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Surrealism’s Second Homeland: The Mysterious Heritage of Romanian Avant-Garde
Publication: 15 October 2021
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The history of Romanian surrealism has proved that even the seemingly most marginal and short-lived episode may, with time, turn out to be a key phase in a culture’s development, and Breton’s 1947 remark referring to Naum, Luca and co., saying that “the centre of modern poetry has moved to Bucharest,” sounds today less like a gallant gesture than an important point of reference.
The phenomenon of Romanian surrealism, chronologically speaking the last (1940s) incarnation of this avant-garde movement in Europe, is too often and wrongly overlooked, although it fully deserves our attention. The reason is mainly that the search for the founding myth of contemporary Romanian culture tends to lead to such statements as: “Surrealism is the best (or perhaps the only) thing that can represent us internationally,” “We can be proud of the originality of Romanian surrealists,” and even to such slightly emphatic declarations as: “With the achievements of Gherasim Luca or Gellu Naum, Romanian poetry seamlessly joined the great concert of world poetry” (to quote only a few comments from the press). The problem of the construction of national identity through references to a movement which decisively separated itself from tradition and undermined the established authority certainly deserves in-depth analysis. What is more, its unusualness is part of the very idea of the avant-garde. By consciously stressing their separateness and anti-institutionalism, avant-garde artists, also in Romania, opted for marginalisation and instinctively cultivated the peripheries of “official” culture. With time, however, the anarchic creativity itself became “classicalised” and entered the previously derided canon.
Suffice to say, Gellu Naum (1915–2001), the most prominent of the Romanian surrealist poets, whose vast oeuvre was true to its avant-garde roots, was Romania’s candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Herta Müller considered Naum the most outstanding Romanian writer, and his texts have been translated into numerous languages. On the other hand, surrealism was practiced by only a small group of enthusiasts, who were de-legalised by the Stalinist regime before they had even had time to make their presence properly felt. Unlike their counterparts in post-war Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, Romanian surrealists were forced to emigrate and remain silent. It was only thanks to the political thaw in the 1970s that Naum was able to publish his successive volumes of poetry and prose, which, as is widely believed, not only renewed the language of Romanian literature, but also significantly influenced it. Oneirists (Brumaru, Dimov), neo-avant-garde linguists (Sorescu), postmodernists (Cărtărescu) – all largely owed their poetics to the surrealists. The history of Romanian surrealism has proved that even the seemingly most marginal and short-lived episode may, with time, turn out to be a key phase in a culture’s development, and Breton’s 1947 remark referring to Naum, Luca and co., saying that “the centre of modern poetry has moved to Bucharest,” sounds today less like a gallant gesture than an important point of reference.
Of course, the beginnings of surrealism in Romania weren’t promising. This is somewhat strange, considering the avant-garde revolution Romanian emigrants were apparently staging in Zurich. When Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco launched the Dada movement in 1916, overnight Romanian culture found itself in the first ranks of the innovators co-creating the history of European thought. For the first time in their short history, Romanians were able to shed their peripherality complexes and abandon efforts to catch up with Western culture by imitating its formulas. They had had enough of “the last European Romantics”, a phrase used for the national bard, Mihai Eminescu, active in the last decades of the 19th century. Thanks to Tzara’s poetry, Brâncuși’s sculpture, and Brauner’s painting, Romania not only became a leader in the development of modern art, but also finally gained a fully European status. Naturally, this impression was somewhat weakened by the internationalist character of avant-garde movements. National cultures were a thing of the past, and so gradually Romanian emigrants became absorbed by the multi-headed European family, as just a few most outstanding examples illustrate: Ionesco, Cioran and Eliade. At the same time and equally importantly, a yearning for a new opening could be felt in Romania. The discovery of Urmuz, a modest clerk who wrote thoroughly absurd and grotesque poetical prose, became a catalyst for the emergence of the avant-garde spirit on the Danube and the Dâmboviţa in the early 1920s. Surprisingly, at first it was not based on surrealism at all.
Instead, with Tzara and Urmuz on their banners, Romanian avant-garde artists initially resembled the Czechs, who in the mid-1920s were busy developing their own avant-garde movement, Poetism, and weren’t convinced about surrealism’s creative force. As it happened, just as André Breton published his first Surrealist Manifesto in Paris (in September 1924), Romanians were transplanting constructivist ideas into their own soil. Nothing was further from their intentions than to abandon the enticingly modern doctrines driven by the rigour of the engineering mind with its cult of technology and speed in favour of faraway internal spaces, dreams, free associations and objective coincidences. The key avant-garde periodical of the time, Contimporanul (Contemporary), published Manifestul activist către tinerime (Activist Manifest for the Youth); ephemeral magazines were born, for example, 75 H. P., Punct or Integral (1925), whose poetics constituted a sui generis amalgam of avant-garde movements (expressionism, futurism, cubism, Dadaism, constructivism), functioning under the label “integralism”. This eclectic monster adopted any theory, simultaneously depriving it of its distinctive features and any practical application. And while the newly emerged surrealism was among them as one of the indispensable elements of the mosaic, its presence is difficult to find in the poetical texts created over the following years. Contimporanul registers the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto, but the fact has no major repercussions, and the same has to be said about the first translations of Breton’s poems.
The first issue of Integral contains an important text by Ilarie Voronca, one of the central figures of the avant-garde movement, and the magazine’s main theoretician. His “Suprarealism și integralism” (Surrealism and integralism) attempts to categorically undermine the status of surrealism in France and to question the originality of its poetics. Voronca accuses surrealism of being derivative in relation to previous movements and of internal incoherence, which he contrasts with the synthetic, “classical” order of the constructivist vision. It is no wonder, therefore, that he associates surrealism with “a turn to the past”, employing old Dadaist techniques to illustrate Freud’s theory. Voronca seals his clearly negative attitude to the movement by stating: “Surrealism fails to match the rhythm of the times.” And although Integral, gradually, albeit reluctantly and selectively, evolved in the direction of surrealism, this had to do not so much with adopting the movement’s aesthetics, as with adapting the magazine’s profile to the French standards and keeping up with the Western European avant-garde.
Coinciding with the discontinuation of Integral, the wish to move away from the heritage of the 1920s grows ever clearer. A new periodical, unu, gradually rehabilitates surrealism. Voronca violently criticises constructivism, which suddenly turns out to be outmoded. He no longer chastises surrealism for its lack of originality and incongruity with the zeitgeist from the perspective of a radical integralist. From now on he advocates an approach breaking up with reality, “ruffling in the fountains of dreams the waters of images torn away from any problems and continuity, which find themselves on the other side of the poem”. This clearly shows that the significance attributed to the dream, in connection with challenging utilitarian reality, tells us almost everything about the new era of the Romanian avant-garde. It is an altogether different matter, however, that the unexpected turn towards the avatars of surrealism finds no convincing reflection in poetry. A great deal of translations and reviews are being published, for example of Breton’s Nadja, as well as texts by Tzara (in their original French); likewise, the Second Surrealist Manifesto is discussed and partially translated. The new magazine’s fascination with dreams, darkness, mystery and death is fairly superficial, intended to achieve a poetical effect, albeit anchored in surrealist ideas mainly on the strength of the authors’ declarations. The former integralists’ conversion to surrealism, even of such limited and superficial scope, is ideologically motivated. It does not take long for a conflict of interests among the members of the informal group to transpire. While for Voronca surrealism is but a form of radicalisation of poetics, others are attracted only to its revolutionary potential. Voronca’s joining the Romanian Writers’ Society and publishing a volume of poetry in the “official” publishing house, which only released the works of renowned classics, meets with violent protests from authors centred around unu. Another consequence is that Voronca is accused of consorting with the bourgeoisie, associated with the activism of the radical right (the Iron Guard movement). Over the following months, after the “traitor” had been excommunicated and removed from unu, ideological obduracy dominates in the magazine’s profile. Surrealism is harnessed to fight against bourgeois institutions, and in 1932 the periodical ends its mission. This closes the second phase of Romanian avant-garde, which at the same time is the initial stage in the development of surrealism proper.
Surrealism par excellence appears in Romania only in the second half of the 1930s, while in an institutional sense (the forming of a surrealist group) this happens still a few years later. The over decade-long delay in comparison to the French protoplasts is very unusual; suffice to say that in Belgium. a surrealist group (Nougé, Magritte, Lecomte, Mesens) was active as soon as in 1926, while in Serbia surrealist artists (Risticia, Maticia or Daviča) were so well-synchronised with their French counterparts as to emerge already in 1924. The subsequent years saw the appearance of a Japanese surrealist group, led by Shuzo Takigushi, and shortly later a group of Czech surrealists (Nezval, Štyrský, Toyen, Teige) was founded in 1934. Two years later an English group followed suit (Gascoyne, Penrose, Read). In the mid-1930s surrealism developed also in Denmark, Sweden, Greece and Slovakia. Perhaps the only other local surrealism to be as late to emerge as the Romanian one was the Chilean group, dating back to 1941.
Romanian surrealism stands out against this background, not only because it was the youngest, but also owing to its unusual development, in which we can distinguish three stages. The first one (1936–1940) consisted of the release of individual works (the first poetical volumes). The second one saw the founding of a (structurally rather loose) group and its joint publications in 1940–1941. The third stage (1944–1947) is the period of the greatest theoretical activity, of exhibitions of experimental art and publications of manifestos and programme essays, as well as volumes of poetry and prose. It can easily be noticed that the surrealists’ official activity is suspended for a few war years, and all texts written at that time are released only in 1944. What is characteristic, the movement is not centred around its own literary magazine (such as e.g. Nadrealizam danas i ovde in Belgrade, Konkretion in Denmark or London Bulletin). The periodical titled Gradiva never developed beyond the planning stage, which made propagating ideas difficult for the group. An attempt at addressing the problem was to combine individual volumes into collections of poetry, prose or programme texts, such as Colecţia suprarealistă, or Surréalisme and Infra-Noir – the 1947 French-language series. The most prominent Romanian surrealists are at least a dozen years younger, not only than Breton (born in 1896) and his associates, but also than the key figures in Czech and Serbian surrealisms, born at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike them, the members of the Romanian surrealist group – Gherasim Luca (born Salman Locker in 1913), Gellu Naum (born in 1915), as well as Paul Păun (born Paul Zaharia in 1916), D. Trost (born Adolf Trost in 1916) and even slightly older Virgil Teodorescu (born in 1909) – had not experienced Cubism, Dadaism, nor any other “ism” which blended into integralism. Owing to their age they did not participate in the heated debates on surrealism printed in Integral, nor in the period of superficial surrealism of unu. What is more, their debuts from the first half of the 1930s, published in provocative ephemeral periodicals such as Alge (Algae) from Bucharest, or the left-wing Meridian from Craiova, did not introduce Breton’s heirs, but rather, on the contrary, post-futurists.
The considerable temporal distance between the release of the first fully surrealist volume of poetry, Drumeţul incendiar (The Wandering Instigator) by Gellu Naum (1936), and the publication of programme essays (1945), also unusual in comparison to other countries, reveals a certain discrepancy between pre-war and post-war texts and theoretical tenets. The major manifests of Romanian surrealism, Critica mizeriei (The Critique of Penury) and French-language Dialectique de la dialectique (Dialectic of Dialectic) presented both surrealist political-social doctrine and questions of new poetic aesthetics. Critica mizeriei, written by Gellu Naum, Paul Păun and Virgil Teodorescu, is a violent manifesto first of all against “the organised apparatus of oppression,” i.e. public institutions represented by official critics, who according to the authors were hostile to surrealism, and secondly against “modernists”, an offensive term used to denote the avant-garde artists of the 1920s and early 1930s, who misinterpreted the point of a surrealist revolution. The main motto is “incessant effort to liberate human expression in all its forms, which can only take place if man is entirely liberated”, which directly draws on the Second Surrealist Manifesto. Romanian surrealists are particularly interested in the problem of surreality, understood à la Breton as “a certain point in the mind from which life and death, reality and dream, the past and the future, the possible and the impossible to convey, up and down, cease to be perceived as opposites”. The exploration of surreality is to be facilitated by the principle of objective accident, the omnipotence of the dream and the primacy of free association.
Dialectique de la dialectique by Gherasim Luca and D. Trost complements the above text. Surreality is defined as “a surrealist landscape, the space between the dream and the fourth dimension”. The main task seems to be “full confrontation of daily existence with the night through negation of their artificial division; the first steps to this confrontation are insomnia, automatism and a few other exceptional states.” Echoes of Salvador Dalí’s “paranoiac-critical method” as well as of Freud’s theory (the triumph of “the pleasure principle” over all limitations and oppressions) can be heard here. Both programme texts have a rebellious tone to them, testifying to the authors’ complete acceptance of Breton’s theory and adding to it an avid critique of the hitherto developed heritage of the Romanian avant-garde.
However, perhaps the most interesting theoretical text is the collection titled Teribilul interzis (Terribleness Prohibited) by Gellu Naum, published in 1945. The book is a set of texts devoted to surrealism. Naum’s writings reveal his highly interesting and ambiguous personality, presenting an original vision of creation. One of the crucial problems for Naum is the opposition between poetry and literature, as well as between poetry and poetry. Literature is understood as an unchanging cultural institution, a codified system of propositions and expectations with a whole baggage of conventions. One of its manifestations is the poetry created so far – a fossilised form bound by a derivative set of metaphors. This poetry is contrasted with surrealist poetry – unshaped, fluid, feeding on dream visions, constituting an ideal form of manifesting the freedom of the imagination: “What we are to destroy is poetry. What we are to preserve is poetry. As it can easily be ascertained, poetry is two completely different things.” Also the motif of liberating expression appears here: “Too often have we forgotten our great ability to think freely to enjoy freedom.” One of the key tasks of surrealist poetry is, then, to tear man away from the context of the everyday. Gellu Naum stresses repeatedly that poetry “precedes action” where objects only begin to come into being.
Accordingly, Naum’s poetry, the apex of Romanian surrealism, from the very beginning assumes the form of a river of associations and metaphors, subjected to the working of unbound imagination. The poetical language is original, it is characterised by freshness and inventiveness, and brilliantly exemplifies the power of free association. Naum’s first volumes already show promise and a poet of a rich imagination and a clear style devoid of cheap oneirism and pushy symbolism. At the centre of his works is the question of liberating an object, depriving it of its original intention, revealing its true nature, as well as defining man’s place in a world ruled by objects. In the emblematic poem Acum perdelele sunt bărbile pieptănate (Now the Curtains are Brushed Beards) it turns out that “every voice is a list of subscribers / every leg is a Roman senator”. Human beings are surrounded by anthropomorphised objects, becoming as if their hostages, and themselves take part in a game of transformation (“women have 14 legs and 120 breasts”). Naum also devotes his successive volumes to this subject matter: Libertatea de a dormi pe frunte (The Freedom of Sleeping on the Forehead, 1937), Vasco da Gama (1940) or Culoarul somnului (The Corridor of a Dream, 1944).
Gherasim Luca, greatly admired by Gilles Deleuze, wrote mainly poetical prose. His volumes Un lup văzut printr-o lupă (A Wolf Seen through a Magnifying Glass, 1945), Inventatorul iubirii (Inventor of Love, 1945) and Le vampire passif (published in French; A Passive Vampire, 1945) reveal the author’s interest in the problem of the surrealist object. Luca, like Naum, developed Lautréamont’s and Max Ernst’s theories describing accidental meetings of objects, and concentrated on creating unusual images at whose centre are objects isolated from their original context. Furthermore, in his prose Luca experiments with black humour, which brings it closer to literature of the absurd, as for example, in the following passage: “Objects charmingly unclear, buttons, veins, moustaches, a guitar, a thunder, a piano thrown out through a window, a hat from which a very beautiful woman is eating pasta, a few fingers, a sofa upon which a bed is rotting, a curtain under the moon, a bitten peach, a spider next to a fork – I am listening to the passionate howl of atoms.” Luca’s prose is filled with a range of objects which demand new identity: “Dishevelled objects, carnivorous, bloody, magical objects which surround me reveal their secrets one by one.” As in Naum’s works, Luca’s objects come to life and determine human fate: “I hide behind the door so that the table does not see me, I hide under the table so that a pocketknife does not find me.” In Le vampire passif Luca develops an intriguing concept of the Object Objectively Offered (l’Objet Objectivement Offert; Obiect Oferit Obiectiv, O.O.O.), which in essence is a variation of the surrealist object and is to contradict “useful” presents, typical for “the bourgeoisie”. The narrator carries out an “object-analysis” of a dozen or so strange objects, called philosophical stones. Subject to the objects’ power, he creates for his friends oneiric collage-installations revealing desires and being the carriers of surreality.
In the works by Romanian surrealists we can easily find echoes of Breton’s manifestos, which should come as no surprise: both Luca and Naum studied in Paris, and returned to Romania in the second half of the 1930s, fascinated with the achievements of liberated imagination. More importantly, they did not stop at adapting worn-out theories but proposed their own original poetics which indisputably influenced the development of Romanian literature. The question of whether surrealist ideas still have their raison d’être must remain unanswered. Although it seems that in the first decades of the 21st century we are witnessing a Nietzschean eternal recurrence, in this case of things strange and disturbing, what still seems crucial is the question of the very status of surrealism. Romania surrealism was a counterpoint not only to all traditions and conventions, but also to earlier avant-garde movements. Has surrealism marked the identity of the Romanians to the same degree it has done in the case of the French, the Serbs or the Czechs?
Translated from the Polish by Ewa Kowal
 Ilarie Voronca, “Coliva lui Moș Vinea,” unu, no 29, September 1930, qtd. in: Paul Cernat, Avangarda românească și complexul periferiei, București 2007, p. 243. All translations by J.K.
 Gellu Naum, Paul Păun, Virgil Teodorescu, Critica mizeriei (1945), qtd. in: Ion Pop, Avangarda în literatura română, București 1990, p. 295.
 Gherasim Luca, D. Trost, Dialectique de la dialectique (1945), qtd. in: Literatura românească de avangardă, ed. G. Duda, București 1997, pp. 91–95.
 G. Naum, Teribilul interzis (1945), qtd. in: Literatura românească, op. cit., pp. 96–101.
 Idem, “Acum perdelele sunt bărbile pieptănate” (1936), qtd. in: Literatura romnească, op. cit., pp. 199–200.
 G. Luca, “Te iubesc” (1945), qtd. in: Literatura românească, op. cit., pp. 181–184.
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