Surrealism Comes to America

The Lure of Mexico

Mexico was a fascinating country for surrealists. Antonin Artaud told Jean Paulhan in 1935 that it was a revolutionary and multicultural society built on ancient metaphysical foundations, and largely preserved from Western materialism. This view was common among leftist avant-gardes, as witnessed by ¡Que viva México!, a film begun in 1930 by Sergei Eisenstein. In 1936, Artaud went to Mexico as a delegate to a conference on children’s theater. “There is a strong esoteric world in Mexico. I made contact with this world as early as Havana,” he wrote. Artaud spoke against “the decadence and vices” of Europe and the United States. In the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, he experimented with peyote among the Tarahumara Indians: “The Priests of Peyote allowed me to experience the actual Myth of Mystery, to become immersed in the original mythic arcana.”

In 1938, Breton visited a hidden community of artists in the Tarascan village of Erongaricuardo with his friends Wifredo Lam and Frida Kahlo. He also met with Leon Trotsky, the exiled Communist leader who opposed Joseph Stalin. Together, they wrote a manifesto urging artists to “serve the revolution by their art and to defend the liberty of that art itself against the usurpers of the revolution.”

No wonder, then, that the surrealists hesitated between New York City and Mexico as the new capital of the surrealist movement in 1940–41: the latter offered a chance to reconcile magic and political revolution.

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