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Conference Review: Inaugral Conference of the International Society for the Study of Surrealism

November 1-3, 2018, Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, USA.

Diane Drouin, Sorbonne Université, Paris

The International Society for the Study of Surrealism (ISSS) held its inaugural conference at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, between November 1st and November 3rd, 2018. Diane Drouin, a Ph.D. candidate at Sorbonne Université in Paris, reflects on this groundbreaking conference.

The International Society for the Study of Surrealism (ISSS) is a new society dedicated to the study of Surrealism and of its legacies. The three day inaugural conference ‘Surrealisms,’ held at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, was brilliantly organised by Roger Rothman (Bucknell University), Jonathan Eburne (Pennsylvania State University), Effie Rentzou (Princeton University), Abigail Susik (Willamette University), and Kathi Venios (Bucknell University), and brought together 150 international scholars and artists. Poets, painters, photographers, art collectors, filmmakers, Ph.D. students, and seasoned academics, with a common passion for Surrealism, gathered at Bucknell University.

The opening night undoubtedly made a lasting impression on everyone present, and set the tone for an extremely inspiring conference. The welcome reception was hosted in the historic Art Deco Campus Theatre in Lewisburg, while a sign above the entrance read: ‘Welcome Surrealists.’ I found it quite a feat to have brought together so many jet-lagged, yet enthusiastic artists and scholars, who had driven from every part of the country, or who had flown long distances from across the world to meet in the heart of Pennsylvania. The reception was followed by a Surrealist film screening, featuring Tusalava by Len Lye, Rose Hobart by Joseph Cornell, and The Deadman by Peggy Ahwesh. The night ended with a Poetry reading session.

 The Campus Theatre

The discussions that unfolded over the course of the following days covered a wide range of fields, from History of Art to French literature, from British prose to Film Studies, and from American poetry to Photography. The presentations came in a large variety of formats, including parallel panels, roundtables, poetry readings, exhibitions and performances. Throughout the conference, a book exhibit allowed the participants to browse through fascinating works by or about Surrealist artists, and postgraduate students were kindly offered to take some of the books home.

My paper was scheduled for one of the first panels, chaired by Felicity Gee (University of Exeter). I presented parts of my Ph.D. research on Mina Loy and her surrealist strategies of fragmentation of the self in her autobiographical texts in prose. The feedback I received both during the discussion and more informally afterwards was incredibly friendly and useful. In the same panel Andrew David King (University of Iowa), presented on ‘The New York School’s Surrealist Inheritance,’ while Gavin Yates (Monash University), discussed Australian Surrealism of the 1940s.

Bucknell University

The quality and diversity of the panels made it difficult to choose which one to attend. A personal favourite was the panel dedicated to ‘Mina Loy and Transatlantic Surrealism,’ with papers by Sarah Hayden (University of Southampton) on ‘Visitation of Insel’ and by Susan Rosembaum (University of Georgia) on Loy’s Surrealist Paintings. During the discussion, the audience showed enthusiasm at the news of a project to exhibit Loy’s paintings, up until now scattered in private collections. I also particularly enjoyed the panel ‘Hermetic Arts in the Americas’ with papers by Maria Clara Bernal (Universidad de los Andes), Anne Foucault (Université Paris Nanterre), and Abigail Susik (Willamette University), proving that Surrealism extended far beyond the frontiers of Europe, and had a strong presence in Mexico and Latin America.

That night, the reception was held at the Samek Art Museum, among surrealist paintings, photographs, and collages. Two poetry reading sessions brightened the rainy evening, with beautiful readings by Mary Ann Caws, Penelope Rosemont, Jennifer Militello, and G.C. Waldrep, among others.

The next day, I attended a fascinating panel on Photography and Self-Fashioning, with papers on ‘Feminity, Fashion, and the femme fatale in Dora Maar’s portraits of Leonor Fini’ by Naomi Stewart (University of Edinburgh), on ‘Percy Rainford: Surrealism Invisible Photographer’ by Michael Taylor (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), and on ‘The Man Ray School of Photography: Surrealism and Fashion Photography’ by Lynda Xepoleas (Cornell University).

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

In between panels, I joined Lisa Stock (InByTheEye), a magic-realist filmmaker based in New York City, for a walk to the centre of Lewisburg, a short stroll away from Bucknell. The autumn leaves contrasted with the beautiful historic houses of Lewisburg, with election signs on display as the midterms approached.

Other highlights that day included a panel on ‘African-American Presence in Surrealism,’ and discussions on Leonora Carrington. Two roundtables also focused on the contemporary legacies of Surrealism. The last panel I attended delighted the audience with a talk on Claude Cahun by Austin Hancock (Princeton University) and a paper on ‘Performing Intimacy and Exile: Surrealist Practice in the Work of Joseph Cornell and Yayoi Kusama’ by Felicity Gee (University of Exeter).

The conference concluded on a high note in the neighbouring town of Milton. We were first invited to the exhibition ‘Surrealism’ curated by Brice Brown at the Milton Art Bank, a 19th Century bank turned into an art gallery. Among the impressive collection of letters, objects, and artworks on display were works by Man Ray, Leonor Fini, Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dalí, and André Breton. The evening drew to a close with a splendid banquet, after which the participants were treated to a spectacular and somewhat provocative performance by Narcissister.

Milton Art Bank Exhibition, including, from left to right:

Laurence Vail, Standing Figure, ca. 1942-45;

Dorothea Tanning, The Intersections of Constant Desire, 1947;

Man Ray, A l’heure de l’observatoire : les amoureux, 1970;

Francis Picabia, Abstract Composition, 1937.

Looking back on this Inaugural Conference, I feel very fortunate to have been part of such a stimulating, friendly, and thought-provoking event. I came back from Bucknell with renewed energy, new friends, and fresh ideas. Future conferences of the ISSS may be held in Melbourne, Paris, or the Canary Islands. In the meantime, I’m really looking forward to the second conference of the ISSS, which will be spearheaded by Felicity Gee and will be held at the University of Exeter, U.K., at the end of August 2019.


All photographs by the author.

All photographs by the author.


ISSS website

Surrealisms Conference website

Campus Theatre, Lewisburg

Samek Art Museum

Milton Art Bank


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