Book Review: Surrealist Collage in Text and Image

Surrealist Collage in Text and Image book cover

Surrealist Collage in Text and Image: Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse by Elza Adamowicz. (1998). Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom. ISBN 9-780-521-59204-8

If I were to pick one word for the surrealists before reading Elza Adamowicz's book, Surrealist Collage in Text and Image: Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse, I might have picked 'petulant': always pushing boundaries, causing disruptions. But, petulance implies a childish sulkiness or bad-temperament, and I am not so sure 'petulance' describes their work as neatly as I once thought it did. Though the whole point of surrealism was, at its heart, to push boundaries and cause disruption to the status quo, the point was to keep things (objects, ideas, statues, identities) from (literally or figuratively) stagnating, rotting, and otherwise fading into oblivion.

I admit up front that this book was slow going for me. It is an academic book, different from some of the quilting and collage books written for a more general audience I reviewed in previous posts. And more importantly, Surrealist Collage in Text and Image is written partly in French, which I do not read, speak or write. Google translate did a fair job helping me out, but I am sure some of the author's points were, quite literally, lost in translation. However, I felt it was well-worth spending time with this book to read the artists' quotes (written in their own language) and to get a deeper understanding of the philosophy behind surrealism. Adamowicz posits that collage for these artists and poets was more about process than final product. Their search for the merveilleux is/was a process with infinite possibilities and an impossible end. And, with detailed accounts, careful explanations and dissections of artwork and poems from key players of the time, including Louis Aragon, Andre Breton and Max Ernst, I believe I understand what Adamowicz means. 

Right: Reves et hallucinations (1926) by Max Ernst in Surrealist Collage in Text and Image.

Right: Reves et hallucinations (1926) by Max Ernst in Surrealist Collage in Text and Image.

The surrealists were scavengers, recyclers of lost and outdated objects and ideas. They seemed to be less interested in creating something altogether new than they were in revitalizing something that already existed: masks and other objects from fleamarkets, cut out titles from newspapers, journals and magazines, etc. They saw these bits and bobs as archeological finds that included "the ephemeral and the defunct, the outmoded or the stereotypical, high and low cultural fragments". (p. 32) They were interested in the rips and tears of society (or the active ripping and tearing of societal norms), conflict, appropriation, and subversion. Adamowicz writes:

We have seen that it is often the very banality of images which triggers the desire for surrealist appropriations, disrupting the surface of quotidian reality to reveal the desires and violence, the fears and anxieties underlying the every day. The cliches of every day language are transformed through the cutting and pasting process, revealing their critical or provocative potential. (p. 40)
Right: Poeme by Andre Breton (c. 1924) in Surrealist Collage in Text and Image

Right: Poeme by Andre Breton (c. 1924) in Surrealist Collage in Text and Image

The surrealists used certain techniques and games to help them break down traditional constructs and connect disparate objects or ideas. They might, for instance, fill a table with flea market finds, purposefully positioned in a random way or spend an afternoon going from movie screening to movie screening, only catching sections of each individual movie and, thus, constructing their own movie from the snippets they saw at the cinemas. The exquisite corpse is, perhaps, their most notable game where, they would, collectively draw a human figure (head, shoulders, arms, torso, etc.) but substitute objects for each body part without the other participants knowledge of what had been drawn before. A head might be a bird cage, for example, with a table for shoulders and a whisk or other objects for arms, They also played word games where two people would ask and answer questions without either one know what the question was or how the other had responded. Much like players of jazz music, the surrealists placed their improvisations on (real or imagined) frameworks to aid in the letting go of the ordinary.

Right: L'Esprit et la forme (c. 1928) by Rene Margritte in Surrealist Collage in Text and Image

Right: L'Esprit et la forme (c. 1928) by Rene Margritte in Surrealist Collage in Text and Image

The surrealists purposefully chose subjects (deified or politicized people, statues, iconic figures, ideas and objects) to cannibalize, disfigure or deface, including their own faces in portraiture. In order to transcend reason--and, in the case of their own heads and faces, transcend the place of reason--they held no one object or idea as sacred or more important as any other. People's identities--and the face(s) they show--are more complicated and dimensional than what is revealed during the course of a normal day. In order to demonstrate these many facets, to challenge identity, and to, hopefully, transcend the every day in text and imagery, the surrealists focused on, denigrated and usurped existing objects and ideas they felt were stagnating or decaying: tearing them, rearranging them, revitalizing them and, ultimately, re-purposing the fragments into something new. It might well be that the completed painting, collage or poem might, then be discarded or somehow altered to find an even deeper meaning or purpose. This process is, it seems to me, an endless cycle of wonder.

Have you read this book? Please tell me if I've got it wrong! (Or right!)

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Janyce Boynton