What is surrealism? As this anthology superbly documents,footnote＊ it is not a ‘French literary school from the 1920s’, but a vast and ambitious poetic, cultural and political revolutionary movement, a subversive protest, in the name of desire and imagination, against bourgeois civilization. International in its scope, historically open-ended, its aim was nothing less than to combine two of the highest utopian dreams: to transform the world (Marx) and to change life (Rimbaud).
One can also argue that surrealism is the most radical expression of revolutionary romanticism in the twentieth century. It shared with the first romantics the repulsion for the prosaic, ‘philistine’, reified capitalist ethos—the ethos of Rechenhaftigkeit (Max Weber), the mercantile spirit of rational calculation—as well as the desperate desire to re-enchant the world. André Breton himself wrote that surrealism is the tail of the romantic comet, emphasizing however, with typical romantic irony, that it is a ‘strongly prehensile tail’. . .
Associated with communism, Trotskyism and anarchism during its history, surrealism never ceased to search for the subversive treasures—‘the gold of time’ (Breton)—hidden in dream, play, magic, poetry, love.
Penelope Rosemont’s anthology is an outstanding contribution to an authentic and comprehensive image of surrealism as a cultural movement. By recovering the lost revolutionary voices of surrealist women, it fills a serious gap in twentieth-century cultural history as well as women’s history.
Arranged chronologically, the book’s almost three hundred selections by ninety-seven authors start with a marvellous erotic dream-tale by Renée Gauthier, from the first issue of the first surrealist journal, La Révolution surréaliste (1924), and it ends with an insightful essay on
Forty-four images illustrate the plastic arts dimension of the movement. This is hardly enough and one wishes there were much more. Penelope Rosemont deliberately emphasized the written word instead of the images, in contrast to most books on surrealism, which tend to ignore poetry and present only paintings. The limited number of illustrations is compensated for by their quality: the drawings and collages by Toyen, Mimi Parent, Remedios Varo or Rikky Ducornet—just to mention a few names—are haunting experiences not easily forgotten.
Combining scrupulous scholarship and passionate generosity, Rosemont’s remarkable introductions to each of the book’s six sections, as well as her notes on each author, tell the hidden story of surrealist women’s impact on the movement and on contemporary culture. They explode the androcentric and Eurocentric image of surrealism, and reveal an unknown continent, an astonishing cultural map that includes not only Paris and Prague, but also Fort-de-France (Martinique), Cairo, Buenos Aires, Chicago, São Paulo and Montreal. Moreover, they highlight the mutual links between surrealism and many other radical cultural and political currents : Marxism, anarchism, pan-Africanism, feminism, ecology, situationism, anti-colonialism.