AUGUST 17, 2022
IT HAS BEEN SAID that children are the true surrealists. Their imagination roams free, not yet tamed by appeals to reason and so-called common sense. André Breton, father of the movement, reflected in his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism that “[c]hildren set off each day without a worry in the world. Everything is near at hand, the worst material conditions are fine.” But this carefree life, indifferent to material deprivations, is not enjoyed by the children in The Fine Feats of the “Five Cockerels” Gang, a 1933 mixed-media epic poem for children by the Belgrade surrealists Aleksandar Vučo and Dušan Matić. One of the gang’s boys scrubs the floors of a textile factory without getting anything to eat; another is regularly flogged by his boss. Their lives are far from Breton’s idealized image of childhood, and yet it is the very reality of wage labor and abusive bosses that seems to feed their surrealist sensibility. “True childhood,” Matić writes in the poem’s foreword, “squeezes up through the threatening stones, the heavy slaps, cruel words, schoolhouse lies, curses, poverty and wealth.” Surrealism, for these children, is not an idle exercise; it is what makes liberation and new ways of living imaginable.
Recently translated into English by Aleksandar Bošković and Ainsley Morse, The Fine Feats tells the story of five working-class boys in Belgrade who set out to free Mira, a young girl trapped in a convent that doubles as the State Institute for Girls. Though she suffers at the hands of evil nuns, Mira is no damsel in distress. She is just as scrappy as her male counterparts, but her attempt to escape on her own is punctured — literally. She grows and grows like a balloon until she is large enough to fling her leg over the convent wall, but she deflates and shrinks when the nuns sink their teeth into her. The boys try one plan after another until finally they succeed. Liberation is a collaborative effort.
So too is the text: Vučo wrote the narrative poem, while Matić created the photocollages and authored the poem’s foreword. Continuing the spirit of co-production, Bošković and Morse’s translation is as lively and energetic as the poem’s young heroes. Presented in facing-page Serbian and English, this bilingual edition does what all poetry in translation should do: it invites the reader to learn a new language while regarding a familiar one afresh. (The linguistic hybridity of this edition would no doubt please its authors, who contributed to the 1930 surrealist almanac, Nemoguće-L’impossible, that set Serbian and French pieces side by side.)
The poem ends with the formation of a new community, set off on an island. You don’t have to travel far — it is not an imagined, distant land like Thomas More’s Utopia. The children settle on Ada Zanoga, today known as Ada Međica, an island in the Sava River that flows along the edge of Belgrade’s Old City. (The island was uninhabited by humans until the 1960s.) It is a place immediately recognizable to the poem’s contemporary readers, and yet one whose meaning has been transformed, its potential as an alternative community revealed.
It is fitting that this is a poem about emancipation. With its revolt against reason, surrealism aspired to free the mind from conventions and to overturn societal expectations. Through automatic writing and the description of dreams, the unconscious mind could be unlocked. Photocollage could reassemble and thus reimagine the accepted order of things. The seemingly insuperable walls of the convent, as Bošković and Morse note in their introduction, are like the boundaries between reality and imagination, the possible and impossible, reason and the irrational, but also the borders between nations, classes, genders, and other divisions that structure modern life. Surrealism aims to tear them all down.
The well-worn clichés of surrealism — a face obscured by an apple, melting clocks, a lobster on a telephone — can feel far removed from revolutionary politics. But these popular images tend to overshadow the side of the movement that knits together the freedom of the imagination with the social and political emancipation of the human subject. By 1929, Breton, in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, was pledging his allegiance to historical materialism, quoting Trotsky, and aligning surrealism’s “tenet of total revolt” with communist revolutionary action.
The Belgrade group also saw surrealism as an agent for social and political change. As Bošković and Morse outline in their introduction, Vučo and Matić collaborated on The Fine Feats in the wake of major political transformations in Yugoslavia. After the assassination of the Croatian People’s Peasant Party leader Stjepan Radić, King Alexander I seized on the crisis to abrogate the Vidovdan Constitution and prorogue Parliament in January 1929. He declared the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes to be the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and himself its dictator. The new constitution of 1931 invested the king with great executive power and increased his control of Parliament.
These developments encouraged the Belgrade surrealists to articulate their movement’s political orientation more explicitly. In 1931, the group published “The Position of Surrealism,” calling for a socialist revolution (it was promptly banned by the censors). The group was somewhat divided in its conception of surrealism’s relationship to politics, and the two collaborators of The Fine Feats fell on either side of the debate. Matić called for active participation in revolutionary actions in line with Marxist communist ideas, whereas Vučo envisioned the surrealists as “fellow-travelers” alongside, but not part of, the communist party. Despite these differences, their collaborative work on The Fine Feats makes clear their shared commitment to upending contemporary bourgeois society.
Indeed, it was surrealism’s revolutionary promise that gave it life well beyond interwar Paris. In 1965, for instance, the Chicago Surrealist Group was founded in an effort to bring “the consciousness-expanding arsenal of surrealist subversion” to radical movements in the United States. Their publication Surrealist Insurrection proclaimed: “Surrealism fights for the TOTAL LIBERATION OF MAN!” Of late, there has been renewed attention to surrealism as a transnational movement that extends into the 1960s and ’70s, including the rerelease of Leonora Carrington’s 1974 surrealist novel The Hearing Trumpet, the exhibition “Surrealism Beyond Borders” (currently on view at the Tate Modern in London; previously at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), and the recent anthology Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (2022). The new edition of Vučo and Matić’s photo-poem admirably contributes to this current reassessment by drawing attention to Belgrade as a significant node within surrealist networks.
The Belgrade surrealists, as the critic Sanja Bahun-Radunović has observed, sought a form of artistic expression that “eschews the positivism of direct representation, yet keeps close links with the ‘concrete’ world.” Central to their work was experimentation with photography, a medium that has long been thought to have a privileged relationship to the “real” and yet is highly manipulable. Because of the photochemical process — light bounces off an object and is registered on photosensitive paper — the photograph has been thought of as a causal trace of the referent. Breton praised the camera as a “blind instrument,” and surrealists generally were fascinated by this form of image-making that so embraced contingency: the photograph records whatever chance details happen to be in front of the camera at a given moment, not only those selected or placed there by the artist. The mechanical apparatus, absent a human consciousness, promised to disclose external reality’s secrets, to record beyond what the conscious mind, so habituated in its vision, could see. The dreamlike aspect of reality could be revealed through experiments in double exposure, as in Nikola Vučo’s 1929 photograph The Arrested Flight of Surreality (Zadržano bekstvo nadstvarnosti).
Photograms, like the surrealist technique of frottage (rubbings), have the capacity to surprise or mystify us — an object placed directly on light-sensitive paper produces a ghostly impression that is an indexical, but not necessarily realistic, representation. And, of course, photocollage allowed the artist to take these fragments of the “real” and reassemble them to create strange new visions. Punctuating The Fine Feats are several photocollages with textual captions that narrate “what happened in the meantime.” These collages stimulate our imagination, daring us to accept the evidence before our eyes and, thus, to believe in the impossible. As Bošković and Morse write in their introduction, “photocollage turns the impossible into the visually and imaginatively real.”
It is an act of photocollage by other means that saves Mira from the convent in the end. Roaming in the woods, one of the boys chances upon a book opened to a page with an illustration of a hot-air balloon. The objet trouvé is always a happy accident for the surrealist, whether trawling for curiosities at a Parisian flea market or gleaning remnants on the forest floor. The image inspires the boys to free Mira by using a hot-air balloon. They find an old lampshade maker and enjoin him to put his tools to a more creative use. With pliers in hand, he begins “to tear the silk, to entirely dismantle / That poor lampshade” until “it look[s] like something dead and done.” But from this everyday object’s “wiry carcass” he creates a vehicle of flight that saves Mira. Swap the pliers for scissors and you don’t have to look hard to find an analogy for the principle of photocollage here. This is surrealist collage applied to the real world.
“Scissors draw,” Matić writes in the poem’s foreword. He encourages the reader to grab a pair and start cutting, rearranging, gluing: “This is how you take immobile picture-tombs and turn them into a living picture, a life-picture.” This is the revolutionary potential of photocollage (and of surrealism): to help us envision how we might reorganize the world. What we need, says Matić, “is to scatter the existing pictures, alleys, models, benches etc. in every direction, and that these pictures, alleys, models, benches etc. humanely explode.” The poem’s final photocollage depicts the children amidst the rubble of an exploded wall; in their hands, however, detritus becomes the building blocks for something new.
Robyn Jensen is assistant teaching professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley. Her work focuses on 20th-century Russian culture, with an emphasis on photography theory and visual culture, aesthetic theory, and theater.