Deaths are plentiful this year. To a certain extent, the frequencies of dying surrealists are of course correlated with much earlier waves of rallying to the movement, but nevertheless the distribution clusters in a way which cannot fail to assert a meaning from the beholder's viewpoint. Previously, the foremost surrealist organiser in the US, Franklin Rosemont, died, as did Sarane Alexandrian, Pierre Peuchmaurd, Jean-Marc Debenedetti, Anne Éthuin, Boguslaw Swacz and Blanca Varela.(1)
Now, Ragnar von Holten is dead too. He was the only Swede ever to have been an active and openly recognised ("card-carrying" as it is called in English) member of the Surrealist Group in Paris (since Greta Knutson never quite became one, and apparently wouldn't have wanted to). Significantly to active surrealists, he was also a peripheral member of the gang which staged the "attempted suicide" of surrealism in 1969.
Ragnar von Holten, born German-Swedish in 1934 in what is presently Poland, apparently not of nobility in spite of the name, was an art history student in Paris, writing a thesis about Gustave Moureau and befriending the surrealists, who received him and his knowledge about Moureau with open arms. During the 50s and 60s he shared his time between Paris and Stockholm, establishing himself as a curator and publicist back in Sweden, not just the leading local specialist on surrealism but the national representative of official surrealism (to the point of denying any surrealist significance in new directions in Swedish painting during the 60s and 70s since they didn't seem to conform to what Breton liked or would have liked).
He was a close friend of José Pierre's, like himself an art historian who wanted to make a career out of trying to maintain Breton's personal sensibility. But José Pierre was of course one of the guys leading the French surrealist group when Breton was staying in his countryside house due to poor health, and after Breton's death in 1966. (2)
One of the many controversial projects which were being argued about in the French surrealist group the last years was the arrangement of an international surrealist exhibition in Stockholm. von Holten offered an opportunity to work with Moderna Museet, but many of the French surrealists, coming from a tradition of no large-scale public funding of culture and of working with private capitalist collectors instead, were extremely suspicious and felt that accepting to exhibit in a state-owned Swedish museum was like shaking hands with the king and the Nobel committee. For some reason, the group accepted it as a compromise if it was not to be announced as a real International Surrealist Exhibition (which are major surrealist manifestations which can only be arranged by surrealists themselves and aiming to express the totality of the surrealist spirit in its contemporary international shape), but merely as an exhibition of surrealist art arranged individually by the leading organisers of the French surrealist group. But very soon, contradictions grew acute, the group ceased its regular meetings, and Breton's appointed successor Jean Schuster suddenly issued a dissolution of surrealism as a historical movement. While most of the active surrealists considered that Schuster was in no position to make such a claim, and that it didn't make sense in the first place, a circle of Schuster & his friends (including Pierre and von Holten) went on with certain activities, including arranging the Stockholm exhibition.
In the view of this circle, surrealism was over, and if they continued similar activities, these were completely different when not claiming they were surrealism. There was however no ban on claiming to stand in the tradition of surrealism, to represent the spirit of surrealism, to be a former surrealist, or even a possible surrealist: when the exhibition opened in 1970 it was arranged with the active collaboration of all the surrealists-but-not-surrealists who were partaking in Schuster's activities around the new journal Coupure - the exhibition was named "Surrealism?". Since there was a question mark, it didn't claim to be surrealism, and so was ok. von Holten went on to help Pierre organise a similar exhibition in Köln the following year, named "Der Geist des Surrealismus". He kept writing criticism and books about surrealist artists, and ended up as a curator at the Swedish Nationalmuseum.
Ragnar von Holten was, there is no sense in denying that, a nice guy, who has meant a lot for arranging opportunities to expose surrealist art and sometimes even surrealist ideas in Sweden, and supporting some local surrealist artists. In his writing, his enthusiasm can be inspiring and he has a very good eye for good art and for good anecdotes, but very little will to analyse and his style is unfocused and sloppy to the point of incoherence. His own work as an artist is uneven, but his 60s collages illustrating some of the decade's best and most beautiful Swedish books are powerful poetic statements in conjunction with the powerful texts they illustrate: the shortstory anthology Fantastika 1964, Lars Norén's Encyklopedi 1966, and the Swedish edition of Lautréamont's Maldorors sånger 1972, and his assemblage-boxes of recent decades (as depicted in a book of Objekt 1994) sometimes are great too. (3)
He was distantly friendly towards the surrealist group in Stockholm all the way from its inception in 1985-86, even though its very existence implied a questioning of his position and livelihood. If surrealism is not a finished project, then how could he know everything that is to know about it due to his friendship with André Breton and his experiences of the French surrealist group? If surrealism is not a finished project but a living subversive or revolutionary tendency, then wouldn't the work to curate it and inscribe it into official art history be a work that would be easily regarded as a hostile ideological recuperation of surrealism rather than a defense of surrealism? Perhaps such a distant friendliness is the most rational strategy in that situation, in order to stay out of having to address these contradictions in any way, even by stubborn polemical denial.
When I first wrote to him in 1985, he responded enthusiastically, greeting me "Broder!" (Brother) which in Swedish is used as a greeting phrase primarily among well-established upper-class males belonging to the same exclusive male-only philanthropic or secret societies... Almost ten years later, I once phoned him to ask a couple of particular historical questions about his experiences with the French group in the 60s, and as this was a sunday, he complained that I shouldn't be asking such things during his free time; he had office hours at the museum for that kind of matters. (We met a few times over the years, never becoming friends, nor enemies. Within the group we usually referred to him as a gravedigger and an antisurrealist, especially in our early days, but we never saw any particular reason to actually attack him, neither in public nor in private.)
Other anecdotes could be told of when he has demonstrated a loyalty with and devotion to surrealism, but probably mostly inconsistently referring to surrealism as an apparent codex of behavior or opinion (of what a surrealist can and can't do or think), authoritarian, retrospective and immutable, discretely but heroically maintained by some "brotherhood of the disciples of the great Breton".
The first critic to notice von Holten's death in Swedish newspapers, Peter Cornell, claimed that he had been "our last link to the golden age of surrealism". One might remark that it is untypically generous of the Swedish press to include postwar surrealist activities in the "golden age" of surrealism. Nevertheless, what his death means to us, active surrealists, is that a source of anecdotes and experiences is regrettably lost but that the hopefully last major representative in this country of a notion of surrealism as a nostalgic old boys´ club is happily lost.
1) About Franklin Rosemont's death, see
Our own condoleances we saw no particular reason to publicise. For Sarane Alexandrian, see
for Peuchmaurd, see
The other losses have not been specifically called attention to within the surrealist movement.
(2) The details of the dissolution of the French surrealist group, and other internal processes in the French surrealist group during the 60s, were made public only rather recently, in Alain Joubert's extremely clarifying book Le Mouvement des Surréalistes, ou Le fin mot de l'histoire (Paris 2001).
(3) Little documentation of Ragnar von Holten´s artistic works can be found on the internet. For some samples, see: