Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
For a movement conventionally counted among the (modern European) utopian avant-gardes, Surrealism was rather obsessed with the past. The array of historical figures one encounters in Surrealist sources is quite broad, and changed over time, but among the well-known persons claimed in one way or another as Surrealist predecessors are Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Isidore Ducasse/Comte de Lautreamont, Lewis Carroll, and the Marquis de Sade, as well as artists such as William Blake, Francisco Goya, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch, and Paolo Uccello. A less specific, but no less tangible sense of nostalgia for a past runs through the many different media that Surrealism produced as well. Overall, the Surrealist interest in the (European) past ran the whole gamut from late classical gnostic coins to modern Art Nouveau architecture, but figuring prominently in Surrealist sources are the nineteenth century and the Middle Ages. The last is of course very much an invented middle ages; that which Surrealism considered medieval or ascribed to the medieval extends well into what would today be qualified as early modern, and was furthermore frequently seen through the lens of the nineteenth century.
This essay will examine Surrealism's medievalism, a subject that, while not understudied, has hardly been exhausted either. The literary works of Andre Breton (1896–1966), one of Surrealism's main theoreticians, have been well studied, and attention has been drawn to his favoring of medievalizing motifs and topoi such as the (ruined) castle, grail and other quests, philosopher's stones, chivalrous love, and the serpent-woman Melusina of French medieval legend. Another important Surrealist theoretician was Georges Bataille (1897–1962), Breton's foremost frenemy and a trained medievalist and numismatist. His contributions to medieval and medievalism studies have been analyzed by Bruce Holsinger, among others. That these two central figures carried the flag of medievalism in their work and imparted their interest to their respective circles and the movement overall is clear. That a middle ages – in the form of visual art or literature, tropes, thought, paradigms, or historical or legendary figures – hold a special place in Surrealism's heart generally appears beyond dispute too. Still, studies of the medievalism of other Surrealists or of the widely diverging forms Surrealist medievalism and its reception trajectories can take are few.