A storm in a furry teacup

Lidija Haas explores the complex legacy of Surrealism in Mexican art

Text by Lidija Haas


From left: Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (1960). Creation of the Birds (1957). © Remedios Varo/DACS/VEGAP 2015

In 1938, André Breton’s sojourn in Mexico sent him into paroxysms. Here, he proclaimed, was the Surrealist country “par excellence”, and he wasted no time in setting up an exhibition to demonstrate it, in which works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – who insisted on being included among the international artists rather than the locals – appeared haphazardly alongside pre-Columbian artefacts and a host of European and Mexican works, some markedly more “surrealist” than others. To say that the Mexican reaction to Breton was mixed is quite an understatement: a more or less violent disdain could be detected in many quarters. At the time, some disliked Breton’s devotion to Trotsky, then taking refuge in the capital, where he would be assassinated not long after; others, in a context of post-revolutionary nationalist fervour and anxiety over what should constitute mexicanidad, resented Breton’s neocolonialist attempt to inflict his European influence on the local culture, and even to co-opt Mexican traditions and artists into his own movement. Kahlo, whose work Breton was eager to adopt as a kind of folklorically inflected Surrealism, had him to stay, spent time with the Surrealist gang in Paris and in the war years welcomed several émigrés into her studio; but she could nonetheless be scathing. “They make me vomit,” she wrote in a 1939 letter about those she had met in France. “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore… I’d rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”

She wasn’t alone in accusing the Surrealists of empty intellectualism. Alejo Carpentier, in the famous essay that identified the “marvellous real”, accused Breton’s crew of an arid posturing that could never come close to the magical quality that suffused everyday life in Latin America – an argument, ironically, that served to extend the Bretonian error by hinting at some exotic essence native to the continent and its cultures. Both Breton, and Antonin Artaud before him, showed Western man’s classic gift for unwittingly seeing (and glorifying) himself everywhere he goes: not only were they determinedly entranced by the very fantasies they had projected onto the place in advance, they also tended to interpret as some sort of essential and primitive magic what were in fact signs of the many such encounters the country had already borne.

All national histories involve mixtures and migrations of some kind, but in the years before its revolution Mexico had surely endured an unusual number of foreign invasions (mostly of a far less benign kind than the Surrealist one) – for the curious, Mexico City even boasts a Museum of Foreign Interventions. Large cities in themselves may always be an environment ripe for surrealist encounters, and uneven development is perhaps a naturally surrealist condition. Visiting in 1936, Artaud had already decided he would find in Mexico’s ancient indigenous rites the “collective dynamism” lacking in Europe; once there he freely read his own signs and symbols into the landscape and interpreted rituals like the peyote dances as he pleased, without much effort to communicate with those performing them. Breton, likewise, described his encounter with an enchanting, silent creature, somehow both young and old, real and imaginary, in a house in Guadalajara, seemingly unabashed that he had made no attempt to speak to her and find out if she really was the idealised femme enfant of his dreams.

The notion of Mexico as a weird and wonderful land has been a hard one to eradicate, but as literary critics and art historians such as Melanie Nicholson and Dawn Ades have recently argued, the attempt to do so (which has tended to involve a distrust of any hint of magic in favour of, say, the abstract and geometrical) has often obscured some of the more interesting seeds Surrealism did manage to sow in Mexican culture. It is admittedly not easy to disentangle the fruitful from the embarrassing in Surrealism’s legacy, in Mexico as elsewhere. You can often find something twee and dated – both conceptually and visually – in the original movement’s narcissistic heterosexism, its glib juxtapositions, its convenient tendency to equate the possibility of revolutionary change with the satisfaction of its own sometimes juvenile lusts. From a certain angle, it can resemble not much more than a storm in a furry teacup. Breton as a figure doesn’t help: despite announcing his movement as one of artistic, social and political liberation, resisting orthodoxies (bourgeois mores, fascism, Stalinism) on every side, he encouraged it to calcify into its own orthodoxy, frequently excommunicating those insufficiently loyal to his rather narrow version of Surrealist practice.

And yet, Surrealism’s death knell has been sounded so many times by now that the more interesting question is why the exquisite corpse has so frequently been observed dancing on its own grave. The most orthodox followers of the original movement may have produced the least intriguing legacy; surrealism has spawned other, more surprising offspring. Despite Breton’s masculinist and exoticising tendencies, women and non-Europeans – from Wifredo Lam to Aimé Césaire – have been among the most prominent and imaginative users of surrealist ideas and methods, perhaps because they are so inherently suited to being turned against themselves. Surrealism’s bizarre and fickle nature, its internal flaws and self-contradictions, may in fact be what has always rendered it un-killable. Even Artaud himself, who only lasted a couple of years as an official Surrealist (though he retained the sensibility long afterwards), joked in a letter about the movement’s self-defeating yet self-sustaining quality as early as 1924: “[They] wanted to entice me onto their latest Surrealist boat, but nothing doing. I’m much too much of a surrealist for that.”

If Breton’s fetishising of Mexico as a kind of living surrealist object seemed like a missed opportunity, it was particularly so in light of the fact that the place, and Mexico City especially, has indeed been a site of chance encounters, ruptures, collisions, of unexpected horrors and revelations, not through any essential national character but because of historical and geographical circumstance. “So far from God,” pre-revolutionary president Porfirio Díaz is said to have lamented, “so close to the United States.” Even once its colonial history and many subsequent invasions were past, Mexico’s willingness to absorb foreign bodies remained remarkable. Mexico sheltered many European refugees both during and after World War II, and later in the century became a gathering point for political exiles from all over Latin America. It is no coincidence that so many surrealist artists and writers ended up there, most notably Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, who were able, in Mexico, to transcend their earlier status as Surrealist wives and girlfriends and become central figures on the Mexican art scene.

surrealism-2Remedios Varo at the Society of Modern Art’s exhibition of the work of Picasso in 1944. The exhibition, the Society’s first, was organised by its founder Fernando Gamboa. The Society started out as an exhibition space in Chapultepec, where Gamboa organised a series of groundbreaking exhibitions. Gamboa is the subject of a forthcoming monograph by Fundación Jumex, and his work formed the basis of Mauricio Marcín’s Las ideas de Gamboa (Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, México, DF, 2013), from which this image is taken.

Much of the work they made in Mexico could not be considered classically surrealist, nor did it focus on local themes in any obvious way, but the combination of place and tradition clearly freed them to explore approaches they had not found in Europe before the war. Several men in their circle told the story of an amputated hand wrapped in newspaper that was found in Varo’s garden, but the women did not emphasise Mexico City itself as dark or exotic in their work, which was often set in otherworldly nowherelands. Both Carrington and Varo subverted the surrealist view of the feminine. In their paintings, domestic tasks take on cosmic powers – schoolgirls embroider the whole fabric of the earth; a female creature in a tiny room grinds stars up to feed an infant moon in a cage – and while women are everywhere, romantic love is rarely, and even then dismissively, mentioned: Varo’s The Lovers shows two figures with mirrors for heads; one of Carrington’s stories features a Happy Corpse, who advises a lovelorn youth that “sentimentality is a form of fatigue”, then proceeds to tell the story of his own parents, a busy man and a wife so bored that “she ate and ate and then shut herself into the refrigerator and half froze and half suffocated to death.” The Corpse’s poem in his mother’s memory goes: “When father’s face was hard to bear / Mother got into the Frigidaire, / Father, said I, I’m so unhappé / Mother is completely frappé.”

The two women, who were close friends, both depicted mystical creatures, among them human-animal hybrids but also precisely rendered mechanised grotesques: Varo painted a woman wearing a boat who could simply fall backwards into water; her To Women’s Happiness shows women with wheels for feet going shopping for pulleys and spare parts. Her many paintings of wheeled women also recall her only sculpture, Homo Rodans, a skeleton delicately constructed from animal bones, wings sprouting from its shoulders and a spine culminating in a large spoked wheel where the legs might be. Combining wit with a keen sense of the uncanny, it evokes the Day of the Dead sugar skulls photographed by Kati Horna and the Posada etchings so admired by the early Surrealists, as well as mocking po-faced anthropological research.

Carrington especially liked to emphasise the bloodthirstiness and absurdity to be found back home in Europe: in one story, “The Invention of Mole”, written as a mini-play, Moctezuma (speaking “naturally in Nahuatl”) puts it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, “without wishing to be critical, that the faithful must get mortally bored” by their passive role in English religious rites, before preparing the prelate to be eaten in a delicious sauce; in another set in the far future, the narrator reports on the people in olden times who “contemplated their God (now dead), a poor man nailed in an awful way to a wooden construction and languishing in apparent agony. An interesting example of the psychology of our ancestors, that they should have adored such a sinister image.” Varo also used estrangement to laugh at bourgeois routines: in Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, the protagonist, otherwise completely disguised, has removed her mask and is holding her father’s severed head upside down by its beard, about to drop it down a nearby well; in what at least one critic has read as a companion piece, a large-nosed woman arrives at the cosmetic surgeon’s office, its services encouragingly advertised by a six-breasted mannequin waiting in the window.

In the 1990s, Hal Foster and other critics reassessed the surrealist movement and its place in the 20th century, finding something compulsive, traumatised, uncanny and much darker than the playful, joyous liberation Breton had claimed to be peddling. There were always divisions among European surrealists – between Breton and Bataille, between mysticism and the more scientific approach to anthropology Wolfgang Paalen tried to pursue in the Mexico-based journal Dyn in the 1940s. Foster also noted the movement’s oddly labile quality in terms of its political implications, something that helps explain both its failures and its survivals: its (anti-)logic could very easily serve revolution one moment, ‘revolutionary’ capitalism the next. Breton himself admitted in the 1950s that “the sickness that the world manifests today differs from that manifested in the 1920s… The spirit was then threatened by congealing, whereas today it is threatened by dissolution.” Foster reads this as recognition of how surrealism’s liberationist, boundaryless philosophy was by no means necessarily progressive in its effects. The wave of rereadings of surrealism in the late 20th century was prompted partly by a sense of the movement’s affinity with postmodernism, and an interest in whether late-capitalist reality might soon risk out-surrealising surrealism, or whether it could, by virtue of exactly that resonance, offer unexpected insights.

In two short pieces, Roberto Bolaño, another displaced writer who has been absorbed into Mexican letters despite being Chilean, remembered Breton’s late call “for surrealism to go underground, to descend into the sewers of cities and libraries”. He asks whether it had some part in May 1968, and indeed whether there was “an operational underground movement during the last 30 years of the 20th century”. In her essay “Wanderers”, Argentine academic Graciela Speranza identifies the legacy of surrealism in Latin America as  a particular form of nomadism, of in-betweenness – taking “dépaysement” more literally than usual – and reads Bolaño’s two major works accordingly, as rootless, ever-moving and multiplying stories full of strange encounters, the gruesome fictionalisation of the Ciudad Juárez femicides seen as a “macabre readymade” dropped into the pages of 2066. Speranza traces the often denied or unwanted shoots of Latin American surrealism – “the repressed returns” – into the works of César Aira and Bolaño himself, noting the echo of a 1922 Breton phrase in the latter’s infrarealist manifesto: “LEAVE EVERYTHING, AGAIN. TAKE TO THE HIGHWAYS.” In Mexico, then, Surrealism’s heirs don’t look like surrealists, but it may still be possible to identify them – they have wheels where their legs should be. §

  • Surrealism in Mexican Art