The news that Jan Švankmajer had, at the last minute cancelled his attendance at the 2010 conference on surrealism at West Dean seems to have caused a considerable commotion in some circles. Švankmajer’s reasons for cancelling were given as:
“The reason for his absence is that he supports the growing concerns – voiced by surrealists in the Paris group, in the Leeds group, (as well as other individual surrealists in the UK), and internally within the Czechoslovak group, that the conference seeks to establish a spurious distinction between ‘Bretonian orthodoxy’ and ‘Surrealism itself’.“
The London Surrealist Group adds its unequivocal support to this statement.
In giving this support we are aware that many scholars of surrealism, including several involved in the West Dean conference, are people we respect, in some cases they are friends, and we regard them as honest researchers into surrealism, some of them are even active as surrealists, so this is not an attempt to draw a line in the sand between us and the scholarly community, although it does seem necessary to make certain distinctions as clear as possible. In any case, as two members of our group are also active as scholars of surrealism, it would be as hypocritical of us to condemn academic research as such as it would be stupid.
The particular statements that offended Švankmajer as well as many other surrealists appear to create a false or distorted image of surrealism in which two (or more) surrealisms seem antagonistic to each other. While the history of surrealism can scarcely be claimed to be free of conflicts, they have been contained within one movement in which a great deal of variation of every kind has been present. To consider surrealism to be split between Bretonian and non-Bretonian elements is nonsense, but a great deal of nonsense about surrealism seems to go unchallenged, and not just at West Dean.
Witness the exhibition “The Surreal House that the Barbican is currently hosting, which, from the very name, as well as all the information available about the show, suggests a very fundamental misunderstanding and consequent misrepresentation of surrealism. This includes the claim that David Lynch is an important surrealist. Not only is his work quite distinct from the surrealist spirit in many ways, but his own lack of knowledge prevents him from being considered surrealist, the man who once claimed that “Gene Cock-toe is the heavyweight of surrealist cinema”. We are also treated to other artists that no surrealist has ever considered to be surrealist, Louise Bourgeois, the architect Rem Koolhaas etc. As none of us has yet visited this exhibition there can be no real analysis of it until we have seen it, but the available information makes it clear that a consistent misrepresentation of surrealism at every level, perpetrated by curators, the media and too often, not only not challenged, but aided by academics who should, at least, know better.
Then there is the question of attempting to align surrealism with queer theory. The problem here is absolutely not, as some might imagine, the supposed Bretonian homophobia, but the problematics contained within queer theory as a normalizing discourse, as Annie Le Brun remarks: “(it) seeks to blur the borders of sexual roles without disrupting their normalising mechanism.” So when we read that an exhibition, to be organized by the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies will deliberately – strategically – bring Cocteau in to the surrealist fold” we can assure all concerned that they will do no such thing. Only the surrealists could do this and surrealists have always despised Cocteau, not because of his homosexuality, but because he has been regarded as a false poet and an aesthetic whore.
Surely such a claim is based on a misunderstanding of surrealism and of the role of academic scholarship’s relation to a movement that has always defined itself as a revolution, social and political as well as poetic. Nobody outside of surrealism has any rights to make claims for surrealism. They may comment and criticize as they wish, one would hope they would do so in an honest and informed manner, but who is to be considered to be within the surrealist fold is entirely a matter for the surrealists themselves. To claim otherwise is to show a fundamental disrespect to surrealism and to then expect surrealists to cooperate in the falsifying of surrealism is ridiculous.
These issues need further analysis. We hope that in the next few months we can publish a preliminary critique of the relation
between surrealism and queer theory, a review of the “Surreal House” exhibition and more clarifications of surrealist positions on related topics. Meanwhile, we would ask any scholar who is not a mere academic hack to be willing to challenge the misrepresentations of surrealism at every turn.

The London Surrealist Group, June 2010

1. Collective statement “In defence of Orthodox Surrealism” June 2010.
2. Le Brun, Annie: The Reality Overload. Inner Traditions. Rochester, Vermont. 2008
3. http://www.surrealismcentre.ac.uk/research/sexuality/
4. A further misrepresentation of surrealism occurred at Tate Modern, in March, involving four days of screenings of films, which, with a couple of exceptions, were only tenuously connected with surrealism – or, to quote the text that accompanied these screenings ‘…where the tangled threads of the surrealist project and those of queer experimental cinema are reflected from the projector’s blinding beam.’ The choice of the metaphor ‘thread’ is instructive as it underlines this dubious connection and emphasises the weakness of such a link between Queer and ‘Surreal’ theory and practice. However, a bit later on the thread has vanished and we are suddenly presented with the phrase ‘queer surrealist films.’ This collapsing of the two terms into each other is not only wrong but is indicative of the recent faddism concerning the valorisation of queer theory in its clinging to the coat-tails of surrealism, perhaps in an attempt to take the former more seriously?


~ by londonsurrealistgroup on June 20, 2010.

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