Robert Rauschenberg and Surrealism: Art, ‘Sensibility’ and War | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Robert Rauschenberg and Surrealism: Art, ‘Sensibility’ and War

Robert Rauschenberg and Surrealism: Art, ‘Sensibility’ and War
by Gavin Parkinson

Bloomsbury, London, England, 2023
320 pp., illus. 15 col. & 56 b/w. Trade, £90.00; Epubl and Mobi, £81.00; PDF, £81.00
ISBN: 9781501358296; ISBN: 9781501358289, £81.00; ISBN: 9781501358272.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
August 2023

This impressive book is more than a study on Rauschenberg and Surrealism, more specifically on the largely unnoticed or forgotten link between them. It is also a reflection on the way we write art history today, as a strange mix of theory, thoroughly documented archival research and, above all, an obsession with linear periodization – in this case, the question of how Modernism turned into Postmodernism, with the work of Rauschenberg as a kind of on man’s land cum bridge, after Greenbergian Modernism and French Theory enhanced Postmodernism – and finally also an equally strong fixation on naming and classification. All these debates are at the heart of the matter of this book, since during the years in which Rauschenberg came nationally and internationally to the fore (the 1950s and early 1960s, with a turning point after his victory at the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1964), there was no longer a real place for Surrealism in the art world, neither as a label nor as a way of doing art and behaving in the art world. Surrealism had been declared definitely outdated by the “factist” or “literalist” tendencies after World War Two, when art was no longer seen in metaphorical and poetic terms but when it was meant to be the presentation of a factual given.

Gavin Parkinson brings a meticulous reinterpretation of that, according to him, biased and incomplete framing of both Rauschenberg and Surrealism and he does so by close-reading the French reception of the artist’s work, which cannot be understood unless one takes on the board a Surrealist dimension that proved to be much more present in the larger cultural field than generally acknowledged. This reception was however not narrowly or exclusively French. It was in direct connection with contemporary debates in the US, while all American key voices were also carefully listening to what goes on in Paris, and Parkinson gives a very detailed report of the claims, writings, positions, strategies, and networks of the major stakeholders of that time (artists, critics, gallerists, curators, collectors, editors, and other institutional partners). Very generally speaking, Parkinson defends, and very convincingly I think, a double thesis. First, he suggests that the work of Rauschenberg of the 1950s and the early 1960s has been largely misread and that it is time to reset the picture: contrary to what most critics and in quite some cases the artist himself may have repeated, this work can and should be approached as Surrealist. Second, he also indicates that far from being a historical residue, Surrealism remains a very thriving force, often more progressive than other, competing aesthetics.

To make this claim, the focus on the French context is absolutely necessary, just as a fine-grained reflection on what Surrealism in this context actually means. Quite unsurprisingly, Parkinson starts by stressing the poetic and lyrical approach of art in Surrealism as a subjective as well as metaphoric rewriting of the real – a real that is itself never just a fact, but a gateway to other, less conventional but more liberating types of experience. More surprisingly, however, at least for a non-French readership, is the emphasis on the ethical and political dimension of this lyrical stance, which Parkinson rightly links with the anti-war and anti-colonialist struggles of that period (the French colonial wars, first in Vietnam and later on in Algeria). Neither of these points should take us by surprise in itself, but Parkinson demonstrates very clearly how the two are related and how they have a direct impact on the reception of Rauschenberg’s work in Surrealists circles (Rauschenberg was invited by the Surrealists to participate in some of their major events) but also in France in general (where his most significant works such as “Bed” were also interpreted in Surrealist terms). The latter point is key, given the fact that Rauschenberg, who was not afraid of making sometimes contradictory statements, also insisted on the “factist”, that is nonlyrical and definitely non-Surrealist aspects of his work. The close relationship with John Cage certainly played an important role in this regard. Yet the merger of the typical French anti-Americanism, on the one hand, and Surrealism’s involvement in anti-colonial conflicts, on the other hand, fostered a powerfully Surrealist and highly politicized framing of Rauschenberg as a critic of the new post-World War Two American consumer culture.

The scrupulous archival research of Parkinson makes this interpretation highly plausible. Throughout the whole book, the author develops an argumentation at two levels. At a very general level, he puts forward a small number of key ideas that should reopen the debate on the historical role and meaning of Surrealism as well as the incomplete reading of Rauschenberg as breaking with Modernism’s belief in lyrical expression and medium-specificity. At a more detailed level, Parkinson carefully unpacks all the contradictions, blatant misreadings, erroneous quotations, biases, polemics, empty name-dropping, and vague or deceiving declarations that, next of course many powerful and perfectly clear statements and interventions, constitute the historical “thickness” of these years. Parkinson does not hide these tensions, but his extremely detailed approach makes his book sometimes difficult to read. The author has such an in-depth knowledge of the historical context that even readers already quite familiar with the field may feel lost once in a while (the 120 pages of footnotes and index give an idea of the comprehensive scholarship of the study). Robert Rauschenberg and Surrealism is therefore a book for peers, not for students (except those who are doing a PhD, obviously), although all students may find here an inspiring model of how to perform archival close-reading.

A last word on France and art history in general. Parkinson devotes quite some time, and once again very rightly I think, to the discussion on “factualism” and anti-Surrealism in French literature –a critical a priori that prevails till today although with some important changes, for the anti-lyrical stances in contemporary poetry that continue similar criticisms made by New Novel authors like Roland Barthes, do not follow the tenets of the existentialist novel. Robbe-Grillet may have shared Sartre’s behaviorist take on the novel, but he definitely rejected any kind of political intention or interpretation of his work. Yet the reception of American literature in France did certainly not run parallel to that of American painting and sculpture. It will be exciting to scrutinize these differences in new forms of interdisciplinary reception studies. Moreover, and here we come back to more familiar ground, there remains the hard fact that as a concept and interpretive frame Post-Modernism in France arrives only in the early 1980s, after the collapse of Modernism and avant-garde. It may be interesting to further research what this actually meant for the Surrealist reception of US works that have longtime been taken as typical examples of non- or anti-Surrealism.