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André Breton: Surrealism, Dada and the Abstract Expressionists (cont.)

by Gary Comenas

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Levy overcame his initial reticence at showing Gorky's work after Breton's endorsement of the artist. Gorky signed with Levy's gallery in 1944. His first solo show opened on March 6, 1945. (HH474) On New Years Eve in 1944 Breton visited the Gorkys and helped to name the paintings that would be included in the first show. On January 10, 1945 Mougouch wrote to Jeanne Reynal, "Breton came down new years eve and gorky told him something associated with or of each painting and breton with his marvelous incision picked those of g.s. words which made a title. They are very nice I think, they are gorky not surrealism... and andre was very anxious to maintain that you know he did not want to make them surrealist." (HH465/original grammar retained) Despite Mougouch's assertion that the titles were "gorky not surrealism" the names of the ten paintings that were included Gorky's first exhibition at Levy's gallery do reflect a Surrealist influence: The Leaf of the Artichoke Is an Owl, One Year the Milkweed, Water of the Flowery Mill, The Sun, The Dervish in the Tree, The Horns of the Landscape, They Will Take My Island, The Pirate, Love of a New Gun, and How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life." (HH467)

The show was, unfortunately, badly hung (according to Breton) and poorly attended. Julien Levy had neglected to mail out the announcements in time for the opening. He also, apparently, didn't understand the paintings he was exhibiting. Gorky's wife Mougouch later reported to Jeanne Reynal that at the opening of the show, "Julien was half drunk. He was a heavy drinker and he always smelled of Roquefort cheeze. At the opening Gorky overheard Julien explaining his paintings to someone, and it made him so angry he went into a corner and started to sharpen his pencil. He was just horrified. Then he realized that Julien didn't really understand his paintings at all and was just backing him because he thought he would take off and he was getting Gorky for nothing." (HH474-5)

Mougouch [from a letter to Jeanne Reynal in early April]:

"I guess to tell the truth it was sort of disappointment to us because we had both thought of something really good in the way of presentation he had everything paintings and andre's beautiful preface which he [Levy] badly translated so many things that julien muffed like only printing a couple of hundred catalogues so that now there are no more... Everyone said (except andre who told julien it was badly hung and framed and now thats a new swords point) it looked very beautiful and of course it couldn't help but... but all this made us very worried about he opening and we got there a bit late and drank a lot of cocktails furnished by an old friend of Gorky's and very soon gorky had that wild disheveeled look... By that time julien had so tactfully and understandingly told him that the critics who had been there through the afternoon had been stonier and more unresponsive than he had ever known them..." (HH275)

In her letter to Reynal, Mougouch also mentioned going to the Reis' home for a dinner party. Presumably this was the first time that Gorky and his wife attended one of the Reis' gatherings. According to Mougouch the party was "full of surrealists" most of whom "were not on speaking terms" with Breton.

Mougouch [from the letter to Jeanne Reynal]:

"... well anyway at our opening pierre matisse asked us to come to dinner on Thursday so we decided to sell my diamond pin and just stay for three days and debauch which we did... [Gorky and Mougouch were living in David Hare's home near Roxbury Connecticut at the time. (HH470)] We had supper with andre [Breton] and elisa [Claro] who is awfully sweet and she just loves gorky... andre gave us his manuscript for the preface and I am sending it to you to read it is so different in french and the they took us to some party in some people named reis house they have many paintings and the party was full of surrealists and most of whom were not on speaking terms with andre... at this party andre had a loud verbal fight with seligman while everyone looked on terrified while they waved their pipes and pranced at each other and gorky just went on talking about maro [their daughter] to the hostess how she said ge ge at the moon... (HH477)

The woman who Mougouch named as accompanying Breton to dinner - "Elisa" - was Elisa Claro (née Binhoff) who would soon become Breton's third and final wife. Breton's book, Arcane 17 - written while Claro and Breton were visiting Canada (c. summer - October 1944) was largely inspired by Elisa. (FR/AJ) Jacqueline Lamba, Breton's current wife, had been having an affair since 1943 with David Hare who worked with Breton on VVV. Breton was aware of the affair. During the summer of 1943 Lamba and Hare stayed with Breton in a rented house in Hampton Bays where he wrote his epic poem Les Etats Genereaux. (AX) Breton divorced Lamba and married Claro in Reno Nevada during the summer of 1945. (PH)

In early January 1945, prior to Breton's divorce from Lamba, Gorky and Mougouch moved into Hare's property near Roxbury Connecticut on 148 Good Hill Road where they would live until about September 1945. While staying at Hare's property they subleased their New York apartment at Union Square West to relatives of Mougouch. In April 1945 Breton visited them at Hare's house and asked Gorky to do some illustrations for his soon-to-be published book of poems, Young Cherry Trees Secured against Hares. (HH469/481). The same month, Jacqueline Lamba visited the Gorkys with her daughter and was particularly bitter about Breton. After the visit Mougouch wrote to Reynal about Breton and Lamba splitting up, "All I can say is may such a horrible nightmare never happen to us." (HH482) Three years later, in 1948, an even worse "nightmare" did happen to Mougouch and Gorky after Mougouch fell in love with Matta - the consequences of which would be far more tragic than the split-up between Lamba and Breton.

Breton visited Gorky and Mougouch again at Hare's property in May 1945 before he and Elisa headed for Reno where he divorced Jacqueline and married Elisa. During his visit with Gorky, Breton encouraged him to move to Paris and also asked if he would contribute some drawings to an American issue that he hoped to publish of a British Surrealist publication titled Message from Nowhere. (HH483) About a week after Breton's visit, Mougouch wrote to Jeanne Reynal that her and Gorky were planning to move to Paris "in the spring of next year." (HH485) In addition to going to Reno in 1945, Breton also went to Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona where he visited several Indian reservations including the Pueblo, Hopi and Zuni tribes. (FR)

Breton was still in Reno in July 1945. Marcel Duchamp wrote him there on July 2, 1945 suggesting a front cover for the second edition of Breton's book, Surrealism and Painting: "Take the bare feet, Magritte's shoes. Instead of black, make a print in sanguine on pink paper (or just white). This bloodshot reproduction would be imprinted in the middle of the board and also imprinted your name, the title of the book... and Brentano's below." (DW) Breton followed Duchamp's suggestion and used Magritte's Le Modèle Rouge (or Red Model) for the cover. The image was also used as part of the Brentano's window display for the book. Swiss artist Isabelle Waldberg, who lived in New York from 1941 - 1946, contributed a mask to the Brentano's display. On November 10, 1945 she wrote to her husband in Paris "Yesterday morning, we did the window at Brentano's Surréalisme et la peinture. Marcel [Duchamp] naturally did everything, all design and execution. Here’s a drawing of it." (DW) As the display took place in November the book probably came out around the same time.

The front cover of the second edition of Surrealism and Painting by André Breton (1945)

Breton and his new wife left the United States not long after the publication of the book, leaving on December 4, 1945 to travel first to Haiti, Martinique and the Dominican Republic before returning to Paris. (FR) Prior to Breton's departure the Gorkys moved (in c. mid-late September) from Hare's Roxbury house to a farmhouse owned by Jean and Henry Hebbeln in Sherman, Connecticut. An agreement was worked out where Henry Hebbeln would share Gorky's Union Square studio and Gorky and Mougouch would rent the Hebbeln farmhouse after it was remodeled. (HH487). According to Gorky biographer, Hayden Herrara, "the Hebbelns made bad housemates. Henry was mostly in New York living with a male lover, but he sometimes came to Sherman on weekends. Childless, married to a homosexual, and already deeply descended into alcoholism, Jean Hebbeln needed the Gorkys to share her home." (HH493) When the Hebbelns were in Sherman on the weekends, Gorky and Mougouch were able to stay at Union Square on their occasional visits to New York. (HH496-98) Presumably they were staying there when they attended a farewell dinner for Breton organized by Matta at the La Parisienne restaurant on Forty-sixth Street in Manhattan. By the time of the dinner, Matta had also divorced his wife, Anne, after she gave births to twins. He hosted the farewell dinner with his new wife, Patricia. (HH498) After dinner, they played the game of Truth.

From Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work by Hayden Herrera:

"After dinner the guests sat around the table and played the Surrealist game of Truth or Consequences or Le jeu de la verité, in which players take turns at being asked embarrassing questions, usually involving love and sex. Those interrogated must answer truthfully or accept the consequences, which could be even more embarrassing - for example, they might be told to kiss someone in the room, preferably someone else's spouse, or, when these games got out of hand, they might be told to pretend to masturbate in public. Mougouch was asked, 'What part of a woman's body do you kiss most attentively when making love to her?' She blushed and said she didn't know. Gorky glowered. Sensing trouble, Breton, who always played master of ceremonies at these events, announced, 'Passons!' He then patted Mougouch's hand and the players went on to the next victim. At the end of the evening came another sort of Surrealist game - Matta absconded without paying the bill. As Mougouch wrote to Jeanne, 'We were all suddenly asked to pay the bill - André was in a rage from start to finish but I began to think they just love to be outraged.'" (HH499)

Breton finally returned to his Paris apartment at 42 rue Fontaine in late May of 1946 and continued to encourage Gorky to come to Paris. (SS387) Jeanne Reynal wrote to Mougouch on October 6, 1946 that Breton had told her that Gorky was "the one artist for whom he would do something in Paris." (HH528) The same day Mougouch wrote to Breton telling him they hoped to move to Paris and suggested that a small house near the city would be appropriate accommodation. On November 4th Breton wrote back with words of encouragement. He was planning a large Surrealist exhibition to take place the following year and wanted Gorky to participate. (HH531)


The exhibition that Breton was busy organizing was "Le surréalisme en 1947: Exposition international du surréalisme" which opened in early July 1947 at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. It included the work of about 100 artists from 24 countries. Gorky contributed How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life. Other artists associated with Breton's stay in the U.S. who also showed at the exhibition included David Hare, Gerome Kamrowski, Frederick Keisler (who had designed Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery), Kay Sage (Tanguy's wife) and Man Ray. The exhibition focused on alchemy, esotericism and myth. The gallery was arranged as though it was a place of initiation. After climbing twenty-one book steps visitors crossed the Hall of Superstitions into a labyrinth, inspired by voodoo rituals, containing alters dedicated to "a being, a category of beings, or an object, real or imaginary, capable of being endowed with a mythical life, such as the Great Invisibles." (SS395)

A limited edition of the exhibition catalogue was produced which featured a rubber breast on the cover designed by Marcel Duchamp. A copy of the catalogue can be seen here.

Although meant to be a major exhibition that would reinvigorate the Surrealist movement in France, Breton's "Exposition international du surréalisme" failed to live up to its promise. Surrealism had lost the ability to shock. In the July 9, 1947 issue of Figaro Albert Palle wrote, "We are no longer moved by it [Surrealism]... the enormous destruction of the world which we lived through during the dark years has emptied Surrealism of its explosive force." The Paris correspondent for Time magazine agreed: "After the gas chambers, those heaps of bones and teeth and shoes and eyeglasses, what is there left for the poor Surrealists to shock us with?" (SS398) David Hare attended the show (accompanied by Breton's ex-wife, Jacqueline Lamba) and, on August 8, 1947, wrote a letter to Enrico Donati giving his own impressions of the show. (Donati was also included in the exhibition and had worked with Duchamp on the cover of the catalogue. (SS394))

David Hare [from the letter to Donati (August 8, 1947) - grammar and spelling as per the original]:

"The show finely opened after all the various disagreements that you so well emagin since you remember VVV. However the public didn't know all that so they are labering under the imprestion the surrealists are one big happy family. Surrealism is accepted as past history. The gallery is crowded with humanity with nothing better to do on an afternoon. There are no discussions, no fights, no real interest and yet it is a suces as a publicety stunt for the gallery. .one would say it was a popular success, but an intellectual failure... a small group of people amusing themselves with ideas which they invented in 1929. (SS398)

Arshile Gorky never made it to the exhibition and would never move to Paris. He committed suicide in 1948 after a series of misfortunes. First he was diagnosed with cancer, then on June 26, 1948 Julien Levy crashed his car into a roadside post while Gorky was his passenger. Gorky suffered a broken collarbone and two fractured vertebrae in his neck. HIs painting arm was paralyzed. Although the paralysis would partially subside the traction device he was required to wear after the accident made movement difficult and painful. In July 1948 Gorky's wife, Mougouch, told him that she was in love with Matta. (In late June Mougouch and Matta had had a secret romantic rendezvous.) Mougouch told Gorky that although she loved Matta, she loved Gorky more. (MS364) On July 21, 1948 Gorky's body was found hanging from a noose in a shed on the Connecticut property. A short suicide note was scrawled on a nearby crate. His neighbours Peter Blum and Malcolm Cowley found the body. According to Blum, the suicide note read "Good-by my loves." According to Cowley it read "Good-by all my loved." (HH612/613)

After Gorky's death, Matta telephoned Breton in Paris to defend his behaviour in Surrealist terms. He attributed his affair with Mougouch to the "unrestrained pursuit of desire," pointing out that the Marquis de Sade had been revered by the Surrealists. Breton called him a murderer and hung up on him. (HH623) On October 25, 1948 Breton's group of Surrealists issued a statement that expelled Matta. (SS)

Eleven years later Matta was accepted back into the Surrealist fold when he participated in a Jean Benoît Surrealist performance piece titled Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade at the apartment of the poet Joyce Mansour.

Costume from Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade

Hayden Herrera [from Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work]:

"Eleven years later, at a kind of happening, entitled the Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade, Matta was reinstated. Some two hundred members of the Parisian haut monde and intelligentsia stood in a semicircle, their mood made suitably solemn by a tape recording of Breton reading from Sade's Justine against the background sound of an erupting volcano. An artist dressed as a devil came onto the stage dragging a black coffin with an erect penis poking through its lid. A woman undressed him, revealing a body covered in black paint, and the devil then grabbed a red-hot iron and branded the word Sade on his heart. 'Who is next?' he asked, and the tipsy Matta, happy to be back in Breton's company, rushed forward, bared his chest, and branded his left breast." (HH623)

The performance took place on December 2, 1959 - two weeks prior to the opening of another "Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme" organized by Breton with the help of Duchamp. The exhibition took place at the Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris from December 15, 1959 to February 14, 1960. Artists included Robert Rauschenberg (RC) and Jasper Johns (Target with Plaster Casts (1955)). In 1965 Breton organized his final exhibition of Surrealism, "L'Écart absolu" at the Galerie L'Oeil. He died the following year on September 28, 1966 in Paris.

From André Breton's obituary in The New York Times:

"When Mr. Breton returned to France in 1946, the world had changed. If such painters as Matta or Wilfredo Lam had given Surrealist art a new lease on life, existentialism was dominating the literary scene... Nevertheless he continued to write, publishing two magazines, a work on Rimbaud, poems and essays... The last years of his life were spent in a country house in southwestern France and in an apartment at the bottom of Montmartre littered with manuscripts, books and African art. He was suffering from Marcel Proust's disease, asthma, and recently told a friend that the one writer he envied was Victor Hugo 'because at his funeral were all the people of Paris.' (BC)


Gary Comenas

London 2008

back to February 18, 1896: André Breton is born in Tinchebray, France

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Abstract Expressionism

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