Claude Tarnaud and the Chicago Surrealist Group
The Chicago Surrealist Group was formed in June 1966, shortly after my wife Penelope and I returned from our several months’ stay in Paris. André Breton had welcomed us into the Surrealist Group, and from January through April we frequently attended its daily meetings at the Café La Promenade de Venus. At these meetings, our plan to start a group in Chicago was a recurring topic, and our French friends, in our discussions with them, and later in the letters they sent us, were very enthusiastic about it.
Thus the Chicago Surrealist group was formed with the warm support of André Breton, the entire Surrealist Group in Paris, and other surrealists from all over, from Argentina and Belgium to The Netherlands. As Gerard Legrand wrote in a letter on behalf of the Paris group: " We rejoice in your agreement with us and assure you of our passionate support of your venture. The perspectives it offers, as much for yourselves as on the international scale, are the most attractive that we have seen for surrealism in along time."
All this is well-documented in correspondence of the time, and in such basic surrealist reference-works as Biro and Passeron’s Dictionnaire Géneral du Surréalisme (1982); Guy Ducornet’s Ça Va Chauffer! Situation du Surréalisme aux U.S.A. 1966-2001 (2001); Alain Joubert’s Le Mouvement des Surréalistes (2003), Ron Sakolsky’s Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States (2002), and others.
Less well known, however, is the fact that three years earlierin the Spring of ‘63a French surrealist, who happened to live in New York at the time, did much to help the young Chicagoans get off to a good start. Claude Tarnaud was his name, and his impact on the group-to-be was as wide-ranging as it has proved to be long-lasting.
In short, he was Chicago Surrealism’s first close friend in the international surrealist movement.
Many will ask: Who was Claude Tarnaud? Biographical sketches of him that have appeared from time to time are just that: mere sketches. He was born in 1922 in Maisons-Laffitte. Early on he liked to describe himself as a scorpion who had metamorphosed into a man. A wayward youth who enjoyed poetry and hitch-hiking, he was attracted to surrealism in his teens. In 1945 he co-edited with Yves Bonnefoy a short-lived surrealist-oriented periodical, La Révolution La Nuit (Revolution by Night). When André Breton returned to Paris after his long wartime exile, Tarnaud was among the very first to rally to his side.
Although he has been shamefully ignored by the great majority of U.S. critics and academicians who pass themselves off as "authorities" on surrealism, Tarnaud from the start was highly regarded in international surrealist circles as one of the movement’s major post-World-War-II poets, writers and theorists. He played a significant role in organizing two large international surrealist exhibitions: the "Surrealism in 1947" exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, and the "Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain" show at the D’Arcy Gallery in New York, 1960-61. He also contributed significantly to the catalogs of these exhibitions.
Author of half a dozen outstanding books and numerous articles, he was also an energetic editor and/or collaborator on several surrealist and surrealist-oriented periodicals, including Neon, Phases, Edda, La Brèche, and several others. His tributes to surrealist artistsWifredo Lam, E. F. Granell, Pierre Demarne and othersare among the best "writing on art" of those years.
Claude Tarnaud was by no means easy to "sum up." Employed by the United Nations as a translator, his real life was chaotic and full of excitement. Sailor and diver, hipster and jazz enthusiast, brilliant conversationalist and storyteller, he was a man of incredibly diverse interests. Even a short list of his passional attractions would easily fill several pages. A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool; James Joyce’s Ulysses; Charles R. Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano were just a few of his favorite English-language books. He also liked Kerouac’s On the Road and kept up with the works of such African-American authors as Richard Wright and James Baldwin. He greatly admired The Books of Charles Fort, and cherished a large scholarly study of the role of mushrooms in history. Although he was not a big theater-goer, he enjoyed Jack Gelber’s The Connection, probably the best "Beat Generation" play..
Long before the term "outsider art" was coined, Tarnaud was one of its most ardent adepts. Among his favorite figures of the twentieth century was Sam (or Simon) Rodia, the Italian anarchist immigrant who, over a period of thirty years, built the wonderful Towers in Watts, California. Another hero passionately admired by Tarnaud was the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.
Within the surrealist movement, Tarnaud was especially admired for his astonishing poems: the Alphabet Spationnel, for example, in which each letter resonates with illuminating analogies. Among my own favorite poems of his are the jazz suite, "Mary Jane’s Tea" (the play on the word marijuana is not accidental), in which the poems are dedicated in turn to jazz giants Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach.
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In the pages on Tarnaud in my book Wrong Numbers (2003), I recorded some of the personal impressions that I recalled from that memorable week-long visit in New York in May 1963. The notes that follow here are an attempt to summarize his initial and ongoing impact on the youthful gang that evolved into the Chicago Surrealist Group.
Above all, Claude Tarnaud exemplified for us the militant surrealist in the best sense of the words. His impassioned revolutionary spirit was not only splendidly free of sectarianism and dogma, but also happily bursting with humor and imagination. He respected all that was best in the works of Marx, and despised what he called Stalinist and sectarian hacks. Pure, uncompromising revolt was one of his watchwords, and he readily acknowledged that he was strongly inclined toward anarchism. He also urged us to read the great utopians, especially Charles Fourier. He was very much in favor of an entirely new politics: "a new defiancehatred of all that is flabby, tepid, and accommodating."
He was severely critical of "white, middle-class American culture," capitalist values in general, and suburban complacency in particular. He disdained the ingrown narrowness and self-congratulatory character of New York’s racist commercial art and pseudo-intellectual scene, and avoided its cliques and parties.
Deeply impressed by the expanding Black radical movement, he admired Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams. He and his wife Gibbsy, a painter, regularly frequented the Black clubs that featured bebop and post-bop jazz. He was delighted to learn that wethe nascent Chicago Surrealist Groupwere all active in the civil rights movement, and included many people of color among our friends.
Significantly, his last and posthumously published book De (Paris, 2003)) focused on race and race problems in the U.S. Tarnaud described it as "the hidden face of an Afro-American adventure." It was originally titled The End of the World, but when he found that title had already been used, he simply retitled it Dethe last two letters of monde, the French word for world. An impassioned, apocalyptic tirade against white supremacy and its manifold injustices and idiocies, it is also a celebration of the emerging Black revolutionin jazz, literature, art and politics.
At the same time, De is a vehement critique of the hypertechnological misery and "development" (i.e., devastation) that André Breton had denounced in his 1956 declaration, "Away with Miserabilism!" Chicago Surrealism has long been recognized for its emphasis on anti-misrabilism, and Tarnaud surely deserves part of the credit.