In his “Manifesto of Surrealism,” Breton gives a definition of surrealism. As he writes:
C’est de très mauvaise foi qu’on nous contesterait le droit d’employer le mot SURRÉALISME dans le sens très particulier où nous l’entendons, car il est clair qu’avant nous ce mot n’avait pas fait fortune. Je le définis donc une fois pour toutes :
SURRÉALISME, n. m. Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.
Breton’s writing gives us some ideas about surrealism; and, while he is highly ironic and often bizarre in his explanations and descriptions, such a method befits the style.
Turning to Max Ernst, a dadaist and surrealist painter from the early 20th century, I wanted to examine one of his works, “C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme” (“The hat makes the man”).
To begin, I won’t describe this work with anything like “Ernst reflects” or “Ernst is showing.” As per Breton’s prescription, surrealist art is meant to “dialog.” As he puts it, “Poetic Surrealism, which is the subject of this study, has focused its efforts up to this point on reestablishing dialogue in its absolute truth, by freeing both interlocutors from any obligations and politeness.” Thus, setting aside all proprieties, I will engage the photo as in a dialog, and the thoughts which I record here are simply my unfiltered remarks. After all, I wouldn’t want the art to lie about me, would I?
“With the hat in the hand, comes man from throughout the land.” It is a famous German Spruch which describes a gentleman’s magnetic politeness. The figure in the middle, comprised by cylinders and hats like all the others, seems to have an “arm” extending out with a hat – a representation of our saying. But when a man is made of hats, where is the politeness? And when the hat makes the man, what does he have to extend but an inanimate shroud of a cap – once used to shade the light of a man’s intellect from the overbearing brightness of God’s Light – now used to shade the dimness of his shade? The taller you seem, the more respectable they perceive you. Stretch your arms high, and thank God for the extra inch of respect that your hat affords you. But the hat must fit the head, and that’s a lot of hats. Why are you writing such nonsense, Ernst? Really, I thought a man of your caliber would be above such Quatsch. Thanks, Ernst, for having the hat in the hand.