Surrealist Music Definition Essay

Dada, a cultural movement triggered by the anti-war sentiments of a group of European visual artists and writers during the First World War, promulgated provocative anti-art as a response to the prevailing complacent standards of art. By 1922 Dada had self-destructed, giving way to surrealism, a movement best known for the surprise, unexpected juxtapositions of its visual artworks and writings. Both movements have had a tremendous impact on all subsequent avant-garde painting, sculpture, theatre, film, poetry, and fiction. But such a claim of influence would seem senseless in contemporary music, where the presence of Dada and surrealism is generally unrecognized or forgotten.

However, these movements exerted a pervasive influence on 20th-century music, especially on mid-century avant-garde composers based in New York—among them Edgard Varèse, Stefan Wolpe, John Cage, and Morton Feldman. In addition, these composers paved the way for a Dada/surrealist aesthetic, a “normative Dada” whose radicalism was of an entirely different character than its European counterpart. The Dadaists themselves skirted madness and prison in the pursuit of an absolute aesthetic and a new social order whose raison d’être was the senseless carnage of World War I. The American scene was very different.

The aesthetic borders between Dada and surrealism are often difficult to distinguish and are additionally related to a third movement, Futurism, which began most notably in Italy, but also in England and Russia, which incorporated visual arts, literature, and music. Le bruit, noise with imitative effects, was introduced into art by the Italian Futurists Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti (1876-1944) and Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), who used a chorus of typewriters, kettledrums, rattles, and pot covers to suggest the “awakening of the capital.” Richard Huelsenbeck, in his 1920 essay “En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism” (Collected in Robert Motherwell’s anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets, Cambridge: Belknap, 1979), noted that Dadaists borrowed the term bruitism, or noise music, from the Italian Futurists.

There is a complex of interests, techniques, imagery, and intentions that characterizes surrealism in its search for epiphany. One of the most familiar and disturbing is a seamless conjunction of impossibilities in which objects that cannot exist in the same time and place are rendered with the perfection of reality, as in the paintings of René Magritte. Another is an interest in found objects in search of the revelatory image or moment that affords access to a “superior” reality. But these images also bring with them an antinomian charge; thus an interest in alchemy and magic. Dada, surrealism, and Futurist all applied an aesthetic of shock and a panoply of approaches in order to transcend the linearity of normal consciousness: free association, frottage, and automatic writing. Such was the path to the subconscious and the dream.

These movements paid close attention to advanced and developing technology, and the repetitive beauty of machines was a ubiquitous image. Contemporaneous technologies—film and photo montage, for example—provided a means of assaulting those laws of space and time that the subconscious impertinently refused to recognize. The machine was both a sign of modern urban power (the modern metropolis was another prominent obsession) and a locus of ambivalence about the Machine Age’s destructive and dehumanizing aspects, particularly after World War I. Machines also offered a new kind of sexual allure; that of the mechanical and repetitive. The products of machines—newspapers and other mass-produced items—took on similar associations, and this source material was put to work in the formation of a new poetics.

Dada had already attracted imaginatively anarchic musicians even before the end of the First World War. By far, the most inventive and radical musical constructions were those of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who had taken up residence in the United States. Often working under the alias A. Klang (Klang: “sound” in German), his assemblages cunningly obscure the boundaries of text, music, representation, and notation a half-century before John Cage’s experiments in indeterminacy.

Duchamp’s Exercices de musique en creux pour sourds (“hollow [or vain] musical exercises for the deaf”) instruct the performer: “Given an agreed/conventional number of music notes, ‘hear’ only the group of those which are not played.” The first Erratum Musical (1913) (in the collection The Green Box) offers a randomly arranged sequence of 25 notes written on staff paper with treble and bass clefs and accidentals. There are no rhythmic indications to coordinate the parts. An arbitrary deployment of the dictionary definition of “to print” appears below the musical notations. The second Erratum Musical (also 1913), bearing the additional title “La mariée mise á nu par ses célibataires, même” (“The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, even”) uses a musical notation of only numbers and letters, without conventional music symbols, and with explanatory notes and diagrams. He writes, “the order of succession is interchangeable by whim,” and the piece is “unfinishable.” The second Erratum Musical is intended for “a specific musical instrument (player piano, mechanical organ, or other new instruments where the virtuoso intermediary is suppressed).”

These inventions are preludes to the provocations of Erik Satie (1866-1925), who was a crucial figure in the formation of surrealism. In a now-famous program note to Satie’s Parade (1917: produced by Diaghilev with Cocteau, Picasso, and Satie) Apollinaire coined the word, in referring to “…a sort of sur-realism [sur-realisme] which I see as the point of departure for a series of manifestations of that new spirit which promises to modify the arts and the conduct of life from top to bottom in a universal joyousness.” (Rollo Meyers, Modern French Music: Its Evolution and Cultural Background from 1900 to the Present Day. London: Blackwell, 1971, p. 20.)

But a surrealist “school” of composition never developed in France, undoubtedly because of the hostile indifference to music of the arch-surrealist André Breton, who believed that language had already subsumed and surpassed the possibilities of music.

However, as a result of the development of the tape recorder, a true surrealist music became possible in musique concrète—the art of “found” and manipulated sound. But tape recorders were not easily available until the late 1930s, coinciding with the decline of the surrealist movement. Still, surrealism served as a source of imagery for the aesthetic that grew up around this new technology. Symphonie pour un homme seul, a joint composition created by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in 1950, was the culmination of a series of sonic experiments, including studies of the sounds of locomotives, pots, and turnstiles. Schaeffer himself remarked that his manipulations of recordings by looping (sillons firmés) were reminiscent of the first surrealist paintings. The aim was the creation of sound-objects, objets sonores, the result of a series of transformations of original material deformed beyond recognition, at a level where “the bell becomes a human voice, the voice a violin and the violin a sea bird.” (A la recherche d’une Musique Concrète, Paris: Éditions du seuil, 1952, p. 47.) However, musique concrète ultimately rejected the possibility of musical surrealism once the sonic results of the manipulations of found sounds became more important than the ability for listeners to discern these sounds’ original sources.


Edgard Varèse

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) arrived in the United States in 1915 and, although he maintained cultural connections to Europe, most of his works were composed in New York. The young Varèse had close ties with both Dadaists and Futurists, although he denied being of either camp. He hated being linked with art movements and was unusually secretive about influences on his work. Sometimes his caginess was excessive. Although his orchestral work Arcana bears a quotation from the alchemist Paracelsus, Varèse insisted that the passage did not inspire the work and that the work is in no way a commentary on it. However, surrealist imagery underlay what he claimed was an objective, science-based art.

Ultimately, Varèse was neither a Dadaist nor a surrealist but a kind of fellow traveler. In 1921 he signed a Dada manifesto opposing Futurism, “Dada soulève tout,” distributed in protest at one of Marinetti’s lectures. He also contributed poetry to the Dada review 391, and the poet Aragon described him as the “only composer of the Dada era.” Many of his instrumental works recall the machine language of the Dadaists. Elliott Carter describes this quality precisely:

Usually sharply defined, his rhythmic process recalls the clicking and rattling of rather complex machinery that seems to produce broken, out-of-phase cycles of sound. These rhythms shape the order of presentation of the notes of vertical harmonies that are frequently static and lead them to burst or explode in unexpected ways. (Elliott Carter, “On Edgard Varèse,” in The New Worlds of Edgard Varèse: A Symposium, ed. Sherman Van Solkema. ISAM Monographs #11: 1979, 2.)

Surviving material from Varèse’s unfinished opera, L’Astronome (1928), reveals the clearest evidence of a Dada aesthetic in his compositional output. But after an attempted collaboration with Robert Desnos and Alejo Carpentier, Varèse turned the project over to the playwright and theater visionary Antonin Artaud in 1933, who also failed to complete the libretto. (Eric Sellin, The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 71-75.)

Varèse’s treatment appears in Artaud’s complete works as Il n’y a plus de firmament. The action takes place in the year 2000. Dada and Futurist themes run riot; both Varèse and Artaud had gone beyond the provocations of Dada to envision sublime terrible worlds of their own. But they both spoke the Dada idiom: synesthesia, cataclysm, language beyond language, the world of machines, and the assault on all social and aesthetic boundaries. In L’Astronome, the audience was to be eradicated with a death ray (a rather unsatisfactory end for a bourgeois evening at the opera). Here are Varèse’s notes from 1928:

Discovery of instantaneous radiation – 30,000,000 times that of light. Rapid variation in the size of Sirius, which becomes a Nova. … Unexpected reception of signals – prime indivisible numbers 1,3,5,7. … During the catastrophes, it is [the scientists’] decision which turns the crowd’s rage against the astronomer …. Mysterious – in musical waves [ondes Martinot] (supple, fluctuating). Scientists study them. It is perhaps the acoustic language of Sirius. The brilliance of Sirius continues to augment, … precipitating catastrophes. Explosions, darkness, etc. … The crowds first attack the astronomer, later making a saint of him…. The crowd becomes rigid. The projector turns toward the room, blinding the audience. … A few wax mannequins look outwards, their eyes fixed and without expression.

Fernande Ouellette, Edgard Varèse (Paris: Editions, Paris, 1966, pp. 127-8.)

It is remarkable how closely Artaud’s apocalyptic visions, spatial imagination, and sense of the interrelated, constructive capacities of sound and light parallel so much of Varèse’s imagery. Artaud writes:

There is a concrete idea of music where sounds come into play like characters, where harmonies are cut in half and are mingled in with the precise interventions of words. Musical instruments are also to be objectified on the stage, and one must seek the means of producing new sounds: They will be used in the capacity of objects and as an integral part of the décor. Furthermore, the necessity of acting directly and profoundly on the sensitivity through the organs makes it advisable, from the viewpoint of sound, to seek out absolutely new qualities and vibrations of sound, qualities which contemporary musical instruments do not possess.

(Sellin, p. 84)

Compare this to Varèse:

[T]he new musical apparatus I envisage, able to emit sounds of any number of frequencies, will extend the limits of the lowest and highest registers, hence new organizations of the vertical resultants…. Not only the harmonic possibilities of the overtones will be revealed in all their splendor, but the use of certain interferences created by the partials will represent an appreciable contribution. … An entirely new magic of sound!

(Edgard Varèse, “The Liberation of Sound,” in Elliott Schwartz and Barney Childs, eds., Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music
(NY: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1967, pp. 197-8.)

Where Varèse perceived sounds sweeping the audience like waves of light, Artaud desired a new illuminating apparatus capable of “projecting lighting in waves, or in sheets, or like a volley of flaming arrows.” And, where Varèse describes “sound projection” as a voyage into space,” Artaud claims that “[w]ords, too, have possibilities of sonorization, various ways of being projected in space.” (Sellin, pp. 86-7)

But it is in Varèse’s electronic music that all the changes of Dada and surrealism are rung, even though both of these movements were by now long on the wane. Poéme electronique, created for Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion at the 1956 Brussels World’s Fair, is a vehicle for the release of decades of shored up Dada/surrealist imagery. Recalling the distortion of scale that permeates surrealism, sound events in Poéme electronique emerge from silence, giving them the weight of icons. Pure electronic sounds as well as various “found” sound objects—bells, factory noises, distorted human voices, distorted conventional musical instruments, plus a quotation from Varése’s own Ionization—all are given the same experiential weight, surging from a void. The juxtaposition of these disparate materials achieve the violations of time and space that surrealism aimed at.


Stefan Wolpe

Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972) joined the Berlin Dadaists in 1920, just after poet and drummer Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) had joined the group, having arrived from the Zurich Dadaists. Wolpe and his cohorts anticipated by more than thirty years works such as John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape IV for twelve radios, as well as the experiments of the concrètistes:

I had eight gramophones…at my disposal. And these were lovely record players, because one could regulate their speed.… [Y]ou could play a Beethoven Symphony very, very, slow, and very quick at the same time that you could mix it with a popular tune. You could have a waltz, then you could have a funeral march. So I put things together in what one would call today a multifocal way. …The concept of simultaneities is one of the most truly fascinating things.

Stefan Wolpe, “Lecture on Dada” (1962)

In 1929 Wolpe composed a setting of Kurt Schwitters’ Anna Blume for a tenor clown on a bicycle. After a period of intensive absorption in Schoenberg-influenced chromaticism, he dedicated himself to workers’ music, until he fled the Nazis and went to Vienna in 1933, where he briefly studied with Webern. But Dada stayed with him, as his lectures and theoretical articles attest. The concept of simultaneity was a crucial premise for Wolpe, particularly in his late-period works, and he is quite clear about the provenance of this concept. Describing his Enactments for three pianos (1950-53) he notes:

Many things are happening at the same time, curves hugely expanding, curves enormously contracting, a sound, a hit, a tone, a silence. These are not random situations, they’re highly calculated, but one experiences also the disparity of different qualities of events. … [Y]ou can have in this kind of music a kind which was also one of the early Dada obsessions, or interests, namely, the concept of unforeseeability, non-influence, non-directivity, you cannot explain. It means you cannot infer what is going to happen!” (“Lecture on Dada”)

In his 1960 lecture “On Proportions,” Wolpe proposed a mode of musical operations based on a vocabulary of symmetrical and asymmetrical pitch structures (i.e. proportions) grounded in the play of simultaneities in an abstract musical space. The second half of the lecture, however, conjures up a free-flowing, neo-Dada space in which musical proportional events could be assembled:

The proportions of the audible and the visible are twins of one and the same totality: the formal proof of unalterable nature, and of the nature of confused, inconsistent realities. The pathos of the unintentional arrangements of the wastepaper basket, the disorderly table—the general formal nature of the street scene, alienated synchronism, such pathos is the equivalent of a different, formally intended arrangement. Everything becomes the language of formal distinction, and the language is concrete, like the hieroglyphics of stones, or the distinct, engaged proportion of pitches.

Wolpe’s proportional system underlies the entirety of his late work (from about 1960 on). This considerable body of music is perhaps the most extensive to have been created on the basis of a Dada method. Wolpe’s lifelong commitment to Dada simultaneity predated by two decades John Cage’s pre-indeterminate percussion pieces of the early 1940s. The proportioning of musical works—”the proportioning of proportions” as Wolpe described it—was a common interest of Wolpe, Cage, and Morton Feldman.


John Cage and fluffy cat

The genealogy of an art movement follows approximately the same pattern as a political revolution. What was once a radical and even terrifying idea—universal suffrage, for example—eventually sheds its radical aura and assumes a middle class normality.

This was the fate of Dada/surrealism: its revolutionary impulse was domesticated even as its techniques stocked the instrumentarium of contemporary music. But many of its techniques fuelled the New York avant-garde: Bruitisme (noise music), machine/repetition esthetic, chance/stochastic selection, and disruption of scale (for example, Morton Feldman’s six-hour long string quartet). Also, its aura invested the New York scene with an anti-commercial radicalism hostile to traditional art and especially to commercialism.

There is a psychological chasm between the radical desperation of Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), for example, and the American optimism of John Cage (1912-1992), the classic American “tinkerer,” as he has so often been described. When Wolpe walked out of John Cage’s first “happening” at Black Mountain College, it signaled a schism between the European and American musical avant-gardes. Wolpe had strong objections to chance music; it offended his radical humanism, which relied precisely on the free and individual choice—the human fingerprint—that chance music strove to eliminate.

Dada’s mise en scène was the corpse-strewn landscape of World War I; Wolpe was an anti-Nazi agitator whose works were antifascist polemics. Witness his Battle Music, written at the height of World War II; which (according to Austin Clarkson) was a musical portrayal of Picasso’s Guernica. What could Wolpe have had in common with Cage’s Zen-flavored optimism? While the Dada-influenced works of post-war America were directed against a complacent commercialism, conformism, and cold-war ideological rigidity, looking through the writings and works of John Cage and the Fluxus group, one is struck by just how apolitical it all is.

As early as 1937, Cage was working with Merce Cunningham on dance pieces using noise elements, including found percussion instruments. In 1938 the first prepared piano piece appeared. The 1939, Imaginary Landscape No. 1 featured piano, cymbals, and turntables playing test tone recordings at different and changing speeds. Cage’s work at this point could be assimilated to both Dada and Futurist models (for example, the intonarumore of Russolo). But from the mid ’40s on, Cage fell under the influence of non-Western and “alternative” philosophies—first Indian philosophy, then Meister Eckhart, and finally the Zen aesthetic of silence. In Cage’s 1950 Lecture on Nothing, he stated, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”

Buddhism gave Cage a philosophical framework in which to rework Duchamp’s chance techniques into an aesthetic of pure sound. His credo—”embrace whatever comes along”—was a product of Zen studies, but the idea owes as much to the simultaneity of Dada and related practices as it does to Buddhism. This was the period of his study of the I Ching, which he used as a generator for chance operations aiming at a complete negation of the composer’s will, “free of individual taste and memory.” The 1951 Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radios, although radical in its time and place, was, as we have seen, preceded by the Dada assaults on Beethoven that Wolpe describes above. In his 84 Music for Piano compositions (1952-56), imperfections on ordinary paper were transformed into pitches by adding staff lines and clefs, recalling Duchamp’s assemblages of 1913.

Morton Feldman

If Cage could be construed as a latter-day musical Dadaist, Morton Feldman (1926-1987)—who had studied composition with Wolpe before aesthetically aligning himself with Cage, could be considered his surrealist counterpart. Throughout his life Feldman maintained close personal ties to visual artists, and even some of his titles suggest a surrealist aesthetic: Vertical Thoughts III (1963), Madam Press Died Last Week at 90 (1970), I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg (1971), Crippled Symmetry (1983). His public persona—that of a bluff Jewish Walt Whitman—belies the fragility and nostalgia so characteristic of his music; just as one would not expect that the composer of a six-hour long string quartet could compose miniatures that bring to mind Joseph Cornell’s intimate boxes of found objects. In a certain sense Feldman, like Cornell, was a miniaturist. His characteristic manner is to reiterate a particular gesture in a series of variants whose voicings, pitch content, and shape gradually change over the course of time. The silences separating these “views” allow the listener to experience each of them as a singular moment in the manner of a late Wolpe work; although at a radically slower tempo.

Much of Feldman’s music was composed at a time when music theory extolled transparent and totalizing structure; serial composition fulfilled these expectations. From such a viewpoint, Feldman’s music was “un-analyzable.” Such an approach could never penetrate the surface of his music, whose essence lies in the specific character of sounding events, and not in their abstract organization. But there is still much to be said about the music from an analytic viewpoint. Steven Johnson’s excellent article on Rothko Chapel (1972) carefully describes the relationship between the Mark Rothko paintings, the architecture of the chapel housing them, and Feldman’s composition, all of which were commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil. Johnson applies set-class analysis to the pitch structure of the work, which he understands as a “network of pitch-class adjacent dyads or trichords, spaced so that they interlock or nest within each other. (Steven Johnson, “Rothko Chapel and Rothko’s Chapel,” Perspectives of New Music 32/2, 1994, pp. 18-20.)

But this misses an important aspect of Feldman’s technique: its indebtedness to Wolpe’s principles of symmetry and asymmetry, his careful control over the rate of chromatic circulation (noted by Johnson) and equally careful placement of sounding events in musical space. Feldman was perhaps even more sensitive than Wolpe to the subtle spatial motions that can be achieved through re-voicings of events.


Yoko Ono

There is an element of historical re-enactment in the Cage-influenced Fluxus movement, which began in the early ’60s and continued through the ’90s. The Lithuanian-born artist George Maciunas (1931–1978) organized the first Fluxus event in 1961 at the AG Gallery in New York and the first Fluxus festivals in Europe in 1962. The idea of the “event” originated in John Cage’s class at the New School, which led to the performance scores for “Fluxconcerts.” Participants included artists George Brecht, Al Hansen, Allan Kaprow, and Allison Knowles. Other Fluxus artists included Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, and La Monte Young.

But Fluxus distinguished itself from Dada in its preference for Zen-influenced simplicity, for example in much of the work of Yoko Ono. Ultimately, there were a number of strategies at work in the Fluxus movement: Dada provocations, as in George Maciunas’s Solo For Violin or Larry Miller’s Patina; Koan-like works such as Yoko Ono’s Tape Piece I and Fly Piece; Theater of the Absurd events like Ono’s Wall Piece for Orchestra to Yoko Ono and Ken Friedman’s Family Planning Event. (Note the haiku-like typography.)

George Maciunas: Solo for Violin
Old Classic is performed on a violin.
where pauses are called, violin is
mistreated by scratching the floor with it,
dropping pebbles through f hole, pulling
out pegs, etc.

Larry Miller: Patina
urinate on an egg until it has a nice
patina or until it explodes.

Yoko Ono: Tape Piece I
Stone Piece
Take the sound of the stone aging.

Yoko Ono: Fly Piece

Yoko Ono: Wall Piece for Orchestra to Yoko Ono
Hit a wall with your head.

Ken Friedman: Family Planning Event
Get pregnant for 18 months and have

(For more details on Fluxus performance works, see the Fluxus performance research e-publication 2002 edited by Ken Friedman, Owen Smith, and Lauren Sawchyn.)

Another manifestation of late-20th-century cultural re-enactment can be found in both American and European minimalism. Minimalist music was foreshadowed by the asymmetrical reiterative gestures in Stravinsky’s neoclassical appropriations from the 1920s, which also foreshadowed the normalization of Dada/surrealism. But there are also other antecedents of this style which point even more directly to aesthetic tendencies that are clearly aligned to Dada and surrealism.

For example, Steve Reich’s early music recalls “machine” Dada (Pendulum Music 1968), appropriation—both of African-American speech (It’s Gonna Rain, 1965 and Come Out, 1966) and of third-world musical culture (Drumming 1970-71). While Reich has gone on to create an expressive, even a decidedly personal music—with at least one work (the gorgeous 1981 Tehillim) even hinting at that bête noir of postmodernism, aesthetic transcendence, the technical apparatus of a typical Reich piece often proceeds by attrition, a process of dialectical transformation, which also recalls Dada/surrealist disruptions of scale and time. In Piano Phase in particular, the listener’s time-sense is effectively blurred by its gradual transformations.

A common first reaction to early minimalist works was to condemn them as machine-like and lacking soul; the digital age seems to accept them as machines with soul. This is another case of normative Dada. After all, original Dada’s sadomasochistic fascination with the robotic, machine-like, and repetitive was an expression of horror; but far from manifesting repulsion, minimalism focuses on the hypnotic and lyrical potential of reiteration.


Normative Dada is a common dialect in our current musical language, tamed by the blandishments of mass culture. It offers a whiff of danger, bohemianism, and a radical genealogy. It is highly compatible with progressive politics and the postmodernist blurring of high and low culture. But it is not a revolutionary movement; it is the result of a normalization process. Of course, many individuals in the United States have taken great aesthetic and political risks, hitting rock-bottom in mental institutions or getting jailed for their troubles (the Beats offer a number of examples). But music is weighted differently than other arts. The expense of musical production, a resolutely middle-class training process for musicians, and a two-thousand-year-old heritage are hardly conducive to revolution; nor should they be.

America is a great sponge for radicals; it attracts them, then absorbs them, and even the radical art communities of the ’50s and ’60s have dissolved. This is not to claim that either politicization or institutionalization are desiderata of artistic expression. But it is worth remembering that Dada concealed a significant dose of idealism. Given our current political and cultural situation, this bit of provocation is very much in order.


Matthew Greenbaum
Photo by Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène

Matthew Greenbaum‘s compositions have been presented/performed/commissioned by the Darmstadt Summer Festival, the Leningrad Spring Festival, the JakArt Festival (Indonesia), Hallische Musiktage, the Fromm Foundation, Da Capo Chamber Players, Cygnus, Parnassus, Fred Sherry, Marc-André Hamelin, David Holzman, Stephanie Griffin, the Talea String Quartet, Network for New Music/Penn Council on the Arts, the Group for Contemporary Music, Orchestra 2001, and the Houston Symphony. Recordings appear on CRI, Centaur and New World and a new all-Greenbaum CD is scheduled for release on the Furious Artisans label next year. Greenbaum studied composition with Stefan Wolpe and Mario Davidovsky and was artistic director of the Stefan Wolpe Centennial Festival NY (2002-3). He is currently a professor of composition at Temple University.

Guest Essay

CELIA RABINOVITCH (PhD McGill University, Montreal; MFA, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is an artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Her book, Surrealism and the Sacred: Power, Eros, and the Occult in Modern Art, is widely cited in new approaches to art, literature, creativity, and spirituality. Her writing covers art, the history of knowledge, cultural anthropology, and history of religions. She has held teaching and director appointments at the University of Colorado at Denver, California College of Art, the University of Manitoba, the San Francisco Art Institute, Syracuse University, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Surrealism Through the Mirror of Magic

Let us not mince words:
the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful,
in fact only the Marvelous is beautiful.
André Breton, 1924

Magic as a force

The force of magic flows in two directions. One we may call “energetic magic”, and the other, “ritual magic”. Magic appears as a power that flows in and through nature, people, and things. Merely thinking of it can call it forth, or its influence may manifest unexpectedly. Magic may be manipulated, contaminated, or circumscribed by human acts and creations such as rituals, symbols, meditation, and concentrated intention. Magic bodies forth at the threshold of the sacred, at the boundary where the sacred and profane meet. As a lesser, changeable manifestation of sacred power, magic evokes mystery at the limit between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Magic as a force appears in Biblical stories as an inexplicable sacred energy that appears suddenly in the burning bush, or in the miraculous sign of water changed into wine. The notion of magic is not foreign to western cultures, but its non-rational power remains elusive and challenging.

Anthropologists refer to the energy of magic as mana, a transferable power that flows in and through people and things. A concept of Polynesian origin, mana refers to a supernatural or sacred force that inheres within natural things, and that can be directed or manifested by those able or qualified to use it. It may derive from a proto-Oceanic word that suggests “force of nature” or “ thunder, wind, or storm” and hence is allied with the elemental supernatural forces.1 It echoes the invisible breath, wind, spirit or pneuma (Greek) of classical thought. The power of this force, like wind, like fragrance, is its invisible atmosphere, like a reverberation of sound or a veil of vapor. It leaves only traces. “Knowledge of the invisible is power to transform the visible. It is awesome, fascinating, dangerous knowledge.”2

The imagination and magic are innately connected through a use of matter as metaphor—matter’s ability to represent something else. Magic always employs aspects of matter in its transformations. The force of mana or magic can imbue certain material objects with power. Hence the protective quality of amulets and stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, or quartz, or those natural or man-made images or objects at gateways, thresholds or over a child’s bed that grant a rubric of protective influence. Mana expresses the peculiar feeling and conviction that nature is inhabited by an indwelling spiritual power that takes different forms, and that animates all things. In the early twentieth century, western ethnographers referred to this experiential belief as animism. According to Oceanic cultures, mana forms an active transferable magic, whereas, on the other hand, taboo shows magic’s pollution, shrouding a person or thing in an evil miasma. Taboo has more power than mana, because taboo things contain power and elicit fear and the opprobrium of shunning.

In 1936, Kurt Seligmann, the surrealist artist on whose ideas this exhibition pivots, journeyed to Tahiti. In 1938 he explored the monumental totems of the Tshimshian peoples of British Columbia, Canada. His ethnographic travels allowed him to explore mana, totem, and taboo and led him to describe his experiences in a 1939 article in the surrealist review, Minotaure.

The Occult and Ritual Magic

In another direction, magic flows towards ritual and symbol. Ritual magic courses through manifold aspects of European culture that use occult knowledge to reject the dominant culture of their times. Ritual magic informs recognizable rituals and symbols, especially those that have taken a new life as “rejected knowledge.” Secret or occult rituals, foretelling or premonition, dream interpretation, and the residue of ancient pagan or pre-Christian religions remained dormant until the middle ages, when systems of rejected knowledge originating from pagan mystery religions and the human psyche were subsumed into the grand cross-referencing of classical and Christian symbols known as Renaissance humanism. Archaic religions reemerged as the occult sciences, including alchemy, the tarot, and folkloric healing arts. Greek myths, Biblical narratives, and medieval fairy tales warn of false seers who selfishly misuse magic’s power, falling victim to inevitable destruction. Most religious traditions, from traditional indigenous cosmologies to organized world religions, contain ritual processes and symbols that mark as holy the transitions of birth and death, and other changes of daily life, to enhance an appreciation of the world. Nevertheless, to view magic only as the ritual or occult limits our understanding to its outward shell.

Those unusual figures gifted with magic use the qualities of matter to transform circumstances or events. Christian saints, Biblical prophets, shamans, curanderas, cabalists and alchemists, each by receptivity to the analogies of matter, use the resonance of stone and bone; water, purity, or clarity; or smoke, incense, and perfume to trigger a physical and symbolic change in the individual. Some describe this as directing a life force through a bodily conduit that, like electricity, can illuminate or harm in equal measure. Although this is not a universal notion of magic, it underlies a widespread belief in unseen spiritual forces made active through magic.

Kurt Seligmann designed his bookplate with symbols that read in different ways. The alchemical mark of Saturn on the image’s forehead represents lead, the primordial matter- or “prima material”- that medieval alchemists transmuted into gold as an analogy to the purification of the soul. Saturn has a melancholic and thoughtful temperament; the scythe of Saturn is drawn into the face’s arched left eyebrow, suggesting inquisitiveness and skepticism. Kurt Seligmann’s interest in double images in indigenous art may have inspired this original visual pun of the eyebrow/scythe. The scythe also indicates the sinister, literally ‘left hand’ path of magic. The symbol on the face’s chin is that of Mercury, or “quicksilver”, a mutable metal, named for the Roman god of messages, travel and exchange. Mercury takes us on the soul’s journey through dreams and secret portents.

Magic participates in the reality that it alters. It is both symbol and substance, and therefore indefinable. Simply stated, it is both a verb and a noun – simultaneously an action and a concrete transformation. As anthropologist Alfred Gell points out, “‘spirit’ and ‘essence’ reveal that …an ideal or absolute truth …concretely within reach, would have to be something like a vapor, a distillate of more mundane reality.” 3 In this direction, at the ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi the oracle sat on a platform above a rift in the earth that embodied the mysterious presence of the goddess Demeter. The priestess uttered phrases in a trance state triggered by the geochemical fumes emitted from the split below. With the force of magic, the veil of fumes stirred the oracle to speak in riddles given to priests to interpret. Thus matter and meaning become interfused between Demeter, the earth, and the vapors.

Magic eventually became associated with mere sleight of hand, the “abracadabra” that evokes childish amazement and surprise. Intrigued with the special effects of magic as the heritage of the 19th century occult revival, the surrealists joined with Freud, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madame Blavatsky and the theosophists, and the mesmerists, psychics, and clairvoyants who populated the fringes of respectability. The surrealists’ were drawn to dreams, premonition and fortune telling. The carnival road show, with its theater of traveling musicians, seers, and human curiosities captured the surrealist imagination. André Breton in particular believed in premonitions, and in his autobiographical novel Nadja (1928) he consults apsychic or clairvoyante, Madame Sacco, who, as he says “has never been mistaken about me. The conclusion is evidently on the order of a dream of two extremely disparate images.4 In occult magic, the surrealists found an alternative state of mind that rejected the conventions of logic and state religion. Redemption from the arid air of modern life was there, waiting, awakened by the weird, the uncanny, and the surreal.

Clairvoyants, seers, mystics, and visionaries complemented the surrealist belief in unseen forces and spirits that could be accessed through alternative forms of knowledge that included premonition, precognition, paranormal and extra-sensory perception, and the insight of the imagination. In The Mirror of Magic, Kurt Seligmann wrote, “In every man there is a child that yearns to play, and the most attractive game is occultation, mystery.”5

Rene Magritte took this portrait of his wife Georgette and a friend with only their eyes showing, looking at a table top of mundane objects as if uncovering the magic of ordinary things.

Surrealism and Magic

Surrealism recognizes the force field of magic in both ritual and energetic manifestations. The surrealists understood the currents of magic as expressions of creative energy. Surrealist artists, writers, and thinkers grasped the nature of magic as a force neither completely energetic, nor solely derived from the residual myths and symbols of archaic religions, but arising from the mind itself. In addition to the wellspring of ancient religions expressed through the occult, the surrealists drew directly from the energy of the imagination that Freud linked with the child’s instinctual energy, “a chaos, and a cauldron of seething excitations”. That was the energetic and unpredictable id or “it”, the fount of dreams, and erotic or creative energy—the libidinous imagination. Just as the Id embraced the pleasure of material substances and the contradictions of the dream state, so too did magic.

For the surrealists, the vitality of the creative imagination transcended the limits of reason that had shackled the western European mind since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The visionary imagination could see into reality and uncover the alchemical transformation of dreams in art andpoetry, opening hidden portals in the mind. Surrealism reignited archaic symbols, and intensified the longing of courtly love with the erotic magnetism of amour fou6 or mad love.

Surrealism used both ritual and energetic magic to undermine the instruments of reason and religion that limited the human experience. In the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) André Breton wrote,

“We are still living under the reign of logic... Under the pretence of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices… A part of our mental world has been brought back to light. ... Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream.”

The surrealists rejected religion, particularly Catholicism, and bourgeois European society. By 1929, in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton called for a clean sweep: “Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste to the ideas of family, country, religion.”7At this time, the surrealists had hopes for an alliance with communism, unaware of the dictator Stalin’s rise in the Soviet Union. They strongly opposed the colonization and religious conversion of non-Western cultures that by the mid-nineteenth century had become the conquered dominions of Europe. The indigenous peoples of North and South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia, and their colonial inhabitants, later were drawn into the colonial forces of World Wars I and II—and tragically became cannon fodder for an inherited European conflict.

Early twentieth century ethnographers and anthropologists such as Sir James Frazer, E. B. Tyler, and R. R. Marrett captured the surrealist imagination. Established by earlier adventurers, explorers, and ethnographers, the ethnographic collections of the Musée du Trocadéro in Paris, as well as those of London and Berlin, became treasured surrealist terrain, exquisite sources of alternative thinking that allowed them to understand the pure power of matter and its infinite possibilities. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) originator of the term “surréalisme” (1917) was first among those who promoted ethnographic art. His 1909 article, “On Museums” argues for inclusion in the Louvre “certain artistic manifestations that have been ignored until now. These are works of art from certain regions, certain colonies, such as Australia, Easter Island, New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Tahiti, various African lands, Madagascar, etc.…Until now we have only admitted works of art from these countries intoethnographic collections where they have been conserved only as curiosities…”8The ethnographic attitude was an undercurrent of surrealism, countering the prevailing rationalism and industrialism of Europe. Surrealism grasped the countervailing tendencies of psychoanalysis, with its investigation of the origins of the mind, and of occultism, magic, and ritual, and employed the principles of sympathetic magic as defined by Sir James Frazer and other mythologists. The surrealists uncovered magic as the material embodiment of imagination itself.

Surrealists used this dormant residue of magic in a new way, merging it with their broad knowledge of non-Western belief systems and images, and with thecountervailing tendencies towards magic, supernaturalism and mystical experience that were a subculture of the modern West. In the first Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton writes of the surrealist pursuit of mystery:

We can hope that mysteries which are not really mysteries will give way to the great Mystery. I believe in the future resolution of these two states -- outwardly so contradictory -- which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak. ”

The mystery appeared in the trance state entered by the poet Robert Desnos, whose automatic writing eclipsed the conscious control of the mind. Of the first surrealist practices, automatic writing was intended to reveal the free associations of the subconscious mind and the dream. Words appeared in unfamiliar juxtapositions, with astonishing connections. Automatic writing was accompanied by chance and coincidence. The surrealists believed that chance was the expression of a sacred force that revealed the magical, predestined meaning of everyday life. Jean Arp threw random pieces of paper to create images, while Tristan Tzara wrote poems through chance selection of words. Chance combinations in poetry went beyond “word salad” to suggest strange metaphors that excited an obscure sense of significance and to waken the symbol making capacity of the mind. Was this mere coincidence, fortuitous serendipity, or was it the force of magic that made connections between disparate words and shapes to open this world of imagination?

This “exquisite corpse” drawing refers to the element of chance that occurs in the surrealist drawing process. An artist would begin the drawing, then fold the paper so that the next artist cannot see the earlier one. The “exquisite corpse” would often combine animal or human parts, creating a new being. This transformation and merging of human and animal is a characteristic of Inuit shamanic art.

The first domain of surrealism is the mind. The surrealists explored the mind to excavate the source of creative energy, the origins of love, and the impulse for imagination. The imagination as a filter for understanding the world as metaphor, the world as sacred, and the world as animated, was also pursued by the early anthropologists who sought the origins of culture, and to whom they looked for ideas. The creative imagination was for them, the source of all forms. From nothingness all things arise, and from formlessness that form appears. This theme of active emptiness is common to many spiritual traditions, including creation myths, Theosophy, Buddhism, and the occult sciences. Surrealism’s interest in these traditions was never its sole concern; rather surrealist artists pursued the liberation of the human imagination.

Vision, of course, is concentrated in the eye, but visionaries believe in the mind’s eye—the third eye, the eye of enlightenment. To understand the surrealist pursuit of magic and the imagination, we must turn to the inner vision and psychic knowledge that forms a counterpoint to Freud’s scientific investigation of the unconscious.

This photograph demonstrates Kurt Seligmann’s insight and humor in a compressed and simple image. Holding his glasses – used to make vision more acute –he lets one lens frame his left eye, while the other encloses empty space, creating a sort of third eye. In Theosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, and esoteric traditions, the Third Eye refers to the mind’s eye—the source of insight, interior vision and dream. Here Seligmann’s third eye—the empty lens—suggests the void as the source of all things, the imagination from which all images body forth. Seligmann’s interests in visionary experience, magic, and the occult are embodied in this delightful and whimsical image.

Through the Mirror of Magic, Kurt Seligmann, and surrealism

The Mirror of Magic (1948) was as unique as its creator. Seligmann (1900–1962) was born in Basel, Switzerland at the turn of the century—at the height of the symbolist movement and the occult revival in Europe. An artist and scholar of Jewish origin, he absorbed elements of fantastic art and symbolism of Fuseli and Arnold Bocklin from his native country. Seligmann moved to Paris in 1929, and associated with fellow Swiss artists Giacometti, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Meret Oppenheim and Le Corbusier. He joined Jean Arp’s Abstraction/Creation movement and took up with the surrealists, although he did not formally join the movement until 1937. While pursuing his art, he became an ethnographer of Pacific Northwest indigenous art in the 1930’s. Seligmann left Paris in 1938, under the auspices of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and with the help of Maurice Barbeau, a well-known ethnologist at the Canadian National Museum.

Seligmann actively sought to help remove other artists from World War II Europe to New York, where he lived from 1939 until the end of his life. In August of 1940 André Breton, the “magus” or “pope” of surrealism, wrote to request that he help set up a lecture tour starting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that allowed Breton to escape France with an American cultural visa. Seligmann contacted director Alfred Barr, and arranged for Breton’s invitation. Seligmann’s vision embodied that peculiar surrealist mix of indigenous and occult elements that drove the movement. In 1943 Breton expelled him from surrealism after a disagreement on the meaning of a tarot card. Despite surrealism’s regrettable internal politics, Seligmann was sanguine about this rejection. He had already established himself in New York as an extraordinary thinker and artist. He remained close to Yves Tanguy, André Masson, and Wolfgang Paalen, exchanging ironic letters about surrealism and André Breton.

Seligmann brought a new appreciation of magic to the fore in his exploration of indigenous cultures of Oceania and the Pacific Northwest. In Europe, he began a collection of rare books on magic and the occult, further expanding his library that now resides at Cornell University. He was a source to surrealists interested in the “primitive” and in non-western art, in ancestors, in the totem, in indigenous religion and occult magic. Using his cherished library as well as his ethnological research, his research culminated in TheMirror of Magic, first published in 1948 by Pantheon Books. Although it has since fallen into disuse, TheMirror of Magic was a wholly original contribution to the fields of comparative mythology and religion. It attempted a global view of magic without western bias, and offered insights from a religio-aesthetic perspective. Seligmann’s TheMirror of Magic prefigured writings by Mircea Eliade, whose Patterns in Comparative Religion was published ten years later, or Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, also published by Pantheon, 1949. These comparative mythologists sought a primal or “monomyth” behind mythology.

Seligmann’s worldview derived from a sympathetic, and not altogether abstract understanding of the Cabala as a giant system of cross-referencing between physical, and spiritual worlds. The Cabala could be applied simultaneously to Judaic, Christian, indigenous and occult symbols. Seligmann approached indigenous artists as individuals and colleagues, neither setting himself above them, nor idealizing their exotic value. He found indigenous art highly aesthetic, but unlike his surrealist colleague Wolfgang Paalen, never exploited native art for profit or used it to create a theory. Instead, he used the principle of sympathetic magic in his sculpture and painting, combining animal, human, and objects to create new beings. Seligmann created his own universe of ambiguous or concealed figures in a state of transformation in an imaginary theatrical space.

The Ethnographic Attitude

The Mirror of Magic embodies Seligmann’s passionate curiosity about magic, supernaturalism and religions. It was one of the first books in the field of religion, after Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890, 1900, 1906-15) to present religious phenomena as vital, global, and integral to aesthetic feeling. Seligmann predicted the later development of history of religions and cultural anthropology. One may speculate that his workas an artist and a scholar was neglected due to his different fields, and to the commonplace assumption that artists cannot be scholars and vice versa. In The Mirror of Magic, Seligmann explains his drive to write this book: As an artist, I was concerned with the aesthetic value of magic and its influence upon man’s creative imagination. The relics of ancient peoples indicate that religio-magical beliefs have given a great impulse to artistic activities, a stimulus which outlasted paganism and produced belated flowers in the era of Christianity”. Seligmann believed that the imagination was an alternative source of knowledge that transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary—enlarging the experience of life itself.

Dissenting surrealists such as André Masson, Joan Mirò, and Robert Desnos contributed to Documents, the surrealist art magazine edited by Georges Bataille from 1929–1930 thatjuxtaposed ideas in archaeology, ethnography, and fine arts, to oppose Breton’s control of the movement. The collector Georges Wildenstein financed Documents. Georges Rivière (1897–1985), museum theorist and ethnographer during the rise of surrealism, comments on his involvement in Documents and explains the science and culture in the France of that time:

In its illustrations could be seen side by side a Zapotec urn and a scene from the Folies Bergères, or a distribution map of the porter’s yoke, and a cover from a copy of Pieds nickels...Such was the encounter of two realms: the realm of science which had long been developed by students of Africa, America and Oceania, and the aesthetic which had been discovered first by cubism and then by surrealism: realms that had as a common factor their non-classical nature. (Rivière, 1968).9

By coincidence, Kurt Seligmann met and married Arlette Paraf in 1935; she was the granddaughter of Nathan Wildenstein, the originator of Wildenstein Gallery, Paris, London and New York. Through her he would have had access to various ethnographers, archaeologists, and the Wildenstein personal collection.

In The Mirror of Magic Kurt Seligmann explains his choice of a broad approach and his appeal to the general reader. He does not promote occultism, sects, or ideologies:

“Magic has been treated mainly in two different ways. The specialized works of scholars are confined to specific types, aspects, and eras; generally they are written for the scientific reader. On the other hand, there are innumerable publications of questionable value expounding ideas rarely based on fact, but twisting the truth into a narrow system of a special brand: that of the sectarian of the occult. Only a few authors on magic have written for the general reader, a fact which will perhaps justify this publication”.10

Seligmann was influenced by Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a book that describes the process of sympathetic magic in terms of the poetic imagination. Frazer understood the classics, and he abstracted the archaic Greek approach to matter as “the part suggests the whole” and that“things act on each other at a distance, through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to another by invisible power”. 11 Frazer’s study of magic greatly influenced Seligmann. As Seligmann writes: “I make no claim to original scholarship; my investigation has been guided by such scholarly works as those of J. G. Frazer, A. von Harnack, G. L. Kittredge, Fr. J. Boll, L. Thorndike and others.”

Seligmann took the idea of sympathetic magic, and using “the part suggests the whole” played with magic, for example, in his object created for the surrealist exposition of 1938. His work L’Ultrameuble (Ultrafurniture), an ottoman composed of legs, is a sympathetic pun on the act of sitting, whereby the legs encourage us to mimic them by sitting. Seligmann may have intended to shock his audience because these women’s legs, wearing stockings and heels, and revealing the knees, would have affronted a conservative audience. His transgression of this taboo of female modesty had the contradictory effect of both attracting and offending a conventional viewer. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Kurt Seligmann’s father had a furniture department store in Basel; young Kurt would have been exposed to the furniture stock while growing up, just as Man Ray was exposed to his father and mother’s tailoring business.

Mana and Animism

In 1936, Kurt Seligmann and Arlette Paraf Seligmann journeyed to French Tahiti for their honeymoon; not just an exotic location, Tahiti provided the elements that had previously obsessed Seligmann. Polynesian and Tahitian indigenous objects figured in the collection of the Musée de Trocadéro in Paris, frequented by the surrealists, and particularly treasured by André Breton. The Trocadéro ethnographic collection collaged anthropological art, objects and documents, providing the surrealists with insights, which they conveyed in journals such as Revue Documents. Seligmann was familiar with these resources, and, possessed of a fine visual memory, made the connection between the formal elements of Polynesian and Oceanic art with the art of the indigenous Pacific Northwest Coast peoples such as the Tsimshian, with whom he lived for four months in 1938. One of the currents of connection was the mana or animistic force that flowed through nature, which Seligmann found transformed in the animal totems of the Northwest.

For Seligmann and the surrealists, the conception of mana relied on earlier research. Magic and mana, uncanny phenomena, occult belief systems, the alchemical transformation of base metals into gold, and the serendipity of tarot cards all provided opportunities to open to a new magical state of mind of the surreal. The dominant western European culture rejected these survivals of archaic thought that in the medieval period developed into the secret or occult sciences. Occultism embraces the idea of a sacred mystery that inheres in all things. The mystery is revealed by the principle, “one in all, all in one”, that has become known as “the perennial philosophy”. As Kurt Seligmann explains in the Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, 1946, in an interview with director James Sweeney , “Though my interest in magic can hardly be brought into immediate relationship with my work as a painter, there is something about magic which fascinates me. It is not in vain that we speak of magical arts. Magic philosophy teaches that the universe is one, that every phenomenon in the world of matter and of ideas obeys the one law which co-ordinates the All. Such doctrine sounds like a program for the painter: is it not his task to shape into a perfect unity within his canvas the variety of depicted forms? The presuppositions of high magic: 'All is contained in All,' and 'All is One' are the basis of my forthcoming book, The Mirror of Magic.”

Totem and Taboo

In 1938, Kurt Seligmann independently investigated the indigenous North American cultures of the Pacific Northwest in a lengthy visit to British Columbia, Canada. His ethnographic work used drawings and oral history to record the Tsimshian, an aboriginal or first nations people.

The term totem comes from an Ojibwe term that means a personal totem or animal spirit protector. Totem animals extend their distinctive features to the clan. Certain animals such as the eagle, frog or wolf or crow, raven, or bear, have magical protective powers as totems or images of kinship. Seligmann was drawn to totem poles, to the phenomenon of the totem and how it formed a protective, emblematic image for kinship, and avoided the negative presumption of native art as lower in the evolutionary scale. While he certainly participated in the bohemian romance of the noble savage—or perhaps the artist—he avoided using the presuppositions of European art history. Seligmann valued the totem poles of the Tsimshian as art, and he encouraged an exchange between the clan and the collector that he hoped would respect the totem’s intent and preserve it. His receptivity to indigenous, non-European cultures lends significance to his ethnographic research and his aesthetic feeling for those nations. Ironically, the European sovereign nations viewed both the colonial emigrants and the indigenous peoples as colonial subjects, and therefore as less refined or evolved, according to Darwinism. The surrealists uncovered these political tensions between European and non-European cultures by advocating for the imaginative and metaphorical content of non-Western art.

Shamanism, Transformation, and Hybridity

In addition to Seligmann’s interest in First Nations peoples and their art, surrealists were attracted by the creativity and inventiveness of the Canadian Inuit. They were familiar with the art of the North through the ethnographic collections of Europe, and were fascinated by research on shamanism that could be linked to magic, healing, and totem animals for the benefit of an individual or clan. To the degree that the shaman could exert the force of a totem to protect the people she or he treats, those people would be touched by the current of magic, healed of malevolent influence, or moved through transitions such as birth or death, and enveloped by the protective forces called forth by the shaman.

In traditional aboriginal cultures, such as the Inuit, when the shaman takes on the characteristics of an important animal—the seal, the polar bear, the whale—he wears the fur, feathers or teeth of that animal to absorb through these “animal parts” the presence of the entire animal. Additionally, the postures and gestures of the dance ritual take on the posture and gesture of the creature or spirit invoked. In shamanism and archaic performance, the shaman must understand and recreate the inward armature of the creature—the pulse of posture and gesture. Inuit sculptors, in capturing posture and gesture, use the thrust and potentiality of the inner movement, mining the essence of the totem animal or force.

The Inuit art available to European collections often showed animal and human figures merging in a spectrum of transformations. Animals and humans became new shamanic beings described naturally and not as fearsome. The shamanic influence is felt in the identification of human and animal figures, and in carvings of various nature spirits such as Sedna, the sea goddess. These shamanic expressions reinforced the surrealist investigation of visual puns in art from the visual to a psychological level. This psychological double reading extended into the surrealist drawings of the ‘exquisite corpse’, to free associations and unexpected juxtapositions in poetry, and to a new level of psychological double meanings in art.

Kurt Seligmann not only understood the power of shamanic identification with animal or supernatural figures, he also fully grasped the principles throughwhich the imagination was able to achieve this connection. In his etchings, La Sorcière (The Witch),1936 andLe Prestidigitateur (The Magician), 1933, Seligmann merges human, still life, and animal parts to form new creatures of magical origin. La Sorcière is composed of male female, plant and still life elements. The backbone of the witch is composed of a spiny plant, the breast is an architectural cupola, and the head is a mask that covers a flagpole from which ribbons wave in the wind. La Sorcière is formed from extraordinary connections created by the artist’s imagination to create a new, ineffable being that can only be understood through the artist’s supernatural and interior vision.

A prestidigitator conjures by sleight of hand and rehearsed magic tricks. Here Seligmann depicts the conjurer as an artist, composed of an easel, a flute-like musical instrument, the wood of the stretcher bars and measuring implements building to a totem mask at the top. The totem mask, with a bearlike snout, wears a Napoleonic hat, and the entire figure is bifurcated by the stretcher bar that rises to the top of the easel. As if to refer to the artist’s sleight of hand, the artist’s leg is revealed dancing an unstable jig towards the bottom of the easel, and this constructed figure floats above an infinite background, where the forms of a sphere and triangle evoke the rational geometric forms of the Greeks and Egyptians. The classical past recedes not just an optical recession but a psychological one that gives way to magic.

First published in 1929, Le monde au temps des surréalistes (The World in the Age of the Surrealists),shows a radical revision of the world map, with the exotic or non-western regions made large, and the European and Western countries made small. The surrealist inversion of the cultural map was not only humorous; it illustrates a point as well. Alaska, Labrador, the Arctic, Russia, Easter Island, Tibet, and China, and Mexico are more important in the spatial hierarchy of this map than all the western European nations combined. The Surrealist Map of the World illustrates that the surrealists valued the art of traditional, non-western, and aboriginal cultures. They understood that art had the power to convey a world invisible to the human senses, but made visible in form by the supreme ability of the imagination.

Ironically, this seemingly primordial world of authentic intensity and extraordinary images had its own logic of symbols. It did not bow to European notions of image making. Whereas the surrealist painters such as Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst imagined infinite space, using long horizon lines and empty spaces, these extraordinary and psychologically charged spaces actually existed in the unknown vistas of the Americas. The preternaturally long shoreline that overshadowed the human figure, the clarity of light in the empty desert, the dark rising pines and cedars guarding the Northwest, the crystal air of the white tundra, all revealed the dream of surrealism in an actual material presence. The infinite space of imagination and magic was present, here in the Americas, where the social conventions of Europe no longer held sway. On the southwestern desert, in the Pacific forest, the mythic ancestors stood larger than human beings and foretold the return of origins, the beginning of time and the imagination of matter from which all magic extended. Kurt Seligmann was one of the first artists to look into that dark forest and find the path of magic. Some came before him, and others followed, but he released European culture from the shackles of its imagined primeval memories, into a land with the promise of its indigenous inhabitants at the cusp of a struggle with European values.


Kurt Seligmann (American, born Switzerland 1900–1962)
L’Ultrameuble (Ultrafurniture) shown at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, Paris, 1938
Image taken from La Chaussure by Jean-Paul Roux (1980)

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