The Surrealist Island
“Tenerife is the Surrealist island”
If we ask anyone about Surrealism in Spain, they will most likely tell us about Lorca, Dalí or Buñuel, but they will not know anything about the fact that during the 1930s, in the northwestern part of the African continent, one of the most active and passionate Surrealist groups was born: the one that would end up being called the “Surrealist Faction of Tenerife.” Moreover, this group is not mentioned in any of the textbooks or poetic anthologies that address the 1930s, and when it is mentioned, it is done very briefly. The truth is that official culture has relegated this group to an undeserved silence, a silence that continues to this day and that Domingo Pérez Minik himself – one of its members – described as early as 1975 as “A Spanish injustice, one of the many”.
To understand the origin of this group, it would be necessary to go back to 1932, the year in which the first issue of the Gaceta de Arte magazine was published, directed by Eduardo Westerdahl and whose initial editorial team included Pedro García Cabrera, Domingo Pérez Minik, Domingo López Torres, Agustín Espinosa, Óscar Pestana Ramos, Francisco Aguilar and José Arozena. The painter and poet Juan Ismael would also join them. This publication always included, to a greater or lesser extent, articles and references to the Surrealist movement; in 1935, for example, its numbers 33 and 35 were totally dedicated to Surrealism but it must be said that it maintained its independence at all times and never rejected its connection with many of the artistic and architectural avant-gardes that had sprung up throughout Europe.
The origin of what would later be called the “Surrealist faction of Tenerife” would therefore have to be located around the activity of that magazine. In 1931 the magazine El Socialista already mentioned that in Tenerife there was a “revolutionary Surrealist group” and in 1932 they started establishing their first contacts with the Parisian Surrealist movement. In 1933 an exhibition by Oscar Domínguez was organized in Tenerife, which caused quite a controversy and the first translations into Spanish of texts by the Parisian Surrealist group began to be published. But not all the contributors to Gaceta del Arte approached Surrealism at the same time, nor did they do so with the same intensity. Of all the editors of Gaceta del Arte, one could initially speak of a Surrealist subgroup, made up of those most interested in Surrealism, namely: Agustín Espinosa, Emeterio Gutiérrez Albelo, Pedro García Cabrera and especially Domingo López Torres. Although we should add the work of the painter Oscar Domínguez, who was the link with the Surrealist group in Paris.
Both these and the others were united not only by aesthetic issues but by the ideas of freedom and emancipation that Surrealism brought, with Domingo López Torres undoubtedly being its greatest defender, both at a theoretical and practical level. Although the majority were affiliated with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, it was a group that included very diverse political sensibilities, from republican and socialist positions, to certain sympathies with Stalinism – let us remember that until 1935 Surrealism had not completely broken with the Moscow postulates – even some samples of libertarian positions. In any case, all more or less sympathized with the aesthetics and ideas advocated by Surrealism. Unlike the approach to Surrealism of the peninsular poets of the 20s and 30s, reduced to the personal and merely aesthetic sphere -as was the case of Federico García Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda or the Creationism of Gerardo Diego and Juan Larrea- the “Surrealist Faction of Tenerife” adhered to Surrealism as, in the words of Domingo Pérez Minik himself, a “collective attitude”, a “community movement” and, above all, a political project to transform society. Domingo Pérez Minik came to refer to them as a “working group”.
On the other hand, this group is usually considered to be a satellite that did not find peninsular affinities or resonances, which is false. Although it is true, as Domingo Perez Minik himself would recognize, that they did not show interest in the majority of poetry magazines that were published in the peninsula during the 1920s, this group established strong ties with some contemporary movements and individuals. Proof of this is the affinity with the authors of the Catalan anti-art Manifesto, also known as the Manifest Groc, published in Barcelona in 1928 and signed by Salvador Dalí, Sebastià Gasch and Lluís Montanyà; its close collaboration with authors such as Guillermo de Torre; its relationship with associations such as G.A.T.E.P.A.C. (Group of Spanish Artists and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture) or the association ADLAN, acronym for Amics De L’Art Nou (Friends of New Art) with which Gaceta de Arte collaborated in the organization of the «Art Exhibition Contemporary ”at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, in June 1936. To which we could add the close collaboration of the painters Oscar Domínguez or Juan Ismael with this association. In addition, it must be taken into account that several members of the Surrealist faction maintained a strong relationship with some authors of the Generation of 27, as was the case of Agustín Espinosa. What’s more, officially several of its members are even recognized as part of the Generation of 27.
But of all the cultural activities carried out by the group there is one that stands out enormously: the organization in 1935 in Tenerife of the Second Surrealist Exhibition, an international exhibition that brought together works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Yves at the Ateneo de Santa Cruz Tanguy, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte and Óscar Domínguez, who, by the way, was not in Tenerife at that time but would attend the following year, in 1936. In economic terms the exhibition was an absolute failure but not so in human and emotional terms because André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Benjamin Péret attended the event invited by Gaceta del Arte’s own editorial team. During their stay on the island, a program of conferences was developed, among which stood out the one given by Benjamin Péret at the Socialist Group on religion and Surrealism and the one by André Breton at the Circle of Friendship XIV of April at Puerto de la Cruz, in which Agustín Espinosa and Pedro García Cabrera also participated. A Surrealist manifesto signed by André Breton, Benjamin Péret and most of the members of Gaceta del Arte was published and published in the 2 Bulletin International du Surréalisme. This manifesto, as Fernando Castro affirms, “constitutes one of the most important political manifestos of Surrealism” since it unambiguously attacked, not only fascism and the traditional values of the hegemonic culture of Spain of those years, but also socialist realism, propaganda art and, in general, the practical function of art, highlighting, for example, Rafael Alberti’s “ignorance”. There was also another collective text published in number 35 of Gaceta del Arte entitled “Criterion of the Art Gazette on Surrealism”, the French version of which appeared in the magazine Cahiers d´Art under the title “Déclaration” and was signed by almost all the members of the editorial staff of Gaceta del Arte, except for some. In this other text they referred to its “anti-capitalist” character and “its will to destroy bourgeois society.” On the other hand, that island landscape made strong impressions on André Breton, for example, on his ascent to Teide, as evidenced by his famous text “Le château étoilé”.
It should not be forgotten that all these activities took place in a context of great political and social tension. For example, the same year that the Second Surrealist Exhibition was organized, the Civil Governor prohibited the screening of the film La Edad de Oro by Luis Buñuel, a film that the conservative press called pornographic, immoral and anti-clerical. Unfortunately, Franco’s coup in 1936 and the brutal repression that followed ended the group’s activities; on the one hand, conversions to Falangism occurred, and on the other, imprisonments, reprisals, exiles, and even one of the members of the Surrealist faction in Tenerife was assassinated. This was the case of Domingo López Torres, murdered by the rebels, who put him in a sack and threw him into the sea, near the port of Santa Cruz; Eduardo Westerdahl’s work permit was withdrawn, requiring him to leave the country, but he decided to remain on the island; Oscar Domínguez was surprised by the Francoist coup on the island and he had to hide in the house of one of his sisters to avoid being arrested, before he could escape to France; Óscar Pestana Ramos also opted for exile in Brazil; Agustín Espinosa, author of Crimen -one of the most unclassifiable books in Spanish literature and which is considered an absolutely Surrealist work- was dismissed from his position as Chair at the Institute of Las Palmas, despite his immediate conversion to Falangism, although in 1938 he was reinstated to the Institute of Santa Cruz de La Palma; Pedro García Cabrera, who had been a councilman for the Santa Cruz de Tenerife City Council in 1931, was arrested and deported to a concentration camp in Villa Cisneros, from which he managed to escape in 1937 to return shortly after and join the Republican front in Andalusia. He would be arrested again and would remain in prison until he was released on bail in 1946; Domingo Pérez Minik, a declared Republican and member of the Socialist Party, was imprisoned but was released from prison on December 4, 1936 thanks to the mediation of a colleague from the Gaceta de Arte, Francisco Aguilar. After regaining his freedom, his economic and family situation prevented him from leaving the country and the authorities forced him to maintain a mandatory silence; Juan Ismael – perhaps sensing the horror that was coming – joined the Spanish Falange days before the coup and during the civil war he would end up working within the war propaganda apparatus in various publications of the Falange, such as the Vanguard Artistic Service , and in the following years he lived in different Spanish locations until in 1944 he was accused of being a Mason and a Communist for which he was sentenced to two years in prison, although this sentence was commuted to exile to the Canary Islands; Francisco Aguilar, a former socialist, joined the Falange and would later be appointed Provincial Delegate of Press and Propaganda, and Emeterio Gutiérrez Albelo joined, like others such as Francisco Aguilar and Agustín Espinosa, the Spanish Falange but was temporarily removed from the teaching profession and was not able to rejoin the faculty until later.
For those who want to investigate this interesting group, I recommend the exhibition catalogs El surrealismo entre viejo y nuevo mundo published in 1989 by the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno and the Cabildo Insular de Gran Canaria and Gaceta de Arte y su época. 1932-1936, by Emmanuel Guigon, published in 1997; the book Los surrealistas en Tenerife by Pilar Carreño Corbella published in 2015, or many of the articles and studies by a great connoisseur of Surrealism such as Miguel P. Corrales, specifically “Documentary History of Surrealism in the Canary Islands (1930-1936)”, published in 1982 in volume I of the book Homenaje a Alfonso Trujillo, edited by the Aula de Cultura del Cabildo Insular de Tenerife, or his book Entre islas anda el juego (nueva literatura y surrealismo en Canarias, 1927-1936) published by the Museum from Teruel in 1999. And of course, the prologue and the poetic anthology Facción española surrealista de Tenerife, by Domingo Pérez Minik himself.
Vicente Gutierrez Escudero
Traducción al ingles de Alicia Barrón