The Occultation of Surrealism

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  • Topic: Surrealism, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton
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The Occultation of Surrealism
Conference paper ESSWE 3: Lux in Tenebris. Szeged, HU.
Tessel M. Bauduin, University of Amsterdam: t.m.bauduin@uva.nl

Introduction

[--] Welcome.
The official birth of the movement was in 1924, with the publication of the first Manifesto. In the Second Manifesto, of 1929, André Breton, ‘father’ of Surrealism, called for ‘the occultation of Surrealism’. This, and other elements have led many to believe that Surrealism was very much involved with the occult. That is also my research-topic. Surrealism did have its brushes with occultism, and with esotericism more generally, in the 1920s and 1930s. But it was only during the Second World War, when most of the surrealists were in exile, that André Breton came to the conclusion that Surrealism now needed to make very serious work of its occult studies. The ‘occultation’ of Surrealism had been somewhat of a joke, but during the War, it became dead serious.

The first exhibition the surrealists organized in Paris, after the War, was held in 1947. This show is the only surrealist exhibition where esotericism played such a prominent role. It exemplifies the trajectory Breton envisioned for esotericism in Surrealism, i.e. what the role was of esotericism, or occultism, in Surrealism.[1] Accordingly, today I will take you on a tour of this exhibition, to show what the ‘occultation’ of Surrealism actually entailed, I’ll briefly say explore why, and I’ll round off with saying some brief words about the reception.

The show

[--] The show was called ‘Le Surréalisme en 1947’, and held at the posh Galerie Maeght. Art directors were André Breton and Marcel Duchamp[2] Above all, the exhibition was a direct answer to the traumatic events of the Second World War.[3] The surrealists held forces such as rationalism and positivism at least partly responsible for the War. Many surrealists felt that the horrors of the War could only be overcome and addressed by a creative rebirth. And to bring about such a rebirth, a return of myth, in particular mythical thinking including primitive thinking, was needed. The avowed goal of the exhibition was to present the public with Surrealism’s ‘New Myth’. [4]

[--] The ‘New Myth’ was understood to be already common to Surrealism, and explored in the accompanying catalgoue. By presenting it in this show, the thought was that others, the public, could learn from Surrealism already new. In that sense, the exhibition aimed at mythopoeia: the creation of a new mythology. To give the public the opportunity to learn the surrealist myth, the show was staged as a sequence of initiatory stages, leading one towards a revelation of truth.[5]

1.
[--] Upon entering the Galerie Maeght, one was first supposed to pass through the basement, which functioned as a sort of grotto. This subterranean locale hosted a retrospective show, entitled ‘Surrealists despite themselves’. It featured surrealist precursors such as Bosch, Archimboldo, Blake, Rousseau and Lewis Carroll, among others. By means of this space, the visitor was reminded deep the roots of Surrealism reached, while also placing the movement on par with Romanticism, for instance. Note that this stage was planned, but not carried out in the final set-up of the exhibition.[6]

([--] It was followed by ‘Momentary Surrealists’, which featured works by Chirico, Masson and Dali, among others.[7])

2.
One would ascend to the second level by climbing a staircase of twenty-one steps. Each step was constructed out of the spine of a book. The steps were furthermore assigned a card of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, in order.[8] [--] There were a few classics of western esotericism among them. The fourth step consisted of The Emperor and James Frazer’s Le Rameau d’Or. The eight, of Justice and Sermons by Meister Eckhart. [--] The ninth, the Hermit and Les Noces chimiques de Christian Rosenkreuz by Valentin Andreae; and the fourteenth Temperance and Swedenborg’s...
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