Surrealist Periodicals: A Digital Collection


Surrealism at One Hundred (FRE 358 / ECS 358 / ART 358 / COM 365) is a course offered in Spring 2024 by Professor Effie Rentzou (French & Italian), in collaboration with Lynda Musilwa and Sophia Millman (Ph.D. candidates in French & Italian). The course explores the basic ideas, works, and principles of Surrealism as it developed in France and around the world from the early 1920s into the present. Students studied a very wide array of material from diverse literary genres and media and explored how the surrealists wanted to revolutionize both art and life in its political and ethical dimensions. This course was built around two digital creative and critical projects using Digital PUL (DPUL) and ArcGIS Story Maps, which constituted the students' assignments throughout the semester: the digital exhibition “Surrealist Periodicals: A Digital Collection,” and an arcGIS StoryMaps project "The Surrealist World."

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In the first official document of the surrealist movement, the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto (Manifeste du surréalisme), André Breton described surrealism as “psychic automatism…dictated by thought, in the absence of any controlled exercise by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (“Automatisme psychique...Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale,” Breton 1924, 12). This definition, and the manifesto as a whole, were foundational for the cultural, social, and political movement that was surrealism throughout the 20th century and beyond. Surrealism spurred a lineage of creativity and experimentation that sought to liberate the individual from political, social, and psychological oppression, but also liberate artistic expression in all media. Bridging the dreaming and waking states through, among others, the unbridled practice of automatism and collective games, was one way to reach this goal during the early years of the movement.

Primarily a literary project in its beginning, surrealism quickly expanded to encompass nearly every art form including painting, photography, sculpture, and cinema. Beyond art, however, the movement had a clear political scope. Surrealism’s political positions drew upon Marxist theories of class emancipation in a capitalist world, an anti-nationalist sentiment stemming from the catastrophic experience of WWI, combined with a consideration of the unconscious as theorized by Sigmund Freud, as a way of liberating the mind from the restraints of rationalism. While the political impetus of surrealism was first expressed through an alignment with the politics of the left, surrealism transcended specific political parties. Surrealism held onto the notion of “revolution” as an ethical and political imperative: throughout its long life and its various local iterations, surrealism remained committed to a politics of liberation, whether this was channeled through anti-fascism, anti-colonialism, anti-authoritarianism, or anti-racism.

"Le surréalisme autour du monde." Minotaure 10 (1937), 62-63

A 1937 issue of Parisian periodical Minotaure demonstrates the international success of the surrealist movement in a photo essay on surrealist periodicals, "Le surréalisme autour du monde," which included examples of surrealist publications from around the world. The spread includes examples from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, England, France, Greece, Japan, Peru, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, and Yugoslavia. However, even at this time, one could have also added to this list Argentina, Chile, China, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Korea, Mexico, and many more; and later Angola, Ethiopia, and Syria, among others. (Surrealism Beyond Borders, 23)

Our digital exhibition follows recent developments in scholarship, which have sought to define surrealism not as a set of specific aesthetic precepts, but instead as a mode of inquiry into the social and political status quo, capable of shifting according to the particular conditions within which it was mobilized. Rather than a singular movement defined by André Breton and propelled by formal experimentation, surrealism evolved as a fractured process which defied temporal and geographical limits. Thus, while surrealism started in Paris, the inherent malleability of a movement seeking freedom in all its forms, allowed artists and writers around the world to reimagine surrealism according to their specific contexts. The production and dissemination of periodicals was especially important to the international surrealist movement as they acted as a materialization and performance of this transnational scope. These collaborative publications allowed the juxtaposition of different art forms and media: photography, poetry, prose, and paintings produced by a vast array of writers and artists appeared in the same space. As an open-form, portable medium, periodicals allowed readers to engage in an interactive mode of reading, which was particularly well-suited to the surrealist focus on creating communities. Most importantly, in effectuating the circulation of surrealist thought and aesthetics, periodicals were critical elements for the development and the refining of the movement internationally, especially as writers and artists on the “peripheries” mobilized surrealism for new purposes. Magazines become, in the words of Aimé Césaire, centers for reflection, a mirror in which the surrealist movement finds itself, but also a space in which surrealism is reflected on.

While this digital archive showcases a collection which testifies to the transnational scope of surrealism, it is important to note that this project is not exhaustive, and contains a selection of periodicals that are housed in Princeton University Library. The works we have selected aim to represent the diversity of the movement: without invalidating the historical fact that surrealism began in Paris, this selection demonstrates the global reach that the movement had, as well as the breadth of its content. While some of the periodicals included in the collection did not explicitly label themselves as surrealist publications, such as La Revue du monde noir and Mavo, all of them are the outcome of collaborations among and with surrealists, or represent a local iteration of surrealism.

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