Surrealism Rules Eternal

15. 3. 2017

In Central Europe, every realism must be to some extent surrealist. This is why surrealism in its most interesting embodiments was a language in which artists struggled with the traumatic history of the region.

Surrealism, as we know, is a French invention. It was born in Paris in the 1920s and like all avant- garde movements it was full of revolutionary energies targeted at the social, economic and cultural order of the bourgeois world. At the same time, to a larger extent than any other avant-garde (perhaps with the exception of expressionism), it remained mired in the past. It was fascinated with its artefacts: old factory buildings, industrial objects, mannequins, dusty prints, folk traditions, esoteric spirituality, astrology and alchemy, gothic literature and penny novels.

In its program of rebellion against the “iron cage of modernity,” against the constraints imposed by modernity on free artistic, creative and erotic expression, surrealism was strongly indebted to the tradition of broadly conceived European Romanticism. Just like the utopian Romantic visions, the utopias of surrealism were permeated with melancholy, doubt and nihilistic resignation.

Perhaps this combination of revolutionary utopian energies and fascinations with the artefacts of the past, optimism of the liberated imagination and a nihilistic, disenchanted look at reality, is the source of the movement’s popularity in Central and Eastern Europe. Since the 1930s it has been a language which intellectuals from the region (visual artists, writers, filmmakers, critics) use to speak about its history and about their place in Europe. According to Piotr Piotrowski, especially during the “interregnum” between World War II and the establishment of socialist realism, surrealism became a universal language of the region’s visual arts, expressing the emotions of local intellectual elites observing the collapse of the old order, the drawing of the Iron Curtain, and trying to imagine a utopia somewhat different than the one installed with the help of Soviet tanks.

Stalinism survived the surrealist episode in this part of the world, pushing surrealism in literature and visual arts underground. But in the era of post-Stalinist liberalization it returned with a vengeance in another medium—cinema, where its impact resonates to this day.

In the Shadow of Stalin

Let us go back to the beginning. In the case of the history of Central European surrealism this beginning is Prague. It was in the 1930s in the Bohemia region that the first surrealist avant-garde was born. Czech surrealist manifesto was signed in 1934 by a group headed by the poet Vítězslav Nezval. It included the painter and poet Jindřich Štyrský, psychoanalyst Bohuslav Brouk, critic Karel Teige, and painter Toyen (Marie Čermínová). Their manifesto was announced ten years later than the French one, but by then they all had been long active on the Czech artistic scene. In the 1920s they formed the group Devětsil. Under its aegis Teige and Nezval formulated the foundations of the program of Poeticism, a literary current which, as Nezval wrote, “did not want to invent new worlds, but to order the human world in such a way that it would be a living poem.”

Toyen and Štyrský were members of a painting movement called Artificialism, its manifesto proclaiming a desire for poetry which would “fill the gaps between forms of reality and [.] liberate reality from itself.” The program of looking for poetry in everyday things and of implementing a politic utopia in reality bring both these currents close to surrealism. The same can be said about the interests of Devetsil—folklore, astrology, eroticism and leftist politics. This allows us to look at the adoption of the surrealist cause by the Czechs not as an act of imitation, but as an encounter of two movements aspiring to the same goal and following similar, although separate paths.

At an early stage, Czech surrealists sent a letter to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, where they wrote as follows: “We consider it our duty to inform you that […] we founded a surrealist group, which sets before itself the task of exploring and developing human expression in the most versatile and revolutionary way, following the precepts of dialectical materialism.” The authors of the letter invoked the freedom of artistic expression, alleging that the necessity of this freedom was contained in “Stalin’s speech at the 17th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.” And it was the attitude to Stalinism which later put members of the group at odds with each other and led to its disintegration.

In 1935, French surrealists led by André Breton and Paul Eluard visited Prague. Breton gave a speech, which diagnosed a profound crisis of Europe in the shadow of Fascism. As Lenka Bydžovská points out, an equally pessimistic diagnosis was presented (surrealistically enough) in the same year in Prague in a lecture of Edmund Husserl, and that similar sentiments were echoed by Rudolf Carnap, then working at the German University in Prague—logical positivism, phenomenology and surrealism met in one place and time in their diagnosis of the crisis of Europe.

The surrealists addressed their hopes for resolving the crisis in one direction—to the East. Eluard wrote from Prague to his ex-wife Gala: “I think that Prague is our gateway to Moscow.” But Moscow’s interest in surrealism was constantly waning, due to its cultural policy of withdrawing from all avant-garde movements for the sake of Socialist Realism. In 1934, Nezval was invited to the Congress of Soviet Writers and came back much irritated, because his ideas were ignored and he came against blunt dogmatism.

Yet it was Nezval who remained loyal to Moscow to the very end, which was the cause of discord first with Breton, and then with the rest of the surrealists. The Moscow trials of 1938 mark the watershed here. Breton and the majority of surrealists condemned the bloody Stalinist spectacle, Nezval in turn responded by dissolving the Czech group and his conflict with Paris came to a head. After the war he became the court poet of the new regime, writing odes celebrating Stalin. The rest of the group were unable to adapt to the reality of Stalinist Czechoslovakia. Toyen choose exile in Paris. Karel Teige died of a heart attack in 1951, mentally exhausted by the press campaign against him, accusing him of “Trotskyism” and “bourgeois degeneration.”


The 1960s thaw in Czechoslovakia involved opening of the culture to forgotten traditions of domestic and European avant-garde. The surrealist tradition was most unequivocally adopted by Jan Švankmajer, who started his career in the 1960s (and is still active). He speaks about himself as a surrealist and an heir of the Rudolfine Renaissance—a period under the reign of Rudolf II (1576–1612) when Prague was the center of European mannerism and alchemist and occult explorations. Švankmajer celebrates this Prague and reaches for writings of authors especially important for surrealists— Sade, Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Lewis Carroll and Horace Walpole.

Two diametrically different visions of the world can be seen in his films. On the one hand we have a pessimistic vision of the world as an arena of constant struggle, a (literal) devouring of the weaker by the stronger. This vision makes the most powerful impression in Jabberwocky inspired by Carroll (1971), where a nursery turns into a scene of fight and cannibalism among toys animated by a puppeteer. The other pole is a libertine affirmation of imagination, freedom and sexuality freed from the principle of biological reproduction. It finds its fullest expression in the Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), a portrait of a group of Prague men and women, each enjoying his or her own idiosyncratic perversion.

A similar libertarian and libertine spirit permeates the film by Jaromil Jireš called Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). It is an adaptation of Nezval’s 1932 novel, a tribute to gothic novel and penny romances. In fabulous settings we observe the story of a girl exploring her femininity, her fantasies revolving around the theme of family, kinship and sexuality. In a dreamlike way the characters fade into other people, successive masks drop away and palimpsests of identity are revealed. The whole work praises the infantile, the sensual, the erotic, the irrational. The villains of the story are figures representing parental, religious and economic power.

According to Jonathan L. Owen, the film is not only an attempt at reviving the forgotten avant- garde tradition, but also at taking up a discussion with the utopian ideas of the moral revolution of the 1960s. Both these things were not well received in Prague two years after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact forces. The critics violently attacked Jireš, but were careful “not to blame Nezval” for this film—for Nezval, although dead by then, was still part of the official canon.

A similar eruption of anarchic content and surrealist imagination is offered by Daisies (1966) by Věra Chytilová, a film articulating the other utopian ideals of the decade: the feminist ones. This portrait of two women who are liberated from the reality principle and enter the screen as a destructive and at the same time liberating force, is still invoked by feminists and cinema historians in the region.

Daisies were adversely received in the 1960s by the still living veterans of surrealism, who charged the film with superficial use of surrealist stereotypes and of “decorative cynicism.” The veterans of surrealism looked much more favorably at the films of the Czech New Wave— artists such as Ivan Passer, Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel. Alison Frank argues that these films, although seemingly realist, are akin to surrealism in their fascination with the poetry hidden in everyday life, in the ambiguity of everyday objects. The focus on the object (especially an old one, no longer in everyday use) as something which—as Nezval wrote in his essay on Murnau’s films— „can touch the past and dreams,” brings the surrealists and the New Wave filmmakers together. One of the main literary champions of the Czech New Wave is Bohumil Hrabal, whose writings are analyzed in the context of surrealist inspirations.

Cinema’s Third Continent

The surrealist movement was also alive in Polish cinema. As the authors of the book Dzieje grzechu propose, perhaps we should consider it as the third major current of Polish cinema, next to the Polish School and the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. Moreover, you can find its traces in the Polish School, for example the famous scene with a Polish cavalryman striking the barrel of a German tank with his sword—Breton would love this image.

Animated film remains an important part of this continent. In the work of such artists as Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Lenica, Daniel Szczechura or Józef Antonisz, we find a surrealist passion for the absurd, nonsense, poetics of the dream, anarchic humor and a radical libertarian message. Perhaps animation—using such techniques as collage, bringing dead objects to life—is a medium particularly predestined for surrealist aesthetics.

As far as cinema with actors is concerned, Wojciech Jerzy Has is the director most often invoked in the context of surrealism. In his films made with Lidia and Jerzy Skarzyńskis, a scenographer and costume maker, he created fantastic, unreal, fairy-tale worlds set in an indefinite past. He plunged his characters in them, placing them in the labyrinths of dreamlike narratives nestled in each other, for example in The Saragossa Manuscript (1964).

But Has is not the only surrealist in Polish cinema. Walerian Borowczyk is equally faithful to surrealist aesthetics in his films. He is the boldest explorer of eroticism in Polish cinema. His films, in which he cast his wife Ligia Branice, exude a dark sensuality. Borowczyk explores the tangle of desire and faith, lust and prohibition, he preaches his sexually libertine gospel. And he falls into a peculiar trap—there is less and less room for artistic eroticism in global cinema. He receives increasingly less money for his films and he is less and less seriously treated by the critics. From an artist celebrated for A Story of Sin (1975) in Cannes he turned into a director who can be hired to make erotic trash like Emmanuelle 5 (1987).

A Story of Sin is the only actors’ movie by Borowczyk filmed in Poland, the rest was made in France. You could venture a claim that surrealism is the default aesthetic code of Polish cinema in exile. You can also see it in the films by Jerzy Skolimowski and Roman Polański made in the West.

Both artists do not reach for props, scenery and plot lines which we would intuitively associate with surrealism—perhaps with the exception of The Tenant (1976). In their films the extraordinary is emanating from everyday reality, in which it is enough to adjust certain elements to endow it with an uncanny quality. Cast into this uncanny reality are the figures of outsiders, lost in the Western middle-class reality, such as Trelkowski from The Tenant, Crossley from The Shout (1978) or Nowak from Moonlighting (1982). But the most interesting in the region, from the point of view of surrealism and the political situation, are films by Andrzej Żuławski and Piotr Szulkin. In the works of these artists you can see an attempt at re-evaluating and transcending the surrealist fantasy about an absolute autonomy of the self or about emancipation through dreams and art.

In Golem (1979), Szulkin tells the story of Pernat, an engraver living in a ruined building in a world of indefinable temporal and geographic coordinates. To his horror, Pernat discovers that perhaps he is an artificial human, a product of an experiment which replaced the real Pernat. “How can we become liberated through imagination, when we discover that our most intimate desires are perhaps not our own, but they were injected in us?” asks Szulkin.

In The Devil (1972), Żuławski reviews the Polish Romantic imagery. The protagonist Jakub, like Gustaw- Konrad from Mickiewicz’s epic poem, undergoes a metamorphosis in a monastery. He turns into an avenger with a razor, wandering in a distorted dreamlike reality (as if taken from a nightmare or a cheap horror novel) and metes out justice for the enemies of Poland. But these fantasies about the absolute sovereignty of the self, standing above the law and society, brutally collide with the reality principle. The devil does not offer to Jakub any liberating Faustian pact—he is a manipulative Prussian provocateur, a secret police agent.

The authorities perceived in the movie an all too clear allegory of March 1968, and shelved it for many years. It is interesting to juxtapose Żuławski’s film with similarly bitter allegories of the Slovakian director Juraj Jakubisko, especially with his feature-length debut Deserters and Pilgrims (1968). This allegorical film presents three survivors from three wars—three global disasters: the First and Second World War and the future nuclear war. In the last episode one of the characters is Death wandering around a post-radiation landscape. The landscape overwhelms it, and finally Death comes to the conclusion that people are fully capable of destroying themselves and that they do not need him any longer. In this way the fantasy about overcoming the reality principle and death, articulated by surrealist poetry and other avant-gardes (as well as by some marginal political movements of the 20th century), finds here its bitter, ironic and perverse fulfilment.

In its most interesting forms surrealism in our region has never been a set of aesthetic tropes such as keys in heads, liquid clocks and flaming giraffes. In its most interesting embodiments it was a language in which artists struggled with the traumatic history of the region. In this role it still remains attractive, as evidenced by such films as Hukkle by György Pálfi, a surreal metaphor which is perhaps the best film about the post-communist transition. Writing about magical realism, Frederic Jameson once argued that in the context of such a complex reality as Latin America, both modern and “backward” at the same time, every genuine realism must be magical realism. Perhaps in Central Europe every realism must be to some extent surrealistic.

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