Svankmajer and West Dean – the Stankov Report


The discussion began by noting that during the conference there seemed to be a perception that surrealism had a prejudice against homosexuality and that Švankmajer’s withdrawal from participation in the conference had something to do with this. Švankmajer said that this was nonsense as must surely be apparent to anyone who has seen his films; indeed Krzysztof Fijalkowski mentioned that at the conference he had been told after the film was shown at the conference that Virile Games could be read in the light of Queer Theory. Švankmajer said that people often find whatever they want in his films and recounted that an Israeli once told him that his film Otesanek (Little Otek) was an allegory of the Middle East conflict. Although he thought this ridiculous, he has no objection to people responding to his film in any way they like. However, they should not attribute their subjectively formed views to him.

The discussion then moved on to a more general issue of misrepresentation and especially of the disturbing tendency to make judgements about the past based upon contemporary issues and terms that the actors of the past could not possibly have known about. In surrealist criticism, for instance, Nadja’s madness and Breton’s response to it are often anachronistically treated as though Breton should have been aware of all of the developments in the treatment of the insane that have taken place since that time. This seems to represent a failure of a sense of history. In the same context and returning to the question of homosexuality, the participants all said that they had never discovered any evidence of any surrealist being excluded on the grounds of their homosexuality. Those who have tried to claim that surrealism has been intolerant of homosexuality have frequently distorted facts or taken them out of context and a tendency was especially noted in which the simple fact of not having spoken about a subject provided evidence of repression. The number of homosexuals who have participated within surrealism gives the lie to the idea that surrealists have anything against homosexuality as such.

A concern was raised that the West Dean conference responded to the increasing managerialism at work throughout modern culture. In its themes and how its overall framework had been established, it seemed to have taken up a fashionable discourse in a way that may have had more to do with the requirements and agendas set by funding organisations than by a need to address vital issues in a rigorous way. This was equated with current difficulties faced by the Czech-Slovak Group, since the new governments in Czechia and Slovakia seem to be embarked on a course which, following economic logic, will lead inevitably to the destruction of living culture through the promotion of a false cultural heritage that serves nothing but the needs of tourism.

The question was then raised as to why, given these facts, Švankmajer had accepted the West Dean invitation in the first place? He replied that he had done do, as he always did on such occasions, out of friendship, specifically because he had been asked by Dagmar Motycka Weston, but also out of respect for Dawn Ades and Roger Cardinal, whom he understood were participants and whose work he respected. He was unable to read anything of the conference literature since he does not understand English, but when concerns about its import were raised within the Czech-Slovak and Leeds Surrealist Groups, he had the documents translated into Czech and was appalled by what he considered to be such a falsification of surrealism that he could not accept to be part of it. He felt he had been invited in order to play a kind of puppet role that would give authenticity to a phenomenon he has observed especially among Czech art historians whereby they construct a so-called ‘surrealism’ which responds not to what surrealism itself is or has been but to what they want it to be – they use the word ‘surrealism’, but speak about something else. He had thought that things were better in Britain, but this incident has made him realise that this is a broader problem. He emphasised that he will never collaborate with falsification and has refused many invitations in the past because he felt that those inviting him were doing so for dubious reasons, notably a few years ago he withdrew from speaking at an exhibition in Prague devoted to ‘Imaginative Art’ when it became apparent that it involved serious distortions of surrealism. The problem is that so many people seem to see surrealism only in their own narrow, usually aesthetic, terms, which they detach from the living reality of what surrealism actually is.

It was noted at this point that during the West Dean conference delegates had stated that surrealists have contempt for academics. Bruno Solarik and Bertrand Schmitt both responded that this was patent nonsense, as a glance at Analogon will immediately reveal. From the beginning it has been edited in collaboration with some of the leading Czech and Slovak intellectuals. There are currently six non-surrealists on the editorial board, two of whom (Jirí Brabec and Josef Zumr) have served since the very first issue in 1969, which is longer than any of the surrealists. Each issue of Analogon includes many essays not only by Czech and Slovak intellectuals and historians unconnected with surrealism, but also translations of important texts from around the world on any topic that is of interest to the current concerns of the group. What they object to among some academics, however, is the way in which new categories are so often introduced to say something ‘new’ purely for the sake of it or to advance the career of the researcher and in a way that has no basis in fact. A particular case was cited of the text on Toyen published in the current Papers of Surrealism, which both Solarik and Schmitt had read in the previous few days, and which each considered to be a concoction responding to nothing but the author’s own subjective interpretations. It makes numerous dubious and unsupported statements about Toyen and shows a woeful ignorance not only of surrealism but also of Czech culture. In particular it ignores the fundamental fact that in surrealism art work is not personal expression but an activity of the spirit expressed through exploration of themes of particular concern to the artist. Toyen’s painting was concerned to explore a range of experiences that were of interest to her in a broad sense and her work cannot simply be taken as evidence for her own sexual preferences. This article they considered to be a particularly bad example of an increasingly common trend by which academic research is turned into a commodity. What the surrealists are opposed to is not academic research but bad scholarship, that is academic research which narrows its subject, ignores or distorts moral and existential issues, and is not based upon empirical fact. This leaves the way open for gross ideological and conceptual distortions and encourages intellectual opportunism. Of course, there is nothing wrong with developing new angles and perspectives, but this should emerge from empirical engagement with the material and not be imposed on to it in order to conform with theories that happen to be currently fashionable.

At this point the discussion was brought back to West Dean and another issue which led Švankmajer to withdraw from participation, which concerns an essay written by Roger Cardinal on ‘Surrealism and the Paradigm of the Creative Subject’, originally published in 1993 in Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (eds Maurice Tuchman and Carol S. Etiel), Los Angeles Count Museum of Art & Princeton University Press. František Dryje (who doesn’t read English), had commissioned a translation of this essay as a lead article for issue 60 of Analogon concerned with ‘outskirts, periphery and margins’, and including a selection on Outsider Art. Upon reading the translation, however, Solarik, Kateřina Piňosová and Bertrand Schmitt were appalled by what they considered its anti-surrealist argument. Solarik at first thought it must be a bad translation and therefore read the original but was astonished to find that it was perfectly correct. He then began writing a critique of the article, which he happened to have finished just as Švankmajer had become aware of the content of the West Dean programme. When he read the translation and Solarik’s response he equated the two issues and, since Roger Cardinal was a participant at West Dean, it was a further factor that made it difficult for him to attend the conference. Švankmajer stated that for him this was an issue of friendship and respect. He admired Cardinal’s work and this was one of the reasons he had initially been happy to accept the invitation. However, he considered this article a kind of betrayal in its approach to surrealism and madness, which he felt capitulated to the worst misunderstandings about surrealism and appeared to have been written with a view to flattering its intended audience rather than presenting a properly considered scholarly argument. What was especially offensive was the contention that Artaud, by actually becoming insane, was the true surrealist, something which not only distorts surrealist ideas but also trivialises the personal tragedy of Artaud’s life. The direction of the argument seemed to merge with the apparent aspirations of the organisers of the West Dean conference to establish a false and ideologically inflected opposition to surrealism as it actually is and has been throughout its history.

The question of Queer Theory was then raised. How was it understood in Czechia? Solarik said that he understood it as having to do with the formal fashion for emancipation, with an emphasis on the rights of sexual minorities. Fijalkowski, Richardson and Walker explained their understanding of it. In response, Schmitt said that it seems to be a variant of gender studies, which has been especially popular in France. The participants wondered if Queer theory was something specific to Anglo-American academic culture which had not been diffused into a broader international context.

This report has been agreed by Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Michael Richardson, Bertrand Schmitt, Bruno Solarik, Jan Švankmajer and Ian Walker as an accurate rendering of their discussion that took place on Friday 2nd July 2010 at Horní Staňkov, Czechia.


~ by londonsurrealistgroup on July 17, 2010.

4 Responses to “Svankmajer and West Dean – the Stankov Report”

  1. […] See the article here: Svankmajer and West Dean – the Stankov Report « LONDON SURREALIST … […]

  2. hum…this sounds a bit like today’s well meaning communists awkwardly trying to defend the past misbehaviours of their like as regards male homosexuals!It is a well documented fact that very few gay surrealists known as such could find a place at the group’s table and tha those who had a seat had better keep a low profile if they didn’t want to face slander or disdain;pretending otherwise is a post-mortem affront to Crevel and others and whatsmore a blatant lack of honesty and respect for today’s gay artists who might feel some appeal to this artistic movement-shame on you!!

    • Dear Chris
      One note of apology, your comment remained stuck awaiting approval from us, unnoticed.

      Having got that out the way, I have to say that you seem to be labouring under some misapprehensions on several levels. Firstly, you refer to “this artistic movement”. This surely can not be surrealism, which has never described itself as an artistic movement. The fact that surrealism has appealed to many painters, writers and so on does not make it an artistic movement any more than, say christianity, which has produced a great deal of art over the centuries.

      Secondly, in response to your comments on the gay issue, how “well documented” is this? I would have to suggest that in fact there are a series of reported incidents, quotes and so on that might be suggestive of homophobia in some cases, but they do not constitute a very solid case against surrealism as such.

      Furthermore, I suspect that your opinion is very pariscentric, based on reports of Breton’s reported behaviour and remarks, not on surrealism as a whole. If we would desire to defend Breton against the assumption of homophobia (not against a proper enquiry into this alleged facet of his personality) we would certainly refute the allegation that “few gay surrealists…could find a place at the group’s table”. One has only to mention Mario Cesariny in Portugal, who was well-known to be gay and this has never been a problem with any other surrealist in any country.

      Our problem is, in fact, quite other. We object to surrealism being co-opted into the service of other people’s ideologies and more limited purposes, that, regardless of whether surrealism may be sympathetic to their overall purpose, does not represent surrealism as such. So, attempts to co-opt surrealism as a sort of artistic wing of a political party, artistic attempts to represent surrealism as an art movement, deprived of its deep philosophical and political roots, are all met with refusal. In this instance we have staged our refusal against the attempt to fit surrealism within the procrustean bed of queer theory.

      As we attempted to make clear, there’s no objection to some kind of examination of the issues, but we resent the dishonesty of some academic trying to foist Jean Cocteau onto the public as a surrealist when it is clear to anybody who knows anything about surrealism that the snob, social climber and false poet has no place in the surrealist revolution. As far as we know, just about every shade of sexual difference is, and usually has, been represented within the surrealist movement. It would be foolish to pretend that there never was an problem at all among some surrealists, some of Breton’s comments do suggest he had some problems with gay men, although it is worth remembering he was born at the end of the 19th cetury and when he died in 1966 homosexuality was still illegal in most countries, so it would seem that he was at least rather more advanced in his views than establishment opinion. On the other hand, claims of a clear and unequivocal homophobia affecting Breton are not supported by a great deal of evidence. In many cases such claims are made by enemies of surrealism or by those with an agenda such as the claims made against surrealism by some neo-feminists who have grievously misrepresented the movement.

      So, shame on you, Chris for assuming so much and believing so much with so little evidence.

      Stuart Inman

      • Perhaps I should spell out more simply: we are not interested in trying to cover up some shameful episode in surrealist history, where any such thing exists we think it necessary to confront it. What we refute is a series of assumptions about surrealism that demonises the movement for positions it has never held.

        It is certainly true that various statements made over surrealism’s more than 80 year history can not be expected to be greeted with unequivocal approval today, even from us. So, for instance, wriitngs on colonialism from the 20’s, while obviously well-intentioned, might now seem patronising to the colonised. Similarly, the surrealists of the 20’s can seem sexually chauvinistic in our era, but a progression can be seen in surrealist attitudes, there’s nothing here that is monolithic, and that includes Breton’s own attitudes. While he was never inclined to forget his old-fashioned manners towards women, he was perfectly capable of appreciating them, not just as muses or decoration, as some have attempted to assert, but as equal partners in the surrealist adventure and as intellectual friends.

        Our own views form a continuum with those of our predecessors, they are not necessarily identical, we obviously are aware of the changes in ideas and attitudes in society, although we can’t guarantee agreeing with them all, after all, we consider the mainstream of society to be unforgiveably retrogressive.

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