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Conference review: Surrealisms

 Margaux Van Uytvanck, Université Libre de Bruxelles

The International Society for the Study of Surrealism (ISSS) held its second annual conference at the University of Exeter from 29 to 31 August 2019. The ISSS was founded in 2018 to promote the study of Surrealism and encourage exchanges between scholars of the movement. The inaugural conference of the ISSS took place in November 2018 at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and, following its success, expectations were high for this year’s conference, the first one to take place in Europe. Felicity Gee (University of Exeter), the conference organiser, brilliantly met (and surpassed) these great expectations by offering a fascinating programme of panels at the university’s Streatham Campus, in association with a digital exhibition, a film programme, and a gala evening at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery.

The wide variety of papers presented during the conference was testament to the ISSS’s ability to attract international scholars working on subjects ranging from André Breton’s apartment in Paris to the development of Surrealism in China, Central Europe and the Middle East, while also tackling the movement’s gender politics and experimentations in journals, photography and film. With five panels taking place at every time, attendees were faced with hard decisions about which panel to attend. It was not uncommon to see them running from one panel to the other, hoping to arrive just in time for that one paper they had marked with an exclamation mark in their programme.

One of the first panels to take place, ‘Double Jeopardy: Women Surrealists in Central and Eastern Europe’, was exemplary of the ISSS’s wish to highlight Surrealist artists who were active on the periphery of historic Surrealist centres such as Paris or Brussels. The ‘double jeopardy’ faced by women surrealists in Eastern Europe was deftly described by the four panellists. The discovery of Franciszka Themerson’s drawings in the margins of Alfred Jarry’s classic play Ubu Roi, presented by Amalia Wojciechowski (Bryn Mawr College), was particularly enthralling. Another highlight of this first afternoon was the panel dedicated to Breton’s atelier as a ‘dynamic space of international Surrealism’. Both presentations – the first one by Andrea Gremels (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main), the second one by Sean O’Hanlan (Stanford University) and Katia Sowels (École Normale Supérieure) – offered new perspectives on Breton’s famous apartment by looking at both the objects on display in the atelier, and the people who visited it.

On the second day of the conference, Beth Wilson (SUNY New Paltz), in the panel ‘Documenting Surreal photography’, analysed the documentary photographs and films of Lee Miller and Humphrey Jennings, while Lauren Walden (Coventry University) focused on Surrealism in China. Later, a roundtable discussion was dedicated to the ‘visual and textual transgressions of Surrealist periodicals’, chaired by Erin McClenathan (Mercer University). On another panel, Christina Heflin (Royal Holloway, University of London) presented a delightful paper on the poet Yvan Goll, who literally fought with Breton over the use of the term ‘Surrealism’. Later in the afternoon, Pierre Taminiaux (Georgetown University) similarly went back to the roots of Surrealism by focusing on the little-known (and hard to find) writings of Paul Nougé, a founding member of the Belgian Surrealist group in the 1920s, and comparing them with Marcel Duchamp’s art.

The last day of the conference started with a packed panel on women Surrealists with papers by, among others, Penelope Rosemont and Alyce Mahon (University of Cambridge). As with other art movements, we have witnessed these last few years a renewed interest in women Surrealists and their work. And yet, as Anna Watz (Linköping University) brilliantly showed on a later panel, several women Surrealists like Dorothea Tanning or Leonor Fini rejected feminism. Another highlight of the day was the panel ‘Paris-New York’. James McManus (California State University Chico) presented a gripping paper on the ‘transatlantic adventures’ of sculptor María Martins. Alice Ensabella (Université de Grenoble) followed up with a fascinating analysis of the sale of Surrealist art from France to the USA in the 1930s, while Sandra Zalman (University of Houston) knocked it out of the park with a paper on the time-traveling antics of Salvador Dalí’s Rainy Taxi. I participated in the panel ‘Methods of Documenting Space’ with Michael Eades (University of London) and Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts). Their papers on their grandparents’ house and the depiction of Surrealist international networks, respectively, were exceptionally thought-provoking and offered new methodological perspectives. Among the last panels of the conference was a panel devoted to the lesser known links between Surrealism and music, with Steven Harris (University of Alberta) presenting a paper on the even lesser known (but wildly imaginative) Raudelunas group, an artist’s collective active in Alabama in the 1970s.

All in all, more than one hundred papers were presented during this three-day conference. Despite their wide-ranging subjects, it is possible to identify a couple of red threads. Firstly, as noted before, it was striking to note how many papers were devoted to artists who had been active outside of the historic centres of Surrealism (i.e. Western Europe and, later, New York). This global, decentralised approach of the art movement offers new research perspectives into how Surrealism was understood and, eventually, adopted by artists all around the world. Secondly, several papers showed how Surrealism continued to influence the creative process of many artists decades after its supposed death (as theorised by literary critic Maurice Nadeau in 1945). Thirdly, it was particularly invigorating to see such a varied crowd of attendees. They were mostly scholars, yes, but scholars from all over the world representing many different fields such as literature, film studies or art history.

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Artist Patrick Hughes in conversation with Kzrysztof Fijalkowski at the

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter, 31 August 2019.

A word now about the conference’s other activities, which successfully completed the panels and offered the attendees a chance to discover both the university campus and the city of Exeter. One evening was devoted to a selection of films by contemporary young filmmakers whose practice is inspired by Surrealism. On the second evening, the attendees were invited to a wine reception at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, followed by an interview with the artist Patrick Hughes, who exhibited in the Exeter Festival of Surrealism’s 1967 exhibition The Enchanted Domain. The artist reminisced about his career and shared his favourite anecdotes about Salvador Dalí. More importantly, he showed the audience that the Surrealist mindset is still thriving today.

All photos by the author.

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