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Hardcover | Out of Print | 344 pp. | 7 x 9 in | September 1993 | ISBN: 9780262061605
Paperback | $37.00 Short | £30.95 | 344 pp. | 7 x 9 in | March 1995 | ISBN: 9780262560818
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Compulsive Beauty


Surrealism has long been seen as its founder, André Breton, wanted it to be seen: as a movement of love and liberation. In Compulsive Beauty, Foster reads surrealism from its other, darker side: as an art given over to the uncanny, to the compulsion to repeat and the drive toward death. To this end Foster first restages the difficult encounter of surrealism with Freudian psychoanalysis, then redefines the crucial categories of surrealism—the marvelous, convulsive beauty, objective chance—in terms of the Freudian uncanny, or the return of familar things made strange by repression. Next, with the art of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti in mind, Foster develops a theory of the surrealist image as a working over of a primal fantasy. This leads him finally to propose as a summa of surrealism a body of work often shunted to its margins: the dolls of Hans Bellmer, so many traumatic tableaux that point to difficult connections not only between sadism and masochism butal so between surrealism and fascism. At this point Compulsive Beauty turns to the social dimension of the surrealist uncanny. First Foster reads the surrealist repertoire of automatons and mannequins as a reflection on the uncanny processes of mechanization and commodification. Then he considers the surrealist use of outmoded images as an attempt to work through the historical repression effected by these same processes. In a brief conclusion he discusses the fate of surrealism today in a world become surrealistic. Compulsive Beauty not only offers a deconstructive reading of surrealism, long neglected by Anglo-American art history, but also participates in a postmodern reconsideration of modernism, the dominant accounts of which have obscured its involvements in desire and trauma, capitalist shock and technological development.

About the Author

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin ‘17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press) and other books.


“Breaking away from a critical tradition where for far too long gossip has competed with asymbolic grasps of ecstasy, Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty will stand out in the literature devoted to Surrealism as the first convincing exploration of what is at the core of the Surrealist project: the status of the work of art in the age of psychoanalysis. If Surrealism was the last avant-garde to have cared about taking the pulse of a feverish beauty, Foster has discovered that it was beating, beyond the pleasure principle, to the uncanny beat of the death instinct.”
Denis Hollier, Yale University
“In exhilarating, thoughtful and subtle arguments, Foster takes surrealist interpretations of psychoanalysis into a shocking encounter with the Freudian uncanny...[An] extremely important book.”
Jane Beckett, Times Higher Education Supplement