The earliest presence of surrealism in Canada made itself felt through the good offices of the poet W.W.E. Ross during the 1930s in Toronto. This is significant, given that Toronto was, at the time, a small, extremely conservative city, where the ruling class kept power and wealth strictly for themselves. Immigrants, that is to say, people who could bring external influences to bear on the society, were kept outside, living mostly harsh lives with little possibility of building an artistic culture. Witness to Ross’ interest in surrealism is his correspondence with active surrealists at the time, like Paul Eluard and René Crevel, and his development of a poetics that he labeled “laconics,” which uses the image as a central means, while experimenting with form and structure to render a kind of poetics radically different from the dominant literary culture at the time. His poetry brings together both imagist and formalist attributes while it maintains elegance and deep meaning. The silence that surrounds W.W.E. Ross and his extraordinary contribution can be attributed to several factors. There is the general rejection of what the Presbyterian Church considered “excess,” including imagery. There was the moralism of the Victorian era, which still prevailed in cities like Toronto. Anglophone Canada’s resistance and dismissal of surrealism and its tenets through most of the 20th Century was compounded by the fact of its cultural dependence on England and, after the Second World War, on the United States. In fact, until the end of the 1930’s, English Canada was socially controlled through capitalist structures that replicated and/or served the Empire.
Anglo Canada began to modernize socially when the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation), a socialist democratic party born in the 1930’s out of the labor movement and other progressive forces, was elected in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944. Coupled with the end of the Second World War, the emergent political progressive movements brought about changes that would, over time, result in support for culture and the arts, including, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the establishment of bilingual culture and education policies at a national level. Had surrealism been present in English-speaking Canada through the formative years that gave way to these reforms, the shape of artistic expression could, in my view, have been radically different. Instead, in the literary field, especially in poetry, the dominant paradigms became either representational and realist, generally denoted as “lyrical poetry,” or formalist, tending towards abstraction and conceptualism, referred to as “experimental poetry.” In both tendencies the influence of surrealism is often apparent. However, any mention of the word “surrealist” or “surrealism” was, until the early 1990s used in a quasi-derogatory way to denote a kind of affectation. What this attitude reveals is ignorance about surrealism, its philosophy, a dismissal of surrealism as a way of being in the world, and relegation of it to a mere style or manner of expression. To someone like me, who has lived by surrealism’s philosophy and embraced its values entirely, this has always felt hurtful and vaguely insulting.
The trajectory of surrealism in Montreal differed completely from English Canada. There the influence of surrealism was profound, transformative, and would bring about radical change to Québec society. I say “influence” deliberately, for as Ray Ellenwood writes in the introduction to his translation of Refus Global / Total Refusal, “Along with the upheaval of the war years in Montreal came some very important cultural changes. There was new energy, challenging the established, conservative institutions of the city, helping to introduce a climate receptive to modern art and literature. In 1939, Paul-Emile Borduas was teaching at the Ecole du meuble, which had been established as a college of design but soon became a rival to the conservative Ecole des Beaux-Arts through the efforts of people like Borduas and the art historian Maurice Gagnon…” (Refus Global / Total Refusal, 1985, 7).
Still, until the late 1930s Québec society was isolated, its education and culture strictly regulated by the Catholic Church. The early 1940s began to see change happen. As Ellenwood states, “…The war sent not only artists and intellectuals into exile from Europe, but whole collections of paintings as well, some of which were seen for the first time in the North American continent. Fernand Leger passed through Montreal in 1943, gave a lecture and showed his film Le Ballet mécanique. A travelling exhibit of Dutch painting came in 1944 and many of the works, including those of Mondrian, were a revelation to young Canadian painters. The Quebec-born artist, Pellan, who had been living in Paris for years, returned to Montreal in 1940 with his newest works, his books and his intimate knowledge of Cubism and Surrealism… This kind of exposure and activity led to fervent questioning of the status quo and eventually to revolt…” (Refus Global, 8).
As Ray Ellenwood points out in his indispensable Egregore A History of the Montreal Automatiste Movement, Borduas, the undisputed leader of the Automatiste movement, began to formulate and slowly define a new vision of art during the second half of the 1930s. Around 1941 and in the short years that followed, a small coterie of artists, poets, dancers, actors, a photographer, a designer, and a medical student gravitated towards Borduas. They were mostly young; some were his students at the Ecole du meuble, including the artists Guy Viau, Fernand Leduc, Marcel Barbeau, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Maurice Perron. Others were art students at the Ecole des beaux-arts: Pierre Gauvreau (joined soon after by his brother the poet and playwright Claude Gauvreau), Françoise Sullivan who was also a dancer, Fernand Leduc and Louise Renaud. Loosely quoting Steven Harris’ entry in the International Encyclopedia of Surrealism, which has just been published in England by Bloomsbury, “There were two significant exhibitions by the Automatistes in 1946 and 1947, which preceded the appearance of Refus global in 1948, a publication that included the famous tract of this name but also two other essays by its author, Borduas, three theatre pieces by Claude Gauvreau, a text on art by Bruno Cormier, another on dance by Françoise Sullivan, a brief closing text by Fernand Leduc, photographs by Maurice Perron, and a cover design by Jean-Paul Riopelle. The tract was signed by sixteen people, but there were other members of this community who felt unable to sign for various reasons, and others who became involved with it as a result of the scandalous reaction the tract provoked. The first fractures appeared in the group due to the stresses caused by the negative reaction to the tract (or by the refusal of some to sign it), and it slowly unravelled thereafter, though Gauvreau in particular put a great deal of effort into sustaining Automatisme as a collective endeavour after 1948.”
Forming as it did as an egregore (in the sense that Mabille gave the term) during the 1940s, at a time when surrealism was experiencing a certain degree of fragmentation due to the debacle wrought by the war, the Automatistes came to see themselves as superceding surrealism’s psychic automatism. Further, rather than “surrealist,” they defined their work as “surrational,” a term advanced by Gaston Bachelard and used by Breton in his 1936 essay “Crise de l’objet.” “Intention must be pushed into the background along with reason. Make way for the intelligence of the senses,” wrote Borduas in a letter. The Automatistes did, nevertheless understand and absorbed Breton’s notion of automatism as “more akin to a state of mind” (Ellenwood, Egregore, 168). The same applies to the Automatistes’ assimilation of surrealism as a means for liberation, prompting Claude Gauvreau to state, “What Surrealism brings ¾ and Surrealism alone¾ are the foundations for a new sensibility…” (Ellenwood, Egregore, 170). Not all the Automatistes cast themselves as beyond, or outside surrealism, however, and this fundamental disagreement may, in my view, have been one of the elements that led to the dissolution of the group in the aftermath of the publication of Refus Global.
There were other Montrealers during that period who embraced surrealism, and did so in all its dimensions. Jean Benoît and Mimi Parent joined the Paris group, and became essential figures in the activities of the 1950s and beyond; Roland Giguère, Léon Bellefleur and Albert Dumouchel moved easily between the Paris group and the Phases Movement. Alfred Pellan remained active in the larger surrealist movement, opting for the associative poetic process rather than automatism.
The first organized manifestations of surrealism in English-speaking Canada took place in the late 1960s in Vancouver. Sometimes these activities involved poets and artists like bill bisset, who were experimenting in ways that overlapped with surrealist expression, if not intent. A number of young artists and writers formed themselves adhering more specifically to the values of surrealism, especially its openness to hermetic thought. Involved in this significant movement in Canada was the artist and musician Gregg Simpson, whose essay “The Triumph of the Surreal,” published in the journal Georgia Straight in 1971marks a significant moment for the group. That same year sees the formation of the Divine Order of the Lodge in North Vancouver, by Gregg Simpson and david uu (David W, Harris). The group in its publication, Lodgisticks, included contributions by Ingrid Harris, Gary Lee Nova, Gilles Foisy, Bob Coleman and others. Their first exhibition was at the Avelles Gallery, operated by painter Leo Labelle in Vancouver in December, 1971. For the exhibition the floor of the gallery was punctuated by a grid of golden eggs. The artist and poet Edwin Varney joined the group shortly thereafter. In 1973 Gregg Simpson organized the show Canadian West Coast Hermetics in Vancouver, which also toured Europe. The West Coast Surrealist Group was founded in 1977 by Simpson, the painters Ted Kingan, Leo Labelle, Robert Davidson and the poet Michael Bullock. They were were joined in 1979 by Varney, the painter Ladislav Guderna, and his son Martin, also a painter. The group consisted of about twenty members by the mid-1980s, including the painter and musician Lori-ann Latremouille, the performance poet Sheri-D Wilson, and the writer Tim Iles. Several remarkable publications came out of the surrealists in Canada’s West Coast, including 25 issues of Scarabeus, published between 1979 and 1998 by Ladislav and an Martin Guderna, and Melmoth Vancouver, which was published in seven issues between 1981 and 1986 (preceded by two issues of the Vancouver Surrealist Newsletter published between 1980 and 1981). Bullock had travelled to Britain several times between 1969 and 1981 to meet with Conroy Maddox, and in 1981 he brought the Melmoth name back with him from the short-lived Melmoth group in London, as a sign of a nascent surrealist international. The period between 1977 and 1990, proved to be particularly fruitful for the West Coast Surrealist Group/Melmoth Vancouver: there were several exhibitions and public performance, and the publication of the above-mentioned journals performances.
This is how Gregg Simpson relates the story:
My work comes from the abstract side of surrealism although when I began it was more aligned to Magritte and the ‘veristic’ side only later developing automaticist techniques, the two distinct bands of surrealist art as defined by Breton. For me Max Ernst seemed to bridge these two aspects. Also, the totemic ingredient in his work appealed to me having grown up in the west coast rainforest.
However, I was never a doctrinaire surrealist, preferring poetic freedom above politics even though I have a basically centre- left stance on things. Lately it seems contemporary art is only involved in the ‘political,’ which is why I value my acceptance in the Surrealist Movement.
In the context of Canadian surrealist art, the touring show organized by Queens University in 1979, had the title, Other Realities, and more importantly it was sub titled: The Legacy of Surrealism in Canadian Art. I feel that was an accurate description of how a Canadian surrealist artist must define their relationship to Surrealism, coming from a country where at the time the movement was born in 1924, Canada had barely acknowledged post-Impressionism.
In 1973 this changed when I took an exhibition I had conceived entitled Canadian West Coast Hermetics: The Metaphysical Landscape to Paris, Brittany, Belgium and the UK. This exhibition was seen by José Pierre, which led him and others in the Paris Group to realize that the influence of their movement had reached half way around the world to us here on the west coast. The exhibition contained a good deal of collage, which was the main medium uniting this disparate group of artists.
Even before this exhibition, artists like Gary Lee Nova, Al Neil, and bill bissett were noted for their work in this medium. When I showed up (playing drums with Al Neil), many of us started to collaborate in experimental multi-media work at the Sound Gallery, Motion Studio, Intermedia and we exhibited our collages and paintings at our own gallery which was named by bill bissett, the Mandan Ghetto, in honour of the legendary tribe.
In 1968 there was a collage exhibition at the Mandan Ghetto which was not called ‘surrealist’, but had a number of works which fit that definition. Works were exhibited by Gregg Simpson, bill bissett, Gary Lee Nova, Ian Wallace, Joy Long and Ardis Breeze. The first reviews in the Sun and Province newspapers set the stage for further recognition in the years to come. The fact that there was so much surrealist imagery was sort of taken for granted.
The 'classic' period of collage in Vancouver was in the mid to late 1960’s. Gary Lee Nova and I made collages from etchings we found in old books, influenced by the example of Max Ernst, while Al Neil made complex, totemic, junk assemblages which evoked Kurt Schwitters and Dada. Poet bill bissett continued doing a combination of the mystical and satiric in his photomontages and mixed media works.
Breton’s basic mission was to usher in a transformation of humanity through the emancipation of the unconscious. This is something which knows no national boundaries and manifests differently in every culture. I once was told by Edouard Jaguer of the Paris-based PHASES, that it was conceived as a movement, not a group. The politics of groups can get unwieldy. But there are many international groups still active. Our group continues to contribute to international surrealist exhibitions in France, the UK, Holland, Chile, Portugal, Costa Rica and elsewhere. Although formal activities and opportunities to exhibit as a group are rare, they come up from time to time and we invariably will contribute to international exhibitions and publications.
2003 saw the formation of the Inner Island Surrealist Group, spearheaded by Ron Sakolsky, who had recently settled in Denman Island with Sheila Nopper. With a strong commitment to anarchism and surrealism, both have been joined by others in collaborative activities, often involving sound performance. This is how Ron Sakolsky describes their surrealist engagement:
I initially encountered surrealism back in the Seventies in the pages of Arsenal, the journal of the Chicago Surrealist Group. As time went on, I was increasingly fascinated by the intersections I was discovering between anarchy and surrealism over the next few decades. My interest in the intertwining of those elements of anarchy and surrealism manifested in the idea of "demanding the impossible" would culminate in my researching, editing and introducing the 2002 volume, Surrealist Subversions, which is an historical anthology focused on the Chicago Surrealist Group. As time went on, I gradually came to understand myself to be not just a surrealist fellow traveler who wrote and taught about surrealism, but rather as being a surrealist myself who would eventually become an occasional participant in Chicago Surrealist Group activities.
Naturally, when I emigrated to Canada in 2002 with my Canadian lover, I was interested in learning about the history of Canadian surrealism and sought out other surrealists in Toronto, Montréal, and especially Vancouver since I was now living on the West Coast. Of all the places in Canada where I might have chosen to live, I ended up residing on Denman Island in British Columbia. Why Denman Island? You see, I had read an article about Czech surrealism translated into English by the late Doug Imrie in Montréal for an anarchist zine called Minus Tide which was published on Denman Island. So I called Sean Woods, the editor of Minus Tides, to find out if there were any more of these Czech surrealist articles available in translation. Though there were no such articles floating around as far as Sean knew; after a convivial phone conversation with him, I decided to visit him and Denman Island in person. Charmed by the place and the people in Sean’s circle of anarchist friends; only a few months after visiting, I was living there myself. In actuality, then, it was surrealism that had been directly responsible for bringing me to Denman Island. Once there, I began publishing my anarcho-surrealist zine, The Oystercatcher, about a year after arriving, and formed an island-based surrealist group a few years later. Of course, Denman Island is a colonial name, but the English translation of the original Pentlatch placename (Sla-Dai-Aich) is Inner Island. So, recognizing the power of objective chance in relation to auspicious occasions like namings, we called our loose-knit circle of surrealist collaborators the Inner Island Surrealist Group so as to honour both the indigeneity of the place and the surrealist attraction to the unconscious.
Moving geographically east, in Toronto surrealism started with the immigration to Canada from Chile in late 1970 early 1971, of Ludwig Zeller and Susana Wald, and our family. My parents have always lived according to the values proposed by surrealism and its philosophy, entirely and at enormous cost, including their being forced to leave Chile hastily, for simply choosing to remain free, outside of the strictures the dominant political parties of Chile demanded at the time. They, as do I, see surrealism as a way of being in the world, and adhere to its tenets of liberty in all its forms.
At their arrival in Toronto, Zeller and Wald brought with them their strong and influential trajectory in the surrealist movement. The context of Chile is significant, since it was there that Mandrágora emerged in 1938 with sufficient strength to shape the culture of that country in ways that are still being felt today. Notable among Wald-Zeller’s activities in Chile before their departure was the legendary cultural experiment that was Casa de la Luna (1968), and the publishing and curatorial work they carried out through the Sixties, including a massive surrealist exhibition in July of 1970. Ludwig and Susana often described how anticlimactic life in Toronto felt, after leaving behind the rich cultural life that characterized Santiago. They quickly realized that they had arrived in a place with no surrealist activity, that they would have generate such activity themselves, and would do so often facing the indifference, and even resistance of the milieu. With undaunted urgency they set about making contacts with friendly galleries (like the Mitchell Gallery) to exhibit their work, and the work of their surrealist colleagues. This began in earnest around 1973 when, following a recommendation and contact information given to them by Aldo Pellegrini, they reached out and established and vibrant friendship with Édouard and Simone Jaguer (Anne Ethuin), as well as with surrealists outside the Phases movement, including Radovan Ivsic and Annie Le Brun, the group around Vincent Bounoure, Laurens Vancrevel, and others. Between 1971 and 1992 Wald and Zeller worked assiduously on their own artistic production. Zeller produced many of his major literary and collage works during that period, including When the Animal Rises from the Deep the Head Explodes, In the Country of the Antipodes, 50 Collages, Alphacollage, etc), while Wald developed and produced her own art, first in ceramic sculpture and drawing, and then in painting. They also worked collaboratively, inventing mirages, which merged seamlessly Zeller’s collages with Wald’s drawing and watercolor and painting. The fervor of those years resulted in many exhibitions, both in Canada and internationally, as well as a unique contribution to Canadian culture, namely Oasis Publications, a press devoted to publishing the work of members of the surrealist movement, in various languages, in limited and exquisitely designed editions. It was through Oasis Publications, that I began publishing my first translations, including Enrique Gómez-Correa’s To Mayo, Edouard Jaguer’s The Hollow Beam, and Aldo Pellegrini’s essay “Poetry is all that closes the door to imbeciles,” which appeared in the inaugural issue of multilingual zine, The Philosophical Egg. (In 2001, as part of my studies in bibliography and book history, I wrote the complete catalogue of Oasis Publications, with descriptions of each of the titles published by Wald and Zeller while they lived in Canada, including the one-of-a-kind books they created. It is available upon request from Indiana University’s Lilly Library manuscript collections.) Aside from their own work, Zeller and Wald worked tirelessly to bring surrealism to Canada, and not just through publishing. Between 1975 and 1994, Zeller and Wald organized many exhibitions in Toronto area galleries, especially Galerie Manfred in the town of Dundas, Ontario, for artists of the Phases movement, including Eugenio Granell, Guy Rousille, John Schlechter Duvall, Anne Ethuin, Jean-Pierre Vielfaure, Suzanne Besson, Marie Carlier, and others. Our home, needless to say, was an exciting locus where many extraordinary artists and writers from different corners of the world converged and established, often lasting, contact with our Canadian friends. In Toronto, Albert F. Moritz and Ray Ellenwood stand out as the steadfast participants in this adventure, though many other Canadian poets and artists collaborated and shared the excitement of that period, including John Robert Colombo, Karen Loomer, and the late Robin Skelton. When my parents settled in the village of Huayapam, in the outskirts of Oaxaca, I took up the torch, by continuing to translate Latin American surrealists into English, including César Moro, with whose work I feel great affinity, Jorge Cáceres, Enrique Gómez-Correa, Enrique Molina, Aldo Pellegrini, Rosamel del Valle and many more. I came into my own as an author, and saw the publication of my first poetry collection in 2003. I became and continue to be actively involved in international surrealist activities, participating in events such as “O Reverso de olhar,” organized by Miguel de Carvalho in Coimbra, Portugal, La Chasse à l’objet du désir in Montreal, and regularly contribute to surrealist publications and exhibitions. My experience has been greatly enriched since 2000, the year I met the extraordinary Toronto duo, Sherri L Higgins and William Davison, two surrealists, who came into the movement independently in their youth in Nova Scotia. Here is how first William Davison, followed by Sherri L. Higgins, describe their entry into surrealism:
As a reaction to the cultural isolation and conservatism I experienced growing up in, largely rural, Nova Scotia, in the 60s and 70s, I sought out anything strange, nonconforming and subversive. In addition to the influences of science fiction, the occult, underground comics, psychedelia, and other odd nooks and crannies of popular culture (Monty Python, The Prisoner, etc.), the discovery of Dada and Surrealism had a
tremendous impact on me. I had been getting clues to its existence through translations of European sci-fi/fantasy bande-dessinée, mostly from the French magazine Metal Hurlant brought to North America via the New York-based Heavy Metal magazine. Heavy Metal also included some very intriguing articles on avant-garde cinema, music, and literature with numerous references to Surrealism. Around the same time (late 70s), I found a book called The World Of Marcel Duchamp (Time-Life Library of Art, 1966) at the public library in Truro, Nova Scotia. All of the tantalizing, if confusing, hints and clues I had been encountering up to that point suddenly leapt into crystal clarity! I had been formally introduced to Dada and Surrealism through that book and my life changed forever. I
devoured everything I could find on Dada and Surrealism from that point on and became increasingly focused on Surrealism and the artistic and literary work of the Surrealists. Max Ernst became my hero. Although I was mostly given the (spurious) impression from art history texts that Surrealism was a thing of the past, I found powerful contemporary
examples of it in the post-punk and industrial music scenes that I was becoming involved in by the early 80s. In Truro, I found a few like-minded individuals interested in underground/alternative culture and we formed a loose-knit collective to create music, art, and writing, much of which was inspired and informed by Surrealism. In 1984, I
founded Recordism (which I later described as "an ideospheric mutation of the meme known as Surrealism") and have continued to work under that name. After many years of isolated Surrealist activity on Canada's east coast, my partner Sherri and I relocated to Toronto in 1989 which led to greater access to information, artistic opportunities, and increased networking via mail-art and cassette culture channels. In the mid-90s,
we started to gain access to the internet and discovered, much to our surprise, various contemporary Surrealists and Surrealist groups all over the world and we actively began forging connections with these groups and individuals.
... and Sherri L. Higgins says:
As a teen, I was living in rural Nova Scotia, which is incredibly remote and hardly an artistic hot spot. I did, however, grow up under the influence of weird, Maritime folk culture, and Monty Python, on the tele. As soon as I could, I moved to a bigger town and found some rebellious kids, a few of whom had already been to art school. They were
painters and musicians, all influenced to a greater or lesser degree by Surrealism. With my curiosity piqued, I soon started scouring used book stores in Halifax, searching for art books and discovered Une Semaine de Bonté, Max Ernst's collage novel. It was the first real art book that I got for myself and set me on my course as a Surrealist and a collage
Of late our tiny gathering of affinities has been strengthened with the presence of Joël Gayraud of the Paris surrealist group, who lives part of the time in Toronto, and his partner Silwja Chrostowska. Vittoria Lion was introduced to us by Jason Abdelhadi, a catalyst of surrealist energies in Ottawa. When I asked Abdelhadi to describe his and the Ottawa group’s discovery and involvement in surrealism, this was his answer:
The Ottawa Surrealist Group has been active in one form or another since 2015 and is located in the city of Ottawa on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory. Using the chimera as its sigil, the group underscores and celebrates the monster’s role in the surrealist bestiary. Its virtues, the group believes, are apparent: above all other creatures, comic overcomplication and blatant instability over the false streamlining of life.
The roots of the group began with the longtime friendship between Lake and Jason Abdelhadi, who both grew up in Ottawa’s west end and bonded over mutual nonconformist attitudes and a love of chaos, mythology, black humor, Journey to the West, Lewis Carroll, Dali, The Marx Bros. and 1930s-era cartoons.
It wa not until the chance discovery of Franklin Rosemont’s translations of Breton, “What is Surrealism?” in a used bookstore, that Jason landed upon a common framework for the kind of perpetual revolt he and Lake had been pursuing since childhood. Lake and Jason began a new cycle of surrealist exploration on a series of dreams and automatic texts/drawings in 2015. In the fall of that year Lake, Jason and Jessica Rousseau began the explicitly surrealist journal kaɪˈmɪərə (“Chimera” is still the group’s nickname).
In 2016 the Ottawa Surrealist Group was officially established and regular meetings began. Membership has fluctuated over the years but core participants have included locals and transients, including Jason Abdelhadi, Lake, Jessica Rousseau, Patrick Provonost, Dunja Apostolov, Mackenzie Macleod, and Sa’ad Hassan (aka the Marquis de Sa’ad, who chanced upon us playing in a café and joined in!)
The group publishes its games and researches in Peculiar Mormyrid and has participated in surrealist journals, exhibitions and projects around the world. It is not at all connected to the local arts or poetry scene, but has had some overlaps with local radical political reading groups and actions. In that vein the group has written or signed several statements in regards to local or international political situations. Its core activities include games, discussions, wanderings and pretty much anything deliriously attractive, useless and poetic, while usually aiming to fall outside outside the spheres of productivity or careerism.
In early 2016 Jason Abdelhadi was invited to become an editor of the international surrealist journal Peculiar Mormyrid, joining fellow editors Steven and Casi Cline in Georgia, Angel Dionne and more recently Vittoria Lion. Peculiar Mormyrid has seen heavy contributions from Jason as editor and the Ottawa group in general. Together under this umbrella the Mormyrid egregore and its Canadian participants have explored games and themes surrealism and the sea, the myth revolt, the night, the microscopic and most recently the hermetic dictum “As Above, So Below”.
The Ottawa Surrealist Group continues to place emphasis on radical nonconformism, collective activity, an unending cycle of games, utopian world/monster building, pansexuality, space, madness, and gender rebellion. More information and new content can be found on the group’s blog: https://surrealistottawa.wordpress.com/
Montreal became the locus of surrealist activity once again in the 1980s through the collective Les Boules, whose important contribution lies in the blurring of authorship: they collaborated anonymously in collective drawing and painting between 1987 and 2014.
A dynamic figure in the context of surrealism is the Montreal writer Peter Dubé. His collaborations in surrealist publications take the form of fiction, poetry and criticism, with desire as its magnetic pole. Here is Dubé’s response to my query regarding his origins in surrealism:
I discovered surrealism quite young: during adolescence, in fact. Though I learned of it from a friend, one of a pair of bookish friends I had at the time, I am sure growing up in Montreal had something to do with it as well. Montreal was, after all, a large city with several universities, a vibrant cultural scene and a strong tradition of left-leaning politics and - importantly - Montreal is a French language city… So, when I came to literature as a lad, some of my friends were francophone and the titles towards which they pointed me were French titles, including surrealist works. Those were urged on me with a particularly heady enthusiasm.
The first surrealist texts I read were poems by Breton, followed quickly by the Manifesto and some other things by him, and Aragon, and Eluard… and I read eagerly. Before long, the world appeared transformed to me. EVERYTHING meant something different, because what I was learning from the surrealists had to do with much more than literature; it had to do with the ways in which the mind, the heart and the soul exist only in connection to the world, and that that connection had something to do with desire… that idea has haunted me ever since.
So my initial meeting with surrealism took place, appropriately enough, through friendship and my passage into young manhood. Also significant is the fact that my discovery of surrealism overlaps the period of my coming out… a fact that seems strangely satisfying to me. I could comment more on this, but I’ve written about it before so I’ll simply say that it is through surrealism that I came to many of my fundamental ideas and concerns: the place and power of the imagination, love and desire as models for a relationship to the world and otherness, the political implications of subjectivity and the place of elective affinity in making community, and a whole bunch more. Though one does see these ideas in other places, they are there in Blake certainly, the breadth and depth of the movement’s publications meant they were most salient, most elaborated, in surrealism and it was through surrealism that I began to work through their implications.
Montreal acquired yet another vibrant voice and influence with the move to that city from Mexico in 2005, of Enrique Lechuga an accomplished collage and music artist. His passionate commitment to surrealism is made evident also in Éditions Sonámbula, the surrealist publishing house he established in 2009 with the Cuban Fernando Palenzuela. Éditions Sonámbula is the natural heir to Zeller-Wald’s Oasis Publications in that its goal is to produce beautiful, often bilingual books by surrealist poets and artists from Canada, France, Latin America and Europe. Here is how, in my translation from Spanish, Enrique Lechuga defines his coming to surrealism:
There are images that stay with you for an entire lifetime. The fleshy part of a mollusk, where a pearl finds perennial shelter is a throbbing example of such a union. My case is no different from that of thousands of others: dreams, with their watchfulness and delirium have, since my childhood, accompanied me, ceaselessly filling my mind with astonishment. In fact, one of my first memories, the remotest image my memory can dig up, is the fruit of a dream. From an early age, while still far from being able to rationalize either the content or the mechanics of dreams, innumerable were the instances where my imagination fell under the spell of the nocturnal spectacle. Without knowing the source, nor the reason for those images, and regardless of their briefness, my memory would caress each of them upon waking the next day. I can say the same thing about my conception of the erotic: in all its immediacy and the incomprehension it prompted, the erotic managed to emerge from the malleable scaffolding of my interior boy’s life, so that even if unsettled in silence yet promptly delighted by it, I did not hesitate to give it cause under the toy magnifying glass, or the daring secrecy of seriousness. The years passed, and this is how my relationship with the world achieved the closest of empathies with dream manifestations, and the dialectic interweaving these establish with objective reality. A little later, my discovery of electroacoustic music, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the paintings of Leonora Carrington and of love, confirmed during my adolescence the sensibilities that had stayed latent in me all those years before. That is how one day, while by chance leafing through an art catalogue, in the context of Carrington’s painting, I came upon the word “surrealism.” The mystery and magnetism that this word evoked in me, was enough to immediately prompt me to read everything my eyes could learn at the time. As a result, I was able to confirm and discover the existence of a state of mind, which came up to the most beautiful, the most revolutionary spirit ever practiced by human beings. Through the texts and documents I could access, I learned how a handful of poets, in another continent, had set themselves to change the course of life.
I must mention those who have played a fundamental role in my life, and whose friendship I’ve sustained through the years: the Ácrata de mis amores collective, Ludwig Zeller, Susana Wald, Fernando Palenzuela, Alex Januario, Bernar Sancha, Guy Girard, Antoine-Vincent L’Amor, Guy Cabanel and Jacques Lacomblez
Lechuga, along with Bernar Sancha, La Tête ailleurs and others from Montreal, Quebec City, Saguenay, Gatineau and Toronto established Liaison surréaliste à Montréal in 2011. Its tract, “Surréalisme sans service,” issued that year, was followed in 2014 by an important international surrealist exhibition, La Chasse à l’objet du désir. The Liaison dispersed after the event.
Living in Gatineau, though not associated with any one group, is the poet Antoine-Vincent L’Amor. His chosen affinities include Enrique Lechuga, with whom he collaborates, Bernar Sancha, and surrealists outside Canada like Virginia Tentindo, Guy Girard, and Jacques Lacomblez, among others. Because he chooses effacement, I quote only the briefest of excerpts from his lucid statement:
For me, being a surrealist means having a passion for one thing: the marvellous. I thus consider myself a surrealist because I am committed with the entirety of my being to the revolt of the imagination against empirical reality; I consider myself a surrealist because I am possessed by a desire to affirm life and love against death and misery; I consider myself a surrealist because I want nothing short of paradise and will use any means necessary to change the given world into a world of wonder; and I consider myself a surrealist because I regard the interior adventure as the sole path that can lead to real life.
La Vertèbre et le rossignol (The Vertebra and the Nightingale; a “rossignol” is also a master or skeleton key) is a group of poets, a filmmaker, and theatre and puppetry artists based in Quebec City. The group includes the poet David Nadeau, its chief animator, as well as Alexandre Fatta, Claude Gendreau, Zoé Laporte, and Marianne Chevalier, among others figures. The group publishes an eponymous zine. Here is how David Nadeau describes his involvement in surrealism:
My first attempts at exploring the unconscious, reinventing morality and creating new mythologies coincided with my discovery, around the age of 15, of the work of André Breton (Nadja, the Manifestoes) and Antonin Artaud (Le théâtre et son double, L’omblic des limbes and Le Pèse-nerfs). From the first, I appreciated the experimental rigor and the incarnation of poetry in everyday life. I was impressed by the extreme precision of Artaud’s description of the movements of the inner life and the vertiginous strength of the associations of hallucinatory images. My first attempts at automatic writing are lost (I burned everything!) and my first book, La mémoire intraveineuse par-dela processus et saveurs (1998-2001), contains texts written between the ages of 16 and 19. My first recordings of experimental sound art, made around the age of 16-18, were collected in 2017 on the EP Le labyrinthe de la mort symétrique (suRRism-Phonoethics). As a teenager, influenced by my surrealist readings, I encouraged my friends to practice collective, poetic and graphic automatism, and sometimes sound.
In 2001, I made contact with Marie-Dominique Massoni, from the Paris, and we exchanged emails. She sent me copies of issues of S.U.R.R..., the magazine she directed. In 2004, I meet Alex Fatta and Gaétan Blais, with whom we formed the first version of La vertèbre and Rossignol, an informal collective of surrealist experiments: "cataclysmic Surrealism" (Gaétan Blais). The years 2006-2007 were a period of intense collective activities in Quebec in connection with the surrealist movement, thanks to collective creation workshops formed at the instigation of Zoé Laporte in the studio of the puppet theater company Pupulus Mordicus.
Montrealers Enrique Lechuga and Dominic Tétreault joined Alex and I in e-mail exchanges and meetings lead to the writing of an investigation file on hypnagogic phenomena, an investigation conducted following the invitation made in the text "Council of night", by Michel Zimbacca.
My short poetry collection Chantiers de l'ombre was illustrated by some participants of La vertèbre et le rossignol: Zoé Laporte, Claudia Gendreau, Gaétan Blais and Alex Fatta. Some exchanges with Merl Fluin lead to my participation in the first issue of Hydrolith and the investment of the members of the Quebec collective in the consecutive editions of the Festival of games organized by the Surrealist London Action Group.
In 2008, Enrique, Alex and I contacted Les Boules, a group of surrealist collective creation active since the end of the 80s. This led to the publication of the book La grandeur de la lune brûlée, published by Éditions Sonámbula in 2012.
The story of surrealism in Canada is, as the testimonials above more than prove, a living organism in constant transformation, where combinations of people and mixing of languages and forms of expression proves that the search for the gold of time is ongoing. The overview I’ve provided is by no means complete, but it is a start.
Bourassa, André-G and Lapointe, Gilles. Refus Global et ses environs 1948-1988. Montreal: Editions de l’HEXAGONE, 1988.
Ellenwood, Ray. Egregore A History of the Montréal Automatiste Movement. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992.
Email and Facebook Messenger communications: David Nadeau, Enrique Lechuga, Gregg Simpson, Jason Abdelhadi, Peter Dubé, Ron Sakolsky, Sherri L. Higgins, William Davison, Antoine-Vincent L’Amor, March 4 – 20, 2019.
Harris, Steven. [Draft entry to International Encyclopedia of Surrealism].
Ross, W.W.E. Laconics. Ottawa: Overbrook Press, 1930.
Total Refusal Refus Global The Complete 1948 Manifesto of the Montreal Automatists. Translated with an introduction by Ray Ellenwood. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1985.
EDIÇÃO COMEMORATIVA | CENTENÁRIO DO SURREALISMO 1919-2019
Artista convidado: Jan Dočekal (República Checa, 1943
Agulha Revista de Cultura
20 ANOS O MUNDO CONOSCO
Número 134 | Maio de 2019
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