Will Atkin - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Will Atkin

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Will Atkin

Associate Lecturer

Thesis: The Surrealist Object as the Vessel of Alchemy, Sorcery, and “Magic”: Occult Practices in French Surrealism, c.1930-1970

Supervised by Gavin Parkinson

Funded by Arts & Humanities Research Council

In the Second manifeste du surréalisme (1930), André Breton famously called for the ‘occultation’ of Surrealism. Shortly afterwards, by the early 1930s, ‘the object’ had emerged as a critical category within surrealist discourse. The proximity of these developments was far from coincidental, and over the following decades the surrealist group’s interests in the Occult remained subtly intertwined with their experimentation with the Surrealist Object. Building upon the already burgeoning field of research that is investigating Surrealism’s interests in Occult literature (focused in particular on Breton’s writing), this thesis seeks to explore a series of moments across the period 1930-70 when this strand of surrealist discourse manifest itself as various forms of Occult practice through its intersection with surrealist discourse on the Object. Where the ‘Occult’ paradigm of Surrealism has mostly remained vague and non-specific in its point of reference, this project aims to detail certain distinct categories and chapters comprising this line of surrealist inquiry, through sequential case studies on: experimental alchemy, protective talismans, “black magic” and sorcery, and some of the surrealists’ own more idiosyncratic formulations of “magic”.

The thesis finds an opportune methodological springboard in recent art-historical and anthropological scholarship, where there has been a shift of focus towards ‘objects’ and ‘things’ based around questions of agency and ontology. This broad theoretical debate offers an engaging dialogue with surrealist conceptions of the performativity of the object. Instigating such comparison not only serves to clarify the surrealist activities in question, but also helps to clarify the origins of this theoretical debate in early-mid twentieth century artistic and anthropological discourse.


  • BA with First Class Honours in History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, awarded 2012.
  • MA with Distinction in History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, awarded 2013.


  • The Courtauld Institute of Art – BA2 Constellations: The City and the Country: Painting in France, 1871-1914

Research interests

  • Early C20th anthropological literature
  • Late C19th Symbolist Painting
  • Ethnographic collections in C20th Europe
  • The poetry/writings of Novalis
  • The writings of Alfred Gell

Conference papers and lectures

  • ‘The Stuff of Dreams? Approaching Surrealist Objects as Instruments of Magic’, Modern and Contemporary Research Seminar at the Research Forum, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London (6th October 2014).
  • ‘Océanie, Key to the Surrealist Philosophy of Magic: André Breton, The Easter Island Paradigm, and Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti – Revisited’, Pacific Waves Conference, University of Sussex (6th-7th November 2015.

Recent publications

  • ‘Beware the Erotic Doll!’ (a review of The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish by Marquard Smith), Art History 38 issue 1, February 2015.
  • ‘A review of Surrealism and the Occult: by Tessel M. Bauduin’, immediations: The Courtauld Institute of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research Vol.3 No.4, December 2015.

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