally
match: on the left-hand page, a Kachina doll, on the right-hand
page, a cadavre exquis.(20) The famous map, “The
World at the Time of the Surrealists,” which appeared in
Variétés in 1929(21) was another product
of such a rapprochement. Cartography is a discipline that went
along with the Age of Discovery and that partook of a logic of
domestication and appropriation of the world. By engaging in a
détournement of the realistic map of the world,
the Surrealists reappropriated the Earth for themselves so that
“the world at the time of the Surrealists” would be
a world that could almost be described as Surrealist.(22)
This world map echoed Paul Nougé’s “New Elementary
Geography,” which appeared in the same issue. It, too, was
connected with Éluard’s poem on “L’art
sauvage,” which linked it explicitly to the material productions
of the peoples being promoted.
which is to be found again on numerous occasions in statements
by Breton, belongs to a technique that was dear to the Surrealists:
that of analogy. The purpose of presenting, side by side, an object
from New Ireland and a cadavre exquis was to create ties
between those two realities in order to arrive at the point where
they “will cease to be perceived contradictorily,”
to use the Surrealist formula. Exhibition titles, which were articulated
around the conjunction and, offered confirmation through
language of the principle behind the spatial design of these exhibitions.
In this way, the Surrealists appropriated “savage”
objects by stamping them “Surrealist.” According to
Krzysztof Pomian, an object that has been used in some other context
and by other individuals can take on a partially transformed meaning
and be laden with new signs.(23) The non-Western object presented
in these exhibitions or these journals, while continuing to retain
some of the signs of its “primary life” and those
of its uprooting which made of it an artefact, is partially transformed
once again in order to become there a sort of “Surrealist
object.” This appropriation is, of course, a form of recognition.
It is also a means of defining Surrealism through these objects
and of forging its identity in particular upon them. Surrealism
was a movement that always wanted to master its own image. The
presentation of the “savage” arts partook of its intention
to forge and to display a certain image of Surrealism in relation
to these cultures.(24) Yet it was with the Surrealist Exhibition
of Objects, which was presented from May 22 to May 29, 1936 at
the Ratton Gallery(25), that this effort at rapprochement really
hit a snag.
The Surrealist Exhibition of Objects
fit into one of Breton’s reflections at that time. Around
then, he was also displaying, in “Crisis of the Object,”
the Surrealist ambition to divert [détourner]
objects from their usual purposes and to bring out “force
fields” via fortuitous connections.(27) His classifications
into categories, like “natural objects, perturbed objects,
American objects, Oceanic objects, mathematical objects,”
and so on were a means of arranging the objects of the exhibition
in a Surrealist way. Inuit masks, or those from New Guinea, were
shown there alongside Salvador Dalí’s Aphrodisiac
Jacket or Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur.
As Maurice Henry
explained in an article about this exhibition, “from an
Eskimo mask in the form of a duck, a carnivorous plant, a glass
deformed by lava from a volcano to a Surrealist object, there
is but a step. It is quickly taken by the visitor.”(28)
For the journalist Guy Crouzet, all these juxtaposed objects had
“a family likeness.”(29) Breton drafted the press
statement that appeared under the initials “J. F.”
in La Semaine de Paris(30) and Éluard wrote “L’Habitude
des tropiques” for Cahiers d’art. All these
texts reinforce, in words, the analogy being sought after in the
the “Surrealist exhibition of objects” and the “exhibition
of Surrealist objects,” there was but a step. Yet the first
set of catalogue proofs reveals that the initially planned title
was “Exhibition of Surrealist Objects.” Similarly,
that title was the one for the articles by Henry and Breton.(31)
The willingness to consider an Amerindian object as a Surrealist
object was also expressed by the fact that the object retained
in the advertising notice as emblematic of the exhibition was
an Amerindian object, a Pueblo Kachina.(32)
These “savage” objects were therefore placed center
stage in the image Surrealism intended to give of itself. They
were tied by analogy to Surrealist objects, combined with them
for subversive ends, and ultimately appropriated so as to become
“Surrealist objects.” They belong to the “Surrealist
gallery” in the same capacity that Sade and Lautréamont
figure within the “Surrealist pantheon.”
See Sophie Leclercq’s dissertation, Les surréalistes
face aux mythes et l’Autre et au colonialisme, 1919-1962,
Center for the Cultural History of Contemporary Societies, University
of Versailles Saint-Quentin, 2006.
2. Paul Éluard, Lettres à Gala
(Paris: Gallimard, 1984), late May 1927 letter, p. 22.
3. La Révolution surréaliste,
9-10 (October 1, 1927): 34.
4. Archives of the Ladrière-Ratton Gallery,
“Exposition Côte Nord-Ouest” files. Exhibition
presented at the Charles Ratton Gallery from July 2 to July 27,
5. Indeed, Man Ray purchased the least expensive
of the Yup’ik masks. Elisabeth Cowling takes up the account
given by Charles Ratton in her article, “The Eskimos, the
American Indians, and the Surrealists,” Art History,
1:4 (1978). According to Cowling, Ratton said that he did not
recall the date of this exhibition but situates it in a very uncertain
way around 1931 or 1932. Our own research at the Ladrière-Ratton
Gallery leads us to think that he was in reality speaking of the
1935 exhibition and that no exhibition of this kind was organized
before this date.
6. Paul Éluard, “La Nuit est à
une dimension,” Cahiers d’art, 10:5-6 (1935):
7. Éluard bought, for example, numerous
African objects on sale from the Tual collection in 1930. Annotated
Roland Tual sales catalogue, Éluard archives, Bibliothèque
littéraire Jacques Doucet.
8. Éluard wrote to Gala on May 25, 1927
from Paris: “I won’t be able to go to the auctions
or do anything for a week” (Lettres à Gala,
p. 19). For the Hôtel Druot catalogues preserved in Breton’s
studio, see his archives, 42, rue Fontaine auction DVD-Rom,
CalmelsCohen, 2003, lots 6067, 6071, and 6080.
9. Paul Éluard, Lettres à Gala,
June 1929 letter, pp. 75-76.
10. “Au hasard des ventes,” L’Ami
du Peuple, July 3, 1931; archives of the Ladrière-Ratton
11. “There’s a real shortage of money.
I saw Ratton yesterday and he offered to sell my objects and those
of Breton around the beginning of May. . . . There is at this
time the colonial exhibition and he thinks that might help. What
should be done?” (Paul Éluard, Lettres à
Gala, February 1931 letter, pp. 133-34).
12. Louis Aragon and André Breton, “Protestation,”
La Révolution surréaliste, 7 (June 15, 1926):
31. Philippe Soupault detects some “contradictions”
in the intransigence of his friends. Philippe Soupault, Mémoires
de l’oubli 1923-1926 (Paris: Lachenal et Ritter, 1986),
pp. 159 and 162.
13. André Breton, “Océanie,”
foreword to the exhibition catalogue Océanie,
Olive Gallery, 1948, Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 3
(Paris: Gallimard-La Pléiade), pp. 834-39; “Phénix
du Masque,” XXe siècle, new series, 15 (Christmas
1960), Perspective cavalière (Paris, Gallimard-NRF,
14. André Breton, preface to the Exposition
surréaliste d’objets catalogue, Oeuvres
Complètes, vol. 2, pp. 282-83.
15. Stacks of the Kandinsky Research Library,
Georges Pompidou Center.
16. “Yves Tanguy and Objets from America”
exhibition catalogue, May 27 to June 15, 1927, Surrealist Gallery.
Stacks of the Kandinsky Research Library, Georges Pompidou Center.
The objects came from, among other places, the collections of
Aragon, Breton, Éluard, Tual, and Nancy Cunard.
17. In 1935, this poetic connection between Amerindian
cultures and the work of Yves Tanguy was to be found again in
a poem by Benjamin Péret, “Je me souviens de Tanguy
dormant dans les hautes branches d’un arbre,” Cahiers
d’art, 10:5-6 (1935).
18. La Révolution surréaliste,
6 (March 1, 1926): 5.
19. La Révolution surréaliste,
7 (June 15, 1926): 16.
20. La Révolution surréaliste,
9-10 (October 1, 1927): 34-35.
21. “Le Monde au temps des surréalistes,”
in “Le surréalisme en 1929,” Variétés,
22. André Thirion would later detect in
this map a form of appropriation of these typically Surrealist
cultures. André Thirion, Révolutionnaires sans
Révolution (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1972), p. 454.
23. February 17, 2003 talk by Krzysztof Pomian
in Pascal Ory’s seminar on “The Cultural Memory of
the Contemporary Era,” at the École des Hautes Études
en Sciences Sociales.
24. In this capacity, Elisabeth Cowling speaks
of “surrealist propaganda for the works of art they discovered
or rediscovered,” in “An Other Culture,” in
Ades Dawn, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed (London: Art
Council of Great Britain, 1978), p. 467.
25. See the shots of the rooms of this exhibition
in the archives of the Ladrière-Ratton Gallery.
26. On the attendance at and the reception of
this exhibition, see the visitors’ book and the press clippings
found in the archives of the Ladrière-Ratton Gallery.
27. André Breton, “Crise de l’Objet,”
Cahiers d’art, (May 1936), Le Surréalisme
et la peinture (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), p. 279.
28. Maurice Henry, “Une Exposition d’objets
surréalistes. Quand la poésie devient tangible,”
Le Petit journal, May 24, 1936, from the archives of the
29. Guy Crouzet, “Surréalisme pas
mort,” Vendredi, May 29, 1936, from the archives
of the Ladrière-Ratton Gallery.
30. The archives of the Ladrière-Ratton
Gallery has a copy of this article handwritten by Breton that
would leave one to assume that this text served as the press release.
Published with the initials J. F. (in Breton’s handwriting)
as “Exposition d’objets surréalistes,”
La Semaine de Paris, May 22-28, 1936 (reproduced in his
Oeuvres complètes, vol. 2, p. 1199). One also
finds a handwritten note by Marcel Jean who sent the article,
after it had appeared, to Charles Ratton at Breton’s request.
31. This transposition is to be found in the
title of the lecture Breton gave the previous year in Prague:
“Surrealist Situation of the Object. Situation of the Surrealist
32. Presentation notice for the exhibition, on
the first page of Cahiers d’art, 1-2 (1936).
Breton, André. Oeuvres complètes.
3 vols. Paris: Gallimard-La Pléiade, 1988.
Breton, André. Perspective cavalière.
Paris: Gallimard-NRF, 1970.
Éluard, Paul. Lettres à Gala.
Paris: Gallimard, 1984.
Éluard, Paul. “La Nuit est à
une dimension.” Cahiers d’art, 10:5-6 (1935):
Péret, Benjamin. “Je me souviens
de Tanguy dormant dans les hautes branches d’un arbre.”
Cahiers d’art, 10:5-6 (1935).
Thirion, André. Révolutionnaires
sans Révolution. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1972.
La Révolution surréaliste, 1-12 (1924-1929).
“Le surréalisme en 1929.” Variétés,
Cowling, Elisabeth, “The Eskimos, the American Indians,
and the Surrealists.” Art History, 1: 4 (1978).
Cowling, Elisabeth. “An Other Culture.” In Ades Dawn,
Dada and Surrealism Reviewed. London: Art Council of
Great Britain, 1978.
Archives of the Ladrière-Ratton Gallery.
Correspondence. Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques
Breton Archives. DVD-Rom, 42, rue Fontaine, CalmelsCohen,
Figure 1: Cover of the catalogue
for the “Pictures of Man Ray and Island Objects”
exhibition, 1926. André Breton Archives, 42,
Figure 2: Inside cover page of the
catalogue for the “Pictures of Man Ray and Island
Objects” exhibition, 1926. André Breton Archives,
42, rue Fontaine.
3: La Révolution surréaliste, 6 (March
1, 1926): 5. J.-M. Place facsimile.
Figure 4: La Révolution
surréaliste, 9-10 (October 1, 1927): 34. J.-M.
Figure 5: La Révolution
surréaliste, 9-10 (October 1, 1927): 35. J.-M.
6: “Le Monde au temps des surréalistes,”
Variétés, 1929. Facsimile.
Figure 7: Room from
the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects, 1936. Ladrière-Ratton
Figure 8: Advertising
notice for the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects (Kachina
doll, Pueblo tribe, Southwestern United States), in Cahiers
d’arts,1-2 (January 1936).