While traveling through London in the mid-1970s, the African-American artist and jazz musician Ted Joans picked up a stack of computer paper and casually sketched a few lines along one edge, beginning a drawing that would track his movements and relationships over the remaining twenty-eight years of his nomadic life. The paper was accordion-folded, a continuous thirty-foot-long sheet meant to be spooled through a dot matrix printer, but Joans saw it as a readymade surface on which he and his worldwide circle of friends could play a Surrealist game known as the Exquisite Corpse. The estimable list of participants in this serial artwork would eventually include everyone from Roberto Matta to Bruce Conner to Younousse Sèye.
Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Long Distance is a compressed version of an expansive exhibition that strives to extract Surrealism from the usual French milieu and to show that the movement controlled by the poet André Breton was actually just a small part of an imaginative eruption in the arts visible everywhere from Osaka to Cairo.
Surrealism Beyond Borders impressively achieves what the curators set out to accomplish, consolidating Surrealism artistically by decentering it geographically. The vast trove of work shows both the strengths and the limitations of the Surrealist perspective as artists and rebels in radically different circumstances took up “the belief in the superior reality of certain forces of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, [and] in the disinterested play of thought” that Breton advocated in his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism.
As the exhibition catalogue meticulously documents, the underlying principles of Surrealism and even the word itself predated Breton’s formal organization of a movement. As early as 1917, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was using the term in personal correspondence. “When man wanted to imitate walking,” Apollinaire observed, “he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.” Breton’s accomplishment was to put this “new spirit” into general circulation, and to back it with a pool of artistic talent. But it came at the expense of artistic freedom. Breton’s demands of loyalty and discipline paradoxically quashed the disinterested play of thought and all possibility of dreaminess.
Outside of Paris, especially on other continents, people resisted. The Japanese poet Takenaka Kyūshichi was typically contemptuous. “True Surrealism cannot follow André Breton’s authority,” he wrote in 1930. “The faddish kind of ‘Surrealism’ starts from Breton and never goes beyond Breton.”
What it meant to go beyond Breton was as varied as the places where word of Surrealism traveled in the years after Breton published his manifesto. In Japan, where political expression was tightly controlled, the visual language of Surrealism provided cover for dissent. Through dreamlike painting and photography, artists implicitly challenged the hyperrational structuring of society as a military power. In other words, the irrational form was the content.
For artists in Cairo, Surrealism was appealing for different reasons. As part of their resistance to the status quo, the Surrealists in Paris opposed French colonialism. From an African perspective, Surrealism represented a strategic alliance. Their allegiance conveniently overlooked Breton’s efforts to colonize artistic expression worldwide with his dissemination of Surrealist values and his intolerance of resistance. Breton was too Eurocentric to be much bothered by inconsistencies in an outpost as distant as Egypt.
Nonetheless, even without Breton’s micromanagement, Paris cast a long shadow over artistic production elsewhere. For all the diversity of Surrealist motivations, the Met exhibition shows a disturbing consistency with which the disinterested play of thought was expressed. Through the rhetoric and aesthetics of Breton and his cronies, the new spirit foreseen by Apollinaire not only became faddish, but also became formulaic.
Ted Joans was introduced to the formula as a ten-year-old boy, when his aunt recovered some Surrealist periodicals from the trash bin of her white employer. The imagery provided him with an escape from the pervasive racism of his Illinois hometown. But he also had another formative inspiration. As he would later memorably declare, “Jazz is my religion and Surrealism is my point of view”. The combination of these forces seems to have liberated him from lifelong compliance with the standard Surrealist style.
Although Long Distance includes many panels resembling Exquisite Corpses from 1930s Paris, the series of 132 connected sketches by acquaintances in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas is more than just an illustration of a globalized art movement. Joans revitalized the Exquisite Corpse as a geography unto itself, where the disinterested play of friendship could slip free of political borders and creative boundaries. Long Distance is a map leading from The Surrealist Manifesto to Surrealism in practice.