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The Arrested Flight of Surreality: The Belgrade Surrealist Circle (Field Report with Invitation)

Fig. 1. Nikola Vučo’s The Arrested Flight of Surreality (Zadržano bekstvo nadstvarnosti), 1929. Photograph, 145x95mm. Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts, Belgrade.

Cushioned in an archival box in the Museum of Applied Arts, Belgrade, Serbia, lies a remarkable surrealist photograph: Nikola Vučo’s The Arrested Flight of Surreality (Zadržano bekstvo nadstvarnosti, 1929, fig. 1). Posing as a visual riddle, the photograph shows the figure of a woman with her back to the viewer, as if intent on moving on, or fleeing, and the semitransparent hands arresting her flight or gently pulling her in the opposite direction. The surreal effects of the photograph result from double exposure, considered an innovative technique at the time, wherein superimposition is obtained by apparatic means rather than interventions on the negative. Dual exposure photographs have to be premeditated and carefully staged performances, thus presenting great examples of what Pavle Levi has called “cinema by other means.” In Vučo’s photograph, the double exposure-derived clash of bidirectional forces creates a suspension of both space and time, and immerses the viewer in an enigmatic limbo. Awash in white light, delicate, tensional, mysterious—the photograph, once seen, is difficult to forget. While it might strike a twenty-first-century reader as a brilliant curiosity, or one’s intimate surrealist companion (the way I have cherished it since I first saw it), the photograph was everything but obscure when it appeared. It served as the emblem for the Belgrade Surrealist Circle, the artifact’s lofty status being ratified by its appearance on both the inside cover and last page of one of the key publications of the Belgrade surrealists, Nemoguće/L’impossible (1930). But, if you have never lifted the A4 pink-black bilingual cover of Nemoguće/L’impossible and browsed through its multi-font, asymmetrical pages containing an array of drawings and collages, photographs, photograms, surveys, poems, prose, philosophical treatises, and programmatic pamphlets (in both Serbo-Croatian and French), you may rightly ask for a clarification: Who were the Belgrade surrealists?

Fig.2. A selection of publications by the Belgrade Surrealist Circle. Courtesy of the author.

Roughly from 1923 to 1933 (formally as the Circle 1930-1933, and until the Second World War in individual publications), a group of young writers and artists operated from Belgrade, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as an early surrealist stronghold. In that period the Belgrade surrealists created an extraordinarily rich and diverse opus of individual and group works in all art forms and genres. They published more than twenty books of poetry and prose, including some of the masterpieces of modernist avant-garde literature in Serbo-Croatian such as Milan Dedinac’s long poem The Public Bird (Javna ptica, 1926), Dušan Matić and Aleksandar Vučo’s poem Zarni vlač (1930), Marko Ristić’s novel Without Measure (Bez mere, 1928), and an exceptional surrealist children’s book, Aleksandar Vučo’s The Exploits of the “Five Cockerels” Gang (Podvizi družine “Pet petlića,” 1933). They produced a few film scenarios and shooting scripts (e.g., Salmon Monny de Boully’s Doctor Hypnison, or the Technique of Living [Doktor Hipnison ili tehnika života. Scenario za film, 1923] and Aleksandar Vučo’s Crustaceans on the Chest [Ljuskari na prsima, 1930]), and pieces of literary and film criticism. They furthermore published manifestos and theoretical works like Vane Bor and Marko Ristić’s Anti-Wall (Anti-zid, 1932), and, uniquely in global surrealism, a book-length philosophical treatise, Koča Popović and Marko Ristić’s Outline for a Phenomenology of the Irrational (Nacrt za jednu fenomenologiju iracionalnog 1931). They created mono- and multilingual fanzines, almanacs, and journals, reinventing the form of magazine and philosophically squaring it. Alongside all this, they produced a huge number of paintings, collages, assemblages, and pieces of cadavre equis, as well as photographs and pioneering photograms (fig. 3). And they mounted public interventions, including debates in the press, court hearings, and one collective presentation-provocation at the Cvijeta Zuzorić Art Pavilion in Belgrade. In all their diverse creative production, the Belgrade Surrealist Circle insisted on transactions between the visual, the verbal, and the performative, approaching each and every artistic project—from sketching a dream to writing a novel—as a syncretic ethical-aesthetic act. Highly educated in law, literature, and philosophy, the members of the Circle moved freely from discussions of Hegel to using decalcomania. No wonder early commentators had difficulties ascribing “professions” to the Belgrade surrealists and categorizing their legacy: in the Circle, writers were painters and photographers doubled as philosophers. The Belgrade group’s early disappearance from international surrealist scene did not help the matters. Until recently, they have rarely been discussed at any length in the textbooks on surrealism.

Fig. 3. Vane Bor, Photogram No. 1 (Fotogram broj 1), 1928. Photograph, 240x180mm. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade.

As the above dates suggest, the early activities of the Belgrade Circle and the French surrealists coincided and the two circles collaborated intensely starting in 1923. (Remarkably, the first issue of the Belgrade Circle’s journal Testimonies [Svedočanstva, 21 November 1924] predated the appearance of the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste by nine days, and it featured the advanced advertising for the first Manifesto of Surrealism—to be published on 1 December 1924—on its back cover). But there were also marked differences, even disagreements, between the two circles. While the Belgrade surrealists invested their creative energy in some recognizable surrealist themes such as the functioning of dreams, the nature of creativity, expression, and madness, they also placed particular emphasis on the issue of the artist’s social responsibility. They had good reasons to do so: operating under the highly constricting cultural-political conditions of the 1920s–1930s Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a context further layered with the sediments of inter-imperial contest and contestations (see Bahun 2018), many Yugoslav surrealists were committed to, or actively involved in, the pursuit of a proletarian revolution. More than once did it strike the Belgrade group members that the French surrealist activities—even at their most militant—were politically safe, even naïve. This guardedness is instructive, and I’d like to pause on it. The parities and interconnections between the so-called centers and peripheries are easy to celebrate in a context that honors artistic production as an interactive world-system of semiotic similarities and variations—and they should be celebrated. Jubilant in rectifying the surrealist balance in this way, however, we may forget that we also need to pay attention to discrepancies and inconsistences as they are shaped by site-specific convergences between material history and intellectual history, on the one hand, and the meanings that art production acquires in each context, on the other (Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel have called this effect the “placedness” of art works). It is the understanding of the latter that is crucial for our appreciation of the Belgrade-based group’s output. The Yugoslav monarchical state authorities perceived and treated the Circle as a dangerous political party, even a terrorist organization, rather than as an artistic grouping: members of the Belgrade Circle were intermittently imprisoned and their publications banned; the arrest and detention without trial of several key members in December 1932 put an end to the Circle’s activities as an organized avant-garde group. (René Crevel wrote an impassioned account of these events in the May 1933 issue of Le surréalisme au service de la révolution).

Fig. 4. Cover of the 1938 copy of Marko Ristić’s (with Krsto Hegedušić) Turpitude, with the original state confiscating mark-ups. Courtesy of the author.

Some of the Circle’s members continued to work independently after the dissolution of the group, sometimes in secrecy, and often facing repression. In 1938, Ristić published his long surrealist poem “Turpitude: Paranoiac-Didactic Rhapsody” (“Turpituda: paranojačko-didaktička rapsodija”) together with surrealist-expressionist artwork by Krsto Hegedušić as an intermedial work entitled Turpitude. The poem ends with an image of the earth sliding down a tangent while lava pours out of history. The prophetic imagery of war and revolution, and the visual-verbal blend of daydreaming and eroticism, did not please the authorities: the book itself was identified as incendiary. Almost the entirety of the edition of 500 copies was confiscated and destroyed, under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia Law on the Protection of State Public Security and Order. Fewer than ten copies of the original book have survived, including the author’s own copy. These copies were later found at a flea market, apparently saved by some minor police officials in Zagreb (fig. 4). We will never know what prompted these individuals’ change of heart—whether they were attracted by the poem’s affective imagery or secretly receptive to its message of overthrowing the monarchical order. But the very circumstance that one such ad hoc (surrealists would add: irrational) decision saved Ristić and Hegedušić’s Turpitude points to the intrinsic vulnerability of surrealist artifacts.

What I find particularly touching in Nikola Vučo’s photograph The Arrested Flight of Surreality is that its very title bespeaks the picture’s fragility: it says that surrealist artifacts not only depict transitional realities but themselves also tend to be transient, and, for all this reason, perishable, prone to physical as well as metaphorical vanishing. In large part, this is a consequence of the surrealists’ programmatic rejection of the institutionalized forms of authorship, distribution, and exhibition. Yet, the vanishing of the traces of global surrealisms also goes hand in hand with the disappearance and change of political systems, and dramatic transformations of artistic spaces. Sam Bardaouil’s recent Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group and other sociohistorically informed studies have reminded us how exceptional, fragile, and precious global surrealist artifacts are and how urgent and necessary our efforts to prevent the flight of surreality may be. They have also drawn our attention to the issues of selection, preservation, and global translatability of the preserved. Surrealism could be put in boxes, but cannot be easily boxed (even when it makes box-like objects), we know. So, what governs the selection of the materials to be preserved and how we record them in the contexts of fringe surrealisms—where the tensions occurring between vernacularizing practices and cosmopolitan drives of surrealism are pronounced, and where the tendency to hybrid expression flies in the face of our critical habits? How do we make surrealist artworks interact in meaningful ways with contemporary artistic, literary, and performance practices? These questions and the issues of conservation, precarity, and the continued relevance of surrealist artifacts have been on my mind a lot this fall, prompted by the efforts of the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Belgrade, Serbia, to preserve and re-exhibit—restage with relevance—their collection of surrealist artworks. After more than a decade of being temporarily displaced and its valuable collection (including, but extending far beyond the surrealism collection) being either on loan or kept in tightly closed boxes, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened its renovated doors in October 2017. The opening exhibition, Sequences. Art of Yugoslavia and Serbia from the Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, is well worth visiting for anyone, but especially so if you are interested in arresting the flights of surreality.

Fig. 5. Dušan Matić and Aleksandar Vučo’s The Frenzied Marble, 1930. 305x718mm. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Belgrade.

The exhibition is organized as a cinematic ride through the significant moments of Yugoslav and Serbian art history, where the surrealist “sequence” takes pride of place. This display of surrealist artwork does exactly what Yugoslav surrealists like Vane Bor thought a good cinematic sequence should do: involve us, unsettle us, make us reflect and try to fill in the gaps deliberately left by the continuity editor. My personal favorite in the exhibition is the surrealist artifact whose fragility can hardly be overestimated: an assemblage called The Frenzied Marble (Urnebesni kliker, 1930, fig. 5). This surrealist object, one in the series of at least two “marbles” envisioned/created by Dušan Matić and Aleksandar Vučo, appears in the exhibition as a flat and framed composition, divided by organic partitions into a triptych of green, black, and orange panels. Each panel hosts a collection of materials (wood, stray, flattened metal) and an evocative miscellany of objects (wheels, buttons, the head of crocodile, a fish, a human figure made of sticks, a cut-out of a swimmer, an ominously protruding comb). The Frenzied Marble came down to us in what we know to be a damaged condition, and it is proudly exhibited as such. How much damage it suffered and what form the damage took is a question veiled in mystery, though. Some scholars have suggested that the object was initially a camera obscura box, where the panels served as sides of the box. With a little imagination, one can also see the object as a small part of a larger whole, of, say, a multisided marble or die (trying to imagine it as such I am reminded of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard”—at least one of the authors, Matić, was an admirer of the poet). Alternatively, one can decide it was always meant to be flat, performing as a kind of “petrified film,” in Levi’s phrase, or—I imagine further—as a piste for a frenzied marble (or marbles), which would haphazardly move and stumble upon chance objects and traces of the unconscious. Even as an exhibition item in its present state, The Frenzied Marble keeps generating hermeneutic conundrums. The object being an assemblage—and thus likely conceived as moveable in all directions—no one can ascertain the exact progression of the panels or whether such ever existed; or if, perchance, we should read each panel as a singled-out visualization of some imaginary vertical column. As this proliferation of possibilities testifies, the unknowns have not taken away from The Frenzied Marble any of its evocative power; nor have they diminished its interpretative openness. On the contrary.

The type and orientation of visual readings are not only a product of personal preference, but also of particular historical and art-historical vicissitudes, that is, when and how we view the objects. The curator of Sequences, Dejan Sretenović, and the archival preservation and documentation team that supported him, were very much aware of these dynamics. For theirs was a particularly tough assignment. The objective of the exhibition was to make modernist and contemporary art relevant in a cultural context marked by interlocked and competing historical trends: a shared legacy of polycentric artistic space (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, later the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia); the 1990s civil war and the individuation of national artistic spaces; but also the continuity of artistic processes, flows of ideas, and cultural patterns within the region across a 100 year span. In the exhibition catalogue Sretenović consequently highlights the ambition to approach “past art as an ‘open situation,’ offering a multitude of models for navigating, interrelating, interpreting and performing the knowledge about art.” This effort explains the prominent place given in the exhibition to one surrealist artwork in which this “open situation” is self-reflexively engaged: Ristić’s Surrealist Wall (Figs. 6 & 7).

Figs. 6 & 7. Ševa and Marko Ristić, sitting in front of Surrealist Wall [fraction] in their apartment, Belgrade, 1960s. Surrealist Wall in the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Belgrade, November 2017. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Belgrade. Photograph by Srđan Veljović.

From 1927 until the end of the 1960s, while some walls were being built and others were being demolished, Ristić, the leader of the Belgrade surrealists, was methodically creating an installation wall in his apartment, a project known only to private visitors. Inspired by a 1926 visit to André Breton’s Montmartre studio, Surrealist Wall was created by the successive arrangement of about twenty exhibits, spatially linked by cultural and social relevance and along free-associative axes. The featured artifacts have an enormous range: Max Ernst’s painting The Owl (Bird in a Cage) (c. 1927), an item which held private relevance for Ristić; drawings by Yves Tanguy, André Masson, and Juan Miró; collages by the Belgrade surrealists Bor, Matić, Vučo, and Ristić himself; varied photographs (a screen-shot of Gary Cooper and Ann Harding in Peter Ibbetson [1935], a photo of a woman cleaning or preserving skulls, one of the head of bronze horse from a quadriga found at the theatre of Herculaneum, Raul Ubak’s photograph of Masson’s mannequin exhibited at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, and others); a Gelede mask from Nigeria, an art brut piece by Naïve artist Bogosav Živković, and other sculptural forms and paintings. The installation could be read in multiple directions and with varied accretions of meaning, and can be assessed retrospectively as well as prospectively. This environment is a palimpsest of cultural and social histories and those who lived them; but it is also an artifact self-reflectively highlighting its own porosity to our readerly inscriptions, our own desires and positionalities. In this way Ristić’s Surrealist Wall imposes itself as a site of emanation, an “open situation” which demands a multiplicity of readings and modes of engagement. The wall is now regarded as the first installation in Yugoslav art and is displayed as such in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade: as a piece of installation art, the artwork commands viewing in parallax, bridging past and present art practices and the histories that inscribed them.

My closing surrealist-preservationist invitation, then, is to view in parallax. Repose/re-pose in front of Surrealist Wall—or any other surrealist art-piece, for that matter—and find your own mode of arresting the flight of surreality today. If you cannot afford to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, there is still a chance of engaging with the Yugoslav surrealists. The trilingual (Serbo-Croatian, French and English) web-site www.nadrealizam.rs features a comprehensive online display of the Belgrade Surrealist Circle’s artwork, as well as articles, commentaries, and even an interactive space, where you can continue discovering and navigating the production of the Belgrade Surrealist Circle.