Enchanted Ground: André Breton, Modernism and the Surrealist Appraisal of Fin-de-Siècle Painting by Gavin Parkinson
Volume 4, Cycle 4
© 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press
French surrealism at mid-twentieth century was marked (some would say, marred) by André Breton’s new-found interest in esoteric knowledge—a period, argues Gavin Parkinson in his latest book, in which surrealism “willingly entered a critical and theoretical wilderness with its advocacy of magic and occultism in its art, poetry and theory, and its insistence on the ‘indispensable condition of enchantment’—the impenetrable nucleus of resistance to human inquiry that exists within any system of knowledge” (322). Parkinson’s justification for what he calls surrealism’s “journey into obscurity,” is an accomplished revisionist account of what has been treated as surrealism’s most misguided moment, one that Parkinson has successfully complicated—and recuperated—with the movement’s engagement with metaphor, symbolism, regional medievalism, and abstraction, as articulated by Breton’s concurrent assessment of fin-de-siècle French painting (323). Key to the relevance of the analysis is Breton’s sustained anti-utilitarianism, and as such, Enchanted Ground provides a compelling (and perhaps necessary) pendant to Parkinson’s other work on the movement at midcentury, which analyzes surrealism from a scientific perspective.
By examining surrealist commentary on the four painters who would come to dominate the canon of French modernism at the turn of the twentieth century—Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh—Parkinson identifies an alternative path for twentieth-century art in resistance to the formalist one that ultimately positioned these painters as the forerunners to midcentury abstraction. Metaphor, myth, and poetry take precedence in the surrealist readings of the works in question, and, to varying degrees, they tilt the paintings to expose unprecedented facets of their importance, particularly to subsequent art practices. Given that abstraction is the “proving ground” on which these alternative perspectives will test their respective credibility, the work here on abstraction is one of the most interesting aspects of this volume—indeed, the book takes its title from Van Gogh’s pointed refusal of that mode, cited from a letter to Émile Bernard: “[w]hen Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led into abstraction, as you know . . . and at that time abstraction seemed an attractive route to me. But that’s enchanted ground [terrain enchanté],—my good fellow—and one soon finds oneself up against a wall” (quoted on 6). The characterization sets up a perversity worthy of surrealism itself: a reversal of expectations of what will constitute “enchantment” in the book, and opens intriguing possibilities for future scholarship on surrealist abstraction in, for example, the work of Jean Arp and Joan Miró, two artists whose work has always proved somewhat resistant to dominant theories of surrealism. In direct contravention to Alfred Barr’s figuration/abstraction binary, Parkinson here succeeds in finding common ground in surrealism’s engagement with poetic metaphor, which draws on both formal and iconographic suggestion.
With three chapters focused on Gauguin, the heart of the book seems to lie in the surrealists’ attraction to this artist as a nonconformist, symbolist, and (somewhat surprisingly) medievalist. But the best chapter, to my mind, (not the least because of its nuanced implications for abstraction as “enchanted ground”) is the fourth, “Between Dog and Wolf: Georges Seurat, Brassaï and the City of Light.” Reasoning mainly from the works themselves, as opposed to relying on the written testimonies of Breton and other critics sympathetic to surrealism, Parkinson draws together a constellation of historical, topographical, procedural and medium-based effects and processes to form a suggestive image of “light” as it was interpreted within surrealism. His great accomplishment is to have allowed for the idea that surrealism negated, rather than expressed, realism; that they imposed a kind of poetic template on the material world that could connect the crepuscular forms of Seurat, Brassaï, Arp, and even Man Ray on the basis of a shared fascination with transitional or threshold experiences, thus setting out new lineaments for abstraction within the movement. The commitment to ambiguity here practically begs for an analysis of Georges Bataille’s informe, and Parkinson studiously avoids it, having already made clear that one of his aims is to restore Breton’s position as a major critic of modernism, correcting somewhat the Bataillean cast that the past few decades of scholarship on the Surrealist movement has taken.
In spite of its ambitions to rewrite the canon of midcentury modernism, this book may well strike the reader as a reliable reference volume as opposed to a cleverly argued position. There is little attempt to seduce the reader into bedding down with a whole new set of priorities for grasping midcentury painting—a wise decision, perhaps, given the tricky business of maintaining gravitas when dealing with mysticism and occult practices. Rather, Enchanted Ground offers impeccably documented research with notes so dense and complete that they nearly validate the argument through sheer bulk. These great blocks of type, positioned as they are at the bottom of the page (kudos to Bloomsbury Press for that increasingly rare design decision), serve literally as the foundation for all that’s going on above, and virtually affirm the intellectual worthiness of their subject. It’s unusual to see this kind of granular attention to detail in work from an advanced scholar—referential density of this kind is rare among modernists who have earned the right to draw broad conclusions based on their synthetic knowledge, and for this reason, the volume is certain to become not only an indispensable reference on the closing years of surrealism, but also on the historiography of fin-de-siècle painting.
One effect of the density of information and the multitude of side paths Parkinson goes down in the interest of including the complete range of his research is that the notes can crowd the central argument, obscuring, rather than clarifying it. Parkinson’s insistence that the reader must be aware of the contextual reception of the painters in question to the fullest possible extent, combined with his nonhierarchical presentation of contemporary discourse means that more influential critics, or critics most important to surrealism, do not necessarily stand out in the text itself. Names blur, the timeline muddles, and the body of the text itself, at times, has the feel of a long footnote. The initial chapters, on the painters the surrealists ultimately rejected, feel particularly as if they are dutifully covering ground. Here, and to some extent in chapter three, where Parkinson tracks the labyrinth of surrealism’s multiple and shifting arguments and allegiances, his dedication to detail can turn on him, affirming the prevailing cliché that surrealism was a movement that lost its way, becoming increasingly incoherent as it moved farther from its initial goals.
One of these precepts, the grounding of the movement in psychoanalysis, is slighted here, I think. But Parkinson makes the important point that while for the surrealists art was consistently "to aspire to the condition of poetry,” by the end of the Second World War, “this was a poetry found less through dreams and the unconscious than by recourse to magic,” and it is to his credit that he does not shrink from this dubious turn (21). Still, given that Parkinson’s aim is to articulate surrealism's antiformalist perspective on midcentury modernism, the book misses the movement’s most significant contribution to the revolution in postwar art practices—and to enormous revisions in writing art history—namely, the psychoanalytical approach as a methodological model. The idea surfaces necessarily in the discussion of Salvador Dalí on Jean-François Millet, but it is not specifically singled out, and might have shed light on surrealism’s attraction to Gauguin and Seurat through an examination of, say, the margins of the images. But Parkinson’s method focuses on intention verified through artists’ and critics’ statements, and in this respect, his approach strains against surrealism’s own mandate to interpretation, an outgrowth of psychoanalytic skepticism toward conscious intention. By including an epilogue on the French intellectuals of the 1960s and 70s and their debt to surrealism (read through Antonin Artaud), Parkinson mitigates the omission somewhat. But in fact, psychoanalytic method would have to be suppressed in an account uncritical of occult qualities. Those require not inquiry, but blind faith, a discomfiting aspect Parkinson doesn’t emphasize in his discussion of mysticism-as-myth. Given that obsolescence, in the form of a movement regarded as past its prime by the late 1940s, is the elephant in the room here, psychoanalysis, deployed as a structure and working methodology linked to lapsed memory, might well have produced from this same material a different kind of interpretation—and a different kind of book. Ultimately, Parkinson has given surrealism studies exactly what it needs to move the field forward: a strong constellation of events and experiences with the power to suggest numerous further projects.