Tate Modern’s new exhibition on surrealism redefines a phenomenon which had been seen as Eurocentric into an interconnected, global movement with “convergence points” in Mexico City, Cairo and the Caribbean. The international approach shelters a riotous breadth of styles within the surrealist umbrella, and spurs the discovery of less familiar artists.
TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Would it be fair to say that surrealism has become a tarnished brand? The transition from shock and hostility in the 1930s, to apathy and a hint of ridicule today has been an ignominious one. Perhaps it’s the bold humour of objects such as Lobster Telephone (1938) by Salvador Dalí that has not aged well. The memory of that misjudged photo of Lee Miller taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub, and of Dalí’s car commercials for Datsun in the 1970s also casts a long shadow.
The immediate impact of a surrealist painting is arguably unchanged from a century ago. A CBC lecture from 1944 by art theorist Grace Pailthorpe titled “Surrealism and Psychology” intones: “If it repulses you, don’t fight it. Accept it! Then go back and have another look”. Paintings such as Naissance(Birth) (1944) by Egypt-born Laurent Marcel Salinas, where a naked human eyeball (considered by some as a proxy for male castration) wriggles in the desert, or the Argentinian Antonio Berni’s Landru en el Hotel (1932) where a severed thumb burrows into a lobotomised man, are evidence of a queasy, almost cannibalistic urge of some surrealists. Their artworks seemingly spring from the same tradition as Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (1819–23). There is rarely an accent on making attractive paintings, and the canvases are often replete with multiple objects which resist common classification and frustrate easy explanation.
When I studied playwright Bertolt Brecht, I found his defamiliarization techniques more enjoyable to discuss than to see. Surrealism, itself a proponent of defamiliarization, is reminiscent. Some of the most beautiful aspects of surrealism lie in its dissection. Consider this quotation from poet Isidore Ducasse: “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”; or the line from the inaugural issue of La Révolution Surréaliste which claims, “Surrealism opens the door of the dream to all those for whom night is miserly”.
Dreams might suggest fantasy, rather than engagement with reality. This exhibition steers us away from this conclusion. There is certainly a great power and engagement to many of the works on display here. Notable examples include Coups de bâtons (1937) by Mayo (Antoine Malliarakis) where the rhythmic intensity of the painting symphonises the fleeing, beating and whirling. It marries surrealism’s trademark grain of humour, juxtaposition of odd objects and sadism with a satirical, political purpose.
Politics is certainly a curatorial preoccupation here. The global remit does make some explanation of political dynamics necessary, and this becomes something of a tangled web and arguably a distraction from a journey into the paintings themselves. Many of the mural descriptions eulogise the artists for their role in decrying whichever political situation or dictatorship was uppermost where they worked: Salazar in Portugal, Peronist Argentina, colonial Mozambique, post-colonial Egypt, and so on. However, one of the later rooms condemns the early surrealists for presenting objects made by indigenous peoples, shorn of their place, maker and original meaning, in the 1936 exhibition of “Surrealist objects” in Paris. The surrealists, we are told, remained “entangled within a colonial attitude of cultural appropriation”.
Very few artists of the polarised 1930s would have the kind of politics that we would consider acceptable today. One of my favourite paintings at Tate Modern is The Sea B (1930) by Emil Nolde, an artist whose unrequited love for Nazism was explored in the 2019 exhibition “Nolde: A German Legend, the Artist in National Socialism” in Hamburg. The debate on the need (or not) to link an artist’s output with their ugly politics may only just be getting started. What is clear by reading the curatorial descriptions of “Surrealism Beyond Borders” is that the Surrealists fell prey to many of the fads of the first half of the 20th Century that are now discredited: occultism for one, Trotskyism for another; they also tended towards a too literal understanding of Freud’s theories of dreams, and a penchant for shock-jock sensationalism (viz. Leonora Carrington’s “Ode to Necrophilia” series).
Surrealism’s fascination with the uncanny can make for mesmerising viewing. Marquee paintings here include René Magritte’s La Durée poignardé/Time Transfixed (1938) and Leonora Carrington’s Self Portrait (1937–38). Magritte’s precision and uncluttered visuals are eerily effective in this musing on the rapidity of time and the fungibility of memory, while Carrington’s insouciant, matter-of-fact stare normalises the oddity around her, asking questions of our own perception of domestic mundanity. Elsewhere, there is Pablo Picasso’s Les Trois Danseuses/The Three Dancers(1925), which soaks the surrealist idea in the colourful, sunny hues of the south. His work is a useful segue into the gleeful mayhem of Mozambique-born Malangatana Ngwenya’s Untitled (1967), where humans and devils intermingle in a frenzied cannibalistic rite.
One cannot question the ambition of an exhibition summoning artists from cities including Buenos Aires, Cairo, Lisbon, Mexico City, Prague, Seoul, and Tokyo, and spanning a 50-year period. Whilst seeking unity and connections between the surrealist diaspora, it might be worth pausing to admire the sheer diversity and breadth of the movement, which for so many decades inspired global devotees of the uncanny, the dreamscape, and the chance encounter.
Surrealism Beyond Borders
24 February – 29 August 2022
Tate Modern, London
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