Surrealist sabotage and the war on work is an art-historical study devoted to international surrealism’s critique of wage labour and its demand for non-alienated work between the 1920s and the 1970s. The Introduction and Chapter 1 frame the genealogy of surrealism’s work refusal in relation to its inter-war investment in ultra-left politics, its repudiation of French nationalism, and the early twentieth-century development of sabotage theory in the labour movement. Chapter 2 proposes an interpretation of surrealist automatism in 1920s France as a subversion of disciplined production in the emerging information society and also reperformance of feminised information labour. Chapter 3 is a study of autoeroticism and autonomy in Spanish surrealist Óscar Domínguez’s depictions of women’s work tools, such as the sewing machine and the typewriter, in works of art across media during the 1930s. Chapter 4 provides a historical account of labour activism in Chicago surrealism during the 1960s and 1970s, including an analysis of the Chicago surrealist epistolary exchange with German philosopher Herbert Marcuse. An Epilogue considers the paintings that German surrealist Konrad Klapheck made depicting sewing machines, typewriters, and other tools of information labour during the 1960s, in conjunction with related works by other surrealists such as Giovanna. As a whole, Surrealist sabotage and the war on work demonstrates that international surrealism critiqued wage labour symbolically, theoretically, and politically, through works of art, aesthetics theories, and direct actions meant to effect immediate social intervention.
The Introduction establishes the basic historical framework for this study’s thesis, expands upon the purpose and rationale of the argument, and provides an overview of its contents and methodologies. The concept of surrealist sabotage is discussed in relation to the surrealists’ return from service in World War I, their refusal to participate in France’s postwar reconstruction effort, and their rejection of careerism. The surrealist work refusal is defined and contextualised in relation to surrealism’s goals and techniques, in particular its position of ultra-leftist defeatism. Surrealist sabotage is also compared to the development of industrial sabotage and strike tactics in the international labour movement at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Chapter 1, ‘Genealogy of the surrealist work refusal’, reviews the development of a surrealist discourse of work refusal in French surrealist texts and statements primarily from the 1920s and 1930s by writers such as André Breton, Louis Aragon, and André Thirion. The discussion proceeds by outlining the key historical sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that influenced this position, including texts by Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Lafargue. Chapter 1 also situates surrealism’s war on work in relation to techno-optimist avant-gardes such as Italian Futurism, and also in comparison with the prominence of Taylorism in Allied nations. Surrealism’s ongoing interaction with labour critique and theories of societal rationalisation such as those propounded by Karl Marx, Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, and Thorstein Veblen are broadly considered, as is the existing scholarly literature on surrealism, work, and play. The legacies of Marxist surrealists or surrealist supporters of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International, such as Pierre Naville, who by the mid-twentieth century was a sociologist specialising in labour studies, are also evaluated, as is the early 1930s controversy over surrealism’s stance on proletarian art in conjunction with its membership in the Revolutionary Artists and Writers Union (AEAR) in France, which was modelled on a workers’ union.
Chapter 2 presents a theory of surrealist automatism as a form of symbolically subversive anti-work. This chapter extrapolates the concept of surrealist sabotage in life and art by establishing a labour theory of surrealist automatism during the 1920s in France. In this reading, surrealist automatism becomes a form of work refusal that undermines rationalisation and its effects through tactics that resemble work-to-rule sabotage. The first section examines a series of seminal 1924 photographs of the Bureau of Surrealist Research in Paris taken by Man Ray. Utilising reception-based and historiographic methodologies, this section argues that Simone Breton, wife of André Breton, performs symbolic labour in the photograph by Man Ray when she poses at the typewriter to take dictation from the automatist Robert Desnos, or possibly from her own mind. Reviewing the scholarly debate on the role of women in surrealism that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, the author engages in an embodied discourse on academic labour in order to tie the often previously invisible work of the female surrealists and their image to the performative labour of the surrealist automatist in general. Chapter 2 also discusses a rarely noted but quite prevalent leitmotif in French surrealist texts of the 1920s that typified automatism as a form of stenographic transcription. Addressing the performative training of the body in the process of its compliance with regulated work, Chapter 1 compares surrealist automatist tactics to the boom in the secretarial industry in Allied nations during the reconstruction period after World War I.
Chapter 3 demonstrates how surrealism applied its aesthetic sabotage tactics into the realm of its visual art production through an extended case study of artworks in different media from the 1930s by the Spanish surrealist Óscar Domínguez, all of which represent scenes of work or work-tool dysfunctionality and interference. The first section situates an analysis of Domínguez’s representations of work tools in the context of surrealism’s final overtures to the PCF and its participation in protests against fascism in 1934 – as well as the June Strikes that shook France in 1936, just as the Spanish Civil War was about to erupt. This contextual framing anchors an argument that Domínguez’s preoccupation with representing the subverted work tool during the 1930s can be seen as part of a surrealist critique of ideologies of productivism and authoritarianism through a celebration of worker and artist autonomy and self-management (autogestion) via artistic themes of autoeroticism and occasionally, autodestruction. The second section consists of an extended iconographic and contextual reading of Domínguez’s striking painting Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle (1934–35) in relationship to cultural histories of female sexuality. A lengthy formal analysis of this oil on canvas reveals the presence of a quasi-covert set of sexual references about women’s sewing-machine work, which are in turn corroborated by a substantial nineteenth-century historical discourse tied to the garment industry and domestic labour about the sewing machine as an involuntary autoerotic device for the secondary labour force of hyper-exploited female workers.
Chapter 4, ‘Direct action surrealism in Chicago’, contends that surrealism’s war on work is only fully understandable when considered in light of the labour activism, cultural sabotage and protest, and theoretical inquiries carried out by the Chicago surrealists during the 1960s and 1970s. The first section, ‘“Incendiary time bomb”: The Rebel Worker (1964–66)’, employs extensive archival and fieldwork research and applies social movement theory to argue that the Chicago surrealists pioneered a form of direct-action cultural practice. Surrealist aesthetics were compared to union theories and practices of workplace sabotage and strike in their mimeographed underground press publication, The Rebel Worker. Providing a history of the journal’s founding and an overview of its sabotage theories, the first section shows how this organ spoke to the concerns of the surrealist international even while it identified as an Industrial Workers of the World union publication. For the Chicago surrealists once they officially formed in 1966, the struggle for workers’ rights, with deep foundations in the Chicago labour movement, was fully synchronous with surrealism’s call for the abolition of work and the right to be lazy. The final two sections explore how Chicago surrealism conceptualised direct action artistically and rhetorically. The discussion begins with a discussion of artworks from 1968 by the Chicago surrealist and labour activist Robert Green, which are constructed with ‘sabotaged’ machines. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the Chicago surrealists’ encounter with Herbert Marcuse at the 1971 TELOS conference in Buffalo, New York.
The Epilogue discusses André Breton’s 1965 essay on the German painter Konrad Klapheck as a means of delineating a more concrete picture of what surrealism might have wanted in its prefigurative thought about a future post-work society. The Epilogue also analyses the 1965 L’Écart absolu exhibition in Paris, with its series of artworks about domestic and waged work and its outcry against a society based on what Breton in the mid-1950s termed ‘miserabilism’. Building on Breton’s indication of the necessity of human–machine collaboration in a mutual overriding of functionality as the ultimate goal of life’s potential, the final section of the book undertakes a cursory examination of relevant artworks by Klapheck, Giovanna, and others. Although surrealism does not stipulate specifics about its demands for work remuneration or the reduction of the workday and work week – or, for that matter, discuss societal solutions such as the idea of a guaranteed basic income – the movement’s increasing interest in the work of Charles Fourier and Herbert Marcuse after World War II provides a provocative glimpse of what a society without wage labour might look like in the surrealist imaginary.
This essay examines diverse strands of surrealist influence in the cult film The Holy Mountain (1973), by Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Through a discussion of the historical context of Jodorowsky’s artistic production in the post-war period, as well as specific surrealist sources for the film, I argue that La montaña Sagrada is closely aligned with international surrealism in plot, set, and cinematography, but that it simultaneously formulates its own unique countercultural framework by building on this substrate of influence. Based largely upon the unfinished novel by French para-surrealist René Daumal, Le Mont Analogue: Roman d'aventures alpines, non euclidiennes et symboliquement authentiques (1952), The Holy Mountain evokes Jodorowsky’s fascination with surrealism since his involvement with theatre and poetry in Santiago, Chile during the 1950s, and his collaboration in the para-surrealist group Panique in France and Mexico starting in in 1962. Continuing his long-standing homage to Leonora Carrington and Antonin Artaud in The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky explores a saturated visual world of the occult, alchemy, the tarot, and altered states of consciousness in a barrage of experimental tactics throughout the film.
Surrealism and film after 1945 is the only available volume devoted to the diverse permutations of international surrealist cinema after the canonical inter-war period. The collection features eleven essays by prominent scholars such as Tom Gunning, Michael Löwy, Gavin Parkinson, and Michael Richardson. An introductory chapter offers a historical overview of this period as well as a theoretical framework for new methodological approaches. Taken as a whole, the collection demonstrates that renowned figures such as Maya Deren, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Jan Švankmajer took part in shaping a vibrant and distinctive surrealist film culture following World War II. Interdisciplinary, intermedial, and international in scope, the volume follows upon recent advances in art history, which have demonstrated that surrealism’s post-war existence has been dynamic, vivid, and adventurous. Beyond the canonical inter-war period, surrealism immersed itself in myth and occultism, participated in anti-colonial struggles, influenced the rise of a youth counterculture, and presented new perspectives on sexuality and eroticism, all of which feed into the permutations of surrealist cinema. Addressing highly influential films and directors related to international surrealism during the second half of the twentieth century, this collection expands the purview of both surrealism and film studies by situating surrealism as a major force in post-war cinema.
The early surrealist writings on film have secured their place in film history and the history of film theory, but the surrealist movement’s presence in post-war film culture remains a blind spot in film studies. The Introduction describes how surrealists turned to film criticism and film-making with renewed vigour following World War II, before discussing the methodological challenges involved in expanding the study of surrealist film to the post-World War II period. It argues that surrealist cinema and its widespread impact cannot be fully understood unless its drastically understudied post-war history is consistently acknowledged and charted. Discussing the post-war reception of surrealism, its political pursuits, and its widened interests generally, the Introduction sets out specific examples of how the history of surrealist film intersects with the movement’s broader history and outlook.