Search results


Surrealism, Dadaism, Chaplinism, Bojan Jović


Carli Caplin

Unanimists lay their claims on him. Thus, if we take these for granted, it would make him one of them. He could, just as well, be a Dadaist, a reaction against romanticising sensibility, a subject for psychoanalytic inquiry, a classic, a primitive. 

Henri Michaux, „Our brother Charlie“

          The attitude of the avant-garde artists from the beginning of the last century in relation to Charlie Chaplin could be unequivocally designated as an all-out fascination. Permanently preoccupied with various aspects of Chaplin’s work, as well as events from his private life, avant-garde authors dedicate articles, books, special editions of their magazines, to the filmmaker; over time, gradually clad with a number of symbolical meanings beside its striking visual appearance, the character of the Little Tramp, often identified with its creator’s personality, also came to be an active agent in literary and artistic creations―an inspiration, a literary hero, an art painting motif, a subject of theatrical productions, of film works, even musical pieces, ballets and operas. Thus, Charlot makes a reference point in relation to which the most prominent figures of the avant-garde in European culture, as also many other authors and thinkers, define their views.                           


Among the first to embrace Chaplin are Dadaist and (later) Surrealist authors, such as Jacques Vaché, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, Pierre Reverdy, Philippe Soupault, Albert Cohen, George Grosz, Jorge Luis Borges, Branko Ve Poljanski, Marko Ristić, Đorđe Jovanović, Dušan Matić. For the purposes of this text, we will make, in general outline, a survey of the most important works having to do with the textual thematisation of Chaplin, in advertisement and propaganda, letters, diaries, and literary works of the leading European Dadaists and Surrealists.        




Like the majority of people in the artist circles in Paris, Jacques Vaché, André Breton’s friend and one of the chief sources of inspiration in Surrealism, also became acquainted with Chaplin’s films in Paris cinemas during his leaves from the frontline. This encounter made a lasting impression―describing his thoughts in one of his war letters, he phantasises    


[…] what a film part I will play! ― With fabulous automobiles, you know the type, with bridges that give way, and giant hands that crawl about the screen towards some document! […] ― With dialogues so tragic, delivered in tux and tails, behind traitorous palm trees! ― And Charlie, leering naturally, his eyeballs calm. The policeman who is forgotten locked up in the trunk!!!1


In Chaplin the Dadaists saw something by far more than a comedian―for them he is an icon, the greatest artist in the world, but also a fellow author whose artistic persona and aspirations they would eagerly use putting them to service in pursuing their own goals. On numerous occasions, Tristan Tzara manipulates with Chaplin’s name: he includes it, for instance, as an associate member of Dada on a poster from 1919, entitled An example of the expression of the contemporary personality―read Dada. Also, on Fabruary 2, 1920, Tzara puts out a classified ad in Emil Duharme’s Le journale du people, where he makes the following announcement:        


Charlie Chaplin, the illustrious Charlot, has just arrived in Paris. We will have the opportunity to give him a round of applause he deserves; his friends “the poets of the Dada movement” invite you for a matinée, which they organised themselves… On the occasion, the famous American actor will deliver a speech. The breaking news is that Charlie Chaplin will join the “Dada” movement… Gabriele D’Annunzio, Henri Bergson, Prince of Monaco [will convert] to Dadaism.2     


Breton, who knew about Tzara’s plans to use Chaplin’s name to promote Dada, in his letter to the Romanian Dadaist, shows he is not quite sure of what he should make of this event: “This echo of Charlie Chaplin is a wonderful surprise. But, of course, it is not true?”3 Although he never makes any lengthy statement on Chaplin and his art, on several occasions Breton is brought into connection with Chaplin by his artist friends: describing the adherents of the Dada movement in the text “Presentation of circumstances”, published in Picabia’s magazine 391, Éluard portrays Breton as a “tragic Charlot” (“Breton, Charlot tragique, Breton, onze petits morts” (Breton, a tragic Charlot, Breton, eleven little corpses)).  On the other hand, Diego Rivera claims that his admiration for Charlot was shared by other “Charlot’s fans” from the circle of artists such as: Ilya Ehrenburg, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and André Breton.4              


One finds Chaplin highly ranked on the list of illustrious personalities published in Littérature (no. 18, March, 1921), wherein its editors, Aragon, Breton, and Soupault, drew up a list consisting of the names of 191 luminaries (pp. 1-7), aimed at assessing their importance, in order not to have them immortalised, but, on the contrary, to dethrone them precisely by making use of a school methodology (numeral grades) against which they were fighting. Charlot was ranked third, with the highest average grade of 16.09 (surpassed only by Breton (16.85) and Soupault (16.30), and in front of Aragon, Vaché, Éluard, Tzara, Freud, Satie, Reverdy, Picasso, Man Ray, Jarry, Jacob, Einstein, Chagall, de Chirico, Arp; curious thing is that Breton grades Chaplin with 17.25, while, paradoxically, lowest grades are those by Soupault (11.25) and Tzara (10.25)).         


In France it wasn’t difficult to keep track of Chaplin’s latest productions; in the postwar Germany, however, due to the outcome of the war and also the cultural policy such a thing was something unconceivable. In 1920, in keeping with the situation, the Dadaists and those sympathetic to Dadaism (Grosz, Heartfield, Huelsenbeck, Hausmann, Bloomfield, Picabia, Guttmann, Arp, Tzara, Serner, Schwiters, Ernst, Kobbe, Herzfelde, Archipenko, Chirico, Hustaedt, Noldan, and Piscator) issued a protest against the ban on Chaplin’s films: “The international Dada Company extends its greetings to Charlie Chaplin, the world’s greatest artist and a good Dadaist. We protest against the boycott of Chaplin’s films in Germany.” (Der Dada, 3, 1920, p. “437 1”) The lack of the first-hand information in some cases led to outrageously fanciful speculations about Chaplin’s origins and life. Thus, in his letter to Richard Huelsenbeck from 1920, the Dadaist Paul Citroen gives his own peculiar account of Chaplin’s biography:


I gather you must know that Charlie Chaplin’s father was called Adolf Zeppelin, born in Mannheim, and not related to Count Zeppelin, the famous dirigible balloon constructor [...] In an era of frantic speculations, Adolf moved to America. He settled in Chicago, in the widely renowned Easy Street, where he became an owner of a small nightclub. He had a son named Charlie. When Charlie came to be three years old, his father gave him off to some travelling circus; it was there that he learned the craft of acrobatics. Later on Charlie went to England, and got hired by L. Weinberg in his film company based in Washington, America. So, he returned to America, where he eventually became the best paid film artist. Thus, following the Dada logics, unassuming little Charles Zeppelin became Charlie Chaplin, the greatest artist in the world.5


Philippe Soupault, for his part, writes an extensive imaginary biography of Chaplin’s film character, made up on the basis of Chaplin’s films:


Useless to pretend that I wanted to be anything else but a modest chronicler of the little pal who was able to take on and give expression to the everlasting gloom of the world we live in. Step by step I followed his adventures depicted in films paying full attention to that marvellous poetry that Charlot is animated by.6  


Soupault ends his foreword concluding that Charlot’s life is as exciting as it is precisely because it is nurtured on the very sources of poetry. Charlot is a poet in the purest and strongest sense of the term, contends Soupault, and in order to paint a picture of him that would convey the most profound truth about him, one should not write a biography but a poem.  


Louis Aragon’s literary beginnings have to do with none other but the moment in which he, in an anticipation of Soupault’s idea about the poem as Charlot’s “most profound truth,” writes in verse about Charlot:


I was not yet 20 when I wrote what was probably the first poem ever dedicated to him, and in any instance my first poem to get published, thanks to Louis Delluc, in Film, a magazine type of publication. People of my generation understood Charlot, which was a derogatory rendering of Charlie. When a woman tried to smear him before the American justice, I penned down an article, siding with him, full of ferocity proper to my youth, it was in the 1920s… Back then, he sent me some three or so lines to thank me. There are things, such as this, which make one exceedingly proud for the rest of his life.        


The poem that Aragon refers to, “Charlot sentimental” (“Sentimental Charlot”), appeared, in March 1918, in Delluc’s Film, and in a new version, or as a new poem, “Charlot Mystique” (“Mystical Charlot”), it was published in Reverdy’s journal Nord-Sud, in May of the same year. According to presently available data, it was precisely these two poems that were to be the first works of “highbrow” literature to feature Chaplin and his film art as their subject. After being published in the magazine, “Mystical Charlot” was included in the first Aragon’s book of poetry, Le Feu de Joie (Fire of Joy) (1920), whereas “Sentimental Charlot” was never reprinted in any of his later poetry collections. It is commonly held for a text which Aragon, after its first version was published, reworked and gave it its final form; the divergences in the approach between two versions, nevertheless, are such that one can hardly speak about improvements made to the poem but rather the second version should be regarded as a brand new piece.7


In both of these two poems by Aragon, beside the use of Chaplin’s character’s name in the title, clearly visible are also various motifs from other Chaplin’s films (primarily Floorwalker: at the Department Store, from 1916: moving stairs, elevator, a girl typewriting, police chase, bag stuffed with money). In “Sentimental Charlot” Aragon addresses the subject which was to become a common place in the great deal of the (literary) output based on the typically Chaplinian motifs, but also a critical view on Charlot, which we mentioned earlier―unanswered and misfortunate love, which, even when it emerges is denied a chance to fully materialise, i.e. it gets contaminated with a sense of compassion, or indifference. As for “Mystical Charlot,” it is fashioned as an intertwining of voices and thoughts, both intimate and related to the job he does at the department store; the poem ends with somewhat poetic commentary on the fixed variety of human expression―“Always the same system/Without measure/Without logic/a no-good subject.”8                 


After two of his early poems centered around Chaplinian topics, in 1921, Aragon published a novel, Anicet ou la panorama (Anicet, or the Panorama); although it contains no explicit references like the two poems with Chaplin’s film character included in their title, it provides ample illustration of the impact of Chaplinian aesthetics and motifs. The novel is a picaresque satirical history of the adventures of a young poet who joins a secret society devoted to celebrating beauty as embodied in a woman named Mirabelle. Six members of the society which initiate Anicet represent the intelectual and artistic vista of contemporary world, and one of these, the waiter Paul, as a completely immoral character, a marionette purely cinematic in its essence, is modelled on Chaplin’s film persona.9 The similarity between Paul and Charlot is more than obvious, from bowler hat and cane to nervous truncated motions, due to which many scenes wherein the former makes his appearance seem to carry an additional meaning for the readers:


Everything in his behaviour was mechanical, as if there were several distinct personalities with their separate resolutions moving parts of his body so as to bring into relief each one of them.


[…] If, at first, Anicet found himself tempted to mock this marionette, he was soon led to admit he was gripped with a special kind of excitement at the sight of this personality which struggled against material world to the extent that it seemed in dire need to invent each, even the slightest body movement in order to repeat it.10     


In continuous conflict with things, with all social and natural mechanisms, confounding non-animate objects and living creatures, experiencing himself as a Bergsonian “mechanical shell,” Paul is at once a funny prankster and an anxiety-ridden character, an embodiment of “the sense of the comical and the impossibility of escape.”   


The mechanical nature as a fundamental Charlot’s characteristic served as a theme in another prose work from those years, the novel Mélusine by Frans Hellens, a Belgian author close to Surrealist poetics. The principal character in his novel Hellens named using a pun with Charlot’s name, “Locharlochi”; his outward appearance, furthermore, clearly refers to Charlot’s character, with (almost) all of the latter’s inevitable features:     


And out from the last group, still working at the opposite end of the hall, I saw a man coming forward which looked as if he was counting his steps. Black, too small bowler hat was swinging on his head, he wore long dark jacket, buttoned up at the waist, a coloured waistcoat, and large trousers which flapped about and pitifully hung over his big feet. His shoulders were swaying in a steady rhythm; he advanced, slowing down or accelerating his movements, and his white face showed an expression of content. […] His body was stiff, wooden as a cane he held in his hand; the expression of content turned into a bitter smile which, with its immobility, had a terrifying effect on me.11


For his contribution to the magazine Le Disque Vert Hellens chose precisely a chapter from this novel, entitled “A school of movement,” at several points making claims that can be taken as author’s interpretation of the Chaplinian aesthetics of laughter, a peculiar heroico-comical blend that corresponded to the needs and demands of the contemporary era:   


Reason behind my clothing and some of my gestures which make you laugh is a quite simple one. I became an actor in order to teach my fellow contemporaries. Our time calls for a heroism, it demands to be portrayed as grotesque and unseemly. Music hall is replaced by circus, the hilarious emerged in place of the serious. And there came I. Everybody is laughing. They take me for clumsy and unskilful, I bump into things, I falter, I get up. Through this laughter a sense of wandering is taking a grip. They follow what I do, and I show them how slick I can be. At each go I am rewarded with ovations. At the same time I produce speed and laughter. In a matter of 20 seconds I’ve ran all the roads and carried on manifold joy. They know not anymore whether they should laugh at me or, perhaps, admire me. But the laughter I bring about is as far from the laughter of Homer’s gods as Pierpont Morgan’s automobile from Hector’s chariots. In my case it is a fleeting laughter, dry, bitter, a sharp outburst of an ever rushing era, a tumult of a positively inclined and wised up mankind.12  


The text by another author of Belgian origins that was close to Surrealism, Henri Michaux, “Our brother Charlie,” constitutes an example of “manifesto-type-of/hybrid” contributions to the elucidation of Chaplin’s art. In ten sections Michaux sets out a complex essayistic and literary-artistic structure, directed towards determining fundamental characteristics of Chaplin’s personality and work, and their development in a literary form. After initial assertion of his conviction that Chaplin is an expression of the “modern psyche” in its many forms/occupations, he goes on enumerating general characteristics of Chaplin’s art: “Unanimists lay their claim on him…” In paragraphs to follow, Michaux gives his remarks on the particular features which he, then, “explains” by describing episodes of Charlot’s adventures in a by and large Dadaist/Surrealist way. In doing so he draws on Chaplin’s particular films (no. 2, A Dog’s life; nos. 7&8, A Night in the Show; no. 4, The Rink and The Immigrant), or simply makes them up. Thus, for instance, with the statement that Charlie is “a reaction against Romanticism” one reads a dark, grotesque, and black-humoured accident, when Charlie mercilessly kills a policeman and dumps him into a canal.13 Impression of Charlot as a character beyond the law and order that way takes on also cynical and sardonic traits of the outright opposition to the established social relations:


Charlie, a reaction against Romanticism.

We don’t have feelings anymore. Yet, we still take actions.

Charlie, it is us. He kills a cop. And it is done. Then he drags him by his boots down to the river. With no turning around. At the river he kicks him off into the water.

Charlie and a corpse, each treads its own path. Charlie goes, and goes. Tired, he sits down on a rock. And this rock, it is a rock of the canal bank. And this rock it holds a dam, which holds the cop’s corpse that has just arrived there.

Charlie is hungry. He needs to go and get some “cakes” in a bar “At the dam.”

Charlie reaches for the corpse’s pants, takes out the valet. Then, he is going to have his “cakes.”

As for the corpse, it goes its way; it goes to the morgue.

And the corpse’s parents they say: “Well he deserved it. That’s what happens when some smart fellow wants to think on his own, when he wants to become a policeman instead of ploughing a field like all proper people should.”

And Charlie opens the valet again, picks up a coin, and utters:

“I guess I could buy myself a cigar.”

And so, each follows a road of its own.14     


In the same magazine, a year later, in an article written on the matter of Surrealism, Michaux will make an intriguing remark on Chaplin’s technique, which, in his opinion, represents an example of the way one can go beyond the limitations of a pure automatic way of production:


PS – Conjunction of automatism and the deliberate, the external reality. Surrealist works elaborated diligently, this will most probably leave us with some outstanding pieces. In a way, Charlie Chaplin does this sort of thing. From the automatism of a clown, interspersed with fragments of reality, to the actions as defined in the screenplay.15         


The Central European Dadaism and Surrealism also offered their contributions to the thematisation of the Little Tramp―the essay by Czech author Vítězslav Nezval, from 1922, Charlie před soudem: improvizovaná chapliniáda o 2 epochách (Charlie Before the Court: an Improvised Chapliniade in Two Acts), was partly written in the same vein as Goll’s Chapliniade (beside accepting the “generic” reference the title also contains some of the typical Gollian motifs, first of all the motif of Chaplin on a poster),16 whereas an experiment in the “genre” of Max Jacob, two years later in The Green Circle, to a great extent seems to present further variations on Nezval’s courtroom theme. In the first act of Charlie Before the Court entitled “An evening on the street” Nezval repeatedly changes the setting from the abject to the sublime, creating for the most part a Surrealist play (after the opening, the “bodily” scene in front of the bar,17 Charlie is caught in a cluster of stars and, waving his cane, he manages to pierce one of them; he gives his salutations with his hat “dashingly elegant as a crow”; he refuses courting attempts of a street lamp and throws himself after a lady passing by); peculiarity of the Czech author’s method is reflected in his constructing the fiction around Charlie’s character through the emphatic use of indications, denotative aspects of words, images, and situations (opening scene, in which we catch a glimpse of a crouching Chaplin, all strained, his face severely distorted by cramps, in front of a tavern, strongly and patently refers to a scatological humour, although devoid of obscene images or more straightforward expressions that would directly designate the matter in concern). An inkling of a burlesque goings-on is developed fully in the second act, “Before the Court,” where a court proceeding turns into a chaotic public spectacle with audience, journalists, loads of official documents, horses, the hero’s “descent” onto the film poster, and afterwards into the jail where he joins the company of its misfortunate dwellers.                   


In Nezval, the inner Charlie is a melancholic hero expressing his weltschmertz in a line that tells of an unrelinquished love: “Alas, to know what love is, and yet not be loved. Oh, our very own heart, that comes knocking on our door,” while Charlie in action is completely in the spirit of a film character from the earlier burlesque-immoral days.18


Chaplin’s becoming into a film artist of a special kind is a main plotline of the work under the title Chaplin, “a tragic grotesque in six scenes,”19 by Melchior Vischer, one of the iconic figures of Dadaism in Prague. Chaplin, the main character in Vischer’s work published in the 1920s, is depicted as an eccentric vagabond roaming America’s vast expanses with his three companions, “cane, hat, and wind,” taking part in various goofy and Dadaist-like situations. He, thus, teems with a strange company (a Slovak bagpipes player, a hobo, a full-fledged American, three girls (Annie, Ethel, and Mod), a saloon lady, etc.), goes into a Chicago studio to shoot a film, visits a blacks-only bar full of boxers, tries to introduce a new art of “lyrical” boxing, intends to take the financial control over his business dealings and revenues in a spirit of repudiation of law and common sense, creates his own cinematographic “factory.” At the end he comes to make his own film work, and then disappears in the darkness.    


Vischer’s Chaplin does not exhibit any striking sentimental or pathetic features, but is, on the one hand, a man of action, while, on the other, he is intensely reflective―the dialogues he has with other characters, as well as his soliloquies, are thus on the verge of insanity and/or, perhaps, philosophical insight:


Nonsense is important to us. It must be taken seriously. […] Speak on! Speak clearly! Speak properly! Speak without logic!20




I start coughing and all of a sudden the way the times in which I live breathes, and what it appears to be, is clear to me. It doesn’t go any further than the surface! It can be instantly comprehended in its obvious absence of foundations. It is banal, dull. It is distinguishable for its depth, if one does not make much of depth, that is! Its meaning lies in its nonsense!21     


On the other hand, an essay by Max Jacob, “Humour is like dancing on the brink of a volcano”,22 is a farcical mix of reality-based and imaginary elements created with no desire for (serious) discursive reflection on the Chaplin phenomenon. Jacob places his hero―whom he at first calls by his real name, Charlie Chaplin, then switches to calling him Charlot, and ends with referring to him as Charlot Eulenspiegel―in the courtroom of a city council, where he presents himself before the investigating judge which conducts his interrogation, in the person of Israel Zangvil (i.e. Till Eulenspiegel), a Polish Jew, a tailor by profession.23 Through an intertwining of the comical, the satirical, and the grotesque (a judge is afraid that Charlot will take off the beard glued to his face; Charlot warms his food on the fire of Inquisition, on a fireplace with human bodies used as logs; after getting warm and having eaten, he finds his place on a green sofa where he amuses himself by tripping passers-by with his cane), emerges a surreal picture of the mockery against the court and church institutions’ authority, deriding his contemporaries, with unsavoury jokes depleted of any compassion towards victims. As a summary and a contrast of a sort to the well-modelled world, in the text’s final section we are presented with the narrator’s commentary, which also contains the motif of a (possible) theatrical encounter:


In this study, maybe a bit brief, I failed to sufficiently emphasise the tearful side of our hero. There hardly is something more tearful than a Polish Jew who is a tailor. We would eagerly grant him a pardon―the way that he himself is, his virtue, his mysticism, his personified philosophy―just because he gives off the impression of being ready for whatever may come, and for being so touching. This guy has become an English clown. Each night I revisit Alhambra to watch him play with a coffin, during a half an hour long sketch. Though, I am not certain that the person I am watching is quite him.        




From the given examples one could infer that the encounter with Chaplin’s film art for Dada- and Surrealist-oriented avant-garde in a number of instances went beyond the realm of the (auto)biographical and came to play a major aesthetic role in the work of these authors. In addition, there was an ongoing vibrant poetic-theoretic activity concerned with both the most captivating features of Chaplin’s film persona (i.e. Charlot) and his real personality. From this perspective, in line with the notion of photogenicity, and also the notion of structural and functional connection between Chaplin’s pranks, Riccioto Canudo, and Louis Delluc, one of the most noteworthy and most versatile spokesperson for the Little Tramp, young Louis Aragon, ruminates on the relationship between Chaplin’s character and its film setting. In an article “On scenography,” an important contribution to avant-garde film theory, published in Delluc’s magazine Film,24 Aragon underscores that cinematographic art has the possibility to transform insignificant everyday objects into the meaningful elements of a film setting, i.e. to imbue the surrounding with the poetical value and to purposefully restrict the field of vision in order to amplify its symbolism. Charlie Chaplin is one of the rare filmmakers to completely meet the requirements for an effective film setting―Charlie’s character is surrounded with objects that intimately take part in the film plot. In his films nothing is meaningless, and nothing is redundant. The setting is Charlie’s way of looking at the world, which, along with the discovery of mechanics and its laws, haunts the hero to the point that, through a reversal of values, each inanimate object, for him, becomes a living thing, and each human personality a puppet with the control strings that must be found. Dramatic or comical, depending on who is the observer, the plot is limited to the struggle between the outside world and humanity.                        


For the Dadaists and Surrealists, the views in relation to the transgressing of the boundaries of common-sense morality have been a main reason behind Chaplin’s additional appeal; thus, Aragon, apart from his examination of the relationship between the character and the setting surrounding it, analyses also the ethical aspects of Charlot’s activity in the world arena, putting forth a certain poetics of immorality:    


Today’s man glorifies action, in it he finds his gratification, and laughs at the fruits that it bore. […] Active life leads him into a state of permanent irritation. He is alien to melancholy […] I dream about Charlot choking Carmen […] modern man obeys nothing, neither the established frameworks of life nor that which is allotted to him. You see Lafcadio on the borderline of morality […] Modern man is in need of modern life, a life of free competition, where the weak perish and the strong make their living. Sentimentality is punished with death […] Charlot knocks down the elderly.25


In line with the view on Charlot as unfettered by social conventions, several years later, the members of the Surrealist movement will publish the pamphlet entitled Hands off Love, in which they affirm their support to Chaplin entangled in the legal complications of a divorce trial with his wife Lita Gray Chaplin.26 The text signed by more than thirty authors close to Surrealist aesthetics asks the question of whether Chaplin had the right to perceive and practice love in his own way, or should he turn into a slave to his wife who filed a complaint against him over his “infidelity” and unwillingness to have a child: the Surrealists passionately take Charlot’s side, defending freedom of his actions, as well as his spirit they were so delighted with.27 The text depicts Chaplin as a genius, a “defender of love,” the “unforseen” one in particular, which fell prey to the institution of marriage. Accusing Chaplin’s wife in harsh terms, the Surrealists at once put on trial the civic notion of love constrained by the rules of marital life, also condemning the bourgeoisie at large:          


This idiot woman, this cow, believed that she would expose her husband. But, in fact, she provided us with a testimony on the human greatness of a spirit which found a way to give its thought a perfect and vibrant expression and not have it betrayed thereby, pondering with clarity and rigour on so many pernicious issues in a society in which everything hinders him―his life, and even his genius. The humour and strength of this expression, its very poetry, take deep retreat before our eyes the moment it is touched by the light from that tinny bourgeois lamp brandished above his head by one of them sluts which in all countries make good mothers, good sisters, good wives, them pestiferous vermin, them parasites of every feeling and every love…28       


The Surrealist tract deliberately erases the borderline between the artist and his creation, talking at turns about Chaplin’s real and art persona in many instances, even within the same remark. Mrs Chaplin, thus, asks her husband for permission to build beside their shared house. Charlot declines: “This house is mine, and I don’t want anything to spoil its beauty.” Alternating his living personality and his art character, the Surrealists drew attention to the fact that Charlot is Chaplin’s (im)moral truth, i.e. the relationship towards the world in his work is founded on a general outlook opposed to the constraints of social conditioning.      


However, when, in a later period of Chaplin’s work, the part of sentimentality in his films increased, the sympathies of (some) Surrealists seemed to fade away as they came to express radically different views. For instance, in a Dali’s interview with Luis Buñuel from 1929, published in the magazine L’Amie de les Arts, the director expresses his markedly unfavourable stance on Chaplin:


Except intellectuals no-one laughs at Charlot nowadays. Kids find him boring. The simpleminded do not understand him. He was able to reach to every socialite, every literary society, seminar, and conference in the world. The marquesses say: Cest délicieux, or shed a tear when last spectators are leaving the circus arena. There are still worm-eaten wackos speaking about “Charlot’s disgraceful heart.” He gave up on kids, and now he is concentrating on artists and intellectuals. But, as a sign of remembrance of a time when he didn’t bother pretending he is anything more than a clown, let us solemnly offer him our: merde [shit]! And may our eyes never again catch sight of him!29




However, when we speak of domestic authors with Dada-Surrealist proclivities, the characteristics of Chaplin’s art, as well as his public life, found an echo in their reflections. Chaplin’s humour was taken as a special brand of comic which fits well with the demands of the modern era. Thus, Marko Ristić mentions Chaplin’s and Keaton’s films as examples of works in which behind the external humour there lies a “vast background of ‘accumulated feelings,’ of which Freud speaks, an entire world of convulsionary moral maladjustment.”30


Again, in complete accord with the general view held by the major partisans of Surrealism on the international scale, sentimentality in later Chaplin’s works is also met with the outright condemnation in Yugoslavia. For instance, in the text “Here and now,” published in the Surrealist magazine Nadrealizam danas i ovde (1931), Đorđe Jovanović asserts his discontent with lyricism, aestheticism, and sentimentalism in art and views of his contemporaries. As the most salient among the negative examples of this tendency, Jovanović cites specifically Charlie Chaplin, along with Rastko Petrović, “one, a philanthropic sir knight, and other, a just as much a philanthropically tender travelling diplomat.”31 Taking as examples Chaplin’s film City Lights, and Petrović’s book Ljudi govore (People Speak), the works which “are the most glaring in that which incites our anger, or is it just our disgust,” Jovanović further on stresses that these two “sobbing compassionate notables” represent “armies of those with a tender and distressed soul”―pathetic aestheticism, sentimentally conceived sociality, or, finally, sheer hypocrisy.                   


Jovanović criticises Chaplin’s voyages, medals, breakfasts, lunches, dancing parties, estimating that social activities of that sort irredeemably disqualify an actor, reducing him to nothing more than a clown; for the same reason, he thinks that the Surrealist manifesto Hands off Love from 1927, written in Chaplin’s defence, lost all of its relevance. Petrović (according to Jovanović “a champion of disservices to Surrealism”) makes a similar case after his statement in the journal Putevi (Roads) in 1923. Abused in the propaganda of the so-called philanthropy/compassion, in contrast to the concept and the type of a concrete and active individual, both artists stand for “faeces” of the real non-sentimental art, and their true role is that of entertainers of a standardised American philanthropist and members of all kinds of European humanitarian societies.


Nonetheless, Jovanović does not question Chaplin’s work as, at the moment, the peak of film art, but he also sees him as a “miserable whiner” which in his many travels should by no means neglect to pay a visit to Vatican, and, beside the role of Hamlet, should also play that of the “Nazarene.” Jovanović ends his attack reiterating that he considers “the whole complex of Chaplinism” to be “merde en plein air”―bullshit, pure and simple.32       


A quarter of century later, Dušan Matić, another author from the circle of the Serbian Surrealists, revisits the idea of Chaplin playing the role of seminal historical figures, which occasionally re-emerged in the press between two wars in written news, photos, and illustrations. In his essay “Chaplin,” which to some regards can also be taken to represent his polemical reply to Jovanović’s criticisms, Matić is rather concerned with the aesthetic and poetico-philosophical (vitalist) qualities, and to a much lesser extent with the ideological aspects pertaining to Chaplin’s social activities.33


After the customary listing of motifs related to Chaplin and his oeuvre (“monolithic” exemplary of the film art, actor, director, and screenwriter; comparison with the great writers such as Molière, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire, Ujević), Matić defines the peculiarities of Charlot’s humour, which, as in every great art, hold equal sway over the so-called elite audience and the mass spectator:        


The secret of his art, so it seems to me, is that he has succeeded at making laughter, irony, satire, in one word humour in all its shades, from gallows humour to scarcely indicated muted smile, and that barely noticeable hand, moustache, leg or shoulder gesture, which blows away any kind of emotional impededness, and all that inhuman stuff that tend to cover human being, in a word all that humour, into a kind of a storm, a downpour that runs from laughter to tears, stamping over everything conventional, banal, ominous, stale, and awful in life, as a revolt in the face of the life’s inequities, after which life re-emerges again, cleaner, its face washed up, fresher, more worth putting up with. Smiling.


Humour is a tragedy that has found its way out into the life.34


Charlot’s comic, in contradistinction to the comic of his fellow contemporaries, is only the first, the immediately visible plane, which Matić terms as his magical operation; thereby Charlot takes the spectator into his hands not only to make him laugh but also aiming at something more elusive, and more intimate―a fraternal and human confession.


In a way, Matić amends the view about Charlot’s sentimentality and romantic affinities, convinced that through humour and laughter Charlot reveals twofold truth on love and solitude, without a speck of patheticism, finding his way into thoughts and sensibilities of viewers, and giving them a helping hand so they could organise these―achieving an altogether better life, more true to themselves, and feeling more comfortable.  


On the basis of (alleged) Chaplin’s plans to make films in which he would play Christ, Napoleon, and Hamlet, throughout the text Matić works out a specific fictionalisation and mythopoetisation, setting forth the ideas for scenarios of respective Chaplin’s not-to-be films.35 Starting from the assumption that artists, in a sense, hold that which they aspired to achieve more important than that which they actually managed to express, Matić considers three fundamental human problems related to aforementioned historical and literary characters (absolute of power and genius of war, search for truth and doubt, compassion and love) to be at the origin of and the driving force behind Charlot’s art, as well as being an excellent material for three formidable films, in which Charlot would effectively “reduce to human measure” these three myths, legends, fetishes, wonders or monstrosities.36        




This short overview alone provides a clear picture of just how much Chaplin’s art and his private life were an ineluctable component in the spectrum of affinities and inspirations of Dada- and Surrealist-oriented authors. As was also the case with other avant-garde artists within European cultural space, from England to Soviet Union, the Dadaists and Surrealists, whether in agreement with Chaplin’s films, his actions in life, or not, simply felt compelled to take their stand towards them, be it positively or negatively, thus contributing to the vital and productive intertwining of Chaplinism and avant-garde, which, in turn, brought about some of the most curious and, at the same time, the most interesting art achievements in the period between two world wars.        





1. A letter from November 14, 1918, “A Monsieur A.B.,” Jacques Vaché, Lettres de guerre, Paris, 1919, p. 24.

2. Michel Sanouillet, Dada à Paris, Paris: J.-J. Pauvert, 1965.

3. A letter from June 19, 1919, Lettres de guerre, 409.

4. Diego Rivera & Gladys March, My art, my life: an autobiography, Courier Dover Publications, 1991, p. 146.

5. Paul Citroen, “Une voix de Holland,“ 1920, in Hugnet, Dictionnaire du dadaïsme, 1976, p. 76.

6. Philippe Soupault, Charlot, Paris: Plon, 1931, p. II. Starting from the conviction that the cinema, despite the extraordinary power it wields, has not, thus far, managed to depose the book from its pedestal, Soupault states that writing about Charlot’s life, the way he remembers it, didn’t seem completely futile to him, and that by doing so the debt to Chaplin’s immense popularity is not yet repaid. “To millions of human beings in habit of going to the cinema, the character depicted by Chaplin has become a friend. He enjoys degree of popularity and affection never before experienced by any creature of human imagination, be it Don Quixote or Tom Thumb, Robinson Crusoe or Good Little Devil. His existence has the force which by far exceeds those of all legendary heroes, from North to South, and from West to East, fascinating the kids, grown ups, and all the big children. Charlot is truly a hero of our time, a universal hero and, as his American friends would have it, he is a man who made the world laugh, and also the one who made it cry.” (pp. II-III)

7. Also, Chaplin appears in one of the earliest poems by Paul Éluard, “Julot,” as a counterpart to a chubby fellow, most likely Mack Swain. Paul Éluard, “Julot,” Projecteur (May 21, 1920), reprinted in Les Nécessités de la vie et les conséquences des rêves (Paris: Gallimard, 1921).

8. The first poem is based on emphasised disruption of regular syntactic construction, on grammatical figures and exceptions, and also empathic sensations oscillating between feminine and masculine subjectivity; this precisely is the reason why “Sentimental Charlot” is to the utmost extent a semantically opaque text. On the other hand, the other composition has much simpler syntax and vocabulary, which makes it barren of ambiguities and semantic vagueness that stems from various possibilities of reading/interpretation.

9. Other characters (members of secret society) are also modeled after personalities close to Aragon (Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Paul Valéry, Jacques Vaché, André Breton, Pablo Picasso, Diego Ribera), whereas the main character, Anicet, has several qualities proper to Aragon himself.  

10. Anicet ou le Panorama, Paris: Éditions de la Novelle revue française, 1921, p. 47.

11. Ibid.

12. Franz Hellens, “L’École du Mouvement,” Le Disque Vert (2nd year, 5 issues), 4-5, pp. 84, 684.

13. Ibid., p. 8 [688].

14.  Le Disque Vert (2nd year, 5 issues), 4-5, 1924, p. 17.

15. Ibid.

16. Henri Michaux, “Surréalisme,” Le Disque Vert (4th series, 4 issues), 1, January, 1925, p. 86.

17. With its humour and social virulence, Goll’s Chapliniade probably inspired Nezval’s short scenario “Charlie before the Court,” see Matthew S. Witkovsky,“Surrealism in the Plural: Guillaume Apollinaire, Ivan Goll and Devětsil in the 1920s,” Papers of Surrealism, 2, summer 2004, p. 5.    

18. “Charlie is crouching in front of the tavern’s door, he is straining like a man who has just been struck by a misfortune. The edges on the back of his coat make a cosy screen, and he heaps dirt with his hands.” Charlie před soudem, p. 341.  

19. Chaplin is present in Nezval’s manifesto-poem “Podivuhodný kouzelník” (“Marvelous wizard”) (published in the revolutionary anthology Devětsil, 1922, pp. 32-50) as an icon of modernity, alongside Apollinaire, Picasso, Fairbanks… “Chaplin carries a lovely gift on a motorcycle, a mirror, stars, caviar, and all of it for us to eat it,” “Marvelous wizard”, p. 46.     

20. Melchior Vischer, Chaplin. Tragigroteske in Sechs Bildern. Potsdam: Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag, 1924. M. Vischer, a German language author, of Czech origin and belonging to Czech cultural milieu, was born as Emil Walter Kurt Fischer in 1895 in Teplice. Vischer’s first work, the short novel Sekunde durch Hirn (A Second Across Brain) (1920), has come to be considered the first and the only “true” Dadaist novel. In the interwar period he was active alongside some of the greatest names in the contemporary literature, including Franz Kafka, Alfred Döblin, and Robert Musil, whom he knew personally and was in contact with. Other Vischer’s early works also received excellent reviews, first of all Strolch und Kaiserin (Tramp and Empress, 1921), and Chaplin (1924).       

21. Chaplin, p. 79-80.

22. Ibid., p. 88.

23. Мax Jacob, “L’Humour est la Danse sur le Volcan,” Le Disque Vert (2nd year, 5 issues), 4-5 , pp. 35-37, 2, 635-637.

24. Israel Zangwill is the name of a British humourist, a writer of Jewish descent and Latvian-Polish origins, whereas Eulenspiegel is a vagabond, a trickster, and a joker, with origins in Dutch and German popular traditions. In relation to Chaplin, Zangwill is also mentioned by another Czech writer close to Surrealist aesthetics, Karel Teige, in the essay “On humour, Dadaists, and clowns” (Karel Teige, “O humoru, klaunech a dadaistech,” Sršatec, 4, July-August, 1924, 38-40), when giving an account on contemporary Anglo-Saxon humourist writers.     

25. Louis Aragon, “Du Décor,” Le Film (September 16, 1918), pp. 8-10.

26. “Du sujet,” Le Film, (6th year, new series) 149, January 22, 1919, reprinted in Chroniques I: 1918-1932 (ed. Bernard Leuilliot), Paris: Stock, p. 39-43, in particular p. 42.

27. Published for the first time in the journal Transition, and then also in La révolution surréaliste, 9-10, October 1, 1927.

28. Moris Nado, Istorija nadrealizma, Beograd: BIGZ, 1980, p. 149.

29. Ibid.

30. José María Barrera López & Gabriele Morelli, Ludus: gioco, sport, cinema nell'avanguardia spagnola, Editoriale Jaca Book, 1994, p. 291. Buñuel later justified such acerbity of his views with the given circumstances in which there was a lot of “agressive hostility towards Charlot.” The worm-eaten wacko that spoke of “Charlot’s disgraceful heart” was André Suarès.

31. Marko Ristić, “Humor i poezija” (1930), in Oko nadrealizma, Beograd: Klio, 2003, p. 29.

32. “Sada i ovde,” NDIO, June, 1931, p. 11.

33. Ibid., p. 13. 

34. “Chaplin,” Avangardni pisci kao kritičari, pp. 448-454. Here Matić uses Chaplin’s name only twice, in the introductory sections of the text, whereas in all other instances, whether he speaks about the film content or about the „external,“ technical cinematographic aspects such as acting, directing, and screenplay, he employs the name of the film character, Charlot.

35. Ibid., p. 449.

36. With an idea to make a film where Edna Purviance would play the role of Josephine, Chaplin was increasingly seduced by Napoleon’s genius, until the moment when he decided to play the role of Napoleon on his Italian campaign himself. Over time, however, Chaplin’s enthusiasm for this role faded and the whole idea was dropped in the end. Autobiografija, p. 274.

37. “Just imagine Charlot as Napoleon! In the coronation scene at the Notre-Dame, for instance. What would the academic, pompous Davide’s painting of coronation from Louvre look like after Charlot? Or, say, Charlot as Napoleon leaning over Prince Andrei in War and Peace, or in the scene of Moscow on fire, or, in the scene when Napoleon’s mighty army is retreating from Russia. Or, in the battle of Waterloo. Or, on the Island of Saint Helena.


Or, Charlot entering Jerusalem on a donkey, or, in the scenes of Christ’s ‘miracles,’ when thousands of starving people are fed with five fishes, or a couple of breads, or, Charlot carrying the cross, and after that him on the cross among criminals. Or, in the scene, almost devised by Charlot, when Christ, hungry, approaches a fig tree, and, seeing the tree without fruits, because it was off season, he curses. And his students which, the next day, come to the conclusion that the ‘tree indeed dried up.’   


Only Charlot, and non other, could play all of this, and make us familiar with that crude animal-like selfishness which dwells even in the ‘God-man of love.’ Or, Charlot as the Danish prince, uttering the famous words: To be or not to be, that is the question.     


Or, Charlot in the scene of the murder of Polonius, behind the curtain, or, with Ophelia, when he (just picture his look!) mercilessly says to her: ‘Ophelia, get thee to a nunnery.’ Or, in the scene of swords fight. What a three superb, three impeccable films would that be! Three illuminating tours de force.” (Matić, “Čaplin,” Avangardni pisci kao kritičari, p. 453)




Key words: Dadaism, Surrealism, Chaplinism, Jacques Vaché, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, Marko Ristić, Đorđe Jovanović, Dušan Matić


Abstract: This text provides a brief survey of the most important works related to the textual thematisation of Chaplin, in advertisement and propaganda, but also in letters, diaries, and literary works of the renowned European Dadaists and Surrealists.


Summary: This paper provides a brief survey of the various thematisations of Chaplin and his art in Jacques Vaché, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, Philippe Soupault, Max Jacob, Vítězslav Nezval, Melchior Vischer, Luis Buñuel, Marko Ristić, Đorđe Jovanović, Dušan Matić, et al. It shows that the figures of Charlot and the real life Chaplin were ineluctable subject for the Dadaists and Surrealists, notwithstanding their final views on Chaplin’s art.              



trans. into eng.: Đorđe Čolić