Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas

I have done book reviewing for Rain Taxi for over ten years. I have decided to repost some of my older reviews here. I am fortunate in that Rain Taxi gives me books that I request or in areas that I request, so these are all books that I have really liked. I hope you will check some out after reading these.

Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas
Margaret Hooks

Princeton Architectural Press


As a long time devotee and student of Surrealism, it came as something of a shock to be handed a book on an artist and patron central to the careers of several prominent surrealists that I had never heard of before, Edward James. How was it possible that I had never read his name in any other biography or group history of Surrealism, had seen him in no exhibitions, no bibliographies I had ever encountered? What kind of Surrealist “pedigree” could this person possibly have?

A writer and artist, James’ first novel, The Gardener Who Saw God, received critical acclaim and even went into multiple publications. Despite consistently solid reviews for his work, one negative review, accusing him of attempting to “also buy himself a reputation as a poet” caused James to become discouraged and cease publishing under his own name. “I could have had anything I wanted,” James laments, but because I was rich, no one accepted me or thought of me as a poet.” (36) James focused his energies for a time on other artists. Behind the scenes, he was one among many key players in the production and distribution of Surrealism, underwriting the Surrealist journal Minotaur as well as the Surrealist Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He supported Salvador Dali financially and by helping materially to coordinate exhibitions for Dali as well as for Rene Magritte (whose Le Reproduction Interdite is said to be one of two portraits that Magritte did of James, showing him from the back). Despite James’ involvement with many prominent Surrealists throughout his life, Hooks points out that James never claimed the label for himself, understandably so, given the legendary infighting over the purity of the name Surrealism, held tightly by Andre Breton, and his tendency to “excommunicate” artists, along with James’ own sense of exclusion from the literary world.

From his break with Dali, Hooks takes us briefly through what might be described literally and figuratively as James’ years “in the desert.” He travels through the American southwest, through Taos, New Mexico and Mabel Dodge’s artistic community therein, and ultimately landing in California, where he continued to circulate among artists and intellectuals including Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, who introduced James to the Vedantic movement, of which he became a follower. In this time, James also began to travel back and forth to Mexico, and it was during these travels that he found what would become not only his home, but the site of his greatest artistic creation of all, his legacy of a surrealist environment and estate, among the hills, waterfalls, and lush vegetation outside of the small town of Xilitla. From here, the book diverges from the standard artist biography to give us the blow-by-blow history of the creation of Las Pozas.

If Surrealism represents a way of looking at, thinking about, and moving through the world, Las Pozas, James’ Surreal Eden, is a surrealistic world in itself to be lived in. Hooks articulates in detail James’ vision as well as his challenges and triumphs in realizing his works of art. He finds a kindred spirit and lifelong friend in Plutarco Gastelem Esquer, a man who is able to translate James’ ideas and sometimes seemingly impractical sketches into actual objects. James employs many of the people of Xilitla in the building of Las Pozas, not only providing patronage to artists this time, but bringing an economic infusion to the entire town. It is in the project of Las Pozas itself, as well as his friendship with Plutarco, that James finds the society and artistic acceptance the eluded James in his younger days.

If there is one shortcoming to the book, it is possibly not even a problem of the text at all, but with the difficulty in capturing visual and visceral artistic experiences that are so central to this story. Hooks provides photos of and also describes in detail many elaborate and fascinating pieces created by James throughout his life, many of which would be considered installations or even performance art pieces today, from Monkton House in England, with its purple fa├žade and self-designed wallpaper and carpeting to the structures, sculptures, and edifices of Las Pozas. It’s a daunting, if not impossible task, to fully appreciate these pieces without being able to experience them. And perhaps this daunting task also explains, in part, James’ low visibility in the narratives of contemporary art history.

The book’s extensive photographs helps a great deal in this regard, but cannot fully ameliorate the situation. The photos include detailed photos and close ups of many of the pieces from Las Pozas, which hint at the scope of the project. This scope includes not only the size of the pieces and structures themselves, such as the Bamboo Palace the Stairway to the Sky, which completely dwarfs the cabin it stands behind, but also includes the space occupied by Las Pozas itself. Hooks does provide a map that shows the layout and area of Las Pozas, but it is difficult to appreciate on a visual level without being able to see the pieces in relationship to each other or to the larger landscape. Likewise, the book opens with a description of the current city of Xilitla, but we see only one photo of the town, taken in 1940, just before James’ arrival. I found it difficult to not only hold in my mind the building of these amazing works of art, but also to visualize the context in which is was built and now stands, a context and often contrast, which Hooks tries very hard to describe for us.

That said, Surreal Eden does what many good art biographies and histories do: remind us of what gets forgotten and left out of “official” canons. Hers is not the first biography of James, but adds to a body of work that includes two previous biographies as well as James’ own writings. Through these, and through the potential to renew interest in Las Pozas, which still stands today outside of Xilitla, James has the chance he always desired to be taken seriously as an artist in his own right.

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