but not for long, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Patriarchy."
POSTEL: You write in the introduction to Surrealist Women that
"The surrealist revolution draws freely on the most powerful elixirs
in desire's laboratory: mad love, psychic automatism, analogy, chance,
humor, play, games, and all forms of free association." Is that what
surrealism is ultimately about for you, desire?
ROSEMONT: When it was founded as an organized movement in 1924, surrealism
was defined as "pure psychic automatism." The first surrealists
wanted to explore the unconscious, to release the repressed creative spirit,
and yes, to liberate desire. Since that time surrealism has grown enormously,
but the liberation of desire and imagination remain its central focus.
Surrealism is a revolutionary conception of the world and of life. It's
a kind of unified field theory in which poetry, art, revolutionary politics,
psychoanalysis, alchemy, and the influences of different cultures mix
together in totally new ways. Its basic aim is to transform the world
and to change life, to enable everyone to discover their own originality.
POSTEL: Let's talk about your own involvement in the surrealist movement.
When did it begin?
ROSEMONT: I was a chemistry student. I had very little experience with
art or poetry. However, I had come to see that revolutionary changes were
definitely needed in this society. When I came to Roosevelt University
in Chicago, I met a group of people who were influenced by anthropology,
Marxism, anarchism, and surrealism. And I was very taken with surrealism.
I thought it was incredible. So I explored it further and soon realized
that I not only wanted to be a surrealist, but that basically I already
was a surrealist.
POSTEL: This was in the early '60s, I'm guessing.
ROSEMONT: This was 1964-65. At that time, the original Surrealist Group
still existed in Paris and Andre Breton was still alive. I decided to
pack up all my things, drop out of school, leave my apartment and go to
Paris. Franklin and I got together all the money we possibly could and,
at the end of December 1965, left for Paris. We had no idea what to expect.
We went via London. We hoped to stay in
London for a brief time and brush up on our French before going on to
Paris. But the immigration officials in London did not like our looks.
They hated our one-way ticket. For some reason they thought this was extremely
suspicious. They were also suspicious of the fact that we had money in
the form of cash and travelers' checks. They seemed to think we had either
robbed a bank or that we were emigrating to England. So we ended up in
their detention department. They told us that next day they were sending
us back to New York. But after much arguing, and paying for a return ticket,
they let us go on to Paris. It was a dramatic scene: they drove the limousine
right onto the airfield and put us on the plane, but our passports were
not returned until the plane was off the ground. They were sure we would
jump off the plane and run to London!
When we landed in France we were shaken
up, thinking the same thing might happen again and that we'd end up back
in New York. But no, the French waved us right through. And when we arrived
in Paris, we discovered that Breton's book Surrealism and Painting
was in the window of every bookstore and gallery. It had just come out.
We found a little hotel through Europe on $5 a Day. (The hotel
was actually $3 a day.) And about two blocks from the hotel the surrealists
were holding an international surrealist exhibition.
POSTEL: You hadn't heard this would be taking place?
ROSEMONT: We had no idea. And if we had stayed in London as planned, we
would have missed it. As it was, we ended up going to the Surrealist Group's
New Year's Eve party. We also went to the cafe and met many surrealists
who were in town for the exhibition. And of course we were able to meet
with André and Elisa Breton, and we became good friends with many
members of the group. It was really a wonderful time to be there. I'm
so grateful that by chance those stuffy English authorities decided they
didn't want us in England!
POSTEL: You came back to Chicago eventually and formed the Chicago Surrealist
Group. How did that take shape?
ROSEMONT: It was in the summer of '66. There was already interest in surrealism
in Chicago. But when we came back from Paris we tried to maintain closer,
more "official" connections with the Surrealist Group in France,
as well as with surrealists in other countries. We issued a number of
leaflets and manifestoes and put out a mimeographed collection called
Surrealism and Revolution, to let people know a little more about
surrealist ideas. There were seven or eight of us. We started translating
surrealist writings from French. And we did a lot of surrealist experiments,
in art and writing and daily life. It was a very vital time for us. And
the group was really necessary in all this--when you're doing something
truly different from the ordinary, it helps to have other people with
whom you can exchange ideas and energy.
POSTEL: What's survived from surrealism into the present or trickled down
into popular culture is a fairly pale reflection of the ideas at the core
of the movement. In your introduction to Surrealist Women, you
talk about what surrealism is not. It is not, you say, against
reality. It's not escapist.
ROSEMONT: Essentially surrealism began as, and still is, a revolutionary
way of looking at the world, and changing it. The founders of the surrealist
movement were mostly young men who had been involved in the First World
War and were totally revolted by war and by all the ideologies of the
existing order: nationalism, militarism, statism, capitalism, white supremacy,
religion, the bourgeois family, and so forth. When they came to Paris,
many of them were active for a while in the Dada movement, and then founded
surrealism, a much more subversive movement which seeks to transform society
by overcoming all sorts of false dichotomies: dream and reality, conscious
and unconscious, subjective and objective, masculine and feminine, work
and play. Surrealism attempts to actualize poetry and the dream in everyday
life. It isn't "against" reality; it encompasses a larger
reality than "realism" does. And it isn't escapist; escapism
means burying oneself in a book or an idea and just staying there. Our
plan is actually to change things, to make a revolution. Surrealists
want to find and liberate the creative potential within everyone. Lautréamont's
"Poetry must be made by all!" remains a basic surrealist principle.
POSTEL: And you even say surrealism is not avant-garde.
ROSEMONT: Art and literary avant-gardes--Futurism, Fauvism, Cubism, Abstract
Expressionism, Lettrism, and so forth--are usually based on innovative
techniques. Their main demand is for official recognition, and when they
win it, they fade away and make room for other avant-garde novelties.
They are really a means of spicing up the Art Market-like a new advertising
campaign. Don't misunderstand me: These transient movements have often
produced interesting and important work. But surrealism is radically different.
For one thing, it is indifferent to "techniques" and has always
scorned aesthetics. It has always been something much more than an "art"
or "literary" movement. As a subversive outlook and state of
mind it existed long before it had a name, and it has persisted as a revolutionary
force long after all the avant-gardes have joined the Establishment.
POSTEL: Why did you decide to assemble a book exploring the tradition
of surrealist women in particular?
ROSEMONT: It goes back to my first visit to Paris. I was there for almost
six months. I went to group meetings all the time. I was 23. The scene
was filled with fabulous women--splendid painters and poets: Toyen, Mimi
Parent, Joyce Mansour, Nicole Espagnol and many others. They were active
in the group's discussions. They had all sorts of revolutionary ideas,
humorous and subversive suggestions, and they contributed a lot to the
development of the movement's current strategies. A few critics who consider
themselves feminists have argued that surrealism was all-male and very
unfair to women. What I saw was that women participated as equals, their
works were appreciated, they were well-represented in surrealist exhibitions
and in surrealist books and magazines. And my later research revealed
that women, many women, had been active in the movement from the
very beginning. I assembled information on more than 300 women, and Surrealist
Women includes writings by a hundred of them.
Many of the movement's finest poets, painters,
collagists and photographers have been women, and several of its major
theorists, such as Claude Cahun, Suzanne Césaire, Mary Low, Jacqueline
Johnson and Nora Mitrani. Of course, all but a very few have been completely
ignored by critics. As is so often the case, the artists who get picked
by critics to be "famous" are not always the most worthy--as
with Salvador Dali, a sickeningly commercial artist who had nothing to
do with surrealism after 1938. To a great extent, women surrealist painters
have been overlooked because works by males have been deemed easier to
sell, and preferred by museums. Men have always dominated the art world,
as they dominate capitalism in its entirety. But women surrealist poets
and writers have been ignored even more than the painters.
I was disgusted by this neglect of the surrealist
women, and decided to do a book that would set the record straight. In
putting it together, I was stunned by the beauty and power of the women's
work. Of course painters have the advantage that their work is unencumbered
by the language barrier; it's international and immediately accessible.
The women in my book are mostly writers, though some are also painters
or photographers or dancers. Most of their written work had not been translated.
In many cases, this is the first time their work has appeared in English.
POSTEL: The book is organized chronologically, stretching from the '20s
to the present. It also spans genres; it includes poets, essayists, pamphleteers,
polemicists, and word artists of various sorts. There's also quite a diversity
of cultures represented in the anthology. What was your methodology in
putting the book together?
ROSEMONT: Well, I had to begin in Paris, because that's where the movement
started. Many old-timers now in their 70s, 80s, or 90s provided me with
important information, including names and addresses. Surrealist journals,
exhibition catalogs, and memoirs were major sources, but I also interviewed
and/or corresponded with several hundred individuals. Collecting material
for this book took a long time, and I kept finding new names. For example,
I did not know of Carmen Bruna of Argentina--who is now one of my very
favorite surrealist poets--until friends in South America gave me her
name. It has been a wonderful process researching this book, having people
send me their work, and discovering new surrealist women along the way.
The difficult part had to do with languages I don't know: Romanian, Arabic,
German, Czech, Japanese, Swedish, Dutch, Serbian, and others. Fortunately,
I was able to locate a group of excellent translators! Several of the
translators, by the way, are also active surrealists.
POSTEL: Obviously, surrealism is international. Is it also internationalist?
ROSEMONT: Definitely. It's always had a strong internationalist impulse
at its core, and has always drawn people from all over the world. At the
World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago, 1976, thirty-one countries were
POSTEL: But I mean internationalism as part of the philosophy of surrealism:
the idea of transcending arbitrary boundaries like the nation-state.
ROSEMONT: Absolutely. Surrealists have no use for nation-states, nationalism,
racism, colonialism, patriotism, or any other form of artificial boundaries.
They see these as blind alleys that have caused horrible misery and war.
The first surrealists were European but they were also anti-Eurocentric.
People have to look toward the richness of their own and other cultures
and forget about the false constructions that have caused so much suffering
in the world.
POSTEL: How many countries are represented in the anthology?
ROSEMONT: Roughly thirty, though it's difficult to pin down because so
many of the contributors are polyethnic or have moved from country to
country, especially during World War II, when so many people were displaced.
There has always been this cross-cultural current in surrealism. It's
so strong that it's often difficult to say what nationality someone is.
Remedios Varo, a wonderful painter, was born in Spain and moved to Paris
and then finally settled in Mexico. The great poet and collagist Mary
Low, born in London of Australian parents, was educated in France and
Switzerland, joined the Surrealist Group in Paris in the 1930s, visited
surrealists in Bucharest and Prague, and went to Spain in 1936 take part
in the Revolution. (In Spain she organized the Women's Militia, edited
the English-language paper Spanish Revolution, and co-authored
the first book on the Revolution, Red Spanish Notebook, with a
preface by C. L. R. James.) Later she lived for years in Cuba, where she
was active in the revolution that overthrew dictator Batista. Today, in
her eighties, she lives in the U.S., an active participant in the Surrealist
Movement and one of our very best friends. Leonora Carrington was born
in England, but when she discovered surrealism and revolted against her
wealthy family she moved to France. During the war, in the midst of Nazi
invasions, she ended up in Spain, in a sanitarium, where she was declared
"incurably insane." (Later, in Mexico, she wrote about this
experience in Down Below--a truly wonderful book.) From Spain,
when she finally managed to escape the mental institution, Leonora passed
through Portugal and sailed to New York, where many surrealists were living
in exile. She then went to live in Mexico, and now divides her time between
Mexico and the United States. For a few years she lived just outside Chicago,
and came to many of our meetings and other gatherings. Her paintings of
Mexico, and of her own dreams, are just fantastic. Her great text, "What
is a Woman?" is in the anthology.
POSTEL: Clearly the revolutionaries of 1968 were directly influenced by
surrealism. You could say that in a sense the entire period was infused
with a surrealist spirit. But you call the final section of the book Surrealism:
A Challenge to the Twenty-First Century. What relevance do you see
surrealism as having today, thirty years after the events of 1968 and
seventy-five years after the movement's inception?
ROSEMONT: Well, I have to say that none of the major changes that people
hoped for in 1968 have happened. Things have, in many ways, gone backwards.
People are being pushed into positions that are more and more like slavery.
The whole prison system in this country is really a slave system. The
old surrealist slogan, "Open the Prisons, Disband the Army,"
is more relevant than ever. I think surrealism is really necessary to
understand the underpinnings of Capital and the State and the ways in
which they manipulate people through a commodified mass culture. This
system, which surrealists call miserabilism, makes you become a
participant in your own degradation. The enthusiasms created by this culture
are designed to make us into passive objects rather than creative subjects.
The system wants consumers, not creators. The whole key to transforming
the world has to be found in our own creativity, our liberated imaginations.
There are many wonderful ideas to be found in the past, but our emphasis
must be on criticizing and transforming the present. History needs to
be understood from our point of view, as opposed to the ruling
class point of view. But the real key is to find our poetic potentialities,
to renew the dream of social revolution as the only way to real human
freedom, and to make new discoveries showing how society could operate
without bosses, bombs and prisons, and how people can come together to
create a non-repressive civilization.
POSTEL: Do you see women as playing a particular role or making a unique
contribution to this project?
ROSEMONT: Surrealists recognize that creativity is not bound to any one
gender. Anyone can be creative. But it's important to remember that women
have played a major role, and often an instigating role, in every revolution
in modern history. As Charles Fourier observed almost two hundred years
ago, "Nothing causes overall social betterment faster than improving
the living conditions of women. The degree of emancipation of women is
the natural measure of general emancipation." The fact that so many
women are active in surrealism today speaks for itself. More and more
women are realizing that surrealist revolution is the most effective means
of undermining patriarchy and all that goes with it.
The simple truth is that women constitute
half the world, and if they aren't allowed to participate in the creative
process of remaking the world, then it's just not going to happen.
This interview was conducted for Free Associations Radio, a weekly program
in Chicago hosted and produced by Danny Postel.
See the Surrealist Group's website at www.surrealism-usa.org.