Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Sunday, February 15, 2004

Book Reviews

Nicolas Calas: A Life in the Avant-Garde

Nicolas Calas has haunted Greek letters for years as a mysterious, even mythical, figure of whom little was known and about whom much was speculated and imagined. This situation has radically changed during the last years: many of his previously untranslated works are finding their way to the Greek public, and scholarly research is increasingly dedicated to Calas’s multifaceted life and intellectual production. I would like to add a small contribution to the existing literature by tracing a path through Calas’s life and work in connection with the international avant-garde. My suggestion is that Nicolas Calas, along with many other intellectuals, poets, and artists in the twentieth century, contributed to the diffusion and evolution of the avant-garde, probably in a discreet way, but with lasting effects.

The life
Nicolas Calas is the pseudonym — one of several — of Nikolaos Kalamarês, born in Lausanne in 1907 to a wealthy Greek family. He spent his childhood and youth in Greece, receiving a well-rounded education. He enrolled at the law school of the University of Athens somewhere between 1925 and 1927, and was involved with the Foitêtikê Syntrofia (Student Company), a group militating for the demotic language along the lines of the Ekpaideutikos Omilos (Educational Society) founded by Dêmêtrios Glênos, Manolês Triantafyllidês, and Alexandros Delmouzos.

In 1929, Calas began writing critical essays on various subjects — literature, politics, art, and cinema — for Athenian journals and magazines. He signed these texts with the pseudonym M. Spieros, playing on the name of Maximilien Robespierre. He translated literary texts from English and French and showed a vivid interest in, and a very good knowledge of, the literary, ideological, and artistic currents throughout Europe.

His first poetic collections were published in 1933 under the pen name, Nikêtas Randos: Poiêmata (Poems), Tetradio A’ (Notebook I), and Tetradio B’ (Notebook II), followed by Tetradio C’ (Notebook III) and Tetradio D’ (Notebook IV) in, respectively, 1934 and 1937. From 1933 on, he shuttled between Paris and Athens, retaining a lively presence on the Athenian intellectual scene while getting to know the surrealists in Paris. When the first Greek collection of automatic texts appeared in 1935 (Andreas Embeirikos’s Ypsikaminos [Blast Furnace]), inaugurating an astonishingly vigorous public debate, Calas defended Embeirikos and joined the Greek surrealists.

In 1937, Calas settled in Paris permanently. At this point, he merged his several names — Spieros, Randos, Kalamarês — into a new one: Nicolas Calas. In Paris, he became an active member of the French surrealist group and, with the encouragement of its leader, André Breton, published, in French, his first book of essays, Foyers d’incendie, in 1938. By 1939, however, as with other intellectuals and artists, Calas decided to flee Europe via Lisbon. Arriving in New York in 1940, Calas was quick to make contact with the exiled European intelligentsia, especially the surrealists. He vigorously disseminated surrealism in the States by editing an anthology of surrealist texts and conducting the first American interview of Breton, published in the avant-garde “little magazine,” View. During the war, Calas worked at the Office of War Information while continuing to write for various literary magazines and published his first American book, Confound the Wise, in 1942.

In the late 1940s, Calas met anthropologist Margaret Mead, with whom he worked on a Columbia University research project that resulted in the coedited anthology, Primitive Heritage. His own writing continued, with art as his main subject. He contributed many articles to Artforum, Art International, Arts Magazine, and The Village Voice, curated exhibitions, and, with his wife Elena, prepared the catalogue of Peggy Guggenheim’s art collection. During the Sixties, he taught art history at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Calas’s American bibliography is completed by Art in the Age of Risk (1968), Icons and Images of the Sixties (cowritten with Elena Calas, 1971), Surrealism: Pro and Con (1973), and Transfigurations: Art Critical Essays in the Modern Period (with four essays by Elena Calas, 1985). Nicolas Calas died in 1988, having seen almost his entire poetic work in Greek published in two volumes, Odos Nikêta Randou (Nikitas Randos Street, 1977) and Grafê kai fôs (Scripture and Light, 1983).

This brief biographical sketch suggests the various junctions of Calas’s itinerary with the avant-garde. His trajectory from Greece to France and then to New York exemplifies the mobility of the avant-garde scene — one of its chief characteristics. Moreover, Calas’s migrations betray the catalytic influence of isolated individuals in the dissemination of currents and movements within the general realm of modernism. Ultimately, these international trajectories reflect on Calas’s literary and theoretical production as he developed a critical thinking on the “borderline” and crossed continuously from one language to another.

Calas’s Greek period is marked by a tenacious search for innovation. His early essays and letters, available now in one volume, Keimena poiêtikês kai aisthêtikês (Texts on Poetics and Esthetics), already exude the polemical spirit he maintained throughout his life. This polemical spirit changed in tone and content, however, through the years: the texts of 1929 do not encompass the same ideas as the last ones written in 1937. Whereas the aim in all of them was to achieve a radical renovation of art and literature, in accordance with the new social conditions emerging after the crisis of the 1920s, the ways in which this occurred differed. In his earlier texts, Calas vociferously yearned for something new, which would stand against the “philology…smelling of mold” and all the “signs of decadence” represented by a lamenting poetry and attitude to life as expressed by Kôstas Karyôtakês (“Oi lipotachtes tês zôês,” Keimena poiêtikês kai aisthêtikês, p. 21). The word that comes up again and again is “youth”; “youth” is looking for a new discipline in order to express, in a coherent and synthetic way, the new conditions of life imposed by the international financial crisis of 1929 and the claim for a new life within the generalized call for political revolution during this period (“Ta nea epiteleia,” Ibid., pp. 25-28). These demands take a more specific turn once Calas identifies them with the needs and desires of the proletariat. The new art could be none other than “proletarian art,” equated naturally with the avant-garde, the most progressive and socially conscious manifestation of art.

According to the young Calas, proletarian art was opposed to modern art. The latter was infused by psychology and the bourgeois preoccupations of a dying world. What the young generation needed desperately was an art that would address issues of social importance and challenge modern art on all possible levels. In a series of antithetical dyads, Calas closed his first article dedicated to proletarian art as follows:

What depends on us is to oppose:
to their games: our works — to their books with no conclusions: our preaching — to their endless analyses: powerful syntheses — to their cosmopolitan romances: our social positions…to political indifference: political interest. We have to drown the endless psychological whisper with the noise of our social slogans…in one word we have to fight against Modern art with Proletarian art, which will demolish with its whip the chandeliers behind which our enemies have already started hiding! (“Proletariakê technê,” Ibid., p. 142)

What is interesting is that for Calas there was a clear line to be drawn between the formal and other achievements of modern art and the function that the avant-garde — identified with proletarian art — should fulfill. In 1931, Calas postulated that avant-garde art should revolutionize the world and not only esthetic forms; he found, following the example of the Russian avant-garde in the 1920s, revolution in the social content of art.

One year later, in a rich and perspicacious article on C. P. Cavafy’s poetry — one of the earliest of this kind — Calas declared: “Poetry proceeds today with the heavy words of the futurists, the surrealist and the imagist poets, or with the dense phrases of Claudel, T. S. Eliot and our Cavafy” (“Paratêrêseis epanô sto kavafiko ergo,” Ibid., p. 49). This first opening to historical avant-garde movements — futurism, surrealism, and imagism — was followed soon after by Calas’s firm belief, stated in a second article on proletarian art that same year, that realism was inappropriate for revolutionary art: “Realism destroys the symbol, the artistic sublimation, the escape. Without strong symbolism, the artistic element is absent. On the contrary, what seem very interesting nowadays are some artistic attempts by the surrealists and the expressionists” (“Provlêmata proletariakês technês,” Ibid., p. 109). Calas states immediately that he doesn’t agree entirely with these two “schools,” but finds them important precisely because of their effective use of symbols, entirely within the realm of the contemporary rhythms imposed by the cinema, the machine, and urban life.

Calas’s conversion to these new “schools,” and specifically to surrealism, was a slow process. In the same 1932 article on proletarian art, Calas stated that the work of art is the expression of subconscious desires that find no other way to manifest themselves in everyday life. Consequently, the response to art cannot but be the excitement of such subconscious desires at the side of the spectator or reader, to such a degree that the receiver almost feels like an artist himself. The influence of surrealism on this account of the artistic phenomenon is obvious. Surrealism has pursued in different ways — the best-known, arguably, being automatic writing — the emergence of the subconscious into artistic praxis. In surrealist esthetics, the reader’s or spectator’s response to a surrealist work should be triggered by subconscious desires, which thus create the uncanny effect often associated with surrealist art and literature. Furthermore, blurring the distinction between artist and receiver, a blurring that Calas claimed to be the ultimate effect of art, is in fact a cornerstone of surrealist esthetics: “Poetry should be made by all and for all.” Even if Calas stated that he did not entirely agree with such “schools” as surrealism, he was heavily influenced by surrealist ideas, betraying therefore a rapprochement that was much more important than he openly confessed. Indeed, in 1937 — officially a surrealist after having joined the Paris group — he wrote the following in a letter to the editor of the magazine, Ta Nea Fylla (The New Leaves), regarding the hot subject of Greek surrealism:

I know, though, that from the day I was convinced that surrealism was the only solution to the day I became a surrealist myself, a long time has elapsed. Prejudice, preconceptions, very deeply rooted intellectual habits, are layers of spiritual dirt: we need to go through shock in order to shake them away. And shock should not happen just once, but should continue incessantly. Alas to the man who is not moved. (“Gia ton Yperrealismo,” p. 304)

Between 1931 and 1937, Calas changed positions within the frame of the avant-garde: from the perspective of communist proletarian art, depending heavily on older positions of the Russian avant-garde, he moved slowly toward a reassessment of the importance of radical forms, rooted partially in modern art, to arrive at a wholehearted acceptance of surrealism. The same evolution can be traced through his poetry of this period. From a thematics of the urban landscape in which he saw the roaring material and social construction of the future — the titles of some poems are telling: “To tragoudi tôn limenikôn ergôn” (“The Song of the Harbor Works”), “Diadêlôsê” (“Demonstration”), “Limani” (“Harbor”) — Calas evolved to a more imaginative and wildly suggestive style, as in the poem, “Symvolaio me tous daimones” (“Pact with the Demons”). This change should be considered, first, in parallel with the increasingly rigid positions of the communist discourse on art; second, with regard to Calas’s political evolution toward Trotskyism; and, finally, in parallel with analogous evolutions in surrealist circles in France. What is certain, though, is that, at any given point, Calas’s discourse was a catalyst of avant-garde thought and activity in Greece. Either as a militant member of Foitêtikê Syntrofia or as a participant in the public manifestations of surrealism in Greece, his contribution is indisputable.

After Calas left Greece for Paris, his surrealist involvement flourished. For French surrealism, the Thirties were a period of intense political activity (and of brief collaboration, and subsequent falling out, with the communist party) and of wide international diffusion. The blooming of surrealism in various countries and the influx of new people into the movement made up for the violent quarrels in the group and the failure of the communist experiment. Calas was one of those who rejuvenated the movement, along with Salvador Dali, Meret Oppenheim, Valentine Hugo, Oscar Dominguez, Wolfgang Paalen, Victor Brauner, Hans Bellmer, Roberto Matta, and many others. André Breton indeed cited Calas retrospectively in his Prolegomena of a third surrealist manifesto or not (1942) as one of the “most lucid and audacious spirits of our days” (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. III, p. 10). Earlier, in 1938, when Calas published his Foyers d’incendie, Breton described it as a “manifesto with a necessity and a breadth with no precedent” that managed to give an “inspired, decisive and exalting” answer to the questions asked by the surrealists (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. II, p. 1222). The visual arts — as we can see already from the partial list above — were obviously privileged within the surrealist group during the Thirties. Calas was one of the few new members to produce extensive theoretical texts after 1935.

Foyers d’incendie is, in fact, an impressive book that had a considerable effect on various writers, inside and outside surrealist circles. The book was an attempt to synthesize esthetics, ethics, and politics, with surrealism as a constant reference. Objectivity, revolution, art, and love are some of the book’s main themes. Calas was, again, searching for a definition of art as a revolutionary process:

Art is passionate, it is made out of love and hatred, of pleasure, of pain; its surprises are troubling, its comic element is frenetic, its tragic element is cruel, the blood drips on the scene, we live in an atmosphere of crime, everywhere we go we are persecuted, as Kafka saw it in The Trial or Chirico in Hebdomeros. Art frightens, triggers desire, excites sex, makes our limbs shiver, unsettles the eye, drives the hysterical mad and gives the madman as an example. Art is never sentimental, never moral, it is against established order, against the dominant class, against any conformism, against any priest of any kind and origin. The Parthenon proves it: Art is a powder magazine! (p. 104)

This passage illustrates the evolution of Calas’s ideas on art, deeply influenced by surrealism. Love and sexual excitement obtain a key position in his understanding of artistic production and reception. At the same time, unsettledness — not only as the demolition of bourgeois society, but also as a deeply psychosomatic effect — acquires paramount importance. Foyers d’incendie marks a decisive moment in Calas’s intellectual evolution. The book seems to function as the guarantee of its author’s surrealist identity, thereby concluding a process that had started in Greece. Moreover, the scope of this work prefigures Calas’s subsequent writings on art: wide theoretical movements that ignore the barriers between different categories of knowledge — philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, science, and many others — converge in a multilayered explanation of art. Foyers d’incendie synthesized the surrealist ideas that were animating the movement for almost twenty years, and pointed out new perspectives.

New York
In his private correspondence, Calas wrote about Paris during this period as a place of decadence: everything seems miserable, and people “are waiting for the barbarians. They have not decided to die, but they don’t know anymore how to live.” This suffocating impression of Paris agreed with the general yearning of Foyers d’incendie for a new horizon. This yearning was materialized with Calas’s move to New York in 1940. One of the many intellectuals who left Europe at the outbreak of the Second World War, Calas arrived in New York to discover a vibrant potential for novelty. His first book there, Confound the Wise (1942), did not have a very enthusiastic reception, as it was judged to be inferior to Foyers d’incendie. In many ways, the American book was a continuation of the French one, but Calas’s perspective was now very different. Confound the Wise expresses the experience of a new space, probably the quintessential space: New York. It also owes a lot to the transforming effect that Lisbon — the intermediate station in Calas’s migration from Paris to New York — and the Baroque had on Calas. He saw the Baroque as the multiplication of points of view, and he considered the “Portuguese miracle” of the sixteenth century and the discoveries of a whole new world as made possible partly because of it. This multiplication of views was also applied to the composition of Confound the Wise, making it seem loose and incoherent. If aphorism and the mot d’ordre are at the heart of Foyers d’incendie, in perfect concordance with the spirit of the surrealist group, Confound the Wise unsettles the conscientious reader with a scattered, multidirectional, and off-centered vision. New York as an urban space had a significant effect on the structure of the text, too. New York for Calas was a space where the traditional overall vision of a city is replaced by small panoramas, emerging through new elements of staging: shop windows, music halls, museums, movie screens. Indeed, these new instances of staging created a “panorama”:

New York’s power of fascination consists in the fact that it has become a panorama. Shop windows replace with their display of small panoramas the lost vision of windows. All that is oppressing and unoriginal in individual life is being sublimated in the role man is learning to play himself and that he is teaching his mannequins and human dolls to act, in shop windows, on the stage, or on the screen. The panorama is being gradually turned into art. (p. 265)

In fact, for the panorama to turn into art, the artist’s vision had to interfere in a transformative way:

I claim that the vision of the poet should be diabolical, that he must have an evil eye if light is to be thrown on images and new forms are to come into existence. Where is Manfred who is to call forth the witches who must live in the mountain scene of New York? It is time for him to come and transform the American scene into a grandiose vision. Elements of the new metamorphosis are scattered everywhere! (p. 267)

Calas searched in New York for the elements that would turn the city into the new metropolis of art. Although he was active among the exiled intelligentsia of Europe, especially the surrealists, Calas did not remain stubbornly attached to what Europe had produced. His aim was not to preserve the avant-garde spirit as it was formed in Europe, but to explore a new one emerging from the dynamics of the new center. In a way, the previous passage cited above from Confound the Wise — which was also the book’s concluding paragraph — was prophetic of the metamorphoses that would indeed occur: the rise of the New York School in the Fifties, the art scene of the Sixties, and the establishment of New York as the center of avant-garde art.

Calas’s contribution to the displacement of the artistic avant-garde from Paris to New York, and to the consolidation of the new avant-garde scene in New York, still remains to be considered in detail. What is certain, though, is that the critical discourse he developed in the States managed to bridge a deep knowledge of the historical avant-garde and the new avant-garde scene, often defying strictly formalistic judgments and genealogies. It is significant that the idea of “transfiguration” — the “metamorphosis” Calas proclaims in Confound the Wise — later became a central theme in his concept of art. This transfiguration appeared often as a dialectic of concealing and revealing, similar to riddles and enigmas. Art for Calas was, in fact, a kind of enigma to be solved by both the artist-Sphinx who poses it and the spectator-Oedipus who confronts it.

In summary, Calas’s thought captured at any given moment the avant-garde spirit of his times. Starting from Greece during a period when the isolationism of Greek culture finally began to crack, Calas first opted for a communist ideal of proletarian art, then soon replaced it with an ideal of revolutionary art that shocked and moved every aspect of human existence — as maintained by the surrealists. In Paris, Calas fulfilled this aspiration by joining the surrealist group. His French writings reflected the maturity of the surrealist quest and the need to proceed into a new configuration of the surrealist vision. In New York, Calas illustrated with his very first book the idea of multiple visions and their synthesis as a precondition for the emergence of a new avant-garde. In his later writings, he followed this multiplication of visions and often identified it with the process of transfiguration.

Furthermore, Calas seemed to illustrate with his life various itineraries followed by the international avant-garde. His move from Paris to New York evoked the transition of the center of the avant-garde from Europe to America, which occurred during and after the Second World War. Calas’s itinerary should be included in the immigration patterns of other intellectuals of this period and studied in terms of affiliations, networks, and collaborations. Many individual trajectories ultimately compose the general movement of ideas, and this is true not only for the Paris-New York connection. Calas’s departure from Greece, his time in Paris, his brief stay in Lisbon (where he animated local intellectual circles), and his final move to New York also illustrate the general mobility of those individuals around and within the avant-garde. Historical avant-garde movements were largely encounters among people who came from different places and followed itineraries that opened horizons and formed the avant-garde project through widely varied perspectives. Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti from Alexandria, dadaist Tristan Tzara from Romania, the Cubans Wifredo Lam and Alejo Carpentier, and the Chilean Roberto Matta were among the many examples of traveling artists shaping the face of the avant-garde. It would be naive to say that these people just went from one location to another. The languages and cultures they traveled with traveled with them and, as they continued to circulate, entered into an intricate social and personal mix that nourished their works. If we break free from the interpretive model of the individual artist/intellectual/writer who leaves his small, peripheral country in order to partake in the developments and activity of cultural centers — Iôannês Papadiamantopoulos/Jean Moréas is a favorite Greek example of this kind — and see these itineraries as fertilizations of the avant-garde in its totality, we can possibly rethink the relations between various avant-garde movements all over the globe.

Nicolas Calas, writing in three languages, crossing freely from poetry to critical inquiry, and moving across different positions of the avant-garde, was certainly an excellent example of this type. Rather than simply “arriving” or “departing,” one might say that each of his locations, languages, and theoretical positions was collected in him as a distinctive aspect of his active and conscious exploration of the “borderline”: the front and most advanced line of the avant-garde.

Effie Rentzou earned a DEA in semiotics and a PhD in comparative semiotics and stylistics from the Sorbonne. For several years, she has written a biweekly page of cultural criticism for a major Greek newspaper. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the program in Hellenic studies at Princeton University.
Page 1 of 1 pages