Surrealism Comes to America

Before 1940, a detestation of most things American was a defining feature of surrealism. Associated with the massacre of indigenous peoples and the brutality of slavery, the United States was also portrayed as what Barry Rubin has called “a nightmare of identical boxlike houses, standardized products, and narrow minds”—in short, the worst of Western civilization. While André Breton heralded Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian-born anarchists unjustly executed in 1927, as the symbols of proletarian opposition to capitalism, poet Louis Aragon delivered the most violent rant, expressing the hope that “hordes of drug-traffickers attack our terrified countries [and] distant America crash down with its white buildings.”

But this is not the whole story. The surrealists adored the Marx Brothers—and, in the case of Dalí, even Walt Disney!—and mingled with Gertrude Stein. During World War II, New York City became the de facto world capital of surrealism, redefining the movement, and the surrealists would never forget that the United States granted them asylum and defeated Hitler and his allies. In New York, they enjoyed Broadway and the bustle of the city as well as the hush of the Native American exhibits in the Museum of Natural History.

After 1945, the same ambivalence returned: On one hand, during the Cold War, the surrealists protested the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (Roberto Matta did a painting on the subject in 1952). On the other, disciples of Breton played an important role in the dissemination of certain aspects of American culture: for example, Gérard Legrand authored the first important book about jazz in French in 1953.

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