Saturday, April 6, 2024

100 Years of Surrealism, A Movement Inspired by Cannabis?

Remedios Varo. Harmony (Self Portrait). 1956

Surrealism, the trippy art and cultural movement that developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, traces its roots to the publication of André Breton's essay Manifeste du surréalisme, published in October 1924. 

The movement "aimed to allow the unconscious mind to express itself, often resulting in the depiction of illogical or dreamlike scenes and ideas. Its intention was, according to Breton, to 'resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality,' or surreality. It produced works of painting, writing, theatre, filmmaking, photography, and other media as well." [-Wikipedia

Breton's manifesto states that, "hallucinations, illusions, etc., are not a source of trifling pleasure. The best controlled sensuality partakes of it." It continues, "The realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit."

Under the heading, "SECRETS OF THE MAGICAL SURREALIST ART," Breton evokes the hashish-taking poet Charles Baudelaire

"Surrealism does not allow those who devote themselves to it to forsake it whenever they like. There is every reason to believe that it acts on the mind very much as drugs do; like drugs, it creates a certain state of need and can push man to frightful revolts. It also is, if you like, an artificial paradise, and the taste one has for it derives from Baudelaire’s criticism for the same reason as the others. 

"Thus the analysis of the mysterious effects and special pleasures it can produce -- in many respects Surrealism occurs as a new vice which does not necessarily seem to be restricted to the happy few; like hashish, it has the ability to satisfy all manner of tastes -- such an analysis has to be included in the present study. It is true of Surrealist images as it is of opium images that man does not evoke them; rather they 'come to him spontaneously, despotically. He cannot chase them away; for the will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties.' (Baudelaire.)"

The Muse Inspiring the Poet,
portrait of Apollinaire and Marie
Laurencin by Henri Rosseau
The word "surrealism" was first coined in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire, either in program notes for Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie's ballet Parade, or for his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias). Inspired by the story of the Theban soothsayer Teiresias, the play tells story of a woman who changes her sex to obtain power among men, with "the aim of changing customs, subverting the past, and establishing equality between the sexes."

Apollinaire, who was born in Rome out of wedlock to the Polish-Lithuanian noblewoman and adventurer Angelika Kostrowicka, adopted his French name in his teens when he moved to Paris. He was romantically involved for many years with painter Marie Laurencin, who is often referred to as his muse, as in the 1909 Rousseau painting at left. Laurencin depicted Apollinaire, along with the Cubist painter Picasso, in her 1908 painting Les Invités, which may be a record of a dinner party where hashish pills were taken.  

Surrealism, and hashish, got a boost when the respected critic Walter Benjamin wrote about both.  His 1929 essay "Surrealism" underscored "the propaedeutic function of intoxicants in achieving a 'profane illumination' of the revolutionary energies slumbering in the world of everyday things, and it invokes a dialectics of intoxication." [-Eiland Jennings] 

Benjamin died fleeing the Nazis, and more than one female surrealist painter also fled Europe at that time, including Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. 

Leonora Carrington. And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur. 1953

Leonora Carrington, a British-born painter and novelist, was introduced by her mother to Herbert Read's 1936 book Surrealism, and the following year met German surrealist Max Ernst an an exhibition in London. The two moved to France together and began a romantic relationship and artistic collaboration. After World War II broke out and Ernst was arrested by the Nazis as a "degenerate," he managed to escape to the US with the help of Peggy Guggenheim (whom he later married). Carrington meanwhile fled to Spain where she had an (understandable) psychotic break, and then entered a marriage of convenience in Portugal via a connection to Picasso to enable her to escape to Mexico with immunity as a diplomat's wife. 

As Picasso was strongly associated with the Minotaur, it seems Carrington's painting "And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur" refers to a continuum involving female painters.  

Remedios Varo was born in Spain, where she was was encouraged towards independent thought and adventure by her father, who gave her books by Alexandre Dumas, as well as on science, mysticism and philosophy. Varo rebelled against her education at a convent school, rejecting its rigid religious ideology and producing her first painting at the age of 12. She studied art in Madrid, and lived in Paris and Barcelona, working as a commercial artist and connecting with surrealist painters and thinkers, who didn't always take her work seriously as a femme enfant. After the Spanish Civil War, Varo emigrated to Mexico in 1941. 

Remedios Varo. The Call. 1961
"During her life in Mexico City, Varo bonded with fellow artist Carrington and photographer Kati Horna. They became known in art circles as the 'three witches' [brujas] for their pursual of knowledge around supernatural rituals, indigenous spiritual practices and metaphysical studies — from tarot readings to shamanic psychedelics to attempts to stop or slow time. They traveled around the country in search of rarified knowledge, and followed the teachings of philosophers and mystics like George Gurdjieff, who believed that humanity could access a higher state of consciousness," wrote CNN in a review of an exhibition of Varo's work last year at the Chicago Art Institute, curated by Caitlin Haskell along with Tere Arcq of Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno 

"Varo's interest in exploring the magical arts.... came to life for her and her fellow expatriate artists in Mexico," write Haskell and Arcq in the exhibition's catalog. "One avenue into these explorations was Varo's friendship with Italian anthropologist Laurette Séjourné, who provided Varo, Carrington, and Kati Horna an unforgettable introduction to witchcraft and shamanism. In the early 1950s, with Carrington and others, Varo traveled to remote locations in Estado de México, Oaxaca, and Veracruz in search of surviving magical practices and took and interest in the shamanic uses of hallucinogenic plants. We see this kind of experience filtering into Varo's storytelling in the foreground of El juglar, (The Juggler / Magician) where herbals spread out on a cloth contribute to the mystical experience of the performance that enthralls the conjoined audience." This painting is one of several where Vero used inlaid mother-of-pearl, a material used shamanic rituals. 

“I deliberately set out to make a mystical work, in the sense of revealing a mystery, or better, of expressing it through ways that do not always correspond to the logical order, but to an intuitive, divinatory and irrational order,” Varo is quoted as saying in the catalog. 

"As a schoolgirl Varo had been fascinated by the occult, had written to a Hindu yogi, had collected magic plants," wrote Janet A. Kaplan in "Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varos." She secretly asked the yogi to send her some mandrake root, having heard about its magical properties and "the legend that the root, which can resemble a human form, would cry out when it was pulled from the ground." As an adult, Kaplan writes, Varo remained "psychically restless...As she studied mystic disciplines and read metaphysical texts, the quest for meaning and control through the development of her spiritual self became an obsession that dominated her work." Varo turned with "equal interest" to the ideas of Jung, Gurdjieff, PD. Ouspensky, Helena Blavatsky, Meister Eckhard, the Sufis..." 

Varo's paintings are exceptional. Her Solar Music depicts a woman playing the rays of the sun like a cello and Creation of the Birds depicts an owl-like woman musically painting birds into life, themes she repeats in her self portrait Harmony (above). The Call (at the NMWA) shows a woman bathed in a celestial light, her hair encircling a planet while walking among figures of women in the woodwork, holding a potion vial in her hand and wearing a necklace of a spoon stirring a bowl. L'Ecole buissoniere (Haciendo novillospresents an adolescent boy on an initiation quest, finding his spirit animals in a fox and an owl. 

Frida Kahlo. The Love Embrace of the Universe,
the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego, and Mr. Xolotl. 1949
"[In Mexico] Varo is a name that you hear in the same breath as Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington,” writes Haskell. Kahlo is considered a surrealist painter, particularly her earlier work. 

Among other women surrealist artists was Dora Maar, Picasso's muse who was also a photographer, painter and poet whose work was "political as well as artistic, and street photography, especially depicting harsh realities of injustice, poverty, and discrimination, was incredibly important to her." Source

"Dalí was happy to call himself a Surrealist as long as Surrealism meant drinking, screwing, gnawing hashish, and otherwise spending quality time with his id. But when Hitler took power and André Breton, self-appointed pope of the Surrealists, called for his followers to take political action, Dalí dithered. Breton excommunicated him," writes The Boston Review.

"To win the energies of intoxication for the revolution—this is the project about which Surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises. This it may call its most particular task. For them it is not enough that, as we know, an ecstatic component lives in every revolutionary act," wrote Walter Benjamin

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