Reimagining Vision in the Surrealist Cinepoem "L'Etoile de mer."

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Author: Lindsey Richter
Date: Mar. 2021
Publisher: University of Manitoba, Mosaic
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,381 words

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In the beginning of Surrealism was the word. The movement began with the invention of automatic writing in the early 1920s, a technique that would free the writer from the shackles of reason and moral or aesthetic concerns and permit access to the unconscious. Both the Surrealists' practise of automatism--predominantly spoken or written--and their theoretical writings reveal a fundamental belief in thought's consubstantiality with language. Andre Breton writes of automatism as "la pensee parlee" (1: 326) while Louis Aragon insists that "il n'y a pas de pensee hors des mots" (87). Such a privileging of the verbal presages a fraught relationship with visuality, both with vision as sense and, by extension, with the visual arts. While Surrealism's stance vis-a-vis cinema, photography, and painting was often influenced by the group's rejection of art institutions and the economically-driven art industry, these political and aesthetic concerns parallel an epistemological one. Initially, surrealist doubts about the visual arts centred on whether they could give unmediated access to the functioning of thought. In the year after the movement's formal inception by Breton in his Manifeste du Surrealisme, members Pierre Naville and Max Morise would write essays questioning the possibility of visual automatism: "le mot s'identifiant pour ainsi dire a la pensee, les traces du pinceau au contraire ne traduisent que mediatement les images intellectuelles" (Revolution 1: 26). (1) While Morise acknowledges the existence of mental images, he insists that any visual representation of thought is a translation, a secondary operation compared with the immediacy of the verbal. Only a year after the movement's formal beginning, contentions over the visual arts would be officially put to rest by Breton's "Le Surrealisme et la Peinture," which addresses visuality directly in its oft-quoted opening statement: "l'oeil existe a l'etat sauvage" (4: 349). (2) By declaring the visual a primitive force, Breton recruits the eye into the Surrealists' revolutionary goals of removing Western civilization's constraints on the human being. At the same time, he advances a concept of sight that, though modelled on the perceptual, clearly privileges internal vision over external (4: 349-54). These urgent arguments over the verbal and the perceptual spur us to consider the surrealist practise of the visual arts as an epistemological undertaking.

In the same way that language had to be reinvented so that it could capture a snapshot of thought, vision also needed to be stripped of everyday habits and Enlightenment malformations, "ces disgraces dont nous heritons" (1: 312). (3) Particularly apt for these purposes were the two new media most closely aligned with pure representation: photography and cinema. Paradoxically, the Surrealists identified in these modern technologies the return to the primitive eye, both in popular American films and in documentary photography like that of Eugene Atget. (4) However, they used photography and film not to reproduce everyday reality, but to unmask the surreel underpinning the quotidian. (5) Film made or appreciated by the Surrealists tended to incorporate realist and even documentary styles, in direct opposition to the impressionist film strains of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A694703390