Revolutionizing Art and Life: Student exhibitions document Surrealism at One Hundred

May 22, 2024

by Luke Soucy

A hundred years after the publication of André Breton’s first Surrealist manifesto, a group of students, scholars, librarians and archivists gathered this month to view the final presentations for “Surrealism at One Hundred” (FRE 358 / ECS 358 / ART 358 / COM 365), a new course exploring the ideas, works and history of international Surrealism across the last century. 

Led by Effie Rentzou, professor of French and Italian and director of the Humanities Council’s Program in European Cultural Studies, the course examined the Surrealists’ efforts to revolutionize both art and life worldwide. To showcase their findings, 17 undergraduates debuted online exhibitions curated from a wide array of artworks, periodicals and archival materials. Paired with explanatory essays and didactics, their projects are hosted as a public digital collection of Princeton University Library, and as a StoryMap accessible to the University community.

A group of students seated around a conference table, looking at a screen on which is projected an image of a surrealist artwork.

Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte Alerte appearing at the end of the “International Surrealist Exhibitions in Paris” presentation in FRE 358. Photo by Kirstin Ohrt

“I greatly enjoyed my experience in FRE 358,” said Abby Schuster ’26, who chose to design an eight-part guide to Surrealism in Egypt. “I find much of my coursework at Princeton to be very individual, so I greatly appreciated the chance to collaborate with my classmates to build and produce the StoryMaps website.”

That StoryMaps site — titled “The Surrealist World” — uses an interactive map to track the spread of Surrealism across eleven different locations linked to their own dedicated pages. Each page is a separate student project, organized differently depending on content, but all containing thorough overviews of regional movements with visual media and original essays.

A book open to a distorted world map in French, with locations labelled in green numbers.

Le Monde au temps des surréalistes (The World in the Time of the Surrealists) from the FRE 358 StoryMap.

“I could not be happier. I'm delighted with the work of the students,” said Rentzou. “They basically created a Surrealist geography of the world.”

Creating that geography required months of preparation and a massive archival effort. Rentzou credits her Cotsen Family Faculty Fellowship for underwriting the process, allowing her to work with two graduate students in the French Department (Lynda Musilwa and Sophia Millman) to develop the new course. While Millman taught precepts and helped shape the student essays, Musilwa collaborated with Kimberly Leaman, Library IT Project Manager, and Ben Johnston, Senior Educational Technologist at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, to collect the periodicals and archival materials used in the student projects.

For Musilwa, whom Rentzou called “the savior” of the class and who has been working on the project since last summer, the results made it all worthwhile. “The students were invested right from the start so the work was done smoothly,” she said.

The results of their work can now be seen in the StoryMap’s companion piece, “Surrealist Periodicals: A Digital Collection,” an indexed guide to the Surrealist periodicals held in Princeton Library. Also curated by the course’s students, the digital collection organizes the Surrealist magazines geographically to showcase 18 periodicals from locations around the world, including Paris, Japan, Argentina and the Caribbean. 

Abby Schuster sits among other students at the conference table, beaming toward the camera.

Abby Schuster (center) smiling at a question during the presentation. Photo by Kirstin Ohrt

For all they had created, the presentation concluded with hints at future directions for the course, noting how much material remained still to cover. “Serbian Surrealism was important, Greek Surrealism was important, but we only had so many people,” said Rentzou. “The next iteration of the class, maybe!”

Rentzou’s students made clear they thought this was a good thing. “I found it so rewarding to see the project come together and to be able to present a final result we were all incredibly proud of,” said Schuster. “I look forward to continuing to pursue similar classes in the future, as I truly learned so much.“