Thursday, November 20, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Post 4: Surrealism, New York, Native American Artifacts

[All the Lévi-Strauss Birthday posts are here.]

The following is from Claude Lévi-Strauss and Didier Eribon (1991) (translated by Paula Wissing) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[Prior to this passage, he returns to France after spending 1935-39 in Brazil. He gets drafted into the army, but through some lucky events, does not end up in battle. He got demobilized and assigned to a college. But the racial laws are coming and he gets fired. Through help from an aunt in the US, he gets invited to the New School for Social Research and comes to New York in late 1940 or early 1941.]

D.E. Once you arrived, you got to know the surrealists in exile in New York.
C.L-S. Breton and I kept up our friendship. He introduced me to his old circle.
D.E. You were a young, unknown university professor, and you became part of a group of famous artists - stars, even - Breton, Tanguy, Duchamp...
C.L-S. And Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Matta, Wifredo Lam. . . Masson and Calder were living in the country. I went to see them on a few weekends.
D.E. Did you like the members of the group?
C.L-S. Some of them. I liked Max Ernst right away, and he is the one I stayed closest to. Tanguy, whose painting I admired a great deal, was not an easy person. Duchamp had great kindness, and for awhile Masson and I were very close. I also became friends with Patrick Waldberg. Our friendship continued after the war ended.
D.E. Peggy Guggenheim was financing the existence of the group?
C.L-S. She helped this or that one out financially, but Max Ernst, whom she married, was more affluent than the others. They were leading the Bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Until Max Ernst left Peggy Guggenheim. One day, Breton called to ask me if I had a small sum of money to buy back one of his Indian objects from Max Ernst, who was now broke. This historic object is now in the Musée de l'Homme.
D.E. This little world had its social side, too?
C.L-S. We saw one another at various people's homes. The "truth game" was very fashionable.[Footnote 4: A kind of psychoanalytic parlor game, of which André Breton was said to be particularly fond, the object of which was to elicit the participants' intimate feelings. Peggy Guggenheim mentions it in her memoir Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict (New York: Universe Books, 1979). -trans.] And we would go out to sample the exotic restaurants of New York.
D.E. Playing the "truth game" with people like that must not have been easy!
C.L-S. There was a lot of consideration for outsiders: myself, Pierre Lazareff, who sometimes came, also Denis de Rougemont.
D.E. How did you meet Lazareff?
C.L-S. Breton, Duthuit, and I needed extra money and were working for the radio service directed by Lazareff at the OWI, the Office of War Information, on broadcasts for France. There we all were, among people from different backgrounds, and sometimes we would get together outside of work. There I became friends with Dolores Vanetti, with whom Sartre was later to fall in love.
D.E. Describe your radio work.
C.L-S. I'd already had some experience with radio. To be less of a burden to my parents, I found a job as a student reading the bulletin for the Bureau International du Travail over the microphone at Radio Tour Eiffel in the basement of the Grand Palais. This was why my father painted me as a speaker when he made the huge (30X5m.) murals for the Madagascar Pavillion (a country where he'd never set foot) for the Colonial Exposition.
Two or three times a week in New York, André Breton, Georges Duthuit, Robert Lebel, and I would read the news and propaganda texts issued by Lazareff's offices. I was given Roosevelt's speeches to read because it seemed that my voice could be heard best over the jamming.
D.E. How did you happen to find the work?
C.L-S. Through Patrick Waldberg, whom I've already mentioned. He worked there too. He was both a poet and art critic. Later he wrote about Max Ernst and published some charming books on the turn of the century epoch. At the time we never would have guessed that back in Paris he would become a corresponding member of the Institute de France! He used to drink and lead a wild life, going to little bars in Harlem where he would sometimes bring me along.

D.E. If I'm to believe your essay on New York, one of your main activities at this time was acquiring artwork.
C.L-S. Max Ernst had a passion for primitive art. On Third Avenue - which was very different from what it is now - he discovered a little German antique dealer who sold him an Indian artifact. At that time you almost never saw such things for sale. Max Ernst told us about the dealer. We had very little money, and whoever had a few dollars would purchase the coveted object. Since our antique dealer had found an outlet, more and more objects became available. In fact - I can tell the story now because it has been published - they came from a major museum that was selling them because they were considered duplicates of works in their collection. As if there could be duplicates! When the dealer discovered he had a market, he became the intermediary between the museum and ourselves.
D.E. Did you know that at the time?
C.L-S. We very soon found out. With the help of the guard, he took us into the museum storehouses, in an isolated building in the New York suburbs. We would make our selection, and a few days later the objects would appear in his shop.
D.E. What became of the things you bought?
C.L-S. I brought them back with me to France. But I had personal problems and had to sell them at Drouot's in 1951. The Musée de l'Homme and the museum in Leiden bought several of them. Also private individuals, such as Lacan and, I believe, Malraux, bought a few others. I have two or three of them.
D.E. Did you maintain your ties with the surrealists after the war?
C.L-S. With Ernst, Breton, and Waldberg, yes. I lost track of the others.
André Breton went back to France before I did, since in 1945 I was sent back to New York as the cultural counsellor to the French embassy. So we didn't see one another for three years. We had a ritual going to the flea market every Saturday with his small band of followers. It was considered a great honor to be allowed to accompany Breton on this occasion.
D.E. Were you ever banished from the realm?
C.L-S. Of course we had a row, for which I was unwittingly responsible. Breton had been asked to do a book that was to be called L'Art magique. Inspiration failed him, and as one often does at such a pass, he made up a questionnaire, which he sent to me and some other people. I admired Breton. When we looked at art he had an infallible eye for objects, he was always right on the nose, never hesitating in his assessment. But the term "magic" had a precise meaning for me, it was part of the anthropological vocabulary. I didn't like to see it put to dubious uses. Instead of stating my objections, I preferred simply not to answer. Breton sent me another questionnaire. I was in the Cévennes on vacation with my son from my second marriage, who was seven at the time. The questionnaire came with reproductions of artworks you were supposed to rank as "more or less magical." Even if I objected to the project, I thought it would be interesting to have a child's reaction, and I thought it would interest Breton in the same way. Particularly since my son ranked the pictures without any hesitation. I sent it to Breton, who responded with an acerbic letter. The book came out, with my son's answers included. But the copy he sent to me bore a curt dedication to my son.
D.E. And you didn't see one another again?
C.L-S. We more or less reconciled our differences but it wasn't the same.
D.E. And with Max Ernst?
C.L-S. Our friendship continued after New York. There was never a problem. When the Collége de France invited me to give the lectures for the Loubat Foundation - I was not yet a member, it was about the time I was turned down - Max Ernst came to hear me. I happened to describe a Hopi divinity while expressing my regret that I was unable to obtain a slide to illustrate my point. The following week, Max Ernst brought me a drawing big enough to show for a lecture. I still have it. Max Ernst's attitude toward anthropology was the opposite of Breton's. Breton distrusted it, he didn't like having scholarly matters get between him and the object. Max Ernst collected objects but also wanted to know everything about them.
D.E. Did this contact with the surrealists influence you? I mean your work? Rodney Needham, in an article in The Times Literary Supplement in 1984, compares your work to that of the surrealists.
C.L-S. In a way, the comparison is valid. It is true that the surrealists and I all belong to an intellectual tradition that goes back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Breton had a passion for Gustave Moreau, for the whole symbolist and neosymbolist period. The surrealists were attuned to the irrational and sought to exploit it from an aesthetic standpoint. This is part of the same material I work with, but I am guided by the intention of analyzing and understanding it while remaining sensitive to its beauty.
I will add that among this group there was a climate of intellectual ferment that did a great deal for me. Contact with the surrealists enriched and honed my aesthetic tastes. Many objects I would have rejected as unworthy appeared in a different light thanks to Breton and his friends.
D.E. You say in The View from Afar that the books in your Mythology series are put together like Max Ernst's collages!
C.L-S. The surrealists taught me not to fear the abrupt and unexpected comparisons that Max Ernst like to use in his collages. This influence can be seen in The Savage Mind. Max Ernst built personal myths out of images borrowed from another culture. I mean from old nineteenth-century books, and he made these images say more than they did when viewed by an innocent eye. In the Mythology books I also cut up a mythical subject and recombined the fragments to bring out more meaning.

pp. 31-35

His tone is very modest as he talks about people who are giants of the 20th century. Normaly, I would put links to key names, but there are so many well known people in here and it is late. Google it yourself. :)

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