- Enchanted Ground: André Breton, Modernism and the Surrealist Appraisal of Fin-de-Siècle Painting by Gavin Parkinson
French surrealism at mid-twentieth century was marked (some would say, marred) by André Breton’s new-found interest in esoteric knowledge—a period, argues Gavin Parkinson in his latest book, in which surrealism “willingly entered a critical and theoretical wilderness with its advocacy of magic and occultism in its art, poetry and theory, and its insistence on the ‘indispensable condition of enchantment’—the impenetrable nucleus of resistance to human inquiry that exists within any system of knowledge” (322). Parkinson’s justification for what he calls surrealism’s “journey into obscurity” is an accomplished revisionist account of what has been treated as surrealism’s most misguided moment, one that Parkinson has successfully complicated—and recuperated—with the movement’s engagement with metaphor, symbolism, regional medievalism, and abstraction, as articulated by Breton’s concurrent assessment of finde-siècle French painting (323). Key to the relevance of the analysis is Breton’s sustained anti-utilitarianism, and as such, Enchanted Ground provides a compelling (and perhaps necessary) pendant to Parkinson’s other work on the movement at mid-century, which analyzes surrealism from a scientific perspective.
By examining surrealist commentary on the four painters who would come to dominate the canon of French modernism at the turn of the twentieth century—Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh—Parkinson identifies an alternative path for twentieth-century art in resistance to the formalist one that ultimately positioned these painters as the forerunners to mid-century abstraction. Metaphor, myth, and poetry take precedence in the surrealist readings of the works in question, and, to varying degrees, they tilt the paintings to expose unprecedented facets of their importance, particularly to subsequent art practices. Given that abstraction is the “proving ground” on which these alternative perspectives will test their respective credibility, the work here on abstraction is one of the most interesting aspects of this volume—indeed, the book takes its title from Van Gogh’s pointed refusal of that mode, cited from a letter to Émile Bernard: “[w]hen Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed [End Page 900] myself to be led into abstraction, as you know . . . and at that time abstraction seemed an attractive route to me. But that’s enchanted ground [terrain enchanté],—my good fellow—and one soon finds oneself up against a wall” (quoted on 6). The characterization sets up a perversity worthy of surrealism itself: a reversal of expectations of what will constitute “enchantment” in the book, and opens intriguing possibilities for future scholarship on surrealist abstraction in, for example, the work of Jean Arp and Joan Miró, two artists whose work has always proved somewhat resistant to dominant theories of surrealism. In direct contravention to Alfred Barr’s figuration/abstraction binary, Parkinson here succeeds in finding common ground in surrealism’s engagement with poetic metaphor, which draws on both formal and iconographic suggestion.
With three chapters focused on Gauguin, the heart of the book seems to lie in the surrealists’ attraction to this artist as a nonconformist, symbolist, and (somewhat surprisingly) medievalist. But the best chapter, to my mind, (not the least because of its nuanced implications for abstraction as “enchanted ground”) is the fourth, “Between Dog and Wolf: Georges Seurat, Brassaï and the City of Light.” Reasoning mainly from the works themselves, as opposed to relying on the written testimonies of Breton and other critics sympathetic to surrealism, Parkinson draws together a constellation of historical, topographical, procedural and medium-based effects and processes to form a suggestive image of “light” as it was interpreted within surrealism. His great accomplishment is to have allowed for the idea that surrealism negated, rather than expressed, realism; that they imposed a kind of poetic template on the material world that could connect the crepuscular forms of Seurat, Brassaï, Arp, and even Man Ray on the basis of a shared fascination with transitional or threshold experiences, thus setting out...