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  • The Curatorial Avant-Garde: Surrealism and Exhibition Practice in France, 1925–1941 by Adam Jolles
  • Stephen Forcer
The Curatorial Avant-Garde: Surrealism and Exhibition Practice in France, 1925–1941. By Adam Jolles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2014. 288 pp., ill.

To introduce the interdependency of museums, ideology, and power in this smartly presented, commanding book, Adam Jolles evokes the connection made by Georges Bataille between the Louvre — converted during the Terror from a royal palace to a national museum — and the guillotine. Jolles’s particular starting point is the realization on the part of Paris-based surrealists and other avant-gardists that curation and art-dealing are a racket and that the avant-garde must theorize, circumvent, and reappropriate the ways in which artworks are presented and circulated. By focusing on exhibition practice as a significant but often underplayed area of surrealist activity, Jolles brings into relief the ‘curatorial avant-garde’ as the successive phase of the historical avant-garde. This approach affords [End Page 418] an engaging look under the bonnet of surrealism as key players sought to build, test, and correct its theoretical and practical structures over the 1920s and 1930s (in hindsight, for example, André Breton’s initial scepticism about surrealism and painting is instructively odd). Some of the ground has been trodden before but each of the five chapters is strong in the focus on specific individuals and their works (Satie, Picasso, de Chirico, Desnos, Man Ray, Dalí, Tzara, Aragon), and throughout Jolles is extremely able in handling the complex story of surrealism’s theories, practices, and politics. Chapter 3 stands out for its discussion of a collaborative exhibition between surrealists and communists entitled La Vérité sur les colonies, organized as a hostile response to the Exposition coloniale internationale held in Paris in 1931. Michel Marty famously aroused the wrath of Breton by stating, ‘Si vous êtes marxiste vous n’avez pas besoin d’être surréaliste’ (Breton, ‘Second manifeste du surréalisme’, La Révolution surréaliste, 12 (15 December 1929), 1–17 (p. 6)); Jolles shows that in certain conditions surrealism could make distinct, substantial contributions to antiimperial, anti-capitalist activities aimed at public audiences in response to real-world events (for example, the killing by the French army of Vietnamese insurgents and civilians after the Yên Bái mutiny in 1930). Chapter 4 gives a welcome demonstration of Tristan Tzara as a critically minded thinker within the ‘tactile turn’ towards haptic surrealist work in the 1930s. Jolles’s argument that individual surrealists appropriated commercial marketing techniques is convincing, although an expanded conclusion might have reflected on overarching critical issues such as the fact that, paradoxically, surrealism allowed Breton and other canonical male surrealists to become wealthy art-collectors and consolidate their own power structures. (It is noticeable that significant scholarship on women and gender in surrealism has yet to become a default part of the material considered by new publications in the area.) So, too, surrealism may have dissolved some of the traditional boundaries between art and the public but surrealism set up new boundaries in their place and, as Henri Béhar has noted, the surrealists’ Bureau central de recherches hardly attracted hordes of public visitors. The considerable public and academic interest in surrealism that has since developed is well served both by Jolles’s expert commentary and by the volume’s lavish range of high-quality colour and black-and-white illustrations, which include a partial reconstruction of the 1925 Paris exhibition of surrealist painting.

Stephen Forcer
University of Birmingham


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pp. 418-419
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