JOSÉ DEL CASTILLO PICHARDO | Talking to time: Granell-Breton
SURREALIST SEDUCTION | Ciudad Trujillo 1941. The doorway to the American sanctuary for those sailing from Europe in flight from the Nazi and Fascist peril. A halfway point for outcasts who ended up in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Puerto Rico, North America. A temporary or final refuge for thousands of members of the vanquished Republican movement, displaced by the civil war in a heroic Spain defended by international solidary brigades, sung by poets like Neruda (España en el corazón – Spain inside the heart). A resting place for those persecuted for their race, ideas, or political militancy. Avant-garde artists gathered in this half-island, revolutionized in its turn by the presence of a high-level (or “world-class”, in today’s lingo) critical mass that left its mark in the realm of culture. Unleashing the forces of intellect, releasing a tidal wave of the power of art on all its fronts.
The city on the banks of the Ozama Rive was where French psychiatrist, poet, writer and theorist André Breton, the dark pope of surrealism, born 1896 in Tinchebray, met Eugenio Fernández Granell, a musician, painter and surrealist writer from Spain, or more precisely Galicia, born in 1912 in La Coruña. One was 45, the other 29 years old. Both leftist. Revolutionary militants. Dissidents from the Stalinism whose long arm reached Trotsky in Mexico in 1940 to deliver a fatal pickaxe block. The presence of Breton in the Dominican capital city – with his wife and daughter – was a cultural happening, particularly for the poets and artists that revolved around Poesía Sorprendida magazine, led by Franklin Mieses Burgos, Mariano Lebrón Saviñón, Freddy Gatón Arce, and Chile’s Alberto Baeza Flores, and the presence of the catalytic angel Granell, whose illustrations graced the publication’s pages.
Actively engaged in Dominican life, the multifaceted Granell was a columnist in the La Nación daily, as an arts and literature critic. He also wrote for Spanish republican publications Ágora and Democracia. With other refugees, he was a member of the National Symphony conducted by Madrid musician Enrique Casal Chapí – the grandson of Ruperto Chapí who wrote La revoltosa and other 19th century zarzuelas. As a faculty member at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes headed by his friend, Spanish sculptor Manolo Pascual, he still found time to organize the Guiñol Theater that operated in the Instituto Escuela, as Guillermina Medrano and José Ignacio Cruz report in Experiencia de una Maestra Republicana. He also was able to show his pictorial art in individual and collective exhibitions.
In Spain, Granell had been a militant member of POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista – “Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification”), which gathered several Marxist groups that were independent from Stalin and from the Spanish Communist Party, including the Trotskyists. He played an active role in the defense of Madrid and ran the El Combatiente Rojo (“The Red Soldier”) magazine, in addition to contributing to other publications, such as the POUM. Before coming to Ciudad Trujillo, like so many republican refugees, he went through France, an escape route and first place of controlled stay, home to several concentration camps set up for the purpose.
Breton had studied medicine and joined the military in the First World War, during which he worked in hospitals and became familiar with the Freud’s psychoanalytical work and his experiments with the so-calledautomatic writing (free from the conscious controls that the socialization processes establishes as regulatory canons for individual conduct by internalizing social norms and cultural values). The notion would become a writing style among surrealists, a means to let the feelings lodged in the subconscious flow free from moral ties and rationalist repression. The discovery resulted in the book Los campos magnéticos, published in 1920 with Philippe Soupault. At that time, Breton was connected with French-based Romanian writer Tristán Tzara, one of the advocates of Dadaism. With poet Louis Aragon and Soupault, he founded the Littérature magazine.
The first Surrealist Manifesto appeared in 1924, gathering a group of writers and artists around its postulates, including poet Paul Éluard (the husband of Gala, Salvadopr Dali’s mused and final companion), writer René Crevel, who committed suicide, ethnographer Michel Leiris, poets Robert Desnos and Benjamin Péret. Breton defined surrealism as follows: "Pure psychic automatism, by which and attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation." A truly provocative blow, distant from bourgeois conventionalism, the new religion founded by Breton and his friends – with aesthetic precursors like poet, playwright and narrator Guillaume Apollinaire, or painter Hieronymus Bosch – would rely on a pleasurable and surrealist dreamlike imagery crystallized in the triptych The Garden of Delights, at the Prado museum.
The movement, whose salons were held in Café Cyrano, would be joined by painters like Dalí, Miró, Magritte and Picasso. Filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, who, with Dalí, made the film Un Chien Andalou and whose more personal films would retain the surrealist mark throughout a fruitful career. Many of the surrealists militated in the communist movement, with its ideological tastes distastes. Others broke away from what they saw as constraints against libertarian and creative performance. An ideological corset.
The Dominican encounter of icon Breton and the restless Granell was full of instant recognition. A powerful magnet brought together the mature Frenchman and the multifaceted Galician youth. Both cast across the Atlantic like Columbuses after new horizons, expelled by the war in Europe. Breton had been censored from publishing by the Vichy government. The Spaniard introduced hum to the intellectual circles and interviewed him for La Nación.
“We talked to André Breton on the balcony of the Palace hotel. André Breton is widely known in the world’s intellectual and artistic circles. Director of theMinotauro art review, his international fame has gone hand in hand with his positive intellectual worth. Breton is the main pillar of surrealism. A friend of Picasso in Europe, of Diego Rivera in America. We thought it would be interesting to offer our readers his views on matters of evident importance in the bustling here-and-now of the intellectual world, caught in the cogs of war.
“Mr.s Bretón and their daughter are with him. They had a rough crossing from Marseilles, together with outstanding Cuban painter Lam. Bretón showed us one of his paintings. He professed his admiration for th painter from the neighboring republic and made no secret that Lam is Picasso’s favorite young painter.
“‘Mr. Bretón, what were your intellectual activities this past year?’ ‘ Until August 1940 I was deployed as head doctor for a pilot school. For a year, I could only sense the spirit’s reactions to a war long undecided and that, on the French side, appeared to be waged hopelessly against the tide. My experience during the previous war taught me that conscience loses almost all of its prerogatives at such times, and that the criteria for mental health shifts amid extreme mistrust of the entire information and exaltation system based on the needs of propaganda.
“While in England the right to free discussion is not always abolished, one cannot overstate the fact that France, upon entering the war, didn’t lose any time squelching free thought. Only agreeable voices, many of them simply servile, could be heard. A supposed unanimity was easily achieved. In spite of it all, we might have expected some resistance from writers such as Gide and Valery, who passed for the voices of French culture up to then. Their silence or attempts at diversion apparently mean capitulation. The situation worsened after the military defeat.
“Allow me a personal example: two of my works were submitted to censorship. The first, an anthology of dark humor (from Swift to the present day, through Lichtenberg, Quincey, Huysmans, Jarry, Kafka, etc). Of humor that causes shivers instead of laughter, treated as a means for the self to overcome the outside wold's traumas). The book was banned. The other book, a poem titled Fata Morgana with illustrations by Lam that takes place entirely off the present time, was returned to me with the following remark: deferred until the final peace agreement. The editor inquired about the reason for such strictness. And they replied: Do not bring up work by authors who are the denial of the spirit of national reconstruction. Needless to say, I regard this reconstruction, done based on non-independence, as a decoy, and the recent accords back this view.”
As an entirely surrealistic note, Breton in that interview acknowledged Trujillo as follows: “I am glad to see that the Dominican Republic is currently the hope of all those who, like me, aspire to recover what they regard as their raison d'être, some of whom, now in France, are not yet out of danger.” A realistic statement, given the not-at-all surrealistic picture of a hospitable dictatorship.
BRETÓN’S GRANELLS | The first encounter between surrealism tsar André Breton and surrealist painter and multifaceted cultural powerhouse Eugenio Fernández Granell took place in Ciudad Trujillo in 1941, when the Granell interviewed Breton for the daily La Nación, whose contributors included Spanish refugees such as Elfidio Alonso – who had run Madrid newspaper ABC in 1934, with a republican bias, and authored Un europeo en el Caribe, published in 1943 – and controversial Galician Ramón Suárez Picallo, as well as sharp cartoonists such as Toni, a pseudonym used by Valencian artist Antonio Bernad Gonzálvez, who was also marked by the aesthetic influences of surrealism. The second "encounter of the third degree" between the two legendary figures took place five years later in the same setting, when Breton returned to the island to celebrate his 50th birthday among admiring poets, artists and intellectuals such as Franklin Mieses Burgos, Lebrón Saviñón, Gatón Arce, Manuel Valerio, Manuel Llanes, Fernández Spencer, Hernández Ortega.
In '41, Breton came in the company of his daughter Aube and his wife Jacqueline Lamba, a French painter who was the inspiring muse for his fiery poetry. She became close to Frida Kahlo when the couple visited Mexico and befriended Diego Rivera. During the trip, Breton met Trotsky – whom the Rivera-Kahlo supported and who would reinforce Breton's anti-Stalinist views. The Mexican friendship would be long-lasting. The Kahlo/Lamba bond went even further and Lamba spent ten months in 1946 living in Mexico with the Aztec artist. That same year the Pope of surrealism came to Ciudad Trujillo for the second time with a new consort, Chilean Elisa Bindhoff, who made it easier for him to communicate in Spanish and whom he met during his stay in New York with Marcel Duchamp and flanked by his friend, Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, the illustrator of Fata Morgana. A celebrity who then had ties in Paris with our Silvano Lora and History 101 professor Hugo Tolentino Dipp. Breton and Lam spent a season in Haiti at the invitation of the local authorities.
In March '41, a Breton that faced hostility in an Europe under the looming Nazi shadow boarded a ship in Marseilles and sailed toward the Americas. Fellow passengers included the famed anthropologist of Jewish descent Claude Levi Strauss – one of the icons of structuralist anthropology and the author of Tristes Tropiques, who had carried out ethnographic studies in Brazil –, painter Lam and his wife, and Russian writer and militant Troskyist Victor Serge. A rather surrealistic blend that fell in love with the green Antilles upon their arrival at Martinique, where Breton was interned by French colonial authorities in a former leper colony. After being released, he remained under police surveillance on the island because of his "dangerous" history .
Breton and Lam would be joined in Martinique by surrealist painter André Masson, who was in awe of the views overflowing with fresh, pristine nature that unfolded before his eyes. The surrealist friends went into the thick vegetation to explore it. The tale of their contact with the wonder of reality was told in a novel by Alejo Carpentier. A superlative encounter with the marks the same reality left in Gauguin in 1877.
As Cuban poet, essayist and artist Carlos M. Luis points out in a text on the impact Haiti and Martinique had on surrealist production, on speaking of the latter, the motive of a 1948 collective work of Breton, Masson and others: “Martinique Charmeuse de Serpents contains the primal elements through which surrealists would identify erotically and magically with the nature of the Americas. In a text called “Antille”, Masson waxes poetic: ‘On the forefront of your skies the yell of the flamboyant/On the grass of your lips the tongue torn from the hibiscus/On the warm field of your belly the reedbeds crowned in flavor/In the pierced greenery your firefly eyes/To your breasts the smoothness of the mango/Your plantains for your granddaughters/ The breadfruit tree for all of yours/ And the manchineel for the trapped beast’. (‘En el cielo de tu frente el grito del flamboyán/En el césped de tus labios la lengua arrancada del hibisco/En el cálido campo de tu vientre los cañaverales coronados de sabor/En las verduras agujereadas tus ojos de luciérnagas/A tus mamas la fineza del mango/Tus plátanos para tus nietas/ El árbol de pan para todos los tuyos/ Y el manzanillo para la bestia atrapada’).”
The friendship between Breton and Granell went beyond the episodic, beyond the Dominican meetings of '41 and '46. The two maintained a fluid correspondence and collaboration. Breton settled in New York during the war, infusing intellectual circles and periodicals, with an eye fixed on the aesthetics that was his passion. Upon returning to Paris at the end of the war, he held a great international exhibition of surrealist art that featured Granell. Granell, in his turn, after the "tolerant interlude" of the Trujillo regime, took up residence in Guatemala in 1947, a revolutionary sanctuary under the Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz administrations. There, as in Ciudad Trujillo, where he had his first individual showings, he worked hard at painting and displayed the fruits of his artistic labors. He worked for La Voz de Guatemala and multiplied his intellectual interests, achieving repercussion. Apparently, his libertarian views opposite Stalinism gained him the ill-regard of some among the most fanatical Communist hard liners.
After a productive period in the land of the quetzal bird – a symbol of freedom itself –, the restless Granell had to go into hiding to escape Stalinist persecution. This is confirmed by his anguished communication with Breton, who kept an eye on event at the time to show public solidarity to his friend and gather the support of internationally prestigious figures. In 1950, soon after those unfortunate moments, Granell left Guatemala. Dean Jaime Benítez –to who Dominicans have a debt of gratitude for his support to the cause of liberty and democracy in the nation – opened the doors of the University of Puerto Rico to Granell's multifaceted talent, as he had done previously for so many other Spanish intellectuals who had fled the Civil War, chief among which poet and Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez. He remained there until 1956, when he moved to New York – another major beneficiary of the enlightened Spanish and European diaspora.
In that city – the wonderful Gothic abode of Batman – taught Spanish literature at the Brooklyn College. He studied sociology at the New School for Social Research and won his doctorate in 1967 with the thesis "El Guernica de Picasso. El final de una era española" ("Picasso's Guernica. The end of a Spanish era"). In 1985 he retired from the faculty and moved to Madrid with his wife Amparo, whom he had met in Paris in 1939. Granell, born 1912 in La Coruña, died in Madrid in 2001. But not without first dedicating to the appreciation of his pictorial and literary work, publishing his essays and testimonials of a fruitful life of almost ninety years. Granell had the time to, in 1995, set up a foundation in Santiago de Compostela to safekeep the artist's rich collection of oils, sculptures, drawings and collages, including works by Miró, Lam, Caballero, Copley, Rodríguez Luna, Duchamp, Steinberg, Abela, Césariny. And, like Neruda, objects the artists had gathered during his existential journey across different lands.
The Breton-Granell friendship and in particular the latter's outspoken admiration of the former, left its mark as essay and articles about surrealism in a homage to the master by the Galician, Isla Cofre Mítico, published 1951 in Puerto Rico. And, more importantly, in his pictorial work, beginning with an "oil on a small piece of cardboard where schizophrenic ghosts stand out against the horizon of a blue background,” as described by Emmanuel Guigon and Georges Sebbag in a piece about their relationship within the realm of the visual arts. The meeting of minds reflected in the 1946-'61 correspondence has been described as "a mutual intellectual, artistic and moral seduction". In 2009 the Museo de Bellas Artes de Santander, assisted by Madrid art dealer Guillermo de Osma, held the exhibition “Los Granell de Breton. Sueños de amistad” (Breton's Granells. Dreams of Friendship"), a collection of 41 ink drawings and 4 oils the Galician artist dedicated to the father of the movement, accompanied by their correspondence and other relevant materials.
I have been able to view and review these works by Granell, most of which date from the '40s and '50s, complete with their dedications to Breton and, in some cases, to the Breton couple or to Elisa the wife. Nothing ca better illustrate the influence the Antilles had on the artist's work. The mesmerizing nature of the land, encrypted in the mesh of surrealist codes and Granell's original perspective. A dream worth dreaming, and even more so given that for Granell the Antilles are synonymous with Santo Domingo, the land that so enthusiastically histed him and others like him, who are now also ours.
José del Castillo Pichardo(Dominican Republic, 1947). Sociologist, historian and essayist. He directed the Museum of Dominican Man. Has published the El Bolero, Visiones y Perfiles de una Pasión Dominicana (with M. Veloz M. y P. Delgado M., 2005 and 2009), Ensayos de Sociología Dominicana (1981 and 1984), and Antología del Merengue (1988, 1989 and 1991). Article published in two parts, in the Diario Libre (Santo Domingo, days 03 and 10 December 2011). Translated by Allan Vidigal. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Page illustrated with works of Unica Zürn (Germany), guest artist this year's ARC.