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Modernism and its Discontents: The Case of Cahiers d’Art and Surrealism in 1928

In 1927, Christian Zervos, the editor of the prominent art magazine Cahiers d’Art, published an article on the “Dernières œuvres de Picasso.”[1] This article discussed the new direction in Pablo Picasso’s recent body of surrealist-influenced paintings: unlike the restrained compositions of the postwar rappel à ordre, these paintings demonstrated a new expressive dynamism, and signaled Picasso’s openness to novel, disruptive currents in the cultural life of les années folles. For Zervos, this body of work exemplified the path forward for contemporary painting in the wake of cubism, a return to a more expressive pictorial form—a tendency sometimes described as a type of néo-fauvisme.[2] However, this path was not without peril, and one goal of the article was to acknowledge Picasso’s recent accomplishments. To this end, Zervos recounted a recent conversation with Picasso to question the artistic direction of the emerging generation of painters:

Whatever anyone may say, Picasso never seeks to express literary or metaphysical ideas in his painting. It is enough for him to create works with plastic form, persuaded that a work with perfect plastic form contains all the suggestions of the mind. Several days ago, at a picture dealer on the left bank, Picasso had just seen canvases by artists of the so-called avant-garde. As we were talking, Picasso said to me: “Truly, it wasn’t worth all the efforts our generation made just to see these fellows fall back into literature and forget the most elementary plastic form [la plastique la plus élémentaire].”[3]

Although it is tempting to read this passage as an attack on surrealism, Zervos left the target of Picasso’s comments ambiguous. It was sufficient to distinguish between the plastic quality of Picasso’s recent work—the article was accompanied by reproductions of twelve paintings—and the error of subordinating painting to literature or metaphysics. Zervos here mobilized a central trope of modernist criticism to affirm that the value of painting lay not in narrative and literary association, but in a set of pictorial qualities specific to painting, what he called “plastic form” [la plastique].

Jean de Bosschère, “Max Ernst”
Fig. 1. Jean de Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” Cahiers d’Art 3, no.  2 (1928): 69. Illustrated with Max Ernst, The Kiss (Le baiser), 1927. Oil on canvas, 129 x 161.2 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Artwork © Max Ernst/ADAGP/Copyright Agency 2019; photograph provided by J.C. Beaglehole collection, Victoria University of Wellington Library.

If Zervos was content to leave the target of his criticism ambiguous in 1927, he would abandon this reserve the following year. This is evident in his response to an article by Jean de Bosschère on Max Ernst, an artist closely associated with surrealism, which was published in early 1928 (fig. 1). The decision to feature Ernst was in many ways unremarkable, since one facet of the editorial program of Cahiers d’Art was to present new artistic tendencies that engaged with the legacy of cubism; to this end, it published articles on emerging artists like Francisco Borès, Jean Lurçat, Joseph Sima, and Jean Arp.[4] Although the article on Ernst was in keeping with this editorial policy, it rapidly became a flashpoint that exposed tensions between surrealism and the modernist perspective of Cahiers d’Art. Zervos not only took the unusual step of prefacing the article with an editorial note that went as far as to deny the existence of surrealist painting, but elsewhere in the issue he interrupted an article on Renoir to address the errors of surrealism.[5] He would amplify his critique of surrealism in the next issue of Cahiers d’Art, publishing “Du phénomène surréaliste,” an article that sought to distinguish between the positive and negative characteristics of surrealism.[6] The central issue was the authority of Picasso’s recent work: Zervos’s goal was to distinguish between the work of artists misled by surrealism and the recent achievements of Picasso, who was able to adapt surrealist techniques to arrive at a new definition of formal accomplishment. What gave urgency to Zervos’s comments was the growing prominence of surrealism as an artistic and literary movement. Indeed, despite the internal divisions caused by the recent attempts to align surrealism with communism, by 1928 surrealism could claim a substantial list of achievements: collectively, the movement continued to publish the review La Révolution surréaliste and mount exhibitions at the Galerie Surréaliste; individually, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and Benjamin Péret had recently published books, and André Breton had two books—Nadja and Le Surréalisme et la peinture—in the offing. “Several artists associated with surrealism—Ernst, Joan Miró, and André Masson—had also established themselves as significant emerging artists.” To all intents and purposes, surrealism increasingly appeared as a coherent alternative that could challenge the authority of the modernist avant-garde promoted in the pages of Cahiers d’Art.

In this context, Bosschère’s article initially suggests an effort to annex Ernst to a position more amenable to Cahiers d’Art—and this may well have been the original motivation to commission the article. Bosschère attempted to distance Ernst from the dissensual politics of surrealism, and thereby secure a new definition of surrealist painting that would be acceptable to Cahiers d’Art. Although the tone and argument of Bosschère’s article was atypical for Cahiers d’Art, an overture toward artists associated with surrealism could open an opportunity to incorporate aspects of surrealism into the broader modernist position of Cahiers d’Art—a strategy that would echo the trajectory of Picasso’s recent work. However, by the time the article appeared in early 1928, Zervos’s attitude toward surrealism had become more circumspect. The publication of Breton’s Le Surréalisme et la peinture as a book in early 1928 transformed his calculus. Le Surréalisme et la peinture republished the series of articles that originally appeared in La Révolution surréaliste; it opened with a section on Picasso that advanced an interpretation of his work in conflict with Zervos’s own advocacy for the artist in Cahiers d’Art. In this context, it would be imperative for Zervos to establish a clear distinction between the modernism of Cahiers d’Art and surrealism.

It is easy to dismiss this episode as a minor incident in the reception of surrealism. On closer inspection, however, it exposes the constellation of forces shaping surrealism’s relation to modernism in France in the late 1920s, both in terms of what could legitimately pass as modern painting, as well as the broader relation of modernism to the dissensual politics of surrealism. I have previously argued that surrealism not only existed in the unstable, contested space between culture and politics, but also that the tension between these irreconcilable positions animated the history of the movement.[7] More recently, I have argued that what characterizes surrealism’s relation to modernism is the latter’s tendency to render the dissensual force of surrealism illegible.[8] Here I draw on Jacques Rancière’s observation that dissensus is the essence of politics, not as a “confrontation between interests and opinions” held by agents occupying established positions in the social space, but as the “demonstration of a gap [écart] in the sensible itself.”[9] If culture and politics are taken as a set of meaningful activities framed by a common understanding—what Rancière has called the “distribution of the sensible”—then surrealism’s ambivalent position suspended between culture and politics typifies precisely one such dissensual “gap in the sensible.” One of the characteristics of modernism as an aesthetic and historical category has been to efface this “gap” and thus render dissensus illegible.[10] This has implication on the way the history of surrealism is written: the politics of surrealism is relegated to the background as a series of contingent encounters, while the cultural accomplishments of the movement are incorporated into the canon of art and literary history. One goal of this article is to recover not only a sense of the way that dissensus informed surrealism, but how the modernist reception of surrealism has effectively occluded this dissensus.

Surrealism, Modernism, and Painting

Cahiers d’Art was established in 1926 and it rapidly became a leading promoter of modernism during the interwar years.[11] It combined an editorial line that promoted the autonomy of pictorial form with regular features on the recent work of established artists like Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Fernand Léger, as well as articles on the work of the younger generation of emerging artists. Although Cahiers d’Art sought to surpass the late cubism of the 1920s, it continued key tenets of cubism, particularly the primacy of what Christopher Green has called the “aesthetic of purity”: the notion of a picture as an artifice, a construct of structured pictorial forms rather than a servile imitation of nature.[12] Although Cahiers d’Art was never a vocal advocate of nonfigurative abstraction and continued to emphasize the central role of the artist’s relation to nature, this position anticipated key aspects of mid-century modernism. Zervos claimed his aesthetic was based on the “ancient theory of idealism,” in which form and reason dominates matter.[13] This theory was evident in “a personal and traditional aesthetic” of artists like Cézanne, whose work exemplified the mutual development of a vison of nature and the logic of organized sensations through a synthesis of observation, intellect and emotion.[14] Both elements are necessary to arrive at the means of expression, what Zervos often called la plastique—“the plastic” or “plastic form.”[15] Cahiers d’Art also plays an important role in the international dissemination of European modernism, with each issue including numerous high-quality illustrations of artworks. Indeed, Clement Greenberg would later note the “decisive influence” of the illustrations in Cahiers d’Art on the development of the modernism of the New York school.[16]

Cahiers d’Art initially maintained a neutral stance toward surrealism. The most substantial discussion took place in 1926, when it published an article written by the surrealist poet and writer Robert Desnos, which discussed several artists associated with the surrealist movement in terms of the marvelous and the poetics of surrealism.[17] It also published several articles written by former surrealists like Antonin Artaud, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Roger Vitrac; while these writers were no longer formally associated with the group around La Révolution surréaliste, they still wrote in an allusive, poetic style much closer to surrealism than the modernist criticism more commonly found in the pages of Cahiers d’Art.[18] Apart from these articles, Cahiers d’Art largely limited its commentary on surrealism to exhibition reviews—often without explicitly addressing surrealism by name.[19] Cahiers d’Art imposed its values on surrealism, evaluating the work of artists associated with surrealism through a modernist prism. This attitude was evident in the reviews Cahiers d’Art published on exhibitions by Ernst, who maintained the highest visibility among the artists closely associated with surrealism during the 1920s.[20]

Tériade reviewed three exhibitions by Ernst for Cahiers d’Art. His most extensive review was for a 1926 exhibition of the original frottages for Histoire naturelle, a portfolio of 34 collotypes after frottage drawings recently published by Editions Jeanne Bucher.[21] Whereas Tériade had earlier described Ernst’s recent exhibition at the Galerie Van Leer as an amusing diversion, he gave more thought to the cycle of frottages in Histoire naturelle.[22] He began with an account of the work, describing the imagery and theme of the cycle: the birth of the world, the creation of life, of forests, beasts and humanity. Yet Tériade also sensed the disquieting proximity of Ernst’s frottages to cubism, particularly in the use of ambiguity to spur the creative process:

This wound open and fecund—does it belong to the earth, to the trunk, or to stars? The wood, with its fibers, its concentric rings, its heart, its watermarks, and its hard and wrinkled bark—does it date back to primitive times or the Dionysian years of cubism? A leaf spreads over the maternal wood of a board and hides from us neither its satisfaction nor its surprise at living and growing, and the sad little tree which opens like a fan, one does not know if it is in the middle of a vast sea with successive waves or in the muddy solitude of broad terrestrial layers. Because everything is mixed up.[23]

The imagery of this passage related to the three illustrations that accompanied the review, notably Les pampas, which depicted a tree-like form rising above a horizon line (fig. 2).[24] Tériade associated Ernst’s frottages with the semantic ambiguity of cubism, where the meaning of a sign depended on its context; yet Ernst took this process of metamorphosis further, forsaking the limited range of cubist still-life imagery to create a new cosmology. In the process he transformed the goal of cubist practice: whereas for the cubists still-life objects were a pretext for the manipulation and integration of signs in a pictorial composition, employing ambiguity to estrange objects from the quotidian, for Ernst the value of his formal means was secondary to the imagery generated through the frottage process. The ubiquity of wood grain in Histoire naturelle not only unified the cycle of frottages, but also suggested the inventive power of the imagination, which created incessant variety from such meagre resources.

Max Ernst, various
Fig. 2. Max Ernst, Les pampas (1925), La palette de César (1925,) and L’origine de la pendule (1925), frottage, pencil on paper, for Histoire naturelle, reproduced in E. Tériade, “Max Ernst (Boutique Pierre Chareau),” Cahiers d’Art 1, no. 4 (May 1926): 79. Artworks © Max Ernst/ADAGP/Copyright Agency 2019; photograph provided by J.C. Beaglehole collection, Victoria University of Wellington Library.

Although Tériade acknowledged the aesthetic quality of Ernst’s frottages, which after all were works on paper rather than paintings, he was wary of their relationship to the established values and hierarchy of modernist painting, since they appeared to import literary concerns into the domain of painting. He praised the “astonishing variety of greys” and “sensitive colorations,” which allowed Ernst “all the literary fruits, every intellectual journey, all imaginative adventures.” He nonetheless relegated Ernst’s work to “the domain of literary illustration,” and cautioned the artist not to be content with his discoveries in this limited realm, thus enforcing the difference between the modernist avant-garde and surrealism, painting and literature.[25]

Bosschère, Artaud, and Surrealism

Tériade’s criticism of Ernst’s work conformed to the editorial position of Cahiers d’Art, a stance Zervos would reiterate in the editorial note to Bosschère’s article, and again in “Du phénomène surréaliste.” Given these reservations, why did Cahiers d’Art publish a feature article on Ernst? To some degree, this decision was part of an effort to counter the growing influence of surrealism, particularly since the previous comments against surrealism had done little to halt its appeal. If Cahiers d’Art was to provide an alternative to surrealism—an alternative that would attract young painters who may otherwise succumb to error—it was necessary to develop a critical vocabulary that could co-opt the aspects of surrealist painting amenable to Cahiers d’Art. This appears to be the reason behind commissioning an article on Ernst.

A Belgian painter, illustrator, and poet who had settled in Paris in early 1926, Bosschère had a varied career before arriving in Paris: born in Belgium in 1878, he initially studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp; he had published several volumes of poetry prior to the First World War, and worked as an art critic and a historian of Flemish art.[26] In 1915 he relocated to London to escape the war, where he participated in the Imagist poetic movement, publishing two books of poetry, while supporting himself as a book illustrator.[27] In 1926 he settled in Paris; he held his first solo exhibition there in January 1927 at the Galerie d’art contemporain, and in May he published a novel, Marthe et l’enragé.[28]

Whereas the regular contributors to Cahiers d’Art lacked the critical vocabulary to address the specific qualities of surrealist painting—a limitation already evident in Tériade’s reviews of Ernst’s exhibitions—Bosschère was not only an experienced art critic and poet with strong ties to the postsymbolist generation, but he was sympathetic to aspects of surrealism without holding any strong allegiance to the movement.[29] In particular, Bosschère was sensitive to the mystery and sense of exultation conveyed by pictorial means—precisely that aspect Zervos dismissed in “Dernières œuvres de Picasso” when he distanced Picasso from the expression of literary and metaphysical ideas. Bosschère outlined his aesthetic philosophy in a series of notes included in the catalogue for his 1927 solo exhibition; significantly, he located his practice in relation to Picasso, claiming the current tendency in painting “only emerged from darkness shortly before Picasso,” and he praised painting’s “power to make matter slip towards dreams.”[30] This ability to link the expressive capacity of painting to the realm of dreams would qualify Bosschère as a viable commentator on surrealist painting.

Bosschère’s closest links to the surrealist movement were through the circle around Artaud and the Théâtre Alfred Jarry. Artaud had participated in the surrealist group during 1925 and 1926, but his initial enthusiasm for surrealism was tempered by its growing association with communist-aligned groups after July 1925. Bosschère met Artaud toward the end of 1926, at the time of Artaud’s final break with surrealism. This break would be a source of lingering resentment for Artaud, which he expressed in several pamphlets, and which Bosschère would echo in his discussion of Ernst’s work.

Jean de Bosschère, L’Automate, 1926.
Fig. 3. Jean de Bosschère, L’Automate, 1926. Dimensions and location unknown, reproduced in Antonin Artaud, “L’Automate personnel,” Cahiers d’Art 2, no. 3 (1927): 114. Artwork © Jean de Boschère/ADAGP/Copyright Agency 2019; photograph provided by J. C. Beaglehole collection, Victoria University of Wellington Library.

Artaud evidently made a profound impression on Bosschère, who immediately painted L’Automate, a portrait of his new friend (fig. 3). Bosschère recalled the circumstances in an unpublished memoir:

Two days after my first encounter with Artaud, I saw him at the place Vendome, approaching me like a man hallucinating. Without preamble, he told me that he believed no one would make a portrait of him better than I. “It’s done,” I said, “have you an hour to spare?” I hailed a taxi; Artaud did not say a word, looking in turn at the street passing and at me smiling. Finally, I told him that I had devoted the previous day to painting his portrait.[31]

Artaud soon returned the compliment in “L’Automate personnel,” an article based on the painting published in Cahiers d’Art.[32] Artaud’s article was a personal and lyrical response to the picture, which echoed themes explored in his other writings. He praised Bosschère’s ability to reveal the subterranean carnal forces that animate the world:

Jean de Bosschère was one of the first to have dug under this varnish, this closed, compact bark of the color of language in order to make the idea, the sensation, the image gush forth in their carnal musculature, in their living blood, in their invisible essence. The painting of Jean de Bosschère is a raw world, a naked world, full of filaments and straps, where the irritating force of an iron lacerates the inner firmament, ripping the intellect apart, where the expression of primitive powers, where states we cannot name appear in their purest manifestation, the least suspected of real alloys.[33]

The impassioned, personal tone of “L’Automate personnel” was unusual for Cahiers d’Art, and like Desnos’s earlier article on surrealism, the article appeared part of the effort by Cahiers d’Art to accommodate recent tendencies in contemporary art. Bosschère’s painting was reproduced as a half-page illustration surrounded by text—a format that echoed the layout of La Révolution surréaliste but was less typical of Cahiers d’Art—and although the picture was the starting point for the text, it is soon eclipsed by Artaud’s rhetoric. Bosschère’s portrait also harbored a deeper significance for Artaud, representing an act of recognition that validated his existence in the face of continuing suffering:

With the vivaciousness of pure desire, with its call, a constant death bordering on the membrane of resurrection. Jean de Bosschère made me. I want to say that he has shown me how he and I resembled each other and were close, and this proof, at the moment where I am, is more precious to me than everything else. He has established the trembling, central unity of my life and my intelligence.[34]

Artaud was so impressed with Bosschère’s portrait that he adapted its design for the frontispiece of his book, Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière, incorporating two more recognizable portrait images into the composition (fig. 4).[35]

 Jean de Bosschère, Antonin Artaud, frontispiece for Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière
Fig. 4. Jean de Bosschère, Antonin Artaud, frontispiece for Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière (Paris: Gallimard, 1927). Artwork © Jean de Boschère/ADAGP/Copyright Agency 2019; photograph provided by Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Artaud, Politics, and Surrealism

Bosschère’s encounter with Artaud would leave an imprint on his attitude to surrealism, which is evident in his article on Ernst. So before discussing the latter, it is useful to review Artaud’s participation in surrealism, and the circumstance of his break in 1926. Artaud had been an enthusiastic participant in the surrealist movement during the first quarter of 1925, assuming responsibility for the Bureau de recherches surréalistes, drafting the “Déclaration du 27 janvier 1925” (which sought to affirm the revolutionary character of surrealism and distance it from literature), and issuing a series of incendiary open letters, as well as editing the third issue of La Révolution surréaliste.[36] He also participated in the Comité idéologique established to address the relationship between purely surrealist activity and revolutionary activity that would identify the bridge between surrealism and revolution in a “certain state of frenzy [fureur]” (Bureau de recherches surréalistes, 99–101, 128).[37] However, he gradually grew disillusioned with the movement over the summer.[38] Although Artaud had initially supported surrealism’s revolutionary ambitions, he was less comfortable with the new political orientation of the movement after July 1925. The surrealists joined a campaign led by the Parti communiste français (PCF) to oppose the French government’s military intervention against the anticolonial Rif Rebellion in Morocco, signing a series of anticolonial declarations during the second half of 1925, and collaborating with the PCF-affiliated review Clarté, which culminated in a proposal to merge La Révolution surréaliste and Clarté and establish a new review, La Guerre civile—an initiative vetoed by the PCF in early 1926.[39]

The failure of La Guerre civile accentuated surrealism’s continuing inability to forge a durable link between creative endeavor and political action. In June 1926, Pierre Naville attempted to break this impasse by publishing the pamphlet, La Révolution et les intellectuels: Que peuvent faire les surréalistes? Naville’s participation in the surrealist movement paralleled Artaud: he had joined the surrealist group in late 1924, and initially was part of the editorial term responsible for La Révolution surréaliste; along with Artaud, he participated in the Comité idéologique’s discussions over surrealism’s political position, but withdrew from surrealism in mid-1925 to complete his military service (while in the army he independently became involved in the PCF-led opposition to French colonialism). When he returned to Paris in 1926 he joined the PCF and became a contributing editor to Clarté.[40] In La Révolution et les intellectuels he first traced surrealism’s development from the anarchistic revolt of Dada to its recent embrace of Marxism, then argued that surrealism now faced a choice between idealism and materialism: on one side was the belief in art as an “autonomous creation of the mind,” on the other was revolutionary political action.[41] Surrealism could either continue “a negative attitude of an anarchic order” that failed to “justify the idea of revolution it claims to champion,” or “resolutely take the revolutionary path, the only revolutionary path, the Marxist path” and realize its “spiritual force” in collective political action led by the PCF.[42] While Naville recognized the dissensual dimension of surrealism, he was under no illusions about its limits: anarchic revolt was ultimately incompatible with communist revolution.[43]

The questions posed by La Révolution et les intellectuels are relevant to Artaud’s break with surrealism. Breton initially responded to Naville in Légitime defense in August, but the issue of PCF membership remained unresolved until November, when the surrealists held a series of meetings to clarify their collective position. Although the majority of the participants agreed in principle that it was necessary to translate surrealism into some form of collective political action, and that joining the PCF was the logical course of action, Artaud refused to accept this position, leading to his exclusion from the movement.[44] The principal issue was Artaud’s refusal to subordinate his own thought to any external considerations. If Artaud and Naville had earlier identified the dissensual element that linked surrealism to revolution in “a certain state of frenzy,” Artaud now believed that the surrealists’ recent efforts to accommodate social and political factors compromised this experience; as he stated at the meeting: “I refuse to consider anything on an economic or social level, given that I do not have any lucidity on this level, and one cannot force me to think what does not enter my thought”; for this reason he declined “to consider questions at the foundation of my interior debate other than as they relate to myself.”[45] The dividing issue between Artaud and the surrealists was the impersonal, collective character of thought: for Artaud thought was a purely individual phenomenon, and he refused to consider the revolutionary significance of his actions outside the sphere of his own personal experience, while for the other surrealists thought assumed a collective dimension.[46] Artaud’s expulsion exposed a rent at the very heart of the surrealist movement. No one doubted Artaud’s sincerity: his writing was an ardent attempt to transcribe his experience of mental fragmentation and loss. Yet to limit surrealism to this experience would not only constrain its politics to the personal, but also leave it vulnerable to the charge of bourgeois individualism that Naville leveled in his critique of surrealism’s idealistic tendencies.

The divide between Artaud and the surrealists assumed public form in 1927. In response to several comments in Au Grand jour, a pamphlet written to justify and explain the surrealists’ decision to join the PCF, and which publicly announced the reason behind Artaud’s expulsion from the surrealist movement, Artaud published “A la grande nuit ou Le Bluff surréaliste.”[47] Here Artaud relitigated his dispute over surrealism’s relation to the revolution, questioning “as if from the viewpoint of the absolute there could be the slightest interest in seeing the social armature of the world change or in seeing power pass from the hands of the bourgeoisie into those of the proletariat.”[48] For Artaud, the surrealist adventure was incompatible with the demands of communism and the discipline of the PCF; indeed, he suggested that surrealism died once it endeavored “to seek in the realm of facts and of immediate matter the culmination of an action that could normally develop only within the inmost confines of the brain.”[49] In effect, Artaud advanced an alternative model of dissensus based on his own experience, one that would remain faithful to “a certain state of frenzy.” He steadfastly maintained an “idealist” position, arguing that the surrealists’ embrace of materialism betrayed the essence of surrealism. Indeed, Artaud made what would become a frequent criticism of surrealism: that its only real achievements were in the domain of art or literature.[50] Despite the surrealists’ efforts to distance surrealism from art and literature—an effort in which Artaud initially played a central role—Artaud now claimed their principal contribution was to bring literature “closer to the essential truth of the brain.”[51]

Ultimately, the polemic between Artaud and the surrealists revolved around competing definitions of dissensus. For the group around La Révolution surréaliste dissensus revolved around the active tension between the cultural and political dimensions of the movement: the effort to align surrealism with the PCF not only worked to counterbalance surrealism’s entanglement in the world of art and literature, but the effort to encompass these antagonistic goals also animated the precarious unity and collective identity of the surrealist group. Artaud would reject this approach: for him dissensus was firmly rooted in the singularity of his lived experience—what he called “the inmost confines of the brain”—and the incommensurability of this experience with that of other people, as well as any representation system, would become the focus of Artaud’s efforts in the Théâtre Alfred Jarry, and the formulation of the Theatre of Cruelty during the 1930s. These activities could still embody a mode of dissensus, but its articulation would assume a different form to that of surrealism, and it would avoid collaboration with politically aligned groups.

Bosschère on Max Ernst

Bosschère’s friendship with Artaud gave him privileged access to the debates over the political position of surrealism. He exercised this knowledge in his article on Ernst, which echoed Artaud’s recent critique of surrealism. Bosschère directed his first criticism at Ernst’s political position as a surrealist, particularly the puerility of politics viewed from a metaphysical perspective:

I affirm that . . . you understand our cause, the dark cause of the obscurity of this moment sown with corpses, and it is necessary to live a little to allow finally, finally, the great, vast death which is beyond all political systems. . . . I do not want to believe that your sense of revolt will stop, satisfied with puerile projects, with the illusory reflection of a rickety structure; I do not want to believe, despite your Vive la France, and La Révolution la nuit, that you limp along in the company of idealism and hollow utopia, and do not see that salvation is beyond, in what we do not say except among ourselves. Philosophically, the political cuisine of reforms is a puerile activity deployed for ephemeral ends.[52]

This position echoed Artaud’s recent critique of surrealism to consider any engagement on a social or political level meaningless from the perspective of the absolute. Like Artaud, Bosschère substituted existential resignation for revolutionary action, since the significance of any political system paled before the tribune of metaphysics. Bosschère may also have wanted to exploit lingering tensions within the surrealist movement over the May 1926 censure of Ernst and Miró for their collaboration with the Ballets russes on Roméo et Julliette, an earlier incident where the cultural and political dimensions of surrealism were in conflict.[53]

If Bosschère was skeptical of surrealism’s “political cuisine,” he was more enthusiastic towards Ernst’s pictorial cuisine, particularly his frottages:

The fantastic cuisine of your dustings of color, your prodigious, spiritual threads, your inexhaustible invention of molds in which to concentrate your infinitely renewed forms, your jaunty, but serious and calm apprehension of visions, your autocratic attitude—I’m talking about an absolute master of the art of painting—all this tells me, shouts to me, that you see. There are idiotic poets who are not imbeciles. You are a poet, you are at the center of our terror . . . Push the door that you have opened slightly and from where, through the gap, I tell you that you see our state, our distress.[54]

Bosschère sought to rescue Ernst from the errors of his ways, valiantly wielding the divine sword of metaphysics against profane materialism. The terror or distress—a state similar to the frenzy that Artaud used to characterize the experience of surrealism—opened to “this macabre and gloomy invasion which will be the mark of our time that no politics can any longer redeem.”[55]

After this supplication, Bosschère turned to the work itself. He based his discussion on Ernst’s 1927 exhibition at the Galerie Van Leer, which displayed the fruits of the artist’s recent experiments with frottage and grattage.[56] Although Bosschère described Ernst as “the absolute master of the art of painting,” he was critical of his unwillingness to subordinate the frottage textures to a clear idea or aesthetic principle: rather, “letting himself be carried away by the leaf, rotten wood, bark, moss, the compass,” he sometimes appeared “too docile,” his will subject to the imagery imposed by his source material.[57] Bosschère concluded his discussion with an analysis of two works in which Ernst was able to stamp his will on the source material, describing Les colombes s’enfermant dans leurs ailes as “the intimate and deep story of a savage soul, of the soul of a true man.”[58] He reserved his highest praise for “the unique beauty” of La Mariée du Vent, which he described as a “folkloric arabesque” with “one hundred unknown layers” (fig. 5). Bosschère then compared La Mariée du Vent to Picasso’s work, who was the only artist to have realized a comparable feat, drawing images from “unfathomable obscurity”—a position that recalled his earlier claims about Picasso in the catalogue to his 1927 solo exhibition.[59]

Max Ernst, The Bride of the Wind (Mariée de Vent), 1927
Fig. 5. Max Ernst, The Bride of the Wind (Mariée de Vent), 1927. Oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm. Private collection. Artwork © Max Ernst/ADAGP/Copyright Agency 2019; photograph provided by Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

Zervos on Surrealism

If the initial motivation for commissioning Bosschère’s article was a desire to annex Ernst—and by extension other artists associated with surrealism—to a position more amenable to Cahiers d’Art, then Bosschère overplayed his hand here by comparing La Mariée du Vent to Picasso’s work. This was an inexcusable faux pas that could not go without comment, prompting Zervos to add his editorial note to Bosschère’s article.[60] This editorial note neutralized Bosschère’s broader argument and his efforts to distance Ernst from the dissensual politics of surrealism or advance a new definition of surrealist painting. If Bosschère sought to draw Ernst to a position closer to Artaud, Zervos adopted the strategy of outright attack. Although surrealism’s existence as a literary movement could no longer be denied, its relationship to the tradition of modernist painting was still open to question: “We are absolutely convinced that surrealism exists by the singular talents of Aragon, Breton, and Éluard. And we are no less convinced that there is no surrealist painting, the painters of this school being devoid of true pictorial qualities.”[61] “Il n’y a pas de peinture surréaliste”: ironically, Zervos was reanimating an old issue. Naville had earlier used this exact phrase in a brief article published in the third issue of La Révolution surréaliste to reject surrealist painting on political grounds; where Naville condemned painting as an innocuous diversion that threatened to distract the surrealists from their revolutionary mission, Zervos used this phrase to defend the values Naville questioned.[62] Although it is unlikely that Zervos was aware of Naville’s earlier comment, his claim assumes a symptomatic character, given he made it in response to an article he had commissioned.

The underlying source of Zervos’s anxiety issued from the uncanny proximity of Picasso’s recent work to surrealism—a proximity underlined by Breton’s overture to Picasso in Le Surréalisme et la peinture.[63] In an effort to uphold the purity of modernism, he accentuated the difference between Picasso’s work and surrealism. While it was easy to dismiss painters “overwhelmed by the most banal academicism,” Zervos was wary of painters who were “misled in another type of academicism” that derived from “the inspired work of Picasso.”[64] Zervos numbered Ernst among the latter category. Where Bosschère favorably comparted Ernst to Picasso, Zervos carefully distinguished between the achievements of each artist, describing Ernst’s “efforts to attain plastic form” as “a parody of the inimitable work of Picasso.”[65] Ernst’s strength lay less in painting than illustration: he was a “literary type par excellence,” a tendency exemplified in the Histoire naturelle series of frottages, “where, precisely, all the literary qualities of this artist are solicited.”[66] Here Zervos forcefully reiterated Tériade’s earlier criticism of the literary tendency in Ernst’s work.

In what way does Ernst’s “efforts to attain plastic form” fall short of “the inimitable work of Picasso”? The difficulty here is to identify precisely what plastic form meant for Zervos.[67] Typically, Picasso’s figures fully occupy or dominate a picture. In Bather by a Cabin, for instance—one of a series of drawings from carnet 35, dated July-September 1927, which would anticipate the series of monumental bathers of the late 1920s—the figure is located on a beach, but it dominates the composition, the torsion of the figure indicated by limbs radiating from the central axis of the body like the branches of a tree (fig. 6). The effect is to suggest the vivacious energy of the bather, despite its monstrous shape. Indeed, the bather animates the pictorial space: the angle of the limbs form a network of intersecting diagonal lines that converge on the central axis of the figure, while the use of light and shadow gives palpable volume to the figure in a way that subtly twists the pictorial space, as if the figure is too large to comfortably fit into the space (an effect accentuated by the figure’s right limb being set slightly behind its left leg).[68]

Pablo Picasso, Bather by a Cabin, 1927
Fig. 6. Pablo Picasso, Bather by a Cabin, 1927. Graphite on paper, 31 x 23.5 cm. Sketchbook 35. Inv. MP1874; folio 32, recto. Musée Picasso, Paris. Artwork © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency 2019; photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris)/Mathieu Rabeau.

In La Mariée du Vent, by contrast, the limbs of the horses are more closely aligned to the picture plane; the form of each horse is defined by the black contour lines, but the horses’ bodies appear to lack volume, as if they do not possess a reverse side. Similarly, the contour lines have a tentative quality, which reflects their origin out of the chance configurations of the frottage process.[69] This contrast is more marked in works with a shallow cubist-derived space, where the figure is locked into place by the background planes. Zervos had already noted Picasso’s efficacious deployment of line and form in “Dernières œuvres de Picasso”: “mad as these images may appear at first sight, there is not a line which is not put in its exact place, no outline of form whose purpose has not been determined in advance.”[70] The twelve paintings that accompanied the article exemplified this principle: in Peinture (now known as Arlequin), for instance—a grisaille study of a figure’s head and shoulders—Picasso combines full-face and profile views (fig. 7). Like Bather by a Cabin, there is a dynamism to Picasso’s line, which subtly contorts the admittedly shallow pictorial space (note the line from the figure’s shoulder that bisects the face then doubles back to form the right side of the figure’s face, shifting from profile to full-face view) (Zervos, “Dernières œuvres de Picasso,” 194).[71] Moreover, Zervos stresses the consciously directed character of Picasso’s work, in contrast to the more passive approach that resulted from the frottage and grattage process used by Ernst—a point Bosschère also made when he had criticized Ernst as sometimes being “too docile.”

Pablo Picasso, Arlequin, 1926
Fig. 7. Pablo Picasso, Arlequin, 1926. Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm. Private collection. Artwork © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency 2019; photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

Zervos would return to this point in “Du phénomène surréaliste,” an article published in the next issue of Cahiers d’Art, in which he vigorously criticized surrealism on philosophical and aesthetic grounds (“Du phénomène surréaliste,” 113–14). His principal objection was that surrealism substituted a moral attitude for an aesthetic one, thereby undermining the critical categories used to legitimate the modernist avant-garde, and blurring the difference between painting, literature, and life. Whereas the surrealists considered creative endeavor and political action to be related, since both were based on an ethic of absolute freedom, Zervos distinguished between aesthetics and ethics: art was an autonomous realm subject to disinterested values, a domain above all ethical imperatives. To demonstrate this point Zervos turned to the work of Picasso, which he took as an example of “true painting”:

We know that the liberation that constitutes the value of surrealist painting comes to them from cubism and above all the recent work of Picasso . . . This is why the surrealists consider Picasso the precursor to their pictorial efforts. But what they deliberately appear to neglect in the recent work of Picasso is the effort to attain the extreme degree of plasticity. To their eyes the plastic effort is incompatible with the moral event that they want to express. And this is the principal point on which I do not agree in any way with the surrealist painters. I would like to be able to place my pictorial experience at their service and help them understand that every time Picasso crosses, for example, two lines or describes an outline on a canvas, lines and outlines become for us a living thing because Picasso sees all things plastically.[72]

Zervos’s primary concern was to preserve the purity of plastic form. Picasso, the avant-garde painter par excellence, embodied the aesthetic idea through “plastic effort”; he “sees all things plastically.” This argument is advanced on a more abstract level than the discussion of Ernst’s work in Bosschère’s article; in the process Zervos elides Bosschère’s more nuanced effort to dissociate Ernst from the dissensual politics of surrealism.

If Bosschère’s article on Max remains a rarely cited footnote in the history of surrealism, it does provide a unique opportunity to recover a sense of the original political and cultural context in which surrealism operated. Artaud’s recent critique of surrealism’s political position framed Bosschère’s article, which distinguished between Ernst’s political and pictorial “cuisine” to present his practice as a new mode of visionary thought, yet simultaneously dissociated this vision from the dissensual force of surrealism and its entanglement in radical politics. If Bosschère’s article preserved a trace of the nexus of forces animating surrealism in the late 1920s, Zervos’s intervention would effectively efface this context. His criticism of the pictorial inadequacies of surrealist painting established a clear opposition between the modernism of Cahiers d’Art and the errors of surrealism. Paradoxically, this intervention served to both neutralize and reinforce the dissensual force of surrealism: on one hand, by defending the principle of the autonomy of pictorial form, the aesthetic project of Cahiers d’Art neutralized dissensus (either by distinguishing between aesthetics and politics, or by discounting the pictorial errors of surrealism); on the other hand, by rejecting the work of surrealist artists, this distinction reinforced the bond between the artists associated with surrealism and dissensual politics. The result was a clear polarization between modernism and surrealism that reinforced the respective positions of Zervos and Breton. At a time when the surrealists struggled to define a clear political position and establish any lasting rapprochement with the PCF, the hostility of modernist critics like Zervos strengthened the collective identity of surrealism and transformed the formal inadequacies of surrealist painting into as a mode of dissensus.

While this episode in 1928 crystalized an opposition between surrealism and modernism, the history of modernism is far more dynamic, and the work of artists associated with surrealism would continue to be discussed in the pages of Cahiers d’Art during the interwar years. Initially the journal would downplay their relation to surrealism, but the increased visibility and commercial success of these artists during the 1930s meant surrealism remained a significant tendency in the history of modernism. Cahiers d’Art became more accommodating toward surrealism in the mid-1930s, collaborating with Breton and Éluard to publish a special issue on “the object” to accompany the 1936 Exposition surréaliste de l’objet, as well as a collection of essays on Max Ernst in 1937.[73] This shift partly reflected the influence of Yvonne Zervos (née Marion; she married Christian in 1932), who was more sympathetic to surrealism, but it also registered the changing political situation in Europe during the 1930s, particularly the rising threat of fascism. In this context, Cahiers d’Art and the surrealists found themselves allied in the defense of artistic freedom against any form of external political or ideological control.[74] Recent scholarship on surrealism has moved far beyond the parameters established by Cahiers d’Art to reexamine the multiple legacies of surrealism; however, the role played by dissensus in the history of surrealism is only partially addressed—a testament perhaps to the success of the modernist occlusion of surrealism’s politics.[75]


This article is part of a book project on Surrealism circa 1930: Modernism and Dissensus. It is a heavily revised version of a paper initially presented as part of a session on “Formalism before Clement Greenberg” organized by Katherine Kuenzli and Marnin Young at the 104th Annual Conference of the College Art Association, Washington, DC, February 3–6, 2016. I also thank the participants at the August 26, 2016 meeting of the New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium at the University of Auckland for their feedback on the paper. A Joint Research Committee Grant from Victoria University of Wellington funded research for this article. Translations from the French are by the author unless otherwise noted.

[1] See Christian Zervos, “Dernières œuvres de Picasso,” Cahiers d’Art 2, no. 6 (1927): 189–98.

[2] Tériade published a two-part article entitled “Besoin d’un nouveau fauvisme” in Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne 36 (1927): 11–15, and Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne 37 (1927): 10–13; republished in three parts in Comœdia (1, 8, and 22 September 1927); see Tériade, Ecrits sur l’art (Paris: Adam Biro, 1996), 110–17. Tériade was the pen name of the Paris-based Greek art critic and publisher Efstratios Eleftheriades; he was the assistant editor for Cahiers d’Art in the late 1920s. On Cahiers d’Art and néo-fauvisme see Kim Grant, Surrealism and the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 189–99, 227–30.

[3] “Quoi qu’on en dise, Picasso ne cherche jamais à exprimer dans sa peinture des idées littéraires et métaphysiques. Il lui suffit de créer des œuvres très plastiques, persuadé que l’œuvre plastiquement parfait comprend toutes les suggestions de l’esprit. Il y a quelques jours, Picasso venait de voir chez un marchand de tableaux de la rive gauche, des toiles d’artistes dits d’avant-garde. Comme nous en parlions, Picasso me dit : ‘Vraiment, ça ne valait pas la peine que notre génération fasse tant d’efforts pour voir ces gens-là retomber dans la littérature et oublier la plastique la plus élémentaire.’” (Zervos, “Dernières œuvres de Picasso,” 190).

[4] In 1927 Cahiers d’Art published a series of articles written by Tériade on “Les peintres nouveaux” that discussed the work of Ismaël de la Serna, Francisco Borès, Kyriaco Ghika, and Pablo Gargallo; this commitment to emerging artists would continue in 1928 with a series of articles on Ernst, Jean Lurçat, Joseph Sima, and Jean Arp, now written by critics sympathetic to each artist’s work.

[5] See “Note de la rédaction,” in Jean de Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” Cahiers d’Art 3, no.  2 (1928): 69; Christian Zervos, “Idéalisme et naturalisme dans la peinture moderne: III. - Renoir,” Cahiers d’Art 3, no. 2 (1928): 49–56.

[6] See Christian Zervos, “Du phénomène surréaliste,” Cahiers d’Art 3, no. 3 (1928): 113–14.

[7] Raymond Spiteri, “Convulsive Beauty: Surrealism as Aesthetic Revolution,” in Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements, ed. Aleš Erjavec (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 80–112, 81.

[8] Raymond Spiteri, “Surrealism, Modernism, Dissensus,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 19, no. 1 (2019): 107–22.

[9] Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), 38.

[10] I use the term “modernism” with an acute awareness that its meaning has changed over time: as a concept it is dynamic, a set of shifting descriptions of cultural practice that act to reframe previous iterations of modernism. For an overview of the historiography of modernism, see Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers, Modernism: Evolution of an Idea (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[11] On Cahiers d’Art see Christopher Green, “Zervos, Picasso and Braissaï, Ethnographers in the Field: A Critical Collaboration,” in Art Criticism Since 1900, ed. Malcolm Gee, (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1993), 116–39; Cahiers d’Art: Musée Zervos à Vézelay, ed. Christian Derouet, (Paris: Hazan, 2006); Kim Grant, “Cahiers d’Art and the Evolution of Modernist Painting,” Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 1, no. 2 (2010): 216–27; Chara Kolokytha, “The Art Press and Visual Culture in Paris during the Great Depression: Cahiers d’Art, Minotaure, and Verve,” Visual Resources 29, no. 3 (2013): 184–215; Poppy Sfakianaki, “Promoting the Value(s) of Modernism: The Interviews of Tériade and Zervos with Art Dealers in Cahiers d’Art , 1927,” Visual Resources 31, no. 1–2 (2015): 75–90.

[12] Christopher Green, Cubism and its Enemies: Modern Movement and Reaction in French Art, 1916–1925 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 158–67.

[13] “A tort ou à raison, nous nous en tentons à l’antique théorie idéaliste: Est laid tout ce qui n’est pas dominé par une forme et par une raison, parce que la matière n’a pas admis complètement l’information par l’idée qui relie et domine la nature, lui confère l’accord, l’ajustement et la liaison intérieure avec sa propre unité.” Zervos, “Idéalisme et naturalisme dans la peinture moderne: I. - Corot, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Seurat, Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec,” Cahiers d’Art 2, no. 9 (1927): 293–309, 296. This was the first of a series of four articles; in subsequent articles Zervos discussed the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Matisse.

[14] Zervos, “Idéalisme et naturalisme dans la peinture moderne: II. - Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh,” Cahiers d’Art 2, no. 10 (1927): 329–46, 329.

[15] Zervos never defines la plastique but relies on the reader to perceive this quality in the illustrations that accompany the articles in Cahiers d’Art.

[16] Clement Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” The Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986–93), 3: 217-235 3: 220; see also “New York Painting Only Yesterday,” 4:19–25, 4:20.

[17] See Robert Desnos, “Surréalisme,” Cahiers d’Art 1, no. 8 (1926): 210-213. Cahiers d’Art would also publish an article on purism by Amédée Ozenfant and an article on neoplasticism by Piet Mondrian. These articles were part of an effort to report new tendencies in modern art to the magazine’s readership.

[18] See Antonin Artaud, “L’Automate personnel,” Cahiers d’Art 2, no. 3 (1927): 113–14; Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, “Sima,” Cahiers d’Art 3, no. 4 (1928): 173–76; Roger Vitrac, “Constantin Brancusi,” Cahiers d’Art 4, no. 8-9 (1929): 383–96.

[19] E. Tériade, “Les Expositions: Max Ernst (Galerie Van Leer),” Cahiers d’Art 1, no. 3 (March 1926): 58; E. Tériade, “Les Expositions: Man Ray,” Cahiers d’Art 1, no. 3 (1926): 57-58; E. Tériade, “Max Ernst (Boutique Pierre Chareau),” Cahiers d’Art 1, no. 4 (May 1926): 79-80; E. Tériade, “Max Ernst,” Cahiers d’Art 2, no. 2 ­(1927) Feuilles volantes (supplement to Cahiers d’Art): 6-7.

[20] Ernst held four solo exhibitions during 1926–28: Exposition Max Ernst, Paris: Galerie Van Leer, March 10-24, 1926; Exposition Max Ernst, Paris: Boutique Pierre Chareau, April 24-May 15, 1926; Exposition Max Ernst, Paris: Galerie Van Leer, March 15-April 5, 1927; and Exposition Max Ernst: Ses oiseaux, ses fleurs nouvelles, ses forêts volantes, ses maldictions, son satanas, Paris: Galerie Georges Berheim, December 1-15, 1928. Ernst also published Histoire naturelle (Paris: Editions Jeanne Bucher, 1926), and his first “collage-novel” La femme 100 têtes (Paris: Editions du Carrefour, 1929). In 1921, prior to the emergence of surrealism, Ernst had held an exhibition in Paris under the auspices of the review Littérature: Max Ernst. Exposition Dada: La mise sous whisky marin, Paris: Galerie Au Sans Pareil, May 3-June 3, 1921.

[21] Paris: Boutique Pierre Chareau, April 24–May 15, 1926.

[22] A patronizing element remained in Tériade’s tone: “Planches d’un botaniste soigneux, habituel tableau de l’oculiste ou album d’échantillons d’un gros marchand de bois, ce sont malgré ses appels rationnels, des images captivantes. Et puis on s’instruit en s’amusant, aurions-nous dit si l’ironie n’était pas chose si médiocre” (Tériade, “Max Ernst (Boutique Pierre Chareau),” 80).

[23] “Cette blessure ouverte pour une naissance appartient-elle à la terre, au tronc ou aux astres?—Le bois, avec ses fibres, ses couches concentriques, son cœur, ses moirures et ses dures et craquantes écorces, remonte-t-il à des âges primitifs ou aux années dionysiaques du cubisme?—Une feuille s’étale sur le bois maternel d’une planche et ne nous cache point ni sa satisfaction ni son étonnement de vivre et de grandir et le petit arbre désolé qui s’ouvre en éventail, on ne sait pas s’il est au milieu d’une vaste mer aux vagues successives ou dans la solitude boueuse des larges couches terrestres. Car tout est confondu” (Tériade, “Max Ernst (Boutique Pierre Chareau),” 80).

[24] Les pampas (1925); La palette de César (1925); L’origine de la pendule (1925).

[25] “Ce sont les dessins que Max Ernst a composé pour une « Histoire naturelle ». Son étonnante variété des gris avec lesquels il obtient les colorations les plus sensibles, une matière travaillée jusqu’à la parfaite souplesse, parfois fluide et transparente, et parfois dense et chargée, lui confèrent des qualités solides. Elles lui permettent toutes les fuites littéraires, tous les vagabondages intellectuels, toutes les aventures imaginatives. Dans le domaine de l’illustration où on se trouve et où Max Ernst doit avoir une belle place, tout dessin doit contenir sa littérature. Le tout c’est de ne pas s’en contenter” (Tériade, “Max Ernst (Boutique Pierre Chareau),” 80).

[26] This account of Bosschère’s career is based on Samuel Putnam, The World of Jean de Bosschère (London: Fortune Press, 1932); Christian Berg, Jean de Boschère, ou Le mouvement de l'attente: étude biographique et critique (Brussels: Académie Royale de Langue et de Littérature Françaises, 1978). In later years Bosschère would alter the spelling of his name to Boschère; I have retained the earlier spelling for consistency with his usage during the 1920s.

[27] According to Berg, he left London in 1922, and settled in Paris in February or March 1926, after brief periods in Italy and Belgium (Berg, Jean de Boschère, 172).

[28] Exposition d’œuvres de Jean de Bosschère, Galerie d’art contemporain, Paris, January 18–February 1, 1927; Jean de Bosschère, Marthe et l’enragé: roman (Paris: Émile-Paul frères, 1927). Antonin Artaud would review Marthe et l’enragé in the Nouvelle revue française 168 (September 1927).

[29] Bosschère may have harbored a degree of animosity towards surrealism, since he believed Breton had dissuaded Jacques Doucet from purchasing a picture from his solo exhibition. See Berg, Jean de Boschère, 179. Breton had worked for Doucet as an art and literary adviser between 1920–25, notably negotiating Doucet’s purchase of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1924.

[30] “la peinture est un moyen d’expression fort jeune, elle n’est sortie de l’obscurité que peu de temps avant Picasso. . . . La fascination que la peinture exerce actuellement sur le monde civilisé a surgi de ce que s’y est montré définitivement son pouvoir à faire glisser la matière vers le rêve, c’est là sa puissance magique qui fut toujours latente en elle” (Jean de Bosschère, “Notes extraites du carnet d’atelier de J. de B,” Exposition d’œuvres de Jean de Bosschère, n.p.).

[31] “Le surlendemain de ma première rencontre avec Artaud, je vis celui-ci place Vendôme arrivant comme un halluciné vers moi. Sans préambule, il me dit qu’il ne croyait pas que personne, mieux que moi, ne ferait de lui un bon portrait. « C’est fait, lui dis-je, avez-vous une heure de loisir ? » Je hélai un taxi, Artaud ne disait mot, regardant tour à tour la rue qui filait et moi qui souriais. Enfin, je lui dis que j’avais consacré la veille à peindre son portrait” (Jean de Bosschère, Mémoires, quoted in Berg, Jean de Boschère, 180).

[32] Antonin Artaud, “L’Automate personnel,” Cahiers d’Art 2, no. 3 (1927): 113–14; translated by Victor Corti as “The Personal Automaton,” in Antonin Artaud, Collected Works (London: John Calder, 1978), 1:108–12. The translation is based on the revised version of “L’Automate personnel” that Artaud published in L’Art et la mort (Paris: Denoël, 1929).

[33] “Jean de Bosschère est un des premiers à avoir creusé sous ce vernis, cette écorce fermée, compacte, de la couleur du langage pour en faire jaillir l’idée, la sensation, l’image dans leur musculature charnelle, dans leur sang à vif, dans leur essence invisible. La peinture de Jean de Bosschère est un monde à vif, un monde nu, plein de filaments et de lanières, où la force irritante d’un fer lacère le firmament intérieur, le déchirement de l’intelligence[,] où l’expression des forces originelles, où les états qu’on ne peut pas nommer apparaissent dans leur expression la plus pure, la moins suspecte d’alliage réel”(Artaud, “L’Automate personnel,” 114; “The Personal Automaton,” 111; translation modified by author).

[34] “Avec la vivacité d’un pur désir, avec son appel, une mort constante avoisinant la membrane de la résurrection. Jean de Bosschère m’a fait. Je veux dire qu’il m’a montré combien lui et moi nous nous ressemblions et nous étions proches, et cette preuve au moment où je suis m’est plus précieuse que tout le reste. Il a établi l’unité tremblante, centrale, de ma vie et de mon intelligence” (Artaud, “L’Automate personnel,” 114; “The Personal Automaton,” 111; translation modified).

[35] Antonin Artaud, Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière (Paris: Gallimard, 1927). The frontispiece was a wood engraving by Georges Aubert after Bosschère’s design. Bosschère also designed the frontispiece for Artaud’s L’Art et la mort (Paris: Denoël, 1929).

[36] On the “Déclaration du 27 janvier 1925” see “Réunion du 23 janvier 1925 au bar Certa” and “Réunion du 27 janvier 1925 au bar Certa,” in Bureau de recherches surréalistes: Cahier de la permanence, octobre 1924–avril 1925, edited by Paule Thévenin (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 110–18; on Artaud’s activities in early 1925 see Florence de Mèredieu, C’était Antonin Artaud (Paris: Fayard, 2006), 271–96.

[37] The relation between surrealism and revolution was the focus of the Comité idéologique in March-April 1925, which included Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, André Masson, Max Morise, and Pierre Naville.

[38] Artaud gradually began to withdraw from active participation in surrealist activities after Breton began to reassert his influence. Breton closed the Bureau on April 20, 1925 and assumed editorship of the fourth issue of La Révolution surréaliste (see André Breton, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism, trans. Mark Polizzotti [New York: Paragon House, 1993], 86; Mèredieu, C’était Antonin Artaud, 294–96).

[39] The surrealists signed seven political tracts published in L'Humanité between July 2 and November 8, 1925; see Tracts surréalistes et déclarations collectives (1922–1969), ed. José Pierre, 2 vols (Paris: Le terrain vague, 1980), 1:51–64. On the plan to merge La Révolution surréaliste and Clarté, see Vers l’action politique, juillet 1925–avril 1926, ed. Marguerite Bonnet, (Paris: Gallimard, 1988); Breton, Conversations, 93–94.

[40] La Révolution surréaliste listed Naville and Benjamin Péret as editors of the first three issues. On Naville’s activities see Bureau de recherches surréalistes; Adhérer au Parti communiste?: Septembre-décembre 1926, ed. Marguerite Bonnet (Paris: Gallimard, 1992); Pierre Naville, Le temps du surréel: L’espérance mathématique (Paris: Galilée, 1977); Alain Cuenot, Pierre Naville: Biographie d’un révolutionnaire marxiste, vol. 1, De la révolution surréaliste à la révolution prolétarienne, 1904–1939 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2017), 49–106.

[41] Pierre Naville, La Révolution et les intellectuels: Que peuvent faire les surréalistes? (1926; rpt., Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 68–69.

[42] “Ou bien persévérer dans une attitude négative d’ordre anarchique, attitude fausse a priori parce qu’elle ne justifie pas l’idée de révolution dont elle se réclame. . . . Ou bien s’engager résolument dans la voie révolutionnaire, la seule voie révolutionnaire: la voie marxiste” (Naville, La Révolution et les intellectuels, 76–77).

[43] Walter Benjamin would reiterate elements of Naville’s critique when he described surrealism as a “praxis oscillating between fitness exercises and celebration in advance,” and challenged the surrealists to bind “revolt to revolution” so as to “win the energies of intoxication for the revolution” (see “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927-1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingston and others [Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1999], 207–21).

[44] Although Artaud initially withdrew voluntarily, he was formally expelled from the movement, and individual Surrealists were forbidden to acknowledge him socially; see Bonnet, Adhérer au Parti communiste, 99–101. The surrealists also expelled Philippe Soupault from the movement at the time, since they considered his activities as a journalist incompatible with surrealism; see Adhérer au Parti communiste, 56–64, 69–71.

[45] “Je me refuse à considérer quoi que ce soit sur un plan économique et social, vu que sur ce plan je n’ai aucune lucidité, et on ne peut pas me forcer à penser ce qui ne peut entrer dans ma pensée. . . . Je me refuse pour l’instant, sans doute parce que j’en suis incapable, à considérer des questions qui sont le fond de mon débat intérieur autrement qu’en moi-même” (Adhérer au Parti communiste, 21).

[46] Éluard presented the collective position: “Artaud parle d’exercer la pensée pour lui-même; c’est là une attitude contre-révolutionnaire parce que la pensée est à tout le monde.” Artaud simply replied: “Je le nie” (Adhérer au Parti communiste, 21).

[47] “Au Grand jour” was written by Aragon, Breton, Éluard, Péret, and Pierre Unik—the five surrealists who had already joined the PCF. See Tracts surréalistes, 1:67–77, 412–14.

[48] “si du point de vue de l’absolu il pouvait être du moindre intérêt de voir changer l’armature sociale du monde ou de voir passer le pouvoir des mains de la bourgeoisie dans celles du prolétariat” (Antonin Artaud, “A la grande nuit ou Le Bluff surréaliste,” in Œuvres, ed. Évelyne Grossman [1927; rpt., Paris: Gallimard, 2004], 236–41, 236; translated as “In Total Darkness, or the Surrealists Bluff,” in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, [Berkeley: University of California Press], 139–45, 140).

[49] “chercher dans le domaine des faits et de la matière immédiate l’aboutissement d’une action qui ne pouvait normalement se dérouler que dans les cadres intimes du cerveau” (Artaud, Œuvres, 236; “In Total Darkness,” 139).

[50] This issue would reemerge in comments by Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, René Daumal, and Georges Bataille in the context of the polarization of the surrealist movement into antagonistic factions in 1929–30.

[51] “La littérature s’en trouve purifiée, rapprochée de la vérité essentielle du cerveau” (Artaud, Œuvres, 239; “In Total Darkness,” 143).

[52] “J’affirme que . . . vous connaissez notre cause, la cause noire de l’obscurité de ce moment semé de morts, et il faut encore vivre un peu pour permettre enfin, enfin, la grande, la vaste mort qui est au-delà de tous les systèmes politiques, de tout régime provisoire des sociétés à sbires et à catéchumènes, doubles inquisiteurs . . . Je ne veux pas croire que votre sens de la révolte n’arrête, satisfait à des projets puérils, à d’illusoires réflexions de la branlante charpente, je ne veux pas croire, malgré votre Vive la France, et la Révolution la nuit, que vous boitez en compagnie de l’idéalisme, de l’utopie creuse, et ne voyez pas que la salvation est au-delà, en ce que nous ne nous disons qu’entre nous. La cuisine politique des réformes est, philosophiquement, une puérile activité déployée pour des fins éphémères” (Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” 70). “Vive la France” and “la Révolution la nuit” refer to two paintings by Max Ernst: Vive la France, 1923 (oil on canvas, 60 x 72.5 cm; private collection), and Pietà or Revolution by Night, 1923 (oil on canvas, 116.2 x 88.9 cm; Tate Modern, London).

[53] The surrealists disrupted the premiere of Roméo et Julliette and Aragon and Breton issued “Protestation,” a tract distancing surrealism from Ernst’s and Miró’s collaboration with the Ballets russes; see Tracts surréalistes, 1:64–65, 407–08. Ernst would later note: “Max Ernst réalise avec Miro les costumes et les décors pour un ballet de Diaghilev: Roméo et Juliette. MM. Breton et Aragon font scandale lors de la première, au Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt. C’est le premier conflit de Max Ernst avec André Breton. Celui-ci juge alors nécessaire de ‘dénoncer, sans considération de personnes, une attitude qui donne des armes aux pires partisans de l’équivoque morale’. Règlement du conflit par une déclaration ‘diplomatique’ d’Éluard, publiée dans La Révolution surréalise: ‘Les plus purs restent avec nous, etc.’” (Max Ernst, “Notes pour un biographie” in Écritures [Paris: Gallimard, 1970], 9–99, 53–54).

[54] “La fantastique cuisine de vos poussières de couleurs, vos prodigieuses, spirituelles ficelles, votre invention inépuisable de moules où concentrer vos formes infiniment renouvelées, votre allègre et aussi grave et calme captation des visions, votre attitude autocratique, je dis de maître absolu dans l’art de la peinture, tout cela me dit, me hurle que vous voyez. Il y a des poètes idiots non imbéciles. Vous êtes poète, vous êtes au centre de notre terreur. . . . Poussez donc la porte que vous entr’ouvrez et d’où, par la fente, je vous dis que vous voyez notre état, notre détresse” (Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” 70).

[55] “cet envahissement macabre et ténébreux qui sera la marque de notre temps qu’aucune politique ne peut plus racheter” (Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” 70).

[56] Exposition Max Ernst Paris: Galerie Van Leer, March 15–April 5, 1927.

[57] “Partout depuis ses Histoires Naturels, il semble trop se laisser porter par la feuille, le bois pourri, l’écorce, la mousse, le compas, être trop docile, subordonné à ce que tout cela lui impose, impose objectivement” (Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” 73).

[58] “l’intime et profond roman d’une âme sauvage, d’une âme d’homme véritable” (Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” 73).

[59] “Je suis encore fort tenté de dire la beauté unique de votre Mariée du Vent, arabesque folklorique qui a cent plans inconnus en peinture, cent plans à la fois, je veux dire; votre trait n’y voyage pas sur une section du cône, l’atmosphère est « désossée » comme il convient, mais nul ne l’a fait sauf Picasso, plus grand que Einstein, et si vous croyez que ses chevaux n’existent point, laissez-moi vous assurer du contraire, puisque nous les reconnaissons, mais il fallait les tirer de l’insondable inconnu” (Bosschère, “Max Ernst,” 73).

[60] Bosschère would reject Zervos’s editorial note in an article published in the Belgian review Variétés: “J’ai dit ailleurs mon admiration pour Max Ernst; malheureusement, l’article où je parlais de ce peintre fut défiguré par un chapeau fort comique assurément, mais publié sans mon autorisation” (“Notes sur la peinture et Miró,” Variétés 3, no. 15 [1928]: 132–39, 133).

[61] “Nous sommes absolument convaincus que le surréalisme existe par les seuls talents d’Aragon, de Breton et d’Éluard. Et nous sommes non moins convaincus qu’il n’y a pas de peinture surréaliste, les peintres de cette école étant dépourvus de véritables qualités picturales” (“Note de la rédaction,” 69).

[62] See Pierre Naville, “Beaux-Arts,” La Révolutions surréaliste, no. 3 (1925): 27. Naville’s article was one of the factors that motivated Breton to assume editorship of La Révolution surréaliste (see Breton, Conversations, 98).

[63] It is clear that Zervos’s comments on surrealism were motivated by the recent publication of Breton’s Le Surréalisme et la peinture, which Zervos directly addressed in two instalments of “Idéalisme et naturalisme dans la peinture moderne.” The first, which appeared in the same issue as Bosschère’s article on Max Ernst, addressed the work of Renoir (Cahiers d’Art 3, no. 2 [1928]: 49–56); the second, ostensibly on Matisse, appeared in the next issue (Cahiers d’Art 3, no. 3 [1928]: 159–63), and directly addressed several formulations in Breton’s text. For an overview of Breton’s relations with Picasso during the 1920s see Elizabeth Cowling, “‘Proudly We Claim Him as One of Us’: Breton, Picasso, and the Surrealist Movement,” Art History 8, no. 1 (1985): 82–104.

[64] “La peinture surréaliste, telle qu’elle se présente aujourd’hui, comprend deux catégories de peintre: ceux qui ont écrasés par l’académisme le plus banal . . . et les peintres qui se sont égarés dans une autre espèce d’académisme, issu—qui aurait pu le soupçonner?—de l’œuvre géniale de Picasso” (“Note de la rédaction,” 69).

[65] “Ses efforts pour atteindre à la plastique n’aboutissent qu’à lui faire parodier l’œuvre inimitable de Picasso” (“Note de la rédaction,” 69).

[66] “type par excellence « littéraire » . . . où, précisément, toutes les qualités littéraires de cet artiste se trouvaient sollicitées” (“Note de la rédaction,” 69).

[67] On one level, la plastique alludes to the sculptural quality of Picasso’s figures, the way he imbues his figures with an emphatic physical presence within the world of a picture. It is possible that Zervos’s attention to the plastic quality of Picasso’s painting reflected his discussions with the artist over the character of his recent work, and its relation to other tendencies in the Parisian artworld of the late 1920s.

[68] Also note the relation of the two arms to the door of the beach cabin: while the arm reaching for the key is parallel to the horizon line and the picture plane, the left arm initially projects back into space, but the proximity of the hand to the top of the door pulls it forward in space; the effect is to collapse the suggestion of space created by the figure’s body.

[69] For instance, compare the rear flank of the upper horse to the bather in Female Figure: the former lacks the rounded volume of Picasso’s figure.

[70] “Mais, si délirantes que paraissent, au premier abord, ces images, il n’est pas un trait qui ne soit mis à sa place exacte, nulle esquisse de forme qui ne se soit fixé d’avance son but” (Zervos, “Dernières œuvres de Picasso,” 189).

[71] Arlequin was reproduced under the generic title of Peinture, 1927.

[72] “On sait que la libération qui fait la valeur de la peinture surréaliste leur vient du cubisme et surtout de l’œuvre récente de Picasso dont l’immense portée échappe encore à la plupart des gens. C’est pourquoi les surréalistes considèrent Picasso comme le précurseur de leur effort pictural. Mais ce qu’ils semblent délibérément négliger dans l’œuvre récente de Picasso c’est l’effort pour atteindre à l’extrême de la plasticité. A leurs yeux l’effort plastique est incompatible avec l’événement moral qu’ils veulent exprimer. Et c’est là le principal point sur lequel je ne suis nullement d’accord avec les peintres surréalistes, j’aimerais pouvoir mettre mon expérience picturale à leur service et leur faire comprendre que toutes les fois que Picasso croise, par exemple, deux traits ou qu’il promène un contour sur la toile, traits et contours deviennent pour nous une chose vivante parce que Picasso voit toutes choses plastiquement” (Zervos, “Du phénomène surréaliste,” 114).

[73] See “L’Objet,” special issue on the Exposition surréaliste de l’objet, Cahiers d’Art 11, no. 1–2 (1936); Max Ernst, Œuvres de 1919–1936 (Paris: Cahiers d’Art, 1937). The latter included Ernst’s important essay on the discovery and role of frottage and collage “Au-delà de la peinture,” which also appeared in Cahiers d’Art 11, no. 6–7 (1936): 149–84. Kim Grant discusses the reception of surrealism in Cahiers d’Art in Surrealism and the Visual Arts, although she does not address the influence of surrealism’s political position.

[74] Surrealism had been debating this issue since the mid-1920s, initially in relation to the cultural policy of the PCF. After the break with the PCF, the surrealists aligned themselves with Trotsky. In 1938 Breton collaborated with Leon Trotsky on the manifesto, “Towards a Revolutionary Independent Art.” An English translation signed by Breton and Diego Rivera was published in Partisan Review 6, no. 1 (1939): 49–53.

[75] On the role of politics in surrealism see Surrealism, Politics and Culture, ed. Raymond Spiteri and Donald LaCoss, (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003); Steven Harris, Surrealist Art and Thought in the 1930s: Art, Politics and the Psyche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Robin Adèle Greeley, Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), and Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005). The question of surrealism’s “cultural politics” has also been approached indirectly through the prism of Walter Benjamin’s comments on surrealism: see Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) and Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).