by Gavin Parkinson. Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, May 2018. 352 p. ill ISBN 9781501337253 (h/c), $130.00.
Reviewed November 2018
Gavin Parkinson is Senior Lecturer in twentieth-century European art at the Courtauld Institute. Some of the publication’s material has appeared in Art Bulletin, Art History and the Burlington Magazine as well as books, Modernist Games (2013), Electric Worlds (2016) and In Search of the Marvellous (2018). Rewritten and rethreaded, this book constitutes a major contribution to art historiography and the understanding of surrealism through André Breton’s writings on art.
“Enchanted ground” comes from an 1889 Van Gogh letter to Emile Bernard about the danger of being led into abstraction by Gauguin. Parkinson traces a parallel history of the canonical figures of modernism – Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin – that prioritizes myth and magic over the formalist analysis of Clement Greenberg.
Art historians have traditionally seen the precursors of surrealism as Moreau, Redon, Böcklin, Grandville, and Khnopff. The surrealists, and Breton in particular, had a wider view. Impressionism was regarded as tainted by materialism and the prioritization of the senses, though in occupied Brussels, Magritte adopted Renoir’s style to Breton’s horror. Cézanne was not admired, though Parkinson identifies a “temporary rethinking of Cézanne” in the 1930s in a wonderful chapter that ranges from an astute re-reading of Breton’s L’amour fou (1937) where Cézanne is discussed via Tarot cards, the Henriot murder, and Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918). Two chapters are devoted to Seurat. In the first, Parkinson argues that Breton saw beyond formal qualities and recognized a poetic value; the second chapter explores Seurat’s drawings. By the 1960s, Breton owned three sketches and makes a wonderful comparison of Seurat’s night drawings with Brassai’s photographs reproduced by a photogravure process in Paris de nuit (1933). As contributors, both would appear side by side in the surrealist periodical Minotaure.
The surrealists came late to Gauguin – 1948-1953. Parkinson argues that this was caused by a renewed interest in primitivism, the occult, and medievalism, together with a preoccupation with the Celts and Arthurian romance in Brittany. The promotion of Gauguin, in whom Breton saw the poetic reunification of sense perception and mental representation, also helped to counter socialist realism, promoted by Aragon, excoriated by Breton.
An epilogue examines Artaud’s championing of Van Gogh, whom Breton thought was guilty of miserabilism. Parkinson makes an excellent point in seeing Artaud’s Van Gogh le suicidé de la société as a rebuttal of Breton’s exhibition Le surrealism en 1947 at the Galerie Maeght and its “occultation of surrealism.”
Enchanted Ground deserves a better index, as the notes which have extensive argument are not covered at all, and a better editor; there are many instances of “as I said.”
This book is suitable for a graduate audience and for art libraries supporting courses in modernism and surrealism.