By Christian Kile
The romantic hatred of a calculated and ‘rational’ life doesn’t disappear, it just changes masks. For surrealism this animosity was often channelled through the twin peaks or troughs, depending on your view, of Marx and Freud. Throughout this exhibition, Surrealism: Beyond Borders, we’re presented with works whose subject matter is that of dream states, bodies under siege, often distorted, biomorphic, sometimes bloodied. There is also a great deal of mystery. An oil by Richard Oelze, Tägliche Drangsale (Everyday Tribulations) sets its figures and furry alien-like creatures in a state of metamorphosis. Across the room we move forward decades with a canvas by Miró: Mai 68, a product of the movement’s legacy, with its paint explosions and hand prints. Further on is a collaborative drawing by Frida Kahlo and Lucienne Bloch, Exquisite Corpse (Frida), a tightly corseted figure pictured with its breasts forced up and out, lower down, a dripping phallus emerging from a superimposed fig leaf. This was in 1932.
For a show attempting to sell itself as a more encompassing look at surrealism there is a generous, though uneven showing of canonical figures: Picasso and de Chirico (with paintings relegated to a peripheral room), Ernst, Giacometti, Gorky, Tanning and Carrington are all here. Dalí’s Téléphone–Homard (Lobster Telephone) is one of the first works on show, while Cornell, tentatively linked to the movement, puts in an appearance with one of his box constructions with glass and crystal, a homage to the nineteenth century opera singer Giuditta Pasta. Magritte’s La durée poignardée (Time Transfixed) presents a suspended steam train emerging from a simple dining room fireplace and, unlike so many of the works here, expresses a little absurdity with less conspicuous elements.
A Ted Joans pencil drawing shows a girl (although who can say for sure?) writing out her lines at the blackboard, ‘what is mau mau, what is surrealism’ ad infinitum, mau mau being the name of a militant Kenyan anti-colonial group. Behind her back she holds a blade. Onwards to a small oil by Leonor Fini, Petit Sphinx hermite (Little Hermit Sphinx) which is striking, highly-finished and in composition verges on a Dutch interior by Maes, only here the building is dilapidated ⎼ and instead of seventeenth century Netherlands’ trappings adorning the walls, a human lung, tied to a string, hangs over a somber sphinx, replacing the smiling maid.
The curators claim that on occasions where European surrealists worked with objects from indigenous cultures, they stripped these of their ‘place, maker and original meaning.’ Apparently, we are meant to infer from this that as a result part of the surrealist project became trapped ‘within a colonial attitude of cultural appropriation.’ Are we to take from this that when a people with a colonised history read Artaud, make oil paintings or adopt surrealist methods they are submitting to the culture of their colonisers? It is not made clear. The irony seems to be lost when comments of this kind are pasted onto the walls of an exhibition on a movement committed to transgression, often sexual, and which advocated the abolition of limits.
Surrealism: Beyond Borders is one more show demonstrating that no matter the degree of rage or revolutionary intentions, art fails when it attempts to transform the world. But when it turns inward and revolutionises itself, in the right hands, there can be triumph. For a movement so much concerned with poetry, it’s a shame that an exhibition on this scale should pay so little attention to its literary works ⎼ understandable, perhaps, given the gallery setting, but its organisers have missed a trick, considering the influence of poets from de Lautréamont to Mallarmé and Rimbaud. The thematic rather than chronological arrangement does little to complement or illuminate the works in these rooms and many pieces look like they’ve been included for no other reason than their neglect historically rather than any aesthetic quality.
Surrealism must be one of the last, if not final movement in the arts which spanned multiple forms and has had a vast cultural influence. Its versatility is perhaps its most striking feature, from poetry to performance, fine art and film. Over a century on from inception it’s now thoroughly embedded in the repertoire of art history with many of its works fitting ever more comfortably into gilt picture frames, though not today’s institutionalised museum agenda.