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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Critiques & Reviews
Women and the Surrealist Revolution:
an interview with Penelope Rosemont

by Danny Postel

         "Smile, but not for long, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Patriarchy."
                                                   -Nelly Kaplan

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 represented.

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.

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