The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Editor's Introduction | Transplanted: Dadas and Surrealisms—Hybrids on American Soil

James W. McManus
Professor Emeritus
California State University—Chico


It may be that Man Ray best summarized the relations between Dada and Surrealism and their American hosts. He seems to have understood the complex and at times conflicted connections that both found mirrored in their host’s eccentricities. In 1920 he stated, “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is Dada and will not tolerate a rival.” Twenty years later, while living in Los Angeles, he declared, “There was more Surrealism rampant in Hollywood than all the Surrealists could invent in a lifetime."  

Digesting his remarks, it appears that Man Ray apprised us of the absence of a smooth fit between what the transitory aliens brought to American shores and an indigenous, however fractured, host culture, establishing a curious dialogue between the exiled artists and the maze of identities, often incongruous, that make up the American sense of identity. Reference to both Dada and Surrealism in America is generally given in the singular, as I have done here. That practice may be worth reconsideration, acknowledging the heterogeneous nature of both to relabel them “American Dadas” and “American Surrealisms,” avoiding the notion that both persist as homogeneous extensions of their imported selves. A more realistic assessment is consideration of the wide range of factors that mitigate for modification and absorption into the American cultural milieu.  As we should expect, attention to the diversity of Dada and Surrealism on the American soil tells us that each absorbed and was absorbed in turn by aspects of American culture.

Unwittingly, America became a retreat site for those escaping the terrors of the Great War and later World War II. Artists, writers and musicians who would later be identified as Dadaists came first, taking root in New York from 1915 with the arrival of the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy and Edgard Varèse. What is generally acknowledged today as “New York Dada” took shape on American shores, independent of and in advance (1915) of its European counterpart born in Zurich (circa 1916). Each responded to different forces. Dada, in America took greater aim at its host’s material culture, while its European counterpart erupted against the horrors of the Great War. Duchamp’s invention of the “readymades” provides a signpost clearly defining the differences between American and European Dada. Between 1915 and 1923 American Dada asserted itself, being a dynamic commentator on American material culture. By the end of that period its prime movers, Duchamp and Man Ray, had decamped for Paris. And, its principle patrons, Walter and Louise Arensberg, had abandoned New York for Hollywood.  Dada slipped from a dynamic force to marginalized.  Over a decade later Alfred Barr’s 1936 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Fantastic Art Dada Surrealism, while treating Dada largely as an historical phenomenon, gave both it and Surrealism a public viewing on a grand stage. That surge, as we see in a number of the essays included here, increased attention to both movements that would grow over the next decades.  Both were not without their detractors. Three years after Barr’s exhibition Clement Greenberg, in his seminal essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” kicked the corpse of Dada, railing against it as an agent of the destructive forces of “low” culture. Greenberg also took a number of occasions to denigrate Surrealism. However, a few years later in the 1940s there was an arousal of interest in Dada and Surrealism.

Surrealism, which made its initial appearance in Paris in 1924, by the early 1930s began to assert a presence in American culture charged by its visual imagery and appropriated by material interests. Important figures like “Chick” Austin, Julien Levy, Alfred Barr, and Grace McCann Morley opened the doors to a serious art world, leaving Surrealism teetering between “high” and “low” culture.   By the late 1930s and early 1940s the destructive forces of World War II pushed artists, writers, and intellectuals out of Europe, scattering the likes of Maya Deren, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Hannah Arendt, Jacqueline Lamba, Laurence Vail, Max Ernst, and Darius Milhaud across the American continent.

America had become a foster home to both movements whose origins were European and had migrated to America. Transatlantic aliens, each movement gave shape to dialogical/dialectical exchanges between art and contemporary American culture. Expanding their presence across the continent, both movements, uprooted from their native cultures, found themselves absorbing and in turn being reshaped by the host culture, itself reflecting the diversity of regional characteristics.

During these decades Dada and Surrealism established a presence, through a blend of contributions from exiles/emigrés and their American counterparts. This mixture was enriched by American expatriate artists, writers and musicians who had been living in Europe, communicating back home firsthand knowledge of the major avant-garde movements. The resultant feedback set up an information loop critical to nurturing a better-informed awareness of Dada and Surrealism on American shores.

The call for papers for this volume cast a wide net.  We sought studies that consider ways that Dada and Surrealism pushed up against and/or added to the social and political environment in America during the period bracketed by the two world wars; taking form through a number of lenses—among them the visual arts, architecture, photography, film, advertising, theatre, collectors, dealers, small magazines, journals, the works of indigenous peoples, poetry, criticism and critical theory. The results were heartening. From an impressive pool sixteeen essays were chosen. They have been arranged under four headings. 

Contributions brought together in the first gathering, “Myths, Dreams and Romantic Legacy,” hold in common an assessment that authors, editors and their publications often hold the keys, unlocking the not-seen that surrounds us—i.e., the essence of Surrealism.  As described by Gavin Parkinson, Erin McClenathan, Will Atkin, and Douglas Cushing, the decades between the wars, like the two before them, were rich in the number and diverse tenor of small publications. Journals and small publications like VVV, View, and transition, while generally short-lived, provide us critical insights into the thought and action that molded the densely layered interactions that these movements experienced with their host environment.

Gavin Parkinson, in his essay “We Are Property: The ‘Great Invisibles’ Considered Alongside ‘Weird’ and Science Fiction in America, 1919–43,” seeks a recuperation of André Breton’s much-maligned "new myth" of The Great Invisibles through its consideration in the context of popular culture in America during the interwar years. Pointing to the important role that VVV magazine played in the recuperation of André Breton’s “new myth,” Parkinson cites the significance of VVV having published, in its first issue, Breton’s “Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Else.” Working from that essay, Parkinson seeks to reframe the origins of The Great Invisibles within an American context, placing its interpretation more in tune with the new psychological atmosphere and cultural environment experienced by Breton and Surrealism during the Second World War.

Focusing on VVV as well, Erin McClenathan, “Displaced Maneuvers: Tactile Surrealism in VVV’s Handheld Cinema,” examines the publication’s role in affording the dislocated surrealists means, through portable projects, to maintain some semblance of Surrealism’s vitality.  Employing the publication as the primary lens through which she considers the circumstances of the dislocated/relocated surrealists, McClenathan seeks to make the case that the publication serves as a space for experimentation as well as communication and documentation. Three issues were produced between 1942 and 1944. The most elaborate, promoting audience interaction, is the VVV Almanac number 2–3, 1943 (good examples are the “Twin Touch Test” working with the back cover and Frederick Kiesler’s “Design-Correlation,” 76–80). McClenathan considers what she sees as VVV’s tactical strategy of tactility, drawing it into a sort of kinship with installations in New York like The First Surrealist Papers exhibition (1942) and Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery (1942–1947).

In his essay, “Supernatural Beings, Shamans and Dream-Places: Jules Monnerot and the Native American Touchstones of Surrealism’s Mythological Realignment, 1939–1945,” Atkin considers Monnerot’s La Poésie modern et le Sacré, as a key means for unpacking conceptual and philosophical resonances between Surrealism and Native American cultures. Steeped in myths, the surrealist exiles entered an American culture they believed devoid of myth. Atkin lays that notion to rest, demonstrating the significance of an extant Native American valuation of myth shaping the culture. Atkin lays out his argument regarding the impact of Monnerot’s text on the surrealists, giving shape to their understanding of the significance of myth.  

Around 1924 Eugène Jolas found himself in Paris, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s European edition. This placed him at the moment of Surrealism’s beginnings from which he established a pipeline, reporting on the avant-garde back to his American audiences. A few years later (1927) he, along with his wife Maria, founded the literary magazine transition.  Pointing to transition’s importance, Douglas Cushing, in his essay “A Version of Surrealism: transition and its Romantic Legacy,” presents the case that transition, from the late 1920s through much of the 1930s, conveyed, albeit, a tempered version of Surrealism to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Cushing observes that Jolas initially published the Surrealists out of appreciation, recognizing them as belonging to his larger project to forge a new pan-Romanticism in literature and art. However, as audiences soon confused the magazine for a surrealist appendage, Jolas became increasingly critical of the movement, leading him to expand the distance between transition and the Surrealists. Cushing explores how, through criticism and recontextualization with other pan-Romantic art and literature, Jolas transmitted not pure Surrealism to his readers, but a version of it, opening pathways for wider readings of Surrealism. 

In the second gathering of essays, “In and Out of the Public Eye,” Robin Blyn, Elliott King, Sandra Zalman, James Housefield, and Samantha Kavky take us on adventures to public and private spaces: the Midway at a World’s Fair, the dream-shrouded interior of the motion-picture theatre, and a major art museum. 

Tacking an independent course, Robin Blyn, in “The Dream of Eros: Surrealism on the Midway 1939,” considers the spectacle of Dalí’s pavilion on the midway at the 1939 World’s Fair in NYC. Avoiding what she identifies as the well-worn "death-by-exile" narrative of the avant-garde as well as the claim that the pavilion evinces surrealism’s heroic critique of the American culture industry, Blyn takes the argument in a different direction. For her the pavilion dramatizes surrealism’s own repetition compulsion and the commodity fetishism to which it was responding. She sees the “Dream of Venus” discovering the grounds for its own renovation: a radical rethinking of the revolutionary potential of desire.

Bridging the gap between public and private spaces, Elliott King, “Still Spellbound by Spellbound,” transports us from the public space of the movie theatre to the private space of dreams through a close reading of the dream sequence attributed to Salvador Dalí in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller Spellbound. In this careful study based on archival research, King peels back myth, informing us that nearly all the footage on which Dalí worked directly fell victim to the cutting room floor. Even more revealing is King’s discovery that certain “surrealistic” elements widely ascribed to Dalí were actually originated with Hitchcock’s screenwriters and were a part of the script before Hitchcock brought the artist onboard the production.

Sandra Zalman, in her essay “'A Way of Life': The Museum of Modern Art and the Marketplace of Surrealism” puts forward the assessment that through the 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art Dada Surrealism the museum facilitated the recognition of Surrealism as an avant-garde movement. Zalman contends that it seemed to endorse Surrealism’s role in the commercial realm, serving Alfred Barr’s motive that Surrealism be understood as an active part of contemporary culture.

The next two authors in this grouping invite us to consider the surrealist exiles reaction to and engagement with war.  James Housefield, in “Marcel Duchamp’s Guernica?: "His Twine,” the First Papers of Surrealism (1942), and Aerial Warfare in Europe,” undertakes a fresh and challenging look at Marcel Duchamp’s Mile of String at the 1942 First Surrealist Papers exhibition, proposing that our focus on the string needs to be shifted away from its reading as an installation prop to understanding it as a work of art. Here, the author draws the string into a conversation with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, claiming that both present tales of the horrors of nighttime aerial bombardment. 

Samantha Kavky offers another take regarding the surrealist’s engagement with war. In her essay, “Surrealism, War and the Art of Camouflage,” Kavsky makes the case that through designing and executing camouflage as part of the war effort, simultaneously a transformation is brought to the fore within surrealist attitudes toward mimesis. Tracing some of the larger intersections between avant-garde art and camouflage from the Great War to World War II, she points to Stanley William Hayter. Driven from Paris in 1940, he moved his Atelier 17 to New York City where he collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art in staging exhibitions. In the public eye, advancing the surrealist notion of “mimesis,” those exhibitions were devoted to camouflage. Kavky makes special note of their importance providing concealment of civilian targets from aerial bombardment.

The third grouping of essays, “Invention and Reinvention of the Self,” situates the conversation around issues of identity and its fabrication, where the elusive subject in the modern era often plays out its own drama against established codes. Here, Anne Collins Goodyear considers Marcel Duchamp’s employment of humor as a means for creating a veil shielding his identity.  Francis Naumann introduces us to the surrealist painter Henrietta Myers who reinvented herself as Peter Miller. Catriona McAra examines the invention of the “exoticized” Leonora Carrington. 

The trickster relished in being disruptive. Convention found a home in his cross-hairs.  Exploring the significance and depth of humor in Marcel Duchamp’s work, Anne Collins Goodyear, in “What a Joke!: Marcel Duchamp’s Funny Fountain and its Complete Reversal of Art," tunnels her way through Duchamp's appropriation of legal terminology and religious text to peel back the layers of the artist’s keys to what she sees as central to Fountain—a good joke. 

The title of Francis M. Naumann’s essay “Peter Miller: Forgotten Woman of American Modernism,” immediately captures our attention. The American Surrealist painter, born Henrietta Myers, found it necessary to adopt a pseudonymous male identity in order to gain any traction in the male-dominated New York art world of the 1940s. As Naumann demonstrates, Miller, drawn to the work of Native Americans, was able to bring that influence into harmony with European surrealist sources, most notably Miró.

Catriona McAra, in “Leonora Carrington: 'Wild Card'" writes that the Artists in Exile surrealist group portrait of 1942 arguably marks a moment of recognition and inclusion for Leonora Carrington as well as, paradoxically, her moment of "exoticization" and temporary exclusion from Anglo-American criticism at large. Considering Carrington’s production of radical and challenging paintings, sculptures, novels, tapestries, plays, set designs and costumes over the course of her career, McAra sets out to review her intermedial contributions to the surrealist magazines of the time, proposing that Carrington was, in fact, at the heart of the avant-garde during this period. 

The last set of essays, “Across the American Landscape,” provides examples giving insight into the melding of Dada and Surrealism with American regional cultures.  Questions about the labor movement during the Depression, the dream of the home, cosmic allegories, and exhibitions occupy the minds of the authors contributing to this section.

in his essay, “Between Myth and Movement: The Depression-Era Iconography of the American Social Surrealists,” Jonathan Judd investigates a group of artists working during the Depression who attempted to mediate and adapt the rising influence of European Surrealism into a uniquely American art form. They brought together Surrealism’s painted style, form and technique with the radical leftist milieu of New York City’s Lower East Side, looking to the ongoing labor movement as a source for inspiration and imagery. Raw politics met art. Judd argues that this body of work functions as a site for the tempestuous struggle between two dichotomous ethoi that structured and affected the socio-political reality of the nation’s citizenry during the Great Depression.  

Janine Mileaf, writing on the subjectDream Homes: Surrealism in Chicago,” finds common ground between the term “dream home” and the preponderance of “fantastic,” or fantasy-based, painting focused on the home that arose in Chicago’s Surrealist circles. She contends that a group of artists contributed to a local version of Surrealism, one that emphasized the realistic and meticulous handling of psychic subject matter. Mileaf notes, for these artists, the home became a contested symbol of one’s relation with society, especially in the urban contexts where many of them worked. Their distorted portrayals of home signaled a creative and nonconforming stance toward the aspirations of the mainstream.

In 1934, The Los Angeles-based painters Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson founded Post-Surrealism, the first organized American response to European Surrealism. Marianne Kinkel, in “Cosmic Allegories: Post-Surrealism and Astronomy in Interwar Los Angeles,” examines Post-Surrealism in relation to modern cosmology and new ideas about space and time emanating from the observational astronomy conducted at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena. Emphasizing the importance of place, Kinkel adds to the opportunities for the Post-Surrealists’ engagement with astronomy. Along with the Mount Wilson Observatory she credits awareness of new theories of the universe and astronomy to visual lessons presented in the Los Angeles Times and night sky performances at the newly-opened Griffith Planetarium. 

Like Los Angeles, during the 1930s, San Francisco was drawn into the surrealist orbit.  Berit Potter, in “'Gathered Another Way': Early Surrealist Exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art,” examines the early surrealist exhibition history of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), formerly the San Francisco Museum of Art.  Potter writes that, under the leadership of its first curator, Dr. Grace McCann Morley, SFMOMA presented its audiences with a dynamic and comprehensive representation of Surrealism that was not available elsewhere in the United States. Borrowing works from diverse sources, Morley’s exhibitions were built around a blend of local artists and those of international stature, the products cultivating diverse viewpoints of what constituted Surrealism and modern art more generally.

Taken collectively, the essays in this special issue present new scholarship addressing diverse responses to and reactions against Dada and Surrealism in various regions across America during the period bookended by the two world wars. What emerges through the essays presented here are visions of both movements, profiling each as owning no single identity. Approaching these dilemmas, both seem seem caught in the breach between being vital and exploratory forces or historical phenomena. The bent of the essays appearing here, while looking through the mirror of history, address “Dadas” and “Surrealisms” as a license for further adventures not yet imagined.

Janine Utell, editor of The Space Between, deserves much praise for her hard work and guidance of this project from beginning to completion. Without her I would still be fumbling in the dark.

And, I wish to express my thanks to each of the authors whose essays appear here. Some I knew before the project began, others I met along the way. A part of my enjoyment was working with each of you, seeing your ideas evolve over time. What a treat. The result is a really great gathering of writings on the subject of Dada and Surrealism that will serve to bring fresh, important and insightful new understandings to the field.

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