Surrealist “Counter-Revolution”: S.NOB and the Mexican Revolution of 1962

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By David AJ Murrieta Flores

In 1956, “México en la cultura”, a supplement of Mexico City-based newspaper Novedades, ran a story by 22-year-old artist José Luis Cuevas titled “La cortina de nopal” (“The Cactus Curtain”). In this article, Cuevas protested against the Mexican art-world’s reproduction of the nationalist discourse institutionalized after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which had become hegemonic in the cultural field since the 1920s.[1] Intimately linked with the post-Revolutionary state, the art-world’s cacti wall was constituted by a restrictive view of Mexican modern art that reduced it to the tropes of political and aesthetic commitments no longer relevant in the context of the Cold War. The story was a rallying point for young Mexican artists: another art was possible, one that need not follow the strictures of the state, which softly dictated that art in Mexico should continue the nationalist aesthetics and politics of post-Revolutionary regimes.[2]

Through their often-uneasy alliances with the muralist avant-garde, these regimes had articulated a potent discursive image of Mexico based primarily on the construction of a historical identity derived from the Revolution. As such, the multifaceted character of the revolutionary process that had initiated in 1910 was synthesized into a singular historical event, the Revolution. Generally speaking, its elements were thematically built through representational images of the Mexican people’s struggle for freedom (usually rural peasants collectively organized as the nation), the historical roots of their oppression (colonialism, imperialism), and the gains of modernity achieved by the Revolution (industrialization, social justice, as well as class and historical consciousness).  The term “revolution” thus became deeply tied with these specific ideals and representations, rendering all other forms into illegitimate variations.[3] This construct became the vehicle of a narrative of progress which, by the 1950s and 1960s, promised a “stabilizing development” for the country. This political economic program was challenged in cultural terms not only by an art circuit increasingly detached from state institutions but also by the growth of a distinct counter-culture that adopted emerging culture industries and imports from the United States.[4]

In 1962, a group of international young artists and writers that included figures such as Salvador Elizondo, Leonora Carrington, Kati Horna, Roland Topor, as well as rare contributions by others like Cuevas or Edward James, challenged the Revolution through the publication of a magazine entitled S.NOB. While it did not have any lasting impact on the art-world and had a mere seven-number run of low circulation[5], it was one of the most radical avant-garde attempts to destabilize the discursive elements of the Revolution in the period. Under Elizondo’s direction, S.NOB became a Surrealist articulation of revolutionary impulses that used the Revolution’s binary oppositions against themselves, revealing them as repressions of an authoritarian psyche and its totalizing, even totalitarian drives.

S.NOB’s strain of Surrealism was heavily informed by Elizondo’s reading of French writer Georges Bataille[6]. As I have explored elsewhere, S.NOB’s Surrealism can be defined by its celebrations of violence, its Bataillean understanding of eroticism and sexuality as a psychoanalytic, limit-defying expression of the death drive, and a “base materialist” approach to the question of revolution[7]. It eluded the imaginary first advanced by André Breton, in which Mexico, as a land of dream and convulsive beauty, was tied to a revolutionary artistic spirit. It also avoided Wolfgang Paalen’s forays into ethnographic affirmations of non-Eurocentric knowledge systems and aesthetics derived from the country’s indigenous histories. S.NOB was, instead, a counter-cultural expression of urban Mexico, which, inspired by Hollywood films, jazz music, psychedelics, Gothic invitations to murder, defences of incest, modernist aesthetics, irrationalism and collage fragmentation, sought to disrupt the Revolutionary order at a discursive level.

Operating as a private venture beyond state funding and editing, S.NOB never actually addressed the Revolution directly, but its production and avant-garde, Surrealist line, in a context of highly coded and regulated artistic practices, allow for a political interpretation of its stance towards Mexican society. Its political interventions are subtle, although the “indecency” of its themes and the association of its members with cultural projects that consistently rejected Revolutionary nationalism unveil the possibility of understanding its discourse as a positioning against the myth that the Revolution had become. The magazine and its members thus tended to pull together, collage-like, pieces of ideological images of whatever the Revolution stood against, but by channelling them through a Bataillean lens and a heavy dose of irony, S.NOB ultimately used them to question what it meant to be revolutionary. In this sense, its assault was counter-revolutionary; a cultural operation against the Revolution’s institutionalized, clean, pure definitions of social justice, progress, and the connection between art and society.

In the first number of the magazine, an article by Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis, written under the pseudonym of Alvar do Mattos, fictionalized the memory of an encounter with French author Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, whose ties to French fascism were already well-known. Do Mattos and the partner that supposedly introduced him to La Rochelle are positioned as a voice of caution, acknowledging the horrors of fascism. It is significant that Mutis gave voice primarily to La Rochelle’s opinions on how no revolutions on the left and the right have done true justice to the term, and how they have been ideologically compromised by one another. An Elizondo article in the third number of the magazine, “Akbar del Piombo y el Culto a los Héroes”, mirrored this position by suggesting the modern state is a heroic death cult, the institution of a totality with fascistic characteristics, whether left or right. In 1966 Elizondo, in an interview with writer Elena Poniatowska, stated matter-of-factly that he was uninterested in the country’s problems, only to continue saying that he believed in aristocracy, that the Hapsburg Empire should have continued governing Mexico, and that he stood with dictator Porfirio Díaz because he did “many things”, referring only that he introduced “good manners in the tables of Mexican families.”[8] The irony would not be lost to the readers of a magazine like S.NOB, originally modelled after Playboy[9], full of violent images, and darkly erotic Surrealist photographs by Kati Horna, a staunch communist and exile of the Spanish Civil War. The combination of pieces like Mutis’ with stances like Elizondo’s and works such as Horna’s provided a platform for challenging the clean-cut image of the Revolution: there are no pure causes, and the Revolution was closer to its opposite than its proponents wanted to admit.

S.NOB’s conception of the struggle for freedom was based on unleashing extreme affects both individually and collectively, organizing not as a nation of homogenous identities but as radically distinct, interconnected subjectivities. Instead of a history of past oppressions, it offered a present of dull repressions as the reason for social malaise, and it pointed towards Revolutionary modernization as their primary enforcer, hindering social justice and thwarting true consciousness. Yet it did not really look for solutions in past regimes, instead it nihilistically affirmed that the way out was the complete dissolution of the current order. Against the unity of Revolutionary discourse, it offered a counter-Revolutionary fragmentation, an avant-garde collage through which to think what it meant to be revolutionary. Through Surrealism and Bataillean ideas, S.NOB framed art as the vehicle for a revolution without protagonists, without programs, and without representation; an individualist and collectivist movement surging from erotic, instead of rationalized, social relationships. Before a closed, unidirectional definition of Revolution, Elizondo proclaimed: “we wanted to be snob anarchists”[10], offering instead the chaotic multiplicity of a Surrealist Counter-Revolution.


Author bio:

David AJ Murrieta Flores is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). His main interest is the intersection of art and politics in the artistic production of avant-garde collectives in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Image details: n/a, S.NOB #3 Cover, 1962. Ink on paper. Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas (UNAM), Mexico City, Mexico.

Further readings: 

Dawn Ades, Simon Baker (eds.), Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).

Claudia Albarrán, “La revista S.NOB: Laboratorio experimental de una generación”, Revuelta, 4 (2005).

Begoña Alberdi Soto, “Desviar la tradición: El arte de apropiación de la revista mexicana S.NOB”, Revista de Humanidades, 37 (2018).

Jonathan Eburne, “Dante, Bruno, Vico, S.Nob: The Wake in Mexico”, James Joyce Quarterly, (52), 2 (2015).

Salvador Elizondo, Teoría del infierno (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2013).

Anuar Jalife, “Salvador Elizondo, editor snob”, Cámara nocturna: Ensayos sobre Salvador Elizondo, ed. Daniel Orizaga Doguim (Mexico: Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2011).

Endnotes:

[1]    This process begun with the alliance between the state’s cultural apparatus and the various avant-gardes that had emerged from the Revolution. Its foundational moment was the project envisioned by Revolutionary intellectual José Vasconcelos for  the new Ministry of Education in 1921-1922, involving figures like Diego Rivera and Roberto Montenegro, as well as the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National High School) in 1923-24, involving artists such as José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Charlot, Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fermín Revueltas, and Fernando Leal. Ever since, the post-Revolutionary governments consistently commissioned Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, who became internationally prominent, for public projects that would become emblems of Mexican culture both within and abroad. Despite the tensions between artists and governments, the aesthetics of their murals were the basis of the nationalism that the state divulged throughout the country. Indigenismo was one of its discursive nodes, as well as the struggle of peasants for liberation from tyranny and imperialism, finding in Revolution a pathway to social justice and modernity. These images have been so powerfully deployed that still today they represent an idea of what Mexican culture at large is and stands for. For further readings, see Carlos Monsiváis, “Notas sobre la cultura mexicana en el siglo XX”, Historia General de México (Mexico: Colegio de México, 2000); Ricardo Pérez Montfort, Avatares del nacionalismo cultural: Cinco ensayos (Mexico: CIESAS/CIDHEM, 2000); Mary K. Coffey, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture(Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2012).

[2]    At the time there was no systematic censorship of artistic difference – however, because of the state’s capture of the cultural field, artists like Cuevas faced a lack of opportunities to develop their practice, lack of funding, general rejection from institutionalized spaces, and a lack of recognition for their work.

[3]    It is significant, for example, that organizations like the Mexican Communist Party (1919-1981) attempted to explicitly abandon these ideals as late as 1960, being relatively unsuccessful at it until the 1970s. Joel Ortega Juárez, “El Partido Comunista Mexicano. Un legado contradictorio”, Este País (2020). https://estepais.com/home-slider/el-pcm-un-legado-contradictorio/ (accessed 15.10.2021)

[4]    For the former, see Rita Eder (ed.), “Introducción general”, in Desafío a la estabilidad. Procesos artísticos en México, 1952-1967 (Mexico City: Turner, 2014), 24-47. For the latter, see Eric Zolov, Refried Elvis: the Rise of the Mexican Counterculture (Berkeley: University of California, 1999). As suggested by Zolov’s study, the Revolution as unified discursive construct came even to transpose the idea of the “Revolutionary Family” – the coalition of the heterogeneous currents of the revolutionary process – into the private lives of Mexicans as the basic element of social unity.

[5]    See Elva Peniche Montfort, “El cuerpo en la revista S.nob”, in Rita Eder (ed.), Desafío, 232.

[6]    Georges Bataille (1897-1962) was a French writer who had close connections to the Surrealist avant-garde during the 1920s and 1930s. His work tends to deal with questions of eroticism, death, violence, and trasngression, both in fictional and non-fictional form. It is work that often points towards the limits of systems of thought.

[7]    See David AJ Murrieta Flores, “Bataillean Surrealism in Mexico: S.NOB Magazine (1962)”, Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, 11, 2 (2020), 121-122; 129.

[8]    Elena Poniatowska, interview with Salvador Elizondo, Novedades (1966). Republished in La Jornada (2006), https://www.jornada.com.mx/2006/04/07/index.php?section=opinion&article=a06a1cul. (accessed 15.10.2021)

[9]    Elizabeth Anahí Cervantes González, Índice y estudio preliminar de la revista S.Nob. (BA Thesis, UNAM, Mexico, 2010), 46.

[10]  Cervantes González, Índice, 40.

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