[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
Amidst the turmoil of 1968 in Chicago, a group of six young surrealist artists established their own revolution on the corner of Mohawk and Eugenie.
The Chicago Surrealist Group was formed two years prior in 1966 after Franklin and Penelope Rosemont were inducted into the Paris Surrealist Group. When they returned stateside, they set an artistic movement in motion that would grow exponentially in the following years.
The French surrealist André Breton defined surrealism as “Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” Strongly influenced by psychoanalysis, the surrealists viewed thought as a collection of strange, dreamlike associations. Back in Chicago, Penelope Rosemont described surrealism more simply as “liberation of the mind.” However, surrealism is a difficult term to define because it upholds individual freedom so rigorously. In most cases, if one considers oneself to be a surrealist—or practicing surrealism—one probably is.
Set within the confines of three small rooms and a hallway at 524 Eugenie, in the present-day neighborhood of Old Town, the Rosemonts’ revolution had no name. Its only marking was a large mural painted on a solid black door depicting the Warner Bros. character, Bugs Bunny, standing with his leg crossed, chomping on his trademark carrot, as if leaning against the door frame.
As such, the art exhibit came to be known as Gallery Bugs Bunny. It featured over a hundred works by Penelope and Franklin Rosemont, along with fellow surrealist artists Robert Greene, Eric Matheson, Schlecter Duvall, and Lester Dore. For fifty cents, anyone could mingle amongst works displayed as a protest against the Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage show at the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 1968.
But Gallery Bugs Bunny served as more than just a protest to the “reprehensible fraud” of the Art Institute’s exhibit. It became a meeting place for other radicals including: diggers, anarchists, Black Panthers, and Wobblies—all of whom were fighting their own struggles.
The show received unexpected success from the public and critics and extended its closing date for an extra month—from December 8, 1968 to January 8, 1969, when it picked up and moved to Madison, Wisconsin.
The Chicago Surrealist Group formed by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont and their colleagues remains the center of the surrealist movement of the United States. Chicago still boasts one of the highest numbers of surrealist painters and poets within the United States. The Rosemonts have remained active in politics as well as the arts. Their Black Swan Press, an imprint of the Charles H Kerr Company, continues to publish revolutionary movement texts and surrealist artwork and literature to this day.
2008 marks the 40th anniversary of Gallery Bugs Bunny. In celebration, the Chicago surrealist group put up a small show at the famous Heartland Café in the neighborhood of Rogers Park which ran through the end of September. They have plans to continue organizing exhibits around the city. ◊