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  • Surrealism, Art and Modern Science: Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Epistemology
  • Johanna Malt
Surrealism, Art and Modern Science: Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Epistemology. By Gavin Parkinson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. viii + 294 pp. Hb £35.00; $60.00.

Setting out to challenge the claims and legacy of C. P.Snow's 'two cultures' theory and its adherents, Gavin Parkinson's book offers a valuable and often surprising account of the reception of quantum mechanics and relativity theory by Surrealist artists and writers. Parkinson documents the genealogies, individual enthusiasms, and networks of influence through which writers such as André Breton and Georges Bataille and artists including Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí became familiar with the work of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, among others, as well as with the developments in philosophy that arose in response to it. Of particular interest is the attention Parkinson pays to the range of periodicals that dealt with physics alongside philosophy, psychoanalysis, and avant-garde culture in the inter-war period, and he offers convincing evidence for a sustained and sometimes serious interest in quantum mechanics on the part of several individuals associated with Surrealism. However, as Parkinson himself states, '[l]ike a damp stained wall, quantum theory can conjure up just about any view of the world if stared at long enough' (p. 129), and he does not always avoid the analogous trap of seeing quantum physics around every Surrealist corner. One problem is that where science is taken most seriously, it is at the very margins of the Surrealist movement, whether by writers only loosely associated with it (such as Roger Caillois), artists who have already broken with it (Matta, Wolfgang Paalen), or by those, like Raymond Queneau, who deliberately avoid trying to integrate their knowledge of physics into their thinking on literature and art. Elsewhere, in the Surrealist mainstream, modern physics is most often co-opted to serve as a fashionable analogy or to lend a spurious authority to Surrealist claims. Parkinson thus struggles to show that physics had a substantive influence on the deeper layers of Surrealist thought or practice. The debt some of Breton's theoretical writing of the 1930s owes to the work of Gaston Bachelard is clearly demonstrated, and the book includes some persuasive discussion of how new conceptions of space, relativity, and the fourth dimension are explored pictorially by Dalí, Matta, and Paalen; but where mainstream Surrealism does show a sustained interest, it is often in less mainstream scientists such as Pascual Jordan or writers like Bachelard, who have already attempted to transpose the findings of quantum mechanics into the spheres of psychology, philosophy, or art. Where the new physics is accessed directly or via 'straight' popular accounts, it is most often as a stock of appealingly counter-intuitive, 'mind-expanding' images, or as a generic refutation of the constraining principles of Kantian reason. Bachelard is useful to Surrealism in that he turns quantum theory into an explicit challenge to current philosophy, providing a convenient rationale for Surrealist experiment, but what of substance from physics really penetrates Surrealist work remains unclear. This is a useful and approachable piece of historical contextualization, but does not [End Page 502] necessarily offer the reader new ways of thinking critically about Surrealist works themselves. [End Page 503]

Johanna Malt
King's College London


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pp. 502-503
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