A BOATLOAD OF MADMEN by Dickran Tashjian


Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde, 1920-1950
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 Hello, Dal°! Or how Europe's Surrealists moved in on the New York art scene, and how the avant-garde became assimilated into popular culture. Tashjian (Comparative Culture/Univ. of California, Irvine; Skyscraper Primitives, not reviewed) presents a rich account of how Surrealism, initially a rarefied metaphysical European art movement, became an archetype of 20th-century American aesthetics. He begins by discussing French poet AndrÇ Breton, whose 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism addressed how the visual arts could access unconscious experience. Influenced by Carl Jung's notion of the collective unconscious, Breton and others--including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Yves Tanguy--gathered in Paris. As fascism spread and WW II approached, many of the Surrealists fled to New York. There they were supported by forward-thinking patrons like gallery owners Julien Levy and Peggy Guggenheim and collector Katherine B. Dreier and her SociÇtÇ Anonyme, Inc. Activist American social-realist painters--James Guy, Walter Quirt, and O. Louis Guglielmi in particular--also were quick to adopt Surrealist visual tropes. By WW II, the exiled community of European avant-gardists was firmly entrenched in New York. Tashjian details the philosophical impact that they had on young American artists, particularly Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock. But it was the Spanish-born Salvador Dal°, with his grandstanding personality and huckster ways, who fixed the public eye on Surrealism. He courted the press, made windows for Bonwit Teller, and even designed a ``Dream of Venus'' pavilion for New York's 1939 World's Fair. Soon the movement was media fodder. Tashjian tells how it was parodied in New Yorker cartoons, how it influenced high fashion, and how it was ultimately co-opted into Hollywood films and advertising. Revealing a wide curiosity, Tashjian goes beyond art history, freely zigging and zagging between high and low culture in this lively probe of issues of anxiety and influence. (86 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 27th, 1995
ISBN: 0-500-23687-9
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1994