The Canadian Art Database

Paddy O'Brien

Canadian Surrealism

Canadian Art #88, Vol. XX #6, Nov / Dec 1963.
[3,229 words ]

The surrealist movement began in post-World War I in Paris, 1924. It was intended to be an organized revolt against logic and reason, based on the belief that only the subconscious could produce 'super-realism' and, by its shock value, arouse awareness of the fact that 'reality' has nothing to do with appearances. It was an enthusiastic mixture of partially digested Freudian theories, automatic writing, séances, drug-taking, the iconoclastic ideals of dada, and - later - political ideologies. The group of painters and poets that clustered around André Breton, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon were determined to ridicule bourgeois morality and blast the prevailing, smug, materialistic acceptance of the physical world. They were all young, very gifted, highly volatile, many of them had come through the war, and their ideas and behaviour contributed not a little to the era of the 'roaring Twenties'.

Surrealism is a difficult world to describe in 1963; many concepts have changed or expanded since December 1924, when the authors of the first issue of La Revolution surrealiste ebulliently stated: 'Now that "knowledge" has been brought to trial, and condemned, and "intelligence" is at a discount, the Dream, and the Dream alone, can provide the freedom that is man's due. Thanks to the Dream, death has lost its terrors and the purport of "real" life becomes irrelevant ...surrealism opens the gate of Dreams to those for whom the night is sparing of them.'

For one thing, a great deal more is known about the workings of the subconscious now than in the 1920s, and most laymen accept the validity of the place of dreams as symbolic revelations — even as being more 'true' of their own real natures than their conscious and inhibited lives would indicate (although they may have only a rudimentary knowledge of the interpretation of their dreams). Consequently it is now more difficult for the surrealist painter to arouse the sensation of shock that comes from being confronted visually with the absurd (meaning contrary to reason and not the contemporary connotation of ludicrous). It is possible to extend this even further by saying that, during the last two or three years, life itself has become absurd and contrary to what we used to believe was reason. What only a short time ago was thought to be an orderly, logical system of things in nature is frequently proved to have very little in common with human logic, and surrealists share the experience of scientists these days when it comes to dealing in terms of paradox and contradiction. In this way, the 1924 definition of surrealism as an organized revolt against reason is hardly novel any longer. The 'revolt' has insidiously become almost an attitude of mind for us — a colour to our thinking that permits us to acquiesce to the absurd and barely wonder at it, let alone be 'shocked' by it.

Again, as far as contemporary painting is concerned, the abstract-expressionist raw exaltation of the sub-conscious (related as it may be to surrealism) is still a great deal more obscure to the average layman than he believes his own private subconscious to be, and he may very well welcome the draped watches, the chests of drawers and twittering machines — even cubist compositions — as recognizable elements long ago made acceptable not only by psychiatrists and wallpaper companies, but by critics and historians.

In a way, it would appear that surrealist ideas, and the lives and behaviour of the surrealists themselves, have achieved their goal so successfully that we are now morally shock-proof as well as visually so, and even in Canada someone living the life of a young Rimbaud can be comfortably fitted into the social pattern by the majority as 'beat'. The 'happenings' in coffee houses (and even art galleries) in the larger Canadian cities — glorification in public of subconsciously directed spontaneous creation — indicate a good measure of acceptance in a non-serious way (except of course, by some of the protagonists). It is ironic to consider that surrealism has successfully contributed to the creation of precisely the same complacency that gave rise to its own birth in 1924.

Surrealism in painting — or the idea that 'reality' lies in that which is not governed by visual logic — is not really new and has been in existence for a long time in the form of 'fantastic' art. By this definition it has also been present in Canada — particularly in Quebec — for years in the primitive ex voto in the churches, and in many primitive paintings. In his recent article (Canadian Art, May / June 1963), Dr Evan Turner defines the primitive painter as one who produces work 'presenting some fact or feeling taken from the everyday experience of an unsophisticated person.' The reverse might do well as the definition of a surrealist (i.e., one who produces work presenting ideas taken from the conscious and subconscious experiences of a very sophisticated person.) Nevertheless, the actual work produced by surrealists and primitives in many cases does have some similarity when the yardstick 'lack of visual logic' is used, and such artists as Gécin and Kurelek could be fitted into both categories in a fair amount of their work. The factor that makes surrealism fundamentally different from primitivism is the difference in the motive rather than in the result. Dr. Turner has described the motive of the primitive as dealing 'only with subjects related to his direct experience...solely because he feels like painting that particular event.' The surrealist on the other hand is a great deal more complex — whether deliberately or unconsciously — and seeks to create an event rather than record one — and an event that must be sur-real at that.

André Breton's definition of surrealism, being a product of his own era, tends to be a somewhat limited one today. He has written: 'Surrealism is the psychic automatism by means of which the artist intends to express either verbally or in writing, or in any other way, the real working of his thought. It is dictated by his thought with complete absence of any control of his vision, and without any aesthetic or moral preoccupation. Surrealism is based on the belief in a superior reality of certain forms of association which have hitherto been neglected, in the omnipotence of dreams, and in the free and disinterested play of thought.' The type of surrealism that this describes can best be found in Canada in the work of such artists as Pellan, Bellefleur, or some of the earlier work of the automatistes. But there are other variations. One of these is almost the antithesis of Breton's definition in the sense that the artist, although still seeking to express the 'real working of his thought,' has very considerable concern for aesthetic and even moral values. It is much more deliberate, and the artist meticulously preserves the illusion of objects in absurd juxtaposition, but almost as the illustration of a dream. There is a certain sense of shock, but it comes from the imagination completing the painted action, or following the dream to its 'logical' conclusion (which is real disaster), not necessarily from the unusual aspect of the dream itself. Alex Colville's Horse and Train, inspired by the poem, 'Dedication to Mary Campbell' by Roy Campbell, is a good example of this:

Against a regiment I oppose a brain
And a dark horse against an armoured train.

Fred Hagan's Two Runners is another.

A number of Canadians are producing work classified as surrealist by the definitions already used, and some of them (Dallaire, Bellefleur, Pellan, Benoit) were actually associated with the French surrealist movement in Paris. Matthew Josephson in his book, Life among the Surrealists, describes how, in September 1959, at the opening of the latest international surrealist exhibition in Paris, Jean Benoit put on a surrealist ceremony that created sensational publicity for the show. He appeared in a darkened hall, dressed in fantastic costume and mask, and read from the last testament of the Marquis de Sade. He finished the act by branding his bare chest, with a red hot iron, with the letters S. A. D. E. (Josephson, an enthusiastic surrealist thirty years before, had no sympathy for the performance.)

In the main however, it is surprising to note that surrealism as a movement had little or no effect on Canadian painting until after 1940. The first surrealist manifesto in France coincided with the hey-day of the Group of Seven in Canada, and public scorn was reserved here for this innocuous (to us now) national version of impressionism. Even Canadian artists going to France to study tended to associate with the more conservative elements and schools in Paris. The notable exception was Alfred Pellan, who first went to Paris in 1926 and immediately took an interest in both the cubists and the surrealists, particularly in Max Ernst, whom he described as 'a great forerunner who has turned over many things.'

When Pellan returned to Quebec in 1940, he became 'pour tons les jeunes peintres d'alors une véritable révélation de l'art vivant.' Guy Robert said of him, 'On pourrait dire qu'en quelque some, chez Pellan, le surréel constitue sa propre réalité, une réalité de rêve, d'un rêve qui correspondrait à une réalité interne que la réalité externe ne fait trop souvent que cacher, trahir.' The impact of Pellan on Borduas, and subsequently on a large group of younger painters in Quebec, together with increased travel and communication after the war, created an atmosphere of freedom and experiment that produced a number of groups and movements. Two of them — Prisme d'yeux and Les automatistes were quite frankly based on facets of the French surrealist movement. (Perhaps not surprisingly the first Canadian exhibition held abroad since the Group of Seven show in 1927 was Automatisme held at the Galerie du Luxembourg in 1947.)

It is particularly interesting to note some remarks made by Maurice Gagnon in 1945, as the sentiments he expressed then are remarkably similar to the surrealist statements made after the First World War, and obviously the prevailing emotional climates had a great deal in common. Speaking of Les automatistes he said, 'Parce que jeunes, et parce qu'ils aiment le risque, ils ont tenté cette "folie" qui est la plus grande pour l'artiste: se perfectionner au point de se posséder entièrement et se possédant s'exprimer non moins totalement. Cette réponse de leur être est la contrepartie à la fausseté de la civilization qui nous enrobe, civilization écrasée de materialisme et de règles mé sans poésie.' It is interesting to note that the surrealist poetry of Alain Grandbois and Eloi de Grandmont (both illustrated by Pellan) appeared at this time.

Contemporary surrealism in other parts of Canada does not appear in 'group' form, nor is it concerned so much with 'psychic automatism' as in Quebec, but a number of individuals during the last few years have started producing work that is happily distinguished from a great deal of monotonously similar avant garde art by the fact that it is so personal (as indeed surrealism must be). Paintings by such artists as Jack Chambers, Edwy Cooke, Ivan Eyre, and Tom LaPierre, seem to have a refreshing validity by virtue of the fact that they involve the spectator in strange dream worlds of identifiable images. This contemporary surrealism is not necessarily any more a question of the subconscious creation of reality; rather it is the informed, conscious and quite deliberate presentation of an intellectual invention that is intriguing to the spectator because at the time that it appears 'real', it is patently absurd. The artists are getting through to the spectator on the basis of the fact that, as human beings, they both actually know a lot more in terms of society's experience than either the artists or the public of the 1920s.

Nakamura's Power Structure, with its intense contrast of light and dark, may hark back to Chirico and his long shadows cast by strange objects in deserted streets, but at the same time there is a very contemporary suggestion of science fiction, as though the static forms were robots on the moon. Contrast with this Kenneth Lochhead's The Dignitary, in which a similar sensation is present, although odd figures take the place of geometric objects. In the same context is Lemieux's Le voyageur sur la terre — a dream-like atmosphere that is on the borderline between surrealism and romantic fantasy. By the same token, Tony Urquhart's Brown Allegory, a great ambiguous lump of matter (the artist himself is not sure what it represents) that almost obscures a delicate landscape, suggests a world in which the illogical and the mysterious virtually threaten the spectator with their sense of reality. These paintings may or may not have their origins in the artist's subconscious, but they are certainly deliberately aimed at ours.

As previously mentioned, closer perhaps to Breton's definition of surrealism in which 'every discovery that changes the nature or purpose of an object or a phenomenon constitutes a surrealistic fact,' are works by Bellefieur, Pellan, Dallaire, Gécin and Scottie Wilson. There is often a characteristic literary component of the surrealist movement in painting (with titles such as The Sun's Anxiety after the Passage of Two Personages or, today, Patricia Irwin's Who in This Bowling Alley Bowl'd the Sun? or Greg Curnoe's Remind Norma to Mail a Letter) which is present in Léon Bellefieur's Machine célibataire, or Femme d'une pomme by Pellan. This latter painting does not suggest a surrealist dream world, but rather the revelation of an inventive mind inspired by the subconscious, juggling and dissecting a woman until the pieces fall into aesthetically controlled relationships and patterns. The drawings of Gécin, Beauchemin and Wilson, equally decorative from a visual point of view, also relate directly to a subconscious process of association that involves the spectator in a strangely plausible but quite absurd world.

Another facet of surrealism is that in which the artist uses surrealistic means virtually to preach a moral. Fred Hagan's Passing Grandparents combines, with magnificent lack of visual logic, the symbols of life and death, youth and age, into a strange allegory reminiscent of Dorothea Tanning. Again, Edwy Cooke's paintings of monstrous eggshells and chessboards placed in mountainous landscapes are 'classic' surrealist compositions. Yet another variation is Louis de Niverville's I Remember as a Child, No. 2 — a work full of deliberate clues that most of us can probably readily relate to the subconscious, and the altered natures of the three figures make them — according to Breton — surrealistic 'facts.'

A 'social commentary' type of surrealism can be found in a recent series of drawings (probably influenced by pop art) by Herbert J. Ariss, with titles such as Frank Sinatra and Onlookers at the Battle of San Romano, John Diefenbaker Attends the Venice Biennale, etc. This is not the surrealism of the dream world or unconscious associations, nor is it suggesting a moral, but is the deliberate placing of well-known people in absurd situations. In taking a conscious swipe at the average enthusiasm for 'personalities', Ariss is closer to the antisocial element of the French surrealist group, which was a very important ingredient in the whole movement.

In many cases, certain kinds of less stereotyped abstract-expressionism and surrealism are hard to separate. (In fact, in being anti-rational, abstract-expressionism is by definition surrealistic.) And there are some works, by Stegeman, André, Troy and Florence Vale for example, in which there is also the dream-like sensation of space that is an important element in surrealist paintings of such artists as Tanguy, Dali, etc.

Although only a few artists and works have been mentioned here, many more fall into the surrealist category by virtue of possessing some or all of the different elements and qualities that go to make up the elusive world of surrealism. I should like to conclude with a fairly recent remark of Louis Aragon's which, in this context, is absurd in itself. He stated that the surrealist movement of the 1920s had only been a war of 'words, words, words' and that his own generation had occupied itself mainly in saying nothing magnificently and with the greatest freedom of expression.

Canadian Art #88, Vol. XX #6, Nov / Dec 1963.

Text: © Paddy O'Brien. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.