Guest Essay

CELIA RABINOVITCH (PhD McGill University, Montreal; MFA, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is an artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Her book, Surrealism and the Sacred: Power, Eros, and the Occult in Modern Art, is widely cited in new approaches to art, literature, creativity, and spirituality. Her writing covers art, the history of knowledge, cultural anthropology, and history of religions. She has held teaching and director appointments at the University of Colorado at Denver, California College of Art, the University of Manitoba, the San Francisco Art Institute, Syracuse University, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Surrealism Through the Mirror of Magic

Let us not mince words:
the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful,
in fact only the Marvelous is beautiful.
André Breton, 1924

Magic as a force

The force of magic flows in two directions. One we may call “energetic magic”, and the other, “ritual magic”. Magic appears as a power that flows in and through nature, people, and things. Merely thinking of it can call it forth, or its influence may manifest unexpectedly. Magic may be manipulated, contaminated, or circumscribed by human acts and creations such as rituals, symbols, meditation, and concentrated intention. Magic bodies forth at the threshold of the sacred, at the boundary where the sacred and profane meet. As a lesser, changeable manifestation of sacred power, magic evokes mystery at the limit between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Magic as a force appears in Biblical stories as an inexplicable sacred energy that appears suddenly in the burning bush, or in the miraculous sign of water changed into wine. The notion of magic is not foreign to western cultures, but its non-rational power remains elusive and challenging.

Anthropologists refer to the energy of magic as mana, a transferable power that flows in and through people and things. A concept of Polynesian origin, mana refers to a supernatural or sacred force that inheres within natural things, and that can be directed or manifested by those able or qualified to use it. It may derive from a proto-Oceanic word that suggests “force of nature” or “ thunder, wind, or storm” and hence is allied with the elemental supernatural forces.1 It echoes the invisible breath, wind, spirit or pneuma (Greek) of classical thought. The power of this force, like wind, like fragrance, is its invisible atmosphere, like a reverberation of sound or a veil of vapor. It leaves only traces. “Knowledge of the invisible is power to transform the visible. It is awesome, fascinating, dangerous knowledge.”2

The imagination and magic are innately connected through a use of matter as metaphor—matter’s ability to represent something else. Magic always employs aspects of matter in its transformations. The force of mana or magic can imbue certain material objects with power. Hence the protective quality of amulets and stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, or quartz, or those natural or man-made images or objects at gateways, thresholds or over a child’s bed that grant a rubric of protective influence. Mana expresses the peculiar feeling and conviction that nature is inhabited by an indwelling spiritual power that takes different forms, and that animates all things. In the early twentieth century, western ethnographers referred to this experiential belief as animism. According to Oceanic cultures, mana forms an active transferable magic, whereas, on the other hand, taboo shows magic’s pollution, shrouding a person or thing in an evil miasma. Taboo has more power than mana, because taboo things contain power and elicit fear and the opprobrium of shunning.

In 1936, Kurt Seligmann, the surrealist artist on whose ideas this exhibition pivots, journeyed to Tahiti. In 1938 he explored the monumental totems of the Tshimshian peoples of British Columbia, Canada. His ethnographic travels allowed him to explore mana, totem, and taboo and led him to describe his experiences in a 1939 article in the surrealist review, Minotaure.

The Occult and Ritual Magic

In another direction, magic flows towards ritual and symbol. Ritual magic courses through manifold aspects of European culture that use occult knowledge to reject the dominant culture of their times. Ritual magic informs recognizable rituals and symbols, especially those that have taken a new life as “rejected knowledge.” Secret or occult rituals, foretelling or premonition, dream interpretation, and the residue of ancient pagan or pre-Christian religions remained dormant until the middle ages, when systems of rejected knowledge originating from pagan mystery religions and the human psyche were subsumed into the grand cross-referencing of classical and Christian symbols known as Renaissance humanism. Archaic religions reemerged as the occult sciences, including alchemy, the tarot, and folkloric healing arts. Greek myths, Biblical narratives, and medieval fairy tales warn of false seers who selfishly misuse magic’s power, falling victim to inevitable destruction. Most religious traditions, from traditional indigenous cosmologies to organized world religions, contain ritual processes and symbols that mark as holy the transitions of birth and death, and other changes of daily life, to enhance an appreciation of the world. Nevertheless, to view magic only as the ritual or occult limits our understanding to its outward shell.

Those unusual figures gifted with magic use the qualities of matter to transform circumstances or events. Christian saints, Biblical prophets, shamans, curanderas, cabalists and alchemists, each by receptivity to the analogies of matter, use the resonance of stone and bone; water, purity, or clarity; or smoke, incense, and perfume to trigger a physical and symbolic change in the individual. Some describe this as directing a life force through a bodily conduit that, like electricity, can illuminate or harm in equal measure. Although this is not a universal notion of magic, it underlies a widespread belief in unseen spiritual forces made active through magic.

Kurt Seligmann designed his bookplate with symbols that read in different ways. The alchemical mark of Saturn on the image’s forehead represents lead, the primordial matter- or “prima material”- that medieval alchemists transmuted into gold as an analogy to the purification of the soul. Saturn has a melancholic and thoughtful temperament; the scythe of Saturn is drawn into the face’s arched left eyebrow, suggesting inquisitiveness and skepticism. Kurt Seligmann’s interest in double images in indigenous art may have inspired this original visual pun of the eyebrow/scythe. The scythe also indicates the sinister, literally ‘left hand’ path of magic. The symbol on the face’s chin is that of Mercury, or “quicksilver”, a mutable metal, named for the Roman god of messages, travel and exchange. Mercury takes us on the soul’s journey through dreams and secret portents.

Magic participates in the reality that it alters. It is both symbol and substance, and therefore indefinable. Simply stated, it is both a verb and a noun – simultaneously an action and a concrete transformation. As anthropologist Alfred Gell points out, “‘spirit’ and ‘essence’ reveal that …an ideal or absolute truth …concretely within reach, would have to be something like a vapor, a distillate of more mundane reality.” 3 In this direction, at the ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi the oracle sat on a platform above a rift in the earth that embodied the mysterious presence of the goddess Demeter. The priestess uttered phrases in a trance state triggered by the geochemical fumes emitted from the split below. With the force of magic, the veil of fumes stirred the oracle to speak in riddles given to priests to interpret. Thus matter and meaning become interfused between Demeter, the earth, and the vapors.

Magic eventually became associated with mere sleight of hand, the “abracadabra” that evokes childish amazement and surprise. Intrigued with the special effects of magic as the heritage of the 19th century occult revival, the surrealists joined with Freud, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madame Blavatsky and the theosophists, and the mesmerists, psychics, and clairvoyants who populated the fringes of respectability. The surrealists’ were drawn to dreams, premonition and fortune telling. The carnival road show, with its theater of traveling musicians, seers, and human curiosities captured the surrealist imagination. André Breton in particular believed in premonitions, and in his autobiographical novel Nadja (1928) he consults apsychic or clairvoyante, Madame Sacco, who, as he says “has never been mistaken about me. The conclusion is evidently on the order of a dream of two extremely disparate images.4 In occult magic, the surrealists found an alternative state of mind that rejected the conventions of logic and state religion. Redemption from the arid air of modern life was there, waiting, awakened by the weird, the uncanny, and the surreal.

Clairvoyants, seers, mystics, and visionaries complemented the surrealist belief in unseen forces and spirits that could be accessed through alternative forms of knowledge that included premonition, precognition, paranormal and extra-sensory perception, and the insight of the imagination. In The Mirror of Magic, Kurt Seligmann wrote, “In every man there is a child that yearns to play, and the most attractive game is occultation, mystery.” 5

Rene Magritte took this portrait of his wife Georgette and a friend with only their eyes showing, looking at a table top of mundane objects as if uncovering the magic of ordinary things.

Surrealism and Magic

Surrealism recognizes the force field of magic in both ritual and energetic manifestations. The surrealists understood the currents of magic as expressions of creative energy. Surrealist artists, writers, and thinkers grasped the nature of magic as a force neither completely energetic, nor solely derived from the residual myths and symbols of archaic religions, but arising from the mind itself. In addition to the wellspring of ancient religions expressed through the occult, the surrealists drew directly from the energy of the imagination that Freud linked with the child’s instinctual energy, “a chaos, and a cauldron of seething excitations”. That was the energetic and unpredictable id or “it”, the fount of dreams, and erotic or creative energy—the libidinous imagination. Just as the Id embraced the pleasure of material substances and the contradictions of the dream state, so too did magic.

For the surrealists, the vitality of the creative imagination transcended the limits of reason that had shackled the western European mind since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The visionary imagination could see into reality and uncover the alchemical transformation of dreams in art andpoetry, opening hidden portals in the mind. Surrealism reignited archaic symbols, and intensified the longing of courtly love with the erotic magnetism of amour fou6 or mad love.

Surrealism used both ritual and energetic magic to undermine the instruments of reason and religion that limited the human experience. In the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) André Breton wrote,

“We are still living under the reign of logic... Under the pretence of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices… A part of our mental world has been brought back to light. ... Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream.”

The surrealists rejected religion, particularly Catholicism, and bourgeois European society. By 1929, in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton called for a clean sweep: “Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste to the ideas of family, country, religion.”7 At this time, the surrealists had hopes for an alliance with communism, unaware of the dictator Stalin’s rise in the Soviet Union. They strongly opposed the colonization and religious conversion of non-Western cultures that by the mid-nineteenth century had become the conquered dominions of Europe. The indigenous peoples of North and South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia, and their colonial inhabitants, later were drawn into the colonial forces of World Wars I and II—and tragically became cannon fodder for an inherited European conflict.

Early twentieth century ethnographers and anthropologists such as Sir James Frazer, E. B. Tyler, and R. R. Marrett captured the surrealist imagination. Established by earlier adventurers, explorers, and ethnographers, the ethnographic collections of the Musée du Trocadéro in Paris, as well as those of London and Berlin, became treasured surrealist terrain, exquisite sources of alternative thinking that allowed them to understand the pure power of matter and its infinite possibilities. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) originator of the term “surréalisme” (1917) was first among those who promoted ethnographic art. His 1909 article, “On Museums” argues for inclusion in the Louvre “certain artistic manifestations that have been ignored until now. These are works of art from certain regions, certain colonies, such as Australia, Easter Island, New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Tahiti, various African lands, Madagascar, etc.…Until now we have only admitted works of art from these countries intoethnographic collections where they have been conserved only as curiosities…” 8 The ethnographic attitude was an undercurrent of surrealism, countering the prevailing rationalism and industrialism of Europe. Surrealism grasped the countervailing tendencies of psychoanalysis, with its investigation of the origins of the mind, and of occultism, magic, and ritual, and employed the principles of sympathetic magic as defined by Sir James Frazer and other mythologists. The surrealists uncovered magic as the material embodiment of imagination itself.

Surrealists used this dormant residue of magic in a new way, merging it with their broad knowledge of non-Western belief systems and images, and with thecountervailing tendencies towards magic, supernaturalism and mystical experience that were a subculture of the modern West. In the first Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton writes of the surrealist pursuit of mystery:

We can hope that mysteries which are not really mysteries will give way to the great Mystery. I believe in the future resolution of these two states -- outwardly so contradictory -- which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak. ”

The mystery appeared in the trance state entered by the poet Robert Desnos, whose automatic writing eclipsed the conscious control of the mind. Of the first surrealist practices, automatic writing was intended to reveal the free associations of the subconscious mind and the dream. Words appeared in unfamiliar juxtapositions, with astonishing connections. Automatic writing was accompanied by chance and coincidence. The surrealists believed that chance was the expression of a sacred force that revealed the magical, predestined meaning of everyday life. Jean Arp threw random pieces of paper to create images, while Tristan Tzara wrote poems through chance selection of words. Chance combinations in poetry went beyond “word salad” to suggest strange metaphors that excited an obscure sense of significance and to waken the symbol making capacity of the mind. Was this mere coincidence, fortuitous serendipity, or was it the force of magic that made connections between disparate words and shapes to open this world of imagination?

This “exquisite corpse” drawing refers to the element of chance that occurs in the surrealist drawing process. An artist would begin the drawing, then fold the paper so that the next artist cannot see the earlier one. The “exquisite corpse” would often combine animal or human parts, creating a new being. This transformation and merging of human and animal is a characteristic of Inuit shamanic art.

The first domain of surrealism is the mind. The surrealists explored the mind to excavate the source of creative energy, the origins of love, and the impulse for imagination. The imagination as a filter for understanding the world as metaphor, the world as sacred, and the world as animated, was also pursued by the early anthropologists who sought the origins of culture, and to whom they looked for ideas. The creative imagination was for them, the source of all forms. From nothingness all things arise, and from formlessness that form appears. This theme of active emptiness is common to many spiritual traditions, including creation myths, Theosophy, Buddhism, and the occult sciences. Surrealism’s interest in these traditions was never its sole concern; rather surrealist artists pursued the liberation of the human imagination.

Vision, of course, is concentrated in the eye, but visionaries believe in the mind’s eye—the third eye, the eye of enlightenment. To understand the surrealist pursuit of magic and the imagination, we must turn to the inner vision and psychic knowledge that forms a counterpoint to Freud’s scientific investigation of the unconscious.

This photograph demonstrates Kurt Seligmann’s insight and humor in a compressed and simple image. Holding his glasses – used to make vision more acute –he lets one lens frame his left eye, while the other encloses empty space, creating a sort of third eye. In Theosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, and esoteric traditions, the Third Eye refers to the mind’s eye—the source of insight, interior vision and dream. Here Seligmann’s third eye—the empty lens—suggests the void as the source of all things, the imagination from which all images body forth. Seligmann’s interests in visionary experience, magic, and the occult are embodied in this delightful and whimsical image.

Through the Mirror of Magic, Kurt Seligmann, and surrealism

The Mirror of Magic (1948) was as unique as its creator. Seligmann (1900–1962) was born in Basel, Switzerland at the turn of the century—at the height of the symbolist movement and the occult revival in Europe. An artist and scholar of Jewish origin, he absorbed elements of fantastic art and symbolism of Fuseli and Arnold Bocklin from his native country. Seligmann moved to Paris in 1929, and associated with fellow Swiss artists Giacometti, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Meret Oppenheim and Le Corbusier. He joined Jean Arp’s Abstraction/Creation movement and took up with the surrealists, although he did not formally join the movement until 1937. While pursuing his art, he became an ethnographer of Pacific Northwest indigenous art in the 1930’s. Seligmann left Paris in 1938, under the auspices of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and with the help of Maurice Barbeau, a well-known ethnologist at the Canadian National Museum.

Seligmann actively sought to help remove other artists from World War II Europe to New York, where he lived from 1939 until the end of his life. In August of 1940 André Breton, the “magus” or “pope” of surrealism, wrote to request that he help set up a lecture tour starting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that allowed Breton to escape France with an American cultural visa. Seligmann contacted director Alfred Barr, and arranged for Breton’s invitation. Seligmann’s vision embodied that peculiar surrealist mix of indigenous and occult elements that drove the movement. In 1943 Breton expelled him from surrealism after a disagreement on the meaning of a tarot card. Despite surrealism’s regrettable internal politics, Seligmann was sanguine about this rejection. He had already established himself in New York as an extraordinary thinker and artist. He remained close to Yves Tanguy, André Masson, and Wolfgang Paalen, exchanging ironic letters about surrealism and André Breton.

Seligmann brought a new appreciation of magic to the fore in his exploration of indigenous cultures of Oceania and the Pacific Northwest. In Europe, he began a collection of rare books on magic and the occult, further expanding his library that now resides at Cornell University. He was a source to surrealists interested in the “primitive” and in non-western art, in ancestors, in the totem, in indigenous religion and occult magic. Using his cherished library as well as his ethnological research, his research culminated in The Mirror of Magic, first published in 1948 by Pantheon Books. Although it has since fallen into disuse, The Mirror of Magic was a wholly original contribution to the fields of comparative mythology and religion. It attempted a global view of magic without western bias, and offered insights from a religio-aesthetic perspective. Seligmann’s The Mirror of Magic prefigured writings by Mircea Eliade, whose Patterns in Comparative Religion was published ten years later, or Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, also published by Pantheon, 1949. These comparative mythologists sought a primal or “monomyth” behind mythology.

Seligmann’s worldview derived from a sympathetic, and not altogether abstract understanding of the Cabala as a giant system of cross-referencing between physical, and spiritual worlds. The Cabala could be applied simultaneously to Judaic, Christian, indigenous and occult symbols. Seligmann approached indigenous artists as individuals and colleagues, neither setting himself above them, nor idealizing their exotic value. He found indigenous art highly aesthetic, but unlike his surrealist colleague Wolfgang Paalen, never exploited native art for profit or used it to create a theory. Instead, he used the principle of sympathetic magic in his sculpture and painting, combining animal, human, and objects to create new beings. Seligmann created his own universe of ambiguous or concealed figures in a state of transformation in an imaginary theatrical space.

The Ethnographic Attitude

The Mirror of Magic embodies Seligmann’s passionate curiosity about magic, supernaturalism and religions. It was one of the first books in the field of religion, after Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890, 1900, 1906-15) to present religious phenomena as vital, global, and integral to aesthetic feeling. Seligmann predicted the later development of history of religions and cultural anthropology. One may speculate that his workas an artist and a scholar was neglected due to his different fields, and to the commonplace assumption that artists cannot be scholars and vice versa. In The Mirror of Magic, Seligmann explains his drive to write this book: As an artist, I was concerned with the aesthetic value of magic and its influence upon man’s creative imagination. The relics of ancient peoples indicate that religio-magical beliefs have given a great impulse to artistic activities, a stimulus which outlasted paganism and produced belated flowers in the era of Christianity”. Seligmann believed that the imagination was an alternative source of knowledge that transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary—enlarging the experience of life itself.

Dissenting surrealists such as André Masson, Joan Mirò, and Robert Desnos contributed to Documents, the surrealist art magazine edited by Georges Bataille from 1929–1930 that juxtaposed ideas in archaeology, ethnography, and fine arts, to oppose Breton’s control of the movement. The collector Georges Wildenstein financed Documents. Georges Rivière (1897–1985), museum theorist and ethnographer during the rise of surrealism, comments on his involvement in Documents and explains the science and culture in the France of that time:

In its illustrations could be seen side by side a Zapotec urn and a scene from the Folies Bergères, or a distribution map of the porter’s yoke, and a cover from a copy of Pieds nickels...Such was the encounter of two realms: the realm of science which had long been developed by students of Africa, America and Oceania, and the aesthetic which had been discovered first by cubism and then by surrealism: realms that had as a common factor their non-classical nature. (Rivière, 1968).9

By coincidence, Kurt Seligmann met and married Arlette Paraf in 1935; she was the granddaughter of Nathan Wildenstein, the originator of Wildenstein Gallery, Paris, London and New York. Through her he would have had access to various ethnographers, archaeologists, and the Wildenstein personal collection.

In The Mirror of Magic Kurt Seligmann explains his choice of a broad approach and his appeal to the general reader. He does not promote occultism, sects, or ideologies:

“Magic has been treated mainly in two different ways. The specialized works of scholars are confined to specific types, aspects, and eras; generally they are written for the scientific reader. On the other hand, there are innumerable publications of questionable value expounding ideas rarely based on fact, but twisting the truth into a narrow system of a special brand: that of the sectarian of the occult. Only a few authors on magic have written for the general reader, a fact which will perhaps justify this publication”.10

Seligmann was influenced by Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a book that describes the process of sympathetic magic in terms of the poetic imagination. Frazer understood the classics, and he abstracted the archaic Greek approach to matter as “the part suggests the whole” and that“things act on each other at a distance, through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to another by invisible power”. 11 Frazer’s study of magic greatly influenced Seligmann. As Seligmann writes: “I make no claim to original scholarship; my investigation has been guided by such scholarly works as those of J. G. Frazer, A. von Harnack, G. L. Kittredge, Fr. J. Boll, L. Thorndike and others.”

Seligmann took the idea of sympathetic magic, and using “the part suggests the whole” played with magic, for example, in his object created for the surrealist exposition of 1938. His work L’Ultrameuble (Ultrafurniture), an ottoman composed of legs, is a sympathetic pun on the act of sitting, whereby the legs encourage us to mimic them by sitting. Seligmann may have intended to shock his audience because these women’s legs, wearing stockings and heels, and revealing the knees, would have affronted a conservative audience. His transgression of this taboo of female modesty had the contradictory effect of both attracting and offending a conventional viewer. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Kurt Seligmann’s father had a furniture department store in Basel; young Kurt would have been exposed to the furniture stock while growing up, just as Man Ray was exposed to his father and mother’s tailoring business.

Kurt Seligmann (American, born Switzerland 1900–1962)
L’Ultrameuble (Ultrafurniture) shown at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, Paris, 1938
Image taken from La Chaussure by Jean-Paul Roux (1980)

Mana and Animism

In 1936, Kurt Seligmann and Arlette Paraf Seligmann journeyed to French Tahiti for their honeymoon; not just an exotic location, Tahiti provided the elements that had previously obsessed Seligmann. Polynesian and Tahitian indigenous objects figured in the collection of the Musée de Trocadéro in Paris, frequented by the surrealists, and particularly treasured by André Breton. The Trocadéro ethnographic collection collaged anthropological art, objects and documents, providing the surrealists with insights, which they conveyed in journals such as Revue Documents. Seligmann was familiar with these resources, and, possessed of a fine visual memory, made the connection between the formal elements of Polynesian and Oceanic art with the art of the indigenous Pacific Northwest Coast peoples such as the Tsimshian, with whom he lived for four months in 1938. One of the currents of connection was the mana or animistic force that flowed through nature, which Seligmann found transformed in the animal totems of the Northwest.

For Seligmann and the surrealists, the conception of mana relied on earlier research. Magic and mana, uncanny phenomena, occult belief systems, the alchemical transformation of base metals into gold, and the serendipity of tarot cards all provided opportunities to open to a new magical state of mind of the surreal. The dominant western European culture rejected these survivals of archaic thought that in the medieval period developed into the secret or occult sciences. Occultism embraces the idea of a sacred mystery that inheres in all things. The mystery is revealed by the principle, “one in all, all in one”, that has become known as “the perennial philosophy”. As Kurt Seligmann explains in the Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, 1946, in an interview with director James Sweeney , “Though my interest in magic can hardly be brought into immediate relationship with my work as a painter, there is something about magic which fascinates me. It is not in vain that we speak of magical arts. Magic philosophy teaches that the universe is one, that every phenomenon in the world of matter and of ideas obeys the one law which co-ordinates the All. Such doctrine sounds like a program for the painter: is it not his task to shape into a perfect unity within his canvas the variety of depicted forms? The presuppositions of high magic: 'All is contained in All,' and 'All is One' are the basis of my forthcoming book, The Mirror of Magic.”

Totem and Taboo

In 1938, Kurt Seligmann independently investigated the indigenous North American cultures of the Pacific Northwest in a lengthy visit to British Columbia, Canada. His ethnographic work used drawings and oral history to record the Tsimshian, an aboriginal or first nations people.

The term totem comes from an Ojibwe term that means a personal totem or animal spirit protector. Totem animals extend their distinctive features to the clan. Certain animals such as the eagle, frog or wolf or crow, raven, or bear, have magical protective powers as totems or images of kinship. Seligmann was drawn to totem poles, to the phenomenon of the totem and how it formed a protective, emblematic image for kinship, and avoided the negative presumption of native art as lower in the evolutionary scale. While he certainly participated in the bohemian romance of the noble savage—or perhaps the artist—he avoided using the presuppositions of European art history. Seligmann valued the totem poles of the Tsimshian as art, and he encouraged an exchange between the clan and the collector that he hoped would respect the totem’s intent and preserve it. His receptivity to indigenous, non-European cultures lends significance to his ethnographic research and his aesthetic feeling for those nations. Ironically, the European sovereign nations viewed both the colonial emigrants and the indigenous peoples as colonial subjects, and therefore as less refined or evolved, according to Darwinism. The surrealists uncovered these political tensions between European and non-European cultures by advocating for the imaginative and metaphorical content of non-Western art.

Shamanism, Transformation, and Hybridity

In addition to Seligmann’s interest in First Nations peoples and their art, surrealists were attracted by the creativity and inventiveness of the Canadian Inuit. They were familiar with the art of the North through the ethnographic collections of Europe, and were fascinated by research on shamanism that could be linked to magic, healing, and totem animals for the benefit of an individual or clan. To the degree that the shaman could exert the force of a totem to protect the people she or he treats, those people would be touched by the current of magic, healed of malevolent influence, or moved through transitions such as birth or death, and enveloped by the protective forces called forth by the shaman.

In traditional aboriginal cultures, such as the Inuit, when the shaman takes on the characteristics of an important animal—the seal, the polar bear, the whale—he wears the fur, feathers or teeth of that animal to absorb through these “animal parts” the presence of the entire animal. Additionally, the postures and gestures of the dance ritual take on the posture and gesture of the creature or spirit invoked. In shamanism and archaic performance, the shaman must understand and recreate the inward armature of the creature—the pulse of posture and gesture. Inuit sculptors, in capturing posture and gesture, use the thrust and potentiality of the inner movement, mining the essence of the totem animal or force.

The Inuit art available to European collections often showed animal and human figures merging in a spectrum of transformations. Animals and humans became new shamanic beings described naturally and not as fearsome. The shamanic influence is felt in the identification of human and animal figures, and in carvings of various nature spirits such as Sedna, the sea goddess. These shamanic expressions reinforced the surrealist investigation of visual puns in art from the visual to a psychological level. This psychological double reading extended into the surrealist drawings of the ‘exquisite corpse’, to free associations and unexpected juxtapositions in poetry, and to a new level of psychological double meanings in art.

Kurt Seligmann not only understood the power of shamanic identification with animal or supernatural figures, he also fully grasped the principles throughwhich the imagination was able to achieve this connection. In his etchings, La Sorcière (The Witch), 1936 andLe Prestidigitateur (The Magician), 1933, Seligmann merges human, still life, and animal parts to form new creatures of magical origin. La Sorcière is composed of male female, plant and still life elements. The backbone of the witch is composed of a spiny plant, the breast is an architectural cupola, and the head is a mask that covers a flagpole from which ribbons wave in the wind. La Sorcière is formed from extraordinary connections created by the artist’s imagination to create a new, ineffable being that can only be understood through the artist’s supernatural and interior vision.

A prestidigitator conjures by sleight of hand and rehearsed magic tricks. Here Seligmann depicts the conjurer as an artist, composed of an easel, a flute-like musical instrument, the wood of the stretcher bars and measuring implements building to a totem mask at the top. The totem mask, with a bearlike snout, wears a Napoleonic hat, and the entire figure is bifurcated by the stretcher bar that rises to the top of the easel. As if to refer to the artist’s sleight of hand, the artist’s leg is revealed dancing an unstable jig towards the bottom of the easel, and this constructed figure floats above an infinite background, where the forms of a sphere and triangle evoke the rational geometric forms of the Greeks and Egyptians. The classical past recedes not just an optical recession but a psychological one that gives way to magic.

First published in 1929, Le monde au temps des surréalistes (The World in the Age of the Surrealists), shows a radical revision of the world map, with the exotic or non-western regions made large, and the European and Western countries made small. The surrealist inversion of the cultural map was not only humorous; it illustrates a point as well. Alaska, Labrador, the Arctic, Russia, Easter Island, Tibet, and China, and Mexico are more important in the spatial hierarchy of this map than all the western European nations combined. The Surrealist Map of the World illustrates that the surrealists valued the art of traditional, non-western, and aboriginal cultures. They understood that art had the power to convey a world invisible to the human senses, but made visible in form by the supreme ability of the imagination.

Ironically, this seemingly primordial world of authentic intensity and extraordinary images had its own logic of symbols. It did not bow to European notions of image making. Whereas the surrealist painters such as Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst imagined infinite space, using long horizon lines and empty spaces, these extraordinary and psychologically charged spaces actually existed in the unknown vistas of the Americas. The preternaturally long shoreline that overshadowed the human figure, the clarity of light in the empty desert, the dark rising pines and cedars guarding the Northwest, the crystal air of the white tundra, all revealed the dream of surrealism in an actual material presence. The infinite space of imagination and magic was present, here in the Americas, where the social conventions of Europe no longer held sway. On the southwestern desert, in the Pacific forest, the mythic ancestors stood larger than human beings and foretold the return of origins, the beginning of time and the imagination of matter from which all magic extended. Kurt Seligmann was one of the first artists to look into that dark forest and find the path of magic. Some came before him, and others followed, but he released European culture from the shackles of its imagined primeval memories, into a land with the promise of its indigenous inhabitants at the cusp of a struggle with European values.


1 R. A. Blust, “Proto-Oceanic mana Revisited”, Oceanic Linguistics, Volume 46, Number 2, December 2007, pp. 404-423.
2 Edward Tiriyakian, ed. On the Margin of the Visible: Sociology, the Esoteric, and the Occult, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974) pp. 7, 10.
3 Alfred Gell, “Magic, Perfume, Dream…” in Ioan Lewis, ed. Symbols and Sentiments, (London: Academic Press, 1977) p. 27.
4 André Breton, trans. Richard Howard, Nadja, (New York: Grove Press, 1960) p.79, 80.
5 Kurt Seligmann, The Mirror of Magic or Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1968) p.447.
6 André Breton, trans. Mary Ann Caws, Mad Love (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).
7 André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, (Second) p.129.
8 Guillaume Apollinaire, Excerpt from Le Journal du Soir, October 3, 1909, Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1991, cited in Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art: A Documentary History, ed. Jack D. Flam, Miriam Deutch, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) p. 37.
9 Raymond de la Rocha Mille, (2011) Museums without Walls: The Museology of Georges Henri Rivière. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City University London)
Permanent City Research Online URL: Georges Henri Rivière (1897-1985) was a foremost cultural theorist and ethnographer.
10 Kurt Seligmann, Magic, Supernaturalism, and Religion, (New York: Pantheon, 1948) “Introductory Note” p. xvii.
11 James G. Frazer, “Sympathetic Magic,” Reader in Comparative Religion, eds. William Lessa and Evon Vogt, (New York: Harper and Row, 1958) pp.415-25.