"Objet trouvé par Leonor Fini. Couverture d’un livre ayant séjourné dans la mer.” (“Object found by Leonor Fini. Cover of a book that has spent time in the sea.”)
Like all object labels, this label tells a story. The first sentence is true. The second, a seductive fiction.
The artist Leonor Fini did find this object, but not on a beach. Though seemingly encrusted with mud and marine matter, it has never spent time in a sea. Instead, it is a German-language novelty item created by Carl Maria Seyppel circa 1890, entitled Christoph Columbus Logbuch. An antique discarded object by the time it came into Fini’s hands, Seyppel originally had made the book to look as if it were water-damaged. Though the caption encourages us to imagine Fini having the tides deposit it at her feet, the real moment of encounter would have been far more quotidian: Fini came across it as at a flea market or bookstore.
In 1927, Christian Zervos, the editor of the prominent art magazine Cahiers d’Art, published an article on the “Dernières œuvres de Picasso.” 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.
Glass tears do not leave a trace. In Man Ray’s photograph, Les Larmes de Verre (Glass Tears) (1932), they rest on the model’s cheekbones—hard, cold drops, threatening to fall (fig. 1). The tears are too smooth, too round, too still. If the tears were to slide off her face, they would scatter like tiny marbles across the studio floor.
Accounts of black personalities long lost to narratives of modernism are belatedly finding their way into the historical record, precipitated by the recent advent of scholarship and exhibitions dedicated to this recovery process. As a result, black artists, models, and performers who previously attracted little critical attention are slowly emerging from obscurity to command consideration in their own right.
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).
“Well this exhibition feels a little too timely,” my colleague Clare Davies posted to Facebook during a November 21, 2016 visit to Art et liberté: Rupture, guerre et surréalisme en Egypte (1938-1948) at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The exhibit—a major contribution to contemporary