Tag Archives: surrealism

walrus and carpenter

“I read your blog about Surrealism,” said Stuart. He had come back through town on his way home.

“It reminded me of the garage band I was in.”

“You were in a band? I didn’t know you played music,” I said.

“I never played an instrument,” he said. “I was the roadie.”

“Roadie for a garage band? Did you tour?

“Heck no. It was high school. My job was to bring the Cokes.”

“No beer?”

“I said it was high school. Drinking age was 21 back then, besides, when you’re high on weed, you want something sweet.”

It turns out, they played not in a garage, but in the basement of the home where the lead guitarist lived with his parents.

“We played very low volume, sometimes without even plugging in,” he said. “We didn’t want to disturb Sal’s folks. But that’s not why I brought it up. It’s because of our name.procol harem cover

“You wrote about rock bands using Surrealism. This was 1967 and we listened to Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Procol Harem, the Velvet Underground — it was a whole list of Surrealist wordplay.

“I remember a whole subcategory of culinary surrealism,” I said. “Moby Grape, The Electric Prune, Strawberry Alarmclock.”

“And those were just the big ones. Don’t forget the Chocolate Watchband, the Peanutbutter Conspiracy and Ultimate Spinach. And I guess we could put Captain Beefheart on that list, too.

“There was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — bet you don’t remember them — Blossom Toes, Bubble Puppy, Pearls Before Swine, 13th Floor Elevators, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stone Poneys and the Monkees — not that we listened the them. Nobody did; they were too popular.”

“And your band? What did you call yourselves?”

“Well, at first we were the Buddha Fumes, but later that year, we decided that was too simple, so we changed to Unlit Booth/Breakfast Out of Context. We thought it was a great name.”

“Maybe a little unwieldy.”

“Yeah, but we really got on a kick with the slash. We made up albums we were going to record, all with great two-part names, like ‘Sudden Eyes/Velcro Sunrise’ and ‘Burlap Lapels/Unexpected Lady.’ Inagaddadavida single

“I became more involved in the band our senior year and wrote lyrics for our songs. Mostly they were covers of our favorite bands, but with my new words. It’s how I became a writer, I think. I wrote a song about my dog based on Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida with the words, ‘Ah, we gotta go feed her.’ And we did. Feed her, that is.

“We broke up after graduation. We all went to different schools, except Sal, that is. He got a job.

“But this is all prelude to this list.”

“What list is that?”

“Well, back then, we made up a list of possible names for the band, and it follows exactly what you said in the piece about Surrealism. We had all these great concepts built out of wild juxtapositions, like taking a dictionary and running it through a blender. Of course, we never heard of Surrealism then. We just knew this stuff was cool.silvertone guitars

“I found this list in an old folder from that time.”

And he pulled out a folded sheet of lined yellow legal paper, brittle at the edges, with about 20 or 25 names on it, written in faded violet ink, obviously from a fountain pen (“really, a cartridge pen,” Stuart said). The ink was illegible in a couple of places where spills had made the color spread into a bright blot. I recognized the handwriting as Stuart’s from the many letters he has written me over the years. His high-school cursive was much neater, though, than the scrawl that has evolved.

“Wax Monkeys,” it began.

“Xenon Aftertaste”

Buddha Fumes, Sudden Monkey, Jalapeno Fistula, Orlando Death Car, Sequined Monotreme. The list continued: Fog Hammer.

“There was a fraudulent PR company called ‘Frog Hammer’ in Slings and Arrows,” I said. “You know, the Canadian miniseries about actors.”

“Don’t know it,” Stuart said. “But frog hammer just makes me think of a squashed schoolroom dissection. Fog Hammer is more genuinely surreal. Soft and hard at the same time, dense and vaporous.”poster 1967

He’s probably right. The list went on:

Spit Wax

Able-bodied Saints

Red Suits and Whispers

Sound Midden

Ear Stubble

Leatherette Wilderness

Snarling Confessor

Audible Hernia

Slice of Breath

Waking the Badger

Fraternal Animism

Painted Snakes

Money Under the Hood

Ashcan libertine

Pineapple Fuqua


“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t Pineapple Fuqua a real person? Didn’t we know him when we were kids?”

“Yeah, ‘Few-Kway.’ Ran the service station. Good name, though.

“Any of them you wanna use, go ahead,” Stuart said. “I don’t mind.”

"Object" by Meret Oppenheim, 1936

“Object” by Meret Oppenheim, 1936

Most art movements come and go. Surrealism came and stayed.

spongebobThat may be unfortunate: After all, Surrealism is not everyone’s cup of fur. But if you look around, you will see that Surrealism has become an entrenched part of American culture. It’s everywhere from pop music to TV sitcoms. It’s so pervasive, sometimes you may not even recognize it as it passes by.

SpongeBob SquarePants, for instance. Salvador Dali would have loved it.

Surrealism’s love of the weird, the incongruent and the unspeakable fuels a good deal of our popular culture. Consider such band names as Flaming Lips, Insane Clown Posse, Def Leppard, Nine Inch Nails, Guns n’ Roses.herb alpert

But it’s not just music: Only a culture that thrives on a constant diet of Surrealism could line up to buy Thai pizza or Mock Hawaiian Chile. Or be able to follow Robin Williams’ unconnected segues, or recognize the world of Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead.

It’s everywhere: Michael Jackson was a walking frappe of the surreal.

Sometimes it even happens by accident: In the old Hayden Planetarium in New York, before it was torn down to make way for the new Rose Center, there was a lit sign by the staircase that read: “Solar System and Rest Rooms.”solar system and rest rooms

Of course, Surrealism didn’t enter this country on a pop-culture visa; it got here as an ambassador of French high culture.

Surrealism began in Paris in 1924 with Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, an unreadable piece of bureaucratic writing that set forth the principles of the school. It was yet one more attempt at epater le bourgeois. But it was also a utopian art-and-political movement meant to liberate all humanity, to free civilization from its deadening habits.

Andre Breton death mask

Andre Breton death mask

Primarily, Breton wanted to free the mind from the shackles of logic, to use the imagination as freely as children or madmen, with no constraints of taste or taboo.

He believed that the unconscious mind was somehow more honest than the conscious mind, and to tap into that lower, darker level of the psyche, he prescribed dream imagery, Freudian symbolism, automatic writing and random juxtaposition.

The Surrealists took as their motto a phrase from the 19th century French poet Lautreamont, “As beautiful as the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”

Thus was ushered in the era of droopy watches and steam locomotives chugging out of the fireplace.

The number of artists who signed on was impressive — even Picasso himself, at least tangentially.

By Australian artist Manfred Olsen, detail

By Australian artist Manfred Olsen, detail

But one can’t talk about Surrealism as a single thing, because it was not. There were as many types of Surrealism as there were Surrealist artists. And there were an army of them. Their general was Breton, who attempted to maintain control of his theory but was, in truth, herding cats. Everyone had his own version of Surrealism. Dali leapt into sexual fetishism; Ernst into automatism. Joan Miro imitated children’s art; Man Ray made clever and useless objects.

And just as French couture shows up in New York department-store knock-offs, Surrealism crossed the Atlantic, so in the 1930s and ’40s, American artists who wished to remain au courant picked up the mantra.

"Oedipus Rex" by Max Ernst, 1922

“Oedipus Rex” by Max Ernst, 1922

The ’40s also saw many of the European Surrealists cross the Atlantic to escape the war. Dali came over. Tanguy came over. Ernst even settled in Arizona. Dali became a celebrity; he starred in Life magazine.

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali

Surrealism began its metamorphosis into mass culture.

Dali’s particular style of Surrealism became the public model for the movement and was imitated by some artists, including Federico Castellon, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehman, Helen Lundeberg.

Flat horizons, empty spaces, body parts, puppets, shadows, eggs, skeletons — a whole retinue of increasingly tired Surrealist iconography. In America, that iconography persists aggressively in the form of tattoo and prison art, and the work of untold high school students.

But this wasn’t the end: Two more generations of Surrealism in America followed.

"Monogram" by Robert Rauschenberg

“Monogram” by Robert Rauschenberg

First came Pop Art, which often had a Surreal component — Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram, for instance, with its stuffed goat wearing a rubber tire cummerbund, or Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculpture. Even Andy Warhol’s color-quilt celebrity portraits have a Surrealist edge.

And then came psychedelia. It is through the drug-and-rock culture of the late 1960s that modern pop culture gets its Surreal DNA. Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, psychedelic posters, LSD and flower power.psychedelic poster

“I don’t take drugs,” Dali said. “I am drugs.” That was the difference.

But to truly understand what the excitement was all about, you must understand something about art in general: One of its main duties is to refresh our perceptions. We live lives of deadening habit — driving the same commuter route daily, watching the same TV shows, ritualizing our political life so that it becomes no more thought through than a slogan on a T-shirt. Habit is the great deadener of life. Art always needs to show us something that wakes us up, makes us see the world again as if for the first time. This is what Breton meant by Surrealism. He means to grab us by the lapels and make us see the world as miraculous.

“The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful,” he said, “in fact, only the marvelous is beautiful.”