When Salvador Dalí & Luis Buñuel’s film Un chien Andalou premiered in the City of Light, Paris was an avant-garde hothouse rife with artistic conflict and friendly rivalry. Midnight in Paris: Surrealism at the Crossroads, 1929 examines this particularly rich and vital creative era by examining the works, friendships and clashes of Jean Arp, André Breton, Luis Buñuel, Alexander Calder, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and others. Through a host of 20th-century works from the renowned Centre Pompidou in Paris, Midnight in Paris, 1929 brings to life the personal relationships and the intellectual passions that threatened to tear apart the newly formed artistic movement called Surrealism.
Setting the Stage: Surrealism a Century Ago
Surrealism was born from the minds of André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon in Paris in 1924. The three poets would soon be joined by other writers, artists, and filmmakers who similarly sought to liberate themselves from rational control, and wished to put imagination at the basis of their work. In this creative pursuit, they experimented with psychological theories about automatism, dreams, the unconscious, and psychoanalysis. In the history books, the year 1929 is most often associated with the financial crisis that erupted on Wall Street and rippled through the world’s economies. For surrealism too, 1929 was marked as much by crisis as by innovation.
Audio narration by Eugenie Bondurant.
Paris 1929 & Surrealism at the Crossroads
Welcome to our exhibition Midnight in Paris: Surrealism at the Crossroads, 1929.” created in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France’s National Museum of Modern Art, and by the Members of The Dalí Museum, The Trustees, the Guild, Mrs. JeanFrancois Rossignol and Mrs. Timothy R. Ranney. You have entered through a Paris Metro stop and are now in Paris in 1929. Paris, a city that is always filled with light and shadow, always both intellectual and sensuous, was rife with artistic alliances, conflict and rivalry. Art itself was at a crossroads, unsure of its path forward, embroiled in arguments over the supremacy of various media, with everyone competing for attention. Would painting survive the new experiments with photography, film and collage? Would politics replace art? 1929 represents the moment of a crisis of thought and artistic strategy, with lasting consequences for art. Along the various Surrealist-inspired avenues, you will meet the avant-garde artists during this period of experiment and uncertainty. You will discover the work, friendship and clashes of over 20 artists of the era, ranging from the painters Salvador Dalí and Renee Magritte to sculptors Hans Arp and Alexander Calder, and filmmakers Germaine Dulac and Luis Bunuel.
The “Oneiric” Image: Magritte’s Red Model and Dalí’s Hand
A term often used by the surrealists was “oneiric.” It means “dreamlike.” The spontaneity of “automatic” imagery, where an artist lets their unconscious create, was valued in Surrealism’s first phase. Now surrealist leader André Breton believed the movement’s future lay in dreamlike, “oneiric” images, that capture collective desires. René Magritte’s Red Model and Salvador Dalí’s The Hand – both express this dreamlike quality through transformation or exaggeration. Both artists use realism, to undermine reality itself. Hoping to get closer to the surrealist circle, Magritte moved in 1927 to Paris. His used a dreamlike style to create poetic associations established between otherwise dissimilar objects. The Red Model presents a pair of shoes that have become one, with the wearer. The shoes, which normally protect the feet, become the feet. Undermining the separation between human and object, between outside and inside, Magritte creates a monstrous, threatening transformation. When Dalí arrived in Paris in 1929, he promptly met Magritte. The success of Magritte’s images assured Dalí that his own dreamlike landscapes had a place in the Surrealist Movement. Dreams becomes political in The Hand, Dalí’s portrayal of the 19th century Catalan writer, Serafí Pitarra. Dali detested Pitarra because his writing was traditional, classical and rational. The painter humiliates the writer by presenting him in trousers smeared with excrement, and with a comically bloated hand. The hand is Dalí’s symbol for masturbation.
See also: Salvador Dalí’s The Hand
Dalí’s Paranoiac-Critical Method: Invisible Woman
Dalí arrived in Paris armed with ideas to share with the Surrealists. One of Dalí’s most important ideas is the “paranoiac-critical method.” Dalí defined this as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based upon the interpretive-critical association, of delirious phenomena.” This complex definition is clever. It refers to spontaneous creation – as in the automatic phase of Surrealist painting. But it adds interpretation, as in the dreamlike work that dominates Surrealism after 1929. This “paranoiac-critical method” often refers to Dalí’s double-image paintings, where a painting reveals two completely different images, depending on how you look at it. Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion, is one of Dalí’s earliest attempts at double-imagery. In this painting, Dalí creates three overlapping images. A boat is in the center. On its left is an egg shape, surrounded by golden hair. This is the head of a sleeping woman. Her arms drop to the floor. Her hips and legs are on the right. Look at this again, and the woman is a horse! Her arm becomes the horse’s forehead and muzzle; the horse’s nostrils are her opened fingers. Her hair is the horse’s mane. Her hips are the horse’s back legs, and the golden pattern to the right becomes the tail. A third figure is found in this same arrangement. The horse’s tail connects to a golden pattern that forms a lion’s head. The lion is the horse, reversed. The horse’s mane is now the lion’s tail. Through these changes, conflicting images arise. The double-image challenges our confidence in the stability of reality. Maybe the world really is as complex as this image, if we really look.
Surrealism had been initially preoccupied by the mind (“the functioning of thought”) in the mid-1920s, but by 1929 it turned towards the real and the relation of the mind to the real world. Photography offered a model by which to capture this “real” through a spontaneous mechanism, providing a mysterious access to the external world, one perhaps not obvious to the rational mind and eye. Photography was used to complement surrealist narrative and other texts, so as to associate thought and images. It was a way of engaging with the mysterious and little-known scenes of urban night life. In this way it performed a role similar to collage. Where fragments of the real become a means to summoning an imaginary image.
In the spring of 1929, Salvador Dalí entered the scene of the Parisian avant-garde, accompanied by Luis Buñuel, a fellow Spaniard with whom he had recently created Un chien andalou. Dalí called their film “a dagger in the heart of the spiritual and elegant Paris.” The film was written following the surrealist technique of automatic writing. It caught the attention of the surrealists upon its release in June 1929, who praised the dreamlike character of its images and the poetic and psychoanalytic references. The film opened the door for Dalí to join surrealism and share with the movement his theory of “paranoiac critical method,” which consisted of juxtaposing unusual images to create “associations and delusional interpretations.” The Catalan artist opened his first Parisian exhibition on 20 November 1929 at Galerie Goemans. André Breton wrote the preface to the exhibition catalogue, which affirms the central role Dalí held in surrealism at this time. Dalí’s influence is particularly noticeable in the works of Yves Tanguy. Having joined the surrealist group in 1925, Tanguy’s previous preoccupation with automatism gave way to paintings depicting more dreamlike worlds, vast landscapes inhabited by biomorphic forms.
Automatic vs. Oneiric: Ernst’s Chimera
Max Ernst was a mercurial artist who often shifted his approach. He was comfortable with both automatic and dreamlike styles. His technique grew to include spontaneous methods like collage, grattage – or scratched imagery, and frottage – using rubbings, which were then used by other surrealists. Chimera is a painting generated by automatism, but the result is close to dreamlike. The chimera is a classical creature from the Iliad, described by Homer as “lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle.” The chimera became a protective deity of Surrealism. Here Ernst develops his own version, combining the figure of an eagle, with female breasts, a precursor to his own fantastic double, Loplop. Well aware of what Surrealism owed this ancient monster, Breton jealously preserved Ernst’s Chimera in the caverns of his studio.
André Masson had shared studio with Miró in the Rue Blomet at the beginning of the 1920s and was a major contributor to the development of automatic drawing and painting, sometimes verging on the abstract, but, as with Miró, Masson sought to invest painting with a visceral concern with life and death. Thus he brought the figure back into his dynamic compositions, as in his 1930 canvas Animaux Endormis (Sleeping Animals). An admirer of the pre-socratic philosopher Heraclitus, Masson saw life and painting as a rapidly flowing continuum. In his own words, “It was quite obvious that I found myself, with my quest for dynamism and the unstable, in a risky position.” This was also the intoxicated delirium of Dionysus as explained by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy. Masson’s slightly later sculpture Extase (Ecstasy) represents a figure born of such dynamic and irrational processes. And yet its composition allows for a sense of the poetic transparency that Nietzsche associated with Apollo’s rationality.
Automatic writing and drawing were embraced in the first phase of Surrealism. The Surrealists turned to automatism because they were suspicious of painterly technique, which they felt was at odds with the search for the unconscious. But by 1929, the “oneiric,” or dreamlike way of making art, was accepted as another way to explore the irrational. André Masson was a key practitioner of automatism. You will find several examples of his automatic drawings through this exhibit. But by the end of the 1920s, in works like Sleeping Animals, he shifts away from this spontaneous approach. His paintings became more painterly, with well-developed patterns depicting elemental forms. He began including human figures and addressing themes of life, death and sexuality.
Nevertheless, Breton called Miró “the most beautiful feather in the Surrealist cap.”
See also: Jean Arp’s Head with Moustache
See also: Jean Arp’s Metamorphosis
Building on the foundation of photography, the surrealists were among the first to see the power of the new cinematic medium. While they incorporated some experimental devices in their films, these filmmakers also drew on popular devices from commercial cinema (for example melodrama), and for this reason their works were all the more shocking, their screenings often provoking scandal. While the key practitioners of surrealist film were Man Ray, Luis Buñuel and Dalí, similar concerns were explored by the former Dadaist Hans Richter and the militant feminist Germaine Dulac, with Dulac completing The Seashell and the Clergyman, based on a a text by Antonin Artaud, a year before Buñuel and Dalí’s scandalous, but popular Un chien andalou. Though not a surrealist, Dulac’s film was as shocking as those produced by the members of the group.
Magritte and Variétés
The year 1929 saw the rapprochement of the French and Belgian surrealist groups. Variétés –revue mensuelle illustrée de l’esprit contemporain (the monthly illustrated magazine with a contemporary spirit), was founded in Brussels in May 1928 by Paul-Gustave Van Hecke. Urged on by his friend, E. L. T. Mesens, a Belgian artist, poet, and the founder of surrealism in Belgium, Van Hecke agreed to open the pages of his review to a special issue on surrealism. Published in June 1929, the special edition was distinguished by a red banner across the cover instead of the usual blue one. The review combines texts and illustrations by both French and Belgian surrealists. While the majority of contributions came from the French group, one Belgian painter received special attention: René Magritte. In 1927, Magritte and his wife, Georgette, had moved to Le Perreux-sur-Marne in the Paris suburbs in the hope of getting closer to André Breton. Magritte’s interest in philosophy, especially Hegel’s dialectic of bringing together two contradictory propositions, led him to move away from automatism, instead seeking poetic associations between objects. In 1929 Magritte wrote an article in La Révoution surréaliste in which he theorized his interest in the relationship between words and images. However, later that same year, Magritte and André Breton fell out over a dinner party dispute, when a small crucifix necklace worn by Georgette had enraged Breton’s anti-clericalist views.
The first issue of the journal Documents was published in the spring of 1929. Led by Georges Bataille, the magazine was a crucible of surrealist dissent. In fact, Documents welcomed those who refused to support the movement’s shift in priorities towards political allegiance to the French Communist Party. Founded with museologist Georges Henri Rivière and writer, art critic Carl Einstein, the magazine ran for almost two years. Breton’s surrealism, with its taste for automatism, the unconscious, and the marvelous, was confronted with a new critical approach, based on photography. It was less attractive, aesthetically more brutal and arguably more rooted in reality, thanks to photographic illustrations by Jacques-André Boiffard, Eli Lotar, and Jean Painlevé. André Masson, who shared Bataille’s inclination for Neitzsche and Sade, was also close to the dissident group. In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, published in the December 1929 edition of La Révolution surréaliste, Breton directed a venomous tirade at Bataille and his associates. The rebels retaliated by reappropriating the concept of a pamphlet written by the original surrealist group in 1924 that celebrated the death of Anatole France. Those attacked in the Second Manifesto (Antonin Artaud, Georges Limbour, Philippe Soupault, Roger Vitrac), joined forces with some dissidents (Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert) to publish Un Cadavre, in which they denounced Breton as a “false brother and false communist, false revolutionary but a true show-off.” In spite of these rifts, surrealism arose victorious in 1929. The movement’s restored vitality became evident when, at the beginning of 1930, Francis Ponge, Tristan Tzara, and Paul Nougé supported the first edition of a new surrealist journal entitled Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution.
Surrealist Objects and Desire
Among the many words one could use to describe the year 1929, the term “Sadean” seems most appropriate, since the writings of the Marquis de Sade imbue many surrealist works of the period. The spring saw the publication of a singular small volume of erotic poems by Louis Aragon and Benjamin Péret, simply titled 1929, illustrated with sexually explicit photographs by Man Ray. This clandestine publication was produced to finance the special surrealist edition of Variétés, also published in 1929. Objet désagréable (Disagreeable Object), one of Giacometti’s early “surrealist” works, shows the artist’s interest in Eros and Thanatos. Such works were considered the first examples of surrealist “objects,” an anti-sculptural concept, whereby assemblages of objects sought to provoke the viewer’s desire. The same conflicting concern with life and death inspired André Masson’s bold drawings of erotic scenarios planned for an unrealized publication of Sade’s novel, Justine.
Challenge to Painting
The German artist, Max Ernst, was a founding member of the Dada group. In 1921, at an exhibition of his collages at the Parisian gallery “Au sans pareil”, Ernst met the poet Paul Éluard. This led to his friendship with those who would go on to form the surrealist group. In the years that followed, Ernst’s work developed around themes such as ghostly apparitions, transfigured cities and forests, animals and birds, shells, and landscapes made of crystals. His technique also expanded to include collage, grattage (scratches) and frottage (rubbings), each of which came to have an enduring place in the surrealist visual vocabulary. In December 1929, Ernst published his first collage novel, La Femme 100 têtes (The Hundred Headless Woman), made up of 147 plates reproducing collages of nineteenth-century engravings. If cubist papiers collés were compositional tools, and if irreverent Dadaist collages were an attack on art itself, the most remarkable endeavour of Ernst’s surrealist collages was to pose a “challenge to painting,” the title of an important March 1930 essay by Louis Aragon devoted to the technique of collage. These experiments are similar to those of the Catalan artist Joan Miró, who settled in Paris in the mid-1920s. Miró imagined a dreamlike and poetic world that was far from the surrealist interest in automatism. Nevertheless, André Breton called Miró “the most beautiful feather in the surrealist cap.” Aragon’s “challenge” was echoed by Miró’s own statement calling for “the assassination of painting.” In this way, Miró developed a form of “anti-painting.”
Ernst: Collage Novel
Max Ernst’s collage novel of 1929 was a revelation. The title, La Femme 100 Têtes, is a double entendre. When read aloud in French, it can mean either “the hundred-headed woman” or “the headless woman.” This was the first collage novel by Ernst. Nine chapters unfold in a very loose narrative. Ernst collaged images from 19th century magazines, encyclopedias and trivial novels, to create a new and dreamlike narrative. Scientific illustrations, religious visions and pulp fiction merge, accompanied by equally strange captions. By juxtaposing unrelated images, Ernst creates a provocative dream world that invites the viewer to participate, and create a story. La Femme 100 Têtes is where Max Ernst introduced his bird alter ego – Loplop – into his art. This bird appears in all three of the Ernst paintings in this exhibition. In the book’s introduction, André Breton proclaimed that, “One awaited a book that avoids all parallels with other books – aside from their mutual use of ink and type… The Hundred-Headed Woman will be preeminently the picture book of our day… Such is our idea of progress.”
Game Playing – The Exquisite Corpse
The Surrealists believed profound discoveries can be made during simple activities that distract the mind. They distrusted ideas that were rational or ego-driven, so they embraced game playing. Just as automatic writing was a weapon to use against narrative logic, collective drawing challenged the idea of an ‘individual artist.’ The “blind” execution of a work by three or four different hands drew upon the unconscious, childhood and humor. Based on a 19th century children’s game called “Consequences,” the “exquisite corpse” can be played through writing or visual images. Three or four people gather at a table and a sheet of paper is folded. The first person draws the head of a creature, then folds the paper so the next person only sees the lines that show where the neck is. The second person draws the shoulders and chest, and so on. In the end, an image of a new creature is created collectively. Often, the “exquisite corpse” surprises, because of its uncanny coherence. Max Ernst called this collaborative process “mental contagion.” These drawings reveal the Marvelous, that spontaneous form of beauty the Surrealists prized over everything else. Between 1924 and 1949, the surrealists produced more than 200 exquisite corpses.
See also: Dalí’s Exquisite Corpse
To capture the spirit of Paris in 1929, we selected musical pieces to set the mood of the cafes and nightclubs of late 1920s Paris.
The above songs are located on these 3 audio files
To bring to life some of the personality and conflicting views of the over 20 artists included in the exhibit, we selected a variety of quotes by each concerning art. Through these quotes, some of the aspirations and arguments behind the work come to life.
Organized by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and The Dalí Museum, Midnight in Paris, 1929, and was curated by Dr. William Jeffett, Chief Curator of Special Exhibitions at The Dalí Museum, and Didier Ottinger, Deputy Director of the Musée national d’art moderne at the Centre Pompidou. The Dalí Museum’s unique installation was adapted from a selection of works organized by Dr. Ottinger and previously exhibited at the Palazzo Blu in Pisa and the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest.
Midnight in Paris: Surrealism at the Crossroads, 1929 is sponsored by:
Mrs. Jean-François Rossignol
Mrs. Timothy R. Ranney
St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport