Review of Surrealism at Play

Surrealism at Play
Susan Laxton

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2019
384 pp., illus. 170 b&w, 16 col. Trade, $104.95; paper, $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-4780-0196-6; 978-1-4780-0307-6.

Reviewed by
Robert Maddox-Harle
September 2019

This book, without doubt, will take its rightful place alongside the best works in art history and literary criticism. Very well written, extensively researched, and breaking new ground in the understanding of surrealism. Whether or not you like surrealist art, surrealism was one of the most influential “game changers” in history. It may not have directly changed the world in its time but most certainly changed the way art was understood and how we defined art, and how we continue to understand art.

I am not sure that Laxton has written “a new history of surrealism” as the back cover blurb suggests; however, she has broken new ground and greatly expanded the extant history of surrealism, specifically by investigating the role which ‘play’ had on the whole surrealist enterprise. Other authors have mentioned play in their discussions of surrealism of course, but none to the extent of a full analysis which Laxton has painstakingly carried out.

Susan Laxton is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California and is also author of Paris as Gameboard: Man Ray’s Atgets. This book has an Introduction – A Modern Critical Ludic, followed by five chapters, extensive notes, an Index and an excellent Bibliography, The Bibliography will be a gold mine for future researchers.

Chapter 1 – Blur looks at the blur between discipline and disruption. It explores “indeterminacy as an avatar of the avant-garde’s critical ludic during the so-called époque floue, the threshold moment between Dada and surrealism” (p. 24). Man Ray’s rayographs are introduced in this chapter; these were seen as icons of the transitional phase between the two (non?)art movements.

Chapter 2 – Drift, “examines the surrealist’s efforts to confront head-on the problem of daily experience in a city being reshaped by functionalist aspirations.” This was expressed “through their penchant for errance, aimless wandering in the streets of Paris that turned play out into the rationalized grid of the city” (p. 24).

Chapter 3 – System looks at “the tensions between discipline and indeterminacy shaping surrealist games of the 1920s and 1930s and measures their effectiveness as avant-garde strategies aimed at disrupting the conventions of representation, communication, and subjectivity” (p. 25). The (in)famous “exquisite corpse” game is thoroughly explored throughout this chapter.

Chapter 4 – Pun “maps the range of surrealist wordplay and visual puns from the perspective of the surrealists of the so-called Rue Blomet group whose members drew on the works of experimental writer Raymond Roussel to probe the fluidity of meaning” (p. 25). This chapter discusses two of my very favourite artists, Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti. As Laxton notes, [This] chapter is at once climactic and recursive, in that it probes the ludic at its most extreme in avant-garde practice (p. 26).

Chapter 5 – Postlude, the concluding chapter of Surrealism at Play, explores the “legacy of surrealism’s modern critical ludic in postwar art practices, and assess[es] the ultimate effect of surrealism’s experimental strategies in order to begin sorting out the crowded contemporary ludic field.” In addition to exploring the historical aspects of surrealism and play, the book also “traces the ludic prehistory of the poststructuralist revision of meaning, marking the inexhaustible heterodoxy of postwar artistic strategies as the heritors of surrealist play” (p. 26).

Surrealism at Play discusses numerous artists, writers, and intellectuals but tends to concentrate on the visual arts, poetry, and its central importance in the whole surrealist enterprise, especially in the transition from Dada to surrealism is only lightly touched on. This is not a criticism per se just an observation which may prevent slight disappointment from those readers expecting a greater concentration on the literature of surrealism. Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Alberto Giacometti are the featured and most extensively discussed visual artists. Authors are of course restrained by publisher’s wordage limitations, perhaps a further volume concentrating on the role of play and chance in the extensive literary output of surrealism could be a possibility?

The book is nicely produced and runs to 363 pages. Printed on semi-gloss quality paper, it is a joy to hold and read, and is lavishly illustrated with both black & white and colour images –– some of our favourites and some very rare, not often seen photographs. I thoroughly recommend this book to a wide audience, from the general reader, to students, art historians and critics, artists and of course academic teachers of art history.