The Street of Crocodiles – Surrealism & the Street

‘“Transform the world,”  proclaimed Marx; “change life,” argued Rimbaud.  Andre Breton, Surrealism’s self appointed leader, noted that both these sentiments ‘are one for us’. Capitalism, the Surrealists argued, had created an everyday that was alienated and impoverished. They felt we needed a personal as well as a social revolution. For them the everyday was not the realm of the banal that it appeared to be. It was our habits of mind or the habitual ways in which we engaged with the world that caused us perceive and experience it that way. For them the everyday, if truly revealed, was in fact the realm of the marvellous.

In order to break free from these habitual ways of being they explored a number of strategies. The use of ‘psychic automatism,’ thought without control, was one such attempt to negate the limiting control of reason. Here they engaged in such practices as automatic writing, hypnotic trances, the game of creating ‘exquisite corpses’ or any method that made the subject responsive to chance encounters. What they looked for was the ‘spark’ produced by such juxtapositions to open up the mind to the true nature of the world. In this instant ones suppressed psychological landscape merged with the outer world in a true experience of the world they termed ‘surreality’.

Another such strategy for liberation was to explore the city, seek out its edges and forgotten corners in an attempt to find the raw, the primitive, the natural and the out moded. All of these had the potential to disrupt the bourgeois coherence that was paraded as ‘reality’.  The transformative spark, they believed, could also be found through chance encounters in the street.

The pre-war paintings by the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico offered them a glimpse of topography where the personal inner world and the outer physical realm merged into a haunting dream surreality.

“How often have we found ourselves in that  square where everything seems so close to  existence and yet bears so little resemblance to what really exists. It was here, more than  anywhere else, that we held our invisible meetings.” Andre Breton, Le Surrealisme et La Peinture.

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Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century

Medieval Paris


Merian Map of Paris (scale: ca.1 to 7,000), 1615

The Spatial layout of Medieval Paris was very different to the city we know today.
•No sidewalk since Roman times
•No drainage (small gutter insufficient)
•Narrow streets
•The street was a sea of mud when it rained
•Pedestrians battled carriages and carts
•No designated green areas / no public spaces

“Nothing could give a foreigner more pleasure than the sight of a Parisian with his elaborate wig, white stockings, and lace trimmed suit, as he wades through or jumps over a muddy stream, runs through the filthy streets on tiptoe, and defends himself from the dripping roof gutters with his taffeta umbrella. How he jumps into the air when he leaves the Faubourg St.Honore to eat and must dance around the dripping eaves! Piles of dirt, slippery pavement, greasy cart axles so many dangers to avoid! And yet he reaches his destination. On each corner he summons a shoe-cleaner and arrives safely with the “exception of a few spots on his stockings…”

Louis-Sebastian Mercie

 Paris am Vorabend Revolution