Sunday, December 19, 2010

Surrealist Postcard Set: Paris 1937

In January, 1938 the last of the "International Surrealist Exhibitions" took place in Paris at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts on the left bank. The exhibition, marking the end of the first generation of surrealism in Paris, included more than 60 international artists: Salvador Dali, Marcel Jean, Oscar Dominquez, Man Ray, Andre Masson, Wolfgang Paalen, Max Ernst, Kurt Seligmann, Marcel Duchamp et al; and organized by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. The exhibition, which scandalized many who attended, contributed numerous iconic images that are an integral part of the surrealist canon.

Illustration at the top: postcard number 1 ~ Marcel Duchamp 
Ampoule contenant 50 c.c. d'air de Paris

Prior to the exhibition in 1937, Georges Hugnet, celebrated surrealist artist, editor and publisher, invited artists participating in the exhibition to contribute artworks for a set of postcards he planned to published. The result was the set of twenty-one Cartes Surrealiste, Premiere Series (there was never a deuxieme series) published by Hugnet in 1937. Hugnet is best known for his extraordinary collages published in two rare and sought after surrealist books. Le Septieme Face du De (Paris, 1936) and A Huit Jours a Trebeaumec (Paris, 1968). Huit Jours was published as a facsimile of a Michelin Guide for the Bretagne region, the title being a play on words of an imaginary town, Trebeaumec i.e. "very handsome guy".

Collage from Septieme Face du De (The Seventh Face of the Die), 1936

Cover of Huit Jours a Trebeaumec, 1968

Background: my first encounter with the surrealist set known to Parisian 
postcard dealers as "les vingt et un", circa late 1980s

My earliest days in Paris as a dealer, starting in 1984, were focused on rare, unusual and out-of-print books related to all aspects of photography and the cinema. Prior to becoming a dealer I was a collector for tens years and a part of my collection included American postcards, the type which might have amused Walker Evans: diners, roadside attractions, gas stations, highways and byways, real photo street scenes of small rural towns lined with businesses and cars parked head-in at the curb. Arriving in Paris after my first few buying trips, postcards gained my attention and by late 1985 I was hooked by the variety of European postcards, especially the classic "French postcards" depicting risque and nude images.

(from the top, clockwise) blue, letter press printed label; card number 6 ~ Joan Miro; typical back; card number 7 ~ Salvador Dali

Once the Parisian doors opened to vintage postcards, the flood of material never subsided and each buying trip lead to other areas of interest. In those early days I was offered a surrealist set, and not knowing what its value was, I declined the offer. A few years later I was ready to buy when a dealer, the successor  to Andre Gonthier, a pioneer in the field of postcards and one of the foremost Parisian postcard dealers and collectors, offered me not one, but multiple sets in yellow, pink and blue, the "official" surrealist colors.

(clockwise from upper left) card number 14 ~ Meret Oppenheim; card number 21 ~ Pablo Picasso; card number 17 ~ Roland Penrose; card number 18 ~ Marcel Jean

That day, as I considered the deal, it was getting to be 1:00pm and as was usual during my meetings with this dealer it was time to lock the shop, pull the metal grate halfway down the storefront and go to lunch. We crossed the street to the Arab restaurant with no name directly opposite his shop. It could not have been any closer and also gave him a clear view across the street should any unexpected clients show up at his door. Most visitors  understood that the half closed gate indicated he was across the street. I came to learn after a few years of buying trips to Paris that shop owners, from the lowest "brocanteurs" (junk dealers) to the most sophisticated art gallery owners i) always broke for lunch and ii) sought out the restaurant closest to their business with the best food and ate lunch there every day.

(clockwise from upper left) card number 2 ~ Andre Breton; card number 8 ~ Hans Bellmer; card number 5 ~ Dora Maar; card number 4 ~ Paul Eluard

Over lunch, Jacques Maillet the dealer now in charge of the ABC Gonthier postcard shop since the sudden death of Madame Gonthier and the subsequent retirement of her husband Andre, told me the story of "le vingt et un". An unnamed bookseller, on what was once "book row" on the rue de Seine on Paris' left bank, had a cache of the surrealist sets, all like new from the printer. In  the late 1970's he approached a few potential buyers in the book trade. None were interested. Eventually the word arrived at Gontier's door that "les vingt et un" was available in quantity. He sent a young assistant to investigate and later that day he arrived back at the shop with all the available sets. As many as 30 sets were stored, undisturbed in the back room of Gonthier's small shop on the rue Richard Lenoir, until the late 1980's.

(clockwise from upper left) card number 3 ~ Max Ernst; card number 12 ~ Hans Arp; card number 10 ~ Yves Tanguy; card number 9 ~ Man Ray

With our mechoui and cous-cous lunch complete, Jacques finished relating the details of the story. He knew that all the available sets, other than the ones he had already sold to other dealers and collectors, were in his possession. Convinced as I was years earlier that Jacques and this small shop, though always dirty, the unwashed windows clouded by years of cigarette smoke, was the real deal, I purchased my first three sets, one in each of the surrealist colors! Over the years I would sell a set and buy a set, until one day, when I asked for another set, his reply was "desole, tout vendu" - sorry all sold. 

(clockwise from upper left) card number 20 ~ Nusch Eluard; card number 16 ~ Jacqueline Breton; card number 15 ~ Rene Magritte; card number 19 ~ Wolfgang Palen

(clockwise from the left) card number 13 ~ Georges Hugnet; card number 1 ~ Marcel Duchamp; card number 11 ~ Oscar Dominguez

Card number 11 ~ Oscar Dominguez
Ouverture / Opening

Click here to see the surrealist postcards in my eBay store

1 comment:

  1. I have read about these postcards and have wondered what they looked like (especially the Tanguy). Thank you for sharing