1.) Dancin’ in the Streets
I’ve spent the better part of my life inside Penelope Rosemont’s Magnetic Fields.
My introduction to Penelope Rosemont’s story came from her husband Franklin Rosemont’s essay collection: Dancin’ in the Streets!. It’s about the Chicago Surrealist group, and it draws a crystalline line straight through from André Breton and the surrealist ethic of revolt to the new left of the 1960s.
The story of the Chicago Surrealist group goes something like this: In the early 1960s a group of working class young people, including Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, began congregating at the Solidarity Bookstore in Chicago. They were students at Roosevelt University, and they were desperate to join the irreverent ferment of anarchy and ideas that they saw all around them. They started a magazine, called The Rebel Worker and did translations of French Surrealists, publishing these alongside tracts by the IWW, and writings about Bugs Bunny, Rock and Roll, and Jazz. It was a snapshot of what would come to be called counterculture.
In 1965, Franklin and Penelope traveled to Europe, where they encountered the French Surrealist Group, including André Breton, and more. From there they traveled to London where they also met with the Situationist International. In 1983 Penelope and Franklin cofounded a Surrealist and Leftist Publishing house in Chicago, Charles H. Kerr. They printed books about Joe Hill, the Wobblies, and most centrally, revolution in the service of the marvelous. These were books about Surrealism, and the spirit of revolution in the historical Avant-garde. They showed up in libraries and information hubs, especially campus hangouts where zines were distributed, and became a samizdat of hip.
It’s a terrific story about the origins of a moment, and a revelation.
2.) Speak Memory
Penelope Rosemont’s new memoir, Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields digs deeper into these experiences, and provides commentary on some of the surrealist voices that would so inspire the Chicago Group for decades to come.
The memoir captures a fantastic and revolutionary spirit of chance and serendipity. In their 1965 trip to Paris, Penelope and Franklin fell in with the French Surrealists. These two young people from Chicago declared allegiance to the movement, and were welcomed into the fold. There’s an incredible description of a New Year’s Eve party with charades, dancing, a strip tease, and this singular passage:
Several years earlier [Jean] Benoît, I knew, had branded himself using a hot iron with the letter S for Sade during a ritual in the celebration of the Marquis de Sade. He had performed this ritual at the time of the last surrealist exhibition; I asked if I could see the scar. Obligingly, he pulled down the front of his pink dress and showed a now faint S among the hairs on his chest.
Rosemont quickly becomes close with several of the assembled group. Artist Mimi Parent, Benoît’s partner, is quick to accommodate the Chicago Surrealists, playing translator. She comes off as strident and irresistible. Rosemont recounts a dream from that time, when she imagined Parent, “Ten feet tall, dressed in a skintight costume of glittering red that changed from moment to moment like flowing blood. The Necrophile took a deep breath, screaming with joy as he grew tall, to the same size. They danced together Javanese-style.”
Later Rosemont wrote of Parent’s signature style: “Mimi’s paintings cast their own unique gloq-irresistible, and yet recalcitrant in the best sense of the world…In the painting she selected to be shown at the 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago, a bird of fire emerges from a dark figure in a roadway lined with black trees and breaks through the green darkness – blazing wings about to soar…If the language of dreams did not exist, Mimi would have invented it for us!”
It is through the recount of these artistic relationships in Rosemont’s new memoir that we come to understand the Surrealist movement, and those driving it, much more intimately.
3.) Jazz is my religion; Surrealism is my point of view.
Penelope Rosemont met Ted Joans in 1966 in a chance encounter. “No more than a day or two after learning that Ted Joans was in town we indeed ran into him, on the rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, a hundred feet or so from the Hotel du Grand Balcon. He was strolling along the sidewalk heading toward the Seine, wearing a black beret, sunglasses, and a light brown trench coat right out of Casablanca. He greeted us warmly, and said he had heard that ‘surrealists from Chicago’ were in Paris, which intrigued him mightily.”
Joans, a poet and artist was from Cairo, Illinois. But at that time, he was based out of Tangier in Morocco.
Just as the Chicago Surrealist Group was excited to embrace the intersection of improvisatory music and the surrealist practice, Joans championed this, foregrounding African traditions like the long song. Rosemont credits Joans with fundamentally reorienting the surrealist project.
She also highlights an incredible and improbable collision at a book fair when a man began to denounce an article Franklin had written called, “Black Music and Surrealist Revolution”:
This self-appointed music critic, who said he was a supporter of one of the smaller leftists sects, was especially enraged that Franklin had praised the music of Cecil Taylor and even referred to Taylor as a revolutionary. Franklin had hardly had an opportunity to reply to this tirade when, all of a sudden, who should arrive on the scene but Ted Joans! Smiling at the ignorant, hostile mentions of Taylor, he wordlessly reached into his bag and pulled out an 8” x 10” glossy photo of Taylor and himself, which he just happened to be carrying. Holding it aloft and showing it to the crowd that had gathered, Joans announced, ‘This is what they’re talking about: Cecil Taylor! Everything he does is revolutionary!’ By this time the crowd had grown to some thirty people… Shouted our critic, ‘I say Cecil Taylor and all contemporary jazz are counter-revolutionary!’ This outburst provoked much laughter from the still-swelling crowd. And then, as if from nowhere, Joseph Jarman of the Chicago Art Ensemble approached the table and said hello… As we greeted Jarman at the Black Swan table, our poor deluded critic, convinced by now that his cause was hopeless, sputtered that all of us were ‘crazy,’ and beat his retreat.
These illuminating anecdotes continue to foreground the significance of this movement and its intercultural impact on the art practices of the time.
4.) Revolution in the Service of the Marvelous
The tendencies of Surrealism closely align with the historical paradoxes of the leftist Avant-garde. In one obvious sense there’s infighting and the classic trend towards the schismatic: “I would never join a group that would have me as a member.”
The surrealist tendency always foregrounded action. Movement towards the unconscious, the untapped wells of inspiration, communicating vessels, influences outside the realm of discretion, because all of this generated a foundation for subversion. And the surrealist praxis represents the classical political function of the Avant-garde to disrupt automatic perception and to expand the imagination of language culture.
In her memoir, Rosemont documents how the artistic turns activism through the years. The Rebel Worker group started early; they tried organizing migrant workers picking fruit in Michigan, and this commitment lasted through Rosemont’s long social practice. She’s at the DNC in 1968, distributing subversive materials. She’s at anti-war protests, and anti-apartheid rallies. She and painter Leonora Carrington become closest through their ongoing participation in anti-petroleum and environmental activism, rather than through artistic practices.
5.) Trimmin’ the Women
There’s a singular number in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1930 musical comedy Monte Carlo: two beaux swoon over the idea of becoming hair dressers in order to be closer to their objects of desire. They sing about the divine possibility of “Trimmin’ the Women.” In the cut up history of Surrealism, this practice of “trimmin’ the women” reigns, with important voices exempted and ignored. In her introduction to the anthology Surrealist Women, Rosemont wrote, “In all but a few of the hundreds of works on Surrealism in English, women surrealists are barely even mentioned.” That work was an essential corrective, and this collection also works to reintegrate important voices.
Leonora Carrington, especially for Rosemont, invigorated a feminist spirit across the surrealist project.
Leonora made a feminist out of me. She made it a point to ask Debra Taub, Gina Litherland, Beth Garon and me if we were feminists… Leonora defended feminism, ‘One doesn’t always think of oneself as a woman, one thinks of oneself as a human being among other human beings but when a man sees you, he says: “There goes that woman!” So realize you’re a woman whether you like it or not.’ She affirmed the need for autonomous women’s organizations, and defended women’s direct action against sexism.
There are more underappreciated voices: Joyce Mansour was an Egyptian-French poet born in England. She lived in Africa and France. In the 1950s-60s she was a core member of the international surrealist milieu. She made various collaborations, including work with Joans. She was included in many anthologies, including Aldo Pellegrini’s Spanish Language anthology of surrealist poets, but her work has been virtually uncelebrated by the English speaking world.
And then there’s Toyen, who Rosemont was especially inspired by. “Toyen wrote that she considered Surrealism ‘a community of ethical values.’ It was her community, her values. As a young woman she broke with her family and took the gender neutral name Toyen. She frequented the anarchist milieu. A sex rebel, she dressed in male and female attire on alternating days. She was a founder of the Czech Surrealist Group and never left Surrealism.”
Toyen designed magnificent and strange paintings of bestiary and juxtaposition. Like Rosemont, she was an avid fan of Bugs Bunny, “Toyen insisted that her favorite cartoon character was Bugs Bunny… Back then Bugs Bunny was a crazy anarchist that always got the best of the obsessive home owner Elmer Fudd.”
To this day, very little has been written about Toyen, and her strange work is only modestly appreciated outside of the Czech Republic. Rosemont looks to her as a morning star.
One of the principle joys of this memoir is its ruthless alignment with the principles of chance and contingency. Following the example of John Cage, Rosemont wrote terrific musical scores, called insect music, that incorporated elaborate embellishments across a staff line. She collaborated with San Francisco beats and English Situationists. And the collection celebrates obscure forebears in an assemblage of surrealist ephemera. She writes about Joseph Cornell, but also about the haunted Chicago bottom dog Lee Godie, who sold her fantastic canvases on the steps of the Art Institute. Rosemont explores the strange story of the self-made millionaire George Francis Train, who came out of obscurity to defend the men prosecuted in the Haymarket Affair railing against the ruling class, “You hang those seven men if you dare, and I will head twenty million workingmen to cut the throats of everybody in Chicago!”
Rosemont shares a compassionate vision of the world, grounded in the surrealist impulse towards yet another utopia. This new collection vibrates and hums and sings.