Museum  November 29, 2021  Howard Halle

Met's Ambitious "Surrealism Beyond Borders" Lacks Organization

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Marie Kellen.

Installation view Surrealism Beyond Borders.

Like politics, all art is local until it isn’t anymore, a point driven home by Surrealism Beyond Borders, the Met’s tour d’horizon of the global, half-century-long spread of Surrealism from its birthplace in 1920s Paris.

The City of Lights wasn’t technically Surrealism’s cradle, however. Artists across Europe (René Magritte, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí) were developing the style that would bear the movement’s name and give it an international cast. But Paris was where Surrealism was codified through the energetic self-promotion of the poet, André Breton.

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Marie Kellen.

Installation view Surrealism Beyond Borders. Features on the far left: Seriés de cartes postales surréalistes garanties (Guaranteed Surrealist Postcard Series),1937.

In an October 1924 manifesto, Breton anointed himself the official arbiter and enforcer of Surrealism, while engaging in a sort of battle over IP with Yvan Goll, a rival for control of the Surrealist brand who’d issued a similar decree two weeks earlier. Breton’s writing barely mentioned art, yet he would win the allegiance of painters and sculptors, consigning Goll to the dust heap of history. Breton became Surrealism’s Johnny Appleseed—the disseminator (and inspiration for other disseminators) of its tenets around the world.

The exhibit posits that Surrealism grew more subversive and politically engaged as it radiated from its point of origin, but it was plenty radical where it began. More than just heaving the subconscious into view, Surrealism, like much of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, was a reaction to World War I, when Europe’s old order destroyed itself in the trenches, taking with it the traditional ways of seeing. Civilization couldn’t compete with the Boschian hellscape of the Western Front, so the Surrealists dug among its ruins for an alternative reality.

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Marie Kellen

Installation view Surrealism Beyond Borders.

Surrealism was flexible enough to adapt to other countries coping with the centrifugal forces—industrialization, colonialism, imperialism—of the twentieth century. But given the wide-ranging nature of this story, it’s no surprise that in telling it, the exhibit seems confusing and unwieldy. With titled sections featuring names that appear and reappear throughout, the show bounces back and forth between people, places, and groups as it lays out Surrealism’s themes and characteristics. The result feels overdetermined, and it doesn’t help that some rooms are overhung, or that key wall texts are placed high above viewers’ head, causing neck strain. Still, the exhibition surfaces fascinating artists and artworks hitherto known mainly to specialists.

Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris, gift of the artist 1994.

Marcel Jean, French, La Charité-sur-Loire 1900–1993 Louveciennes; Armoire surréaliste (Surrealist Wardrobe), 1941. Oil on wood panel.

Greeting visitors at the entrance, Marcel Jean’s Armoire surréaliste (Surrealist Wardrobe), serves as the show’s introduction, a Magritte-like affair with glimpses of landscape behind a wooden screen of partially opened cabinets and closets. Actually two vertically stacked scenes—a denuded rocky terrain in somber gray at bottom, and a ridge of verdant hills on top—Armoire was painted in 1941 as the artist took refuge from World War II in the French countryside. Meditating on the straightened circumstances of exile, Jean concedes the futility of hoping for a brighter future in the face of a grim present.

The show covers key aspects of Surrealism such as its penchant for collaboration—most famously through the cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), a game of telephone played with drawing. The exhibition offers scores of examples, including a standout created in 1930 by a Surrealist group from Belgrade led by Marko Ristic. Part robot, part strongman, and anatomically equipped with three testicles plus a broomstick for a phallus, it makes an odd if compelling impression.

Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, Legacy of Marko Ristić, donated by Ševa and Mara Ristić.

Marko Ristić, Serbian, Belgrade 1902–1984 Belgrade Ševa (Jelica) Ristić, Serbian, Belgrade 1906–1995 Belgrade André Thirion, French, Baccarat 1907–2001 Levallois-Perret Aleksandar Vučo, Serbian, Belgrade 1897–1985 Belgrade Lula (Julijana) Vučo, Serbian, Požarevac 1899–1985 Belgrade Vane Bor (Stevan Živadinović), Serbian, Bor 1908–1993 Oxford Le cadavre exquis no. 11 (Exquisite Corpse No. 11), 1930.

The exquisite corpse also reflected the absurdism and anarchic spirit underlying Surrealist ideology. Breton’s worldwide revolution wouldn’t be televised, of course, but it would be conveyed both dispassionately and heatedly, depending on national temperament.

Regarding the former, Umi (The Sea) by the Japanese artist Koga Harue is a revelation. Painted in 1929, the piece coolly juxtaposes an idyllic seaside with an ocean harboring cutaway views of a factory and a submarine lurking in the deep. At right, a bathing beauty tiptoes on a quay, her hand raised as if hailing this display of militarist might. Poised between innocence and menace, Umi is a cautionary tale about the warmongering that would eventually lead to Japan’s devastation.

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

Koga Harue, Japanese, Kurume 1895–1933 Tokyo. Umi (The Sea), 1929. Oil on canvas. 51 3/16 × 64 in. (130 × 162.5 cm).

In contrast, 1937’s Coups de bâtons (Baton Blows) by the Egyptian painter Mayo is all abstracted fury, depicting protestors violently clashing with police. Victims and perpetrators are seen as a tangle of attenuated figures pitched somewhere between Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy.

The Americas were arguably the most fertile ground for Surrealism, especially in Mexico City. There, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo presided over a milieu that included foreigners like the British ex-pat Leonora Carrington whose painting Chiki, Your Country (1944) portrays her marriage to the Hungarian photographer Emeric “Chiki” Weisz. Elsewhere, the Cuban-born artist Wifredo Lam proselytized Surrealism in Latin America. His magisterial canvas The Eternal Presence (also 1944), presents an arrangement of humanoid beasties that resembles a chimerical remix of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Lent by Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Nancy Sayles Day Collection of Modern Latin American Art (66.154)

Wifredo Lam, Cuban, Sagua La Grande 1902–1982 Paris
Le présent éternel (Hommage à Alejandro García Caturla) (The Eternal Present [Homage to Alejandro García Caturla]), also known as The Eternal Presence, 1944.

Even by the 1970s, the gospel according to Breton continued to find its way into far corners of the planet. But it also had—and still has—an effect on contemporary art and popular culture. It would have been interesting for Beyond Borders to have acknowledged that impact, but perhaps that’s best left to another—and more clearly organized—show.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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