Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Surrealism revisited

The Fondation Beyeler has put on a new show on Surrealism in Paris. It brings together over 200 fascinating works by Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Joan Miró, and other Surrealist artists. In addition to the well-known paintings and sculptures, there are also objects, photographs, manuscripts, jewelry, and films. It's like traveling back in time to experience the development of this important movement in art history.

The first room begins with works by Giorgio de Chirico - sets of familiar classical buildings forming unfamiliar or even mysterious stages for riddles and dreams. His haunting "metaphysical" visual style opened new horizons in art and had formative influence on the Surrealist movement. In fact, many surrealist artists including Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and René Magritte acknowledged de Chirico's influence.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Delights of the Poet, 1912

In the second room are manuscripts, letters, and publications of André Breton's two manifestos of Surrealism (1924 and 1929) and several Surrealist journals. As the leader and chief theoretician of the movement, Breton defined the basic narratives of the group. First, he linked creative action to dreams and the unconscious, in a very Freudian way. Dreams and reality together form absolute reality, a sort of surreality, which reflects the internal reality of the psyche. Second, he emphasized that Surrealism was foremost a philosophical and cultural movement, less about style or school to make art but more a comprehensive radical new lifestyle.
The first issue of La révolution surréaliste, 1924
René Magritte, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1930

Automatic Writing
Surrealists believed in the unconscious mind, and automatism was thus developed as a way of expressing it. It involves "spontaneous creativity that excludes intellectual self-censorship." Praised by Breton as "the most surrealist of us all,” Miró often started out his paintings as automatic drawings. Arguably, the process cannot be entirely automatic, but at least it is free from rigorous pre-conception and judgments. Another pioneer of "automatic drawing" was André Masson, who was also a frequent contributor to La révolution surréaliste.

Joan Miró, Painting: The Fratellini Brothers, 1927
André Masson, Birth of Birds, c. 1925

This "automatic" method leaves room for unexpected incidents. The key Surrealist techniques - grattage (scraping) and frottage (rubbing) - are good examples. Developed by Max Ernst, these techniques relinquished control over the work to a certain extent, allowing surprising unplanned shapes and textures to appear on the canvas.
Max Ernst, The Entire City, 1935-36

Before the skinny figures, Alberto Giacometti was quite involved in the Surrealist movement. He became a member of the group in 1928, but in 1935 he was expelled, due to his "reawaken interest in nature studies." The group saw this tendency as "reactionary" (i.e. not automatic). Giacometti experienced intense creative crisis after that but fortunately he overcame the trauma with a novel unique style.
Alberto Giacometti, Reclining Woman, 1929

Another artist who wanted "not to lose sight of nature" was Picasso. For him, it is impossible to materialize something not inherent in the subject matter. He refused the Surrealists' basic idea of automatic writing, and still believed in the importance of conscious composition. He was never a real part of the movement. It's odd to even see him in the show. OK Beyeler, I know you have Picasso.
Pablo Picasso, Figure (Seated Woman), 1930

If we talk about Freud, desire would inevitably become a key word. The show's poster image - Dalí's Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate, one Second before Awakening - is a good example. Here, the main subject is Dalí's wife Gala. Next to the naked body, there are two suspended droplets of water and a pomegranate, a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection. A bee, an insect that traditionally symbolizes the Virgin, is flying above the pomegranate. It is repeated symbolically in the upper part of the painting with a fish, two tigers, and a bayonet.

Salvador Dalí, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around
a Pomegranate, one Second before Awakening
, 1944

Dalí defined surrealist objects as "absolutely useless from the practical and rational point of view, created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way with the maximum of tangible reality, ideas and fantasies that have a delirious character." The first of such objects that comes to my mind is Meret Oppenheim's Fur Cup (1936). It is not in this exhibition, but they do have Fur Bracelet (1935), reportedly the trigger of the cup. Another object by her, My Nurse is a pair of white lady's shoes that take the shape of a chicken dish. The high heels here represent not only gender and domesticity, but also fleshly lust, almost to the point of cannibalism.
Meret Oppenheim, Fur Bracelet, 1935
Meret Oppenheim, My Nurse, 1936

Max Ernst's Capricorne in the foyer is like a family of hybrid creatures. The father has horns like a goat, the mother has a fish tail, and so does the little child. In fact, Capriconrnus is a part goat part fish creature in Greek mythology. This is typical Surrealistic. The artists did not really invent scary-looking things out of the blue, but they were happy to adopt grotesque beasts from ancient myths.

Max Ernst, Capricorne, 1948

Another example is Paul Delvaux's The Break of Day, where the metamorphosis of the body into a tree is likely a reference to Roman mythology.
Paul Delvaux, The Break of Day, 1937

Dalí staged the classical myth of Narcissus in a dramatically illuminated landscape. The transformation is represented by the juxtaposition of a crouching body on the left and a hand on the right holding an egg with a narcissus sprout.
Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937

Less known artists
One interesting thing about this exhibition is that it also brings in works by less known Surrealist artists, including the Romanian Victor Brauner, the Austrian Wolfgang Paalen, and the Swiss Kurt Seligmann. A native of Basel, Seligmann presents in his Carnival a dream-like atmosphere of Basler Fasnacht.

Kurt Seligmann, Carnival, 1950

In the welcoming remarks, curator Philippe Büttner says, "We hope you explore the exhibition with your eyes wide open... and keep an open mind. You don't have to find everything appealing - even we don't like everything." I found this statement rather strange and conservative. After more than half a century, are we still not ready for this? You know what? I actually like everything. As one of the most important movements in the early 20th century, Surrealism influenced many later groups and events, including Situationist International, Postmodernism, and indirectly May 1968.

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