Surrealism Beyond Borders Virtual Opening | Met Exhibitions
Hello. I'm Max Hollein, Director of The Met, and I'm delighted that you could join us virtually to celebrate the opening of Surrealism Beyond Borders. While many are familiar with Surrealism, this show is full of surprises and new discoveries.
Surrealism is in fact the one ism of the art world that really went global; and its universal and complex artistic language has had a lasting effect on creative imagination and production for decades. The international scope and enduring significance of the Surrealist revolutionary movement is truly extraordinary. Including almost eight decades of work produced across 58 countries, the exhibition pushes beyond the boundaries of history, geography, and nationality. Whether in Buenos Aires, Cairo, Lisbon, or Tokyo, Surrealism represents a shared means of revolt against the status quo, allowing artists to imagine a world beyond their present artistic, cultural, social, or political situation.
And its legacy continues in ever-changing forms to this day. Of course, many people contributed to the success of this groundbreaking project. We are grateful, first and foremost, to Stephanie D'Alessandro, Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Modern Art
and Senior Research Coordinator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met, and to Matthew Gale, Senior Curator at Large at Tate Modern, for their conception of the exhibition and publication. Working with a team of colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, their research not only opens up the field of Surrealist studies, but also generates broader questions about modernism itself. We are also indebted to the numerous private and institutional lenders who so graciously agreed to make their artworks available for study and exhibition. And our gratitude goes out to the many artists and their families who shared their experiences, documents, and works with us.
A special thank you to Di Donna Galleries and Phillips for sponsoring this evening. Many thanks are also owed to the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation, the Placido Arango Fund, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, Alice Cary Brown and W.L. Lyons Brown, the John Pritzker Family Fund, Jake and Hélène Marie Shafran, and The International Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for making this exhibition possible here in New York. And we greatly appreciate the indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Finally, I'd like to thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications for their help in bringing the exhibition's ambitious catalogue to life. I hope you'll have the opportunity to experience the show in person here at The Met or in London at Tate Modern when it travels there in February. It's definitely well worth it.
But without further ado, here's Stephanie to share a new way of looking at Surrealism beyond the confines of a single time and place. When we hear the word Surrealism, we likely think of provocative images, like Salvador Dali's "Lobster Telephone" or René Magritte's "Time Transfixed," iconic works associated with the revolutionary idea of Surrealism that was sparked in Paris around 1924 and that prioritized the unconscious and dreams over the familiar and everyday. While Surrealism has generated poetic and even humorous works, it has also been deployed by artists around the world as a strategy in the struggle for political, social, and personal freedoms. This exhibition expands our understanding of Surrealism as never before, tracing its liberatory appeal beyond boundaries of geography and chronology, and within networks that span Eastern Europe to the Caribbean, Asia to Africa and Australia, and to South and North America.
I'm Stephanie D'Alessandro, Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Modern Art and Senior Research Coordinator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met. And I've curated this exhibition with my colleague Matthew Gale, Senior Curator at Large at Tate Modern, along with a team of collaborators inside the museum and around the world. The idea behind Surrealism Beyond Borders is to reposition Surrealism not as a canonical, monolithic movement with an official group and a single leader, but as something more dynamic that has traveled and taken root in many places at different times; as something that has appealed to artists for its ability to interrogate one's circumstances and imagine a position beyond one's present artistic, cultural, social, or political situation. The exhibition brings together almost eight decades of work, the earliest dating to around the founding of Surrealism in Paris in the 1920s, and the latest dating to the 1980s. Nearly from its inception, Surrealism has had an international scope, but understanding of the movement has been focused primarily through a Western European orientation.
Surrealism Beyond Borders complicates this by expanding the orientation to an international and really, a transnational view. We're looking at a drawing that, since the start of our work, our team has taken as an inspiration. It's a curious hand-drawn and unsigned image that was published in a Belgian Journal called Varietes or Varieties in 1929. It's familiar in that it seems like a map, but the more we look, the more it seems like a projection: territories shrink and swell and the equator rises like a wave over the Earth's oceans. The title of this drawing is "The World in the Time of the Surrealists."
And as a kind of view of the world, it reorients the expected Atlantic center for one in the Pacific. It's a shift in orientation that upsets hierarchies and unspoken systems of power and value. It's been a provocation for us as we've tried to unthink Surrealism and reconsider it from a wider focus than art history and the history of modernism has allowed us to do so before. Neither singular in narrative nor linear in chronology, our exhibition challenges traditional borders and narratives to redraw a map of the world in the time of the Surrealists as an interrelated network, one that makes visible many lives, locations, and encounters linked through the freedom and possibility offered by Surrealism. Our traditional understanding of Surrealism has its roots in World War I in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.
The earliest proponents of Surrealism served in World War I and their experiences pushed them to question the systems that led civilization to such terrible destruction and suffering. André Breton was a French poet best known as the co-founder and leader and principal theorist and spokesperson for Surrealism, as it was announced in Paris in 1924. He wrote the first manifesto of Surrealism, and many others treatises that followed, guiding the ideas in Paris and also beyond. His first writings were focused on the written word, but as artists joined the group, he clarified Surrealist art and curated international exhibitions of Surrealism, which was one of the many ways that the news of Surrealism was so widely spread internationally. Breton also focused on certain themes and tools and practices to unleash the unconscious.
"Time Transfixed" is an example of the kind of work that Breton had in mind. It's an iconic work by René Magritte, a member of both the Belgian and Paris Surrealist groups. In Surrealism, Magritte sought to defamiliarize the familiar, or as he said, "Make ordinary objects shriek out loud."
To do this, he painted recognizable objects and settings but played with scale, perspective, and other devices to awaken us to what really awaits us. One route to navigate some of the familiar themes of Surrealism has to do with redefining Surrealism in transnational and transhistoric ways. Dreams are an example.
The interest, of course, was inspired by Sigmund Freud's widely translated book "The Interpretation of Dreams" from 1900. Surrealism looked upon the dream as a tool to unlock the unconscious and overthrow the stronghold on conscious control. The section of the exhibition called "The Work of Dreams" brings icons together with works from multiple locations including Brazil, Denmark, Poland, France, and the Philippines, to extend our story of the potency of dreams and their importance in Surrealism. Here's another example by Skunder Boghossian, who was born in Ethiopia, in this remarkable canvas called "Night Flight of Dread and Delight" from 1964. Skunder mixes oil paint and collage in this nighttime navigation to reference Pan-African cosmologies, the Coptic mysticism of Ethiopia, as well as the work of European modern artists for something wholly individual.
This painting was also inspired by the Pan-African movement as Skunder experienced it in Paris and the magic realism novels of Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, whose books abound with spirit beings, supernatural forces, and mystical transformations. Surrealism has questioned Western forms of rationalism, especially the logic rooted in the Enlightenment and its promotion of science and empirical knowledge as hallmarks of society and progress. The destruction of war, human casualties, colonialism, and human suffering were not, of course, signs of progress to the Surrealists. And Surrealists in Western Europe challenged society's expectations and rules with disjunctive scale and form or compositions that confound encyclopedic systems in illustrative detail to inspire us to question and thereby release our real potential.
In the section called Beyond Reason, visitors will find many examples of this preoccupation by Surrealist artists, especially expanding the idea beyond Europe. We're really excited to present this example from Japan. While some in Japan found Surrealism escapist, others, like the artist Koga Harue, identified rishi or reason as its true weapon. They proposed an even higher form of Surrealism, which they called Scientific Surrealism. This form celebrated and interrogated modern technologies in order to question the true meaning of art.
We can see here how Koga incorporated scientific diagrams and images of modern machines and technology into this canvas called "The Sea" from 1929, reflecting what he called machine-ism, a larger interest in Japan at the time that arose from the increasing ubiquity of mechanized life. Even the human presence here, this sort of pinup girl, is an image mechanically reproduced in a popular magazine. Another route for navigating Surrealism are through points of Surrealism's convergence, relay, and exchange around the world. We might be most familiar with Surrealism in Paris or Belgium, but in the months before the outbreak of World War II, Cairo became a critical point of convergence for Surrealism.
In December 1938, artists and writers there issued a manifesto in Arabic and French, written by Georges Henein. Its title, "Long Live Degenerate Art," referenced the Nazis' mockery of modern art as so-called degenerate. The Cairo group became known as Art and Liberty. Art and Liberty were part of this international community and in communication with the global network of Surrealists. But they were also a Surrealist group that was of its place, that reflected local concerns as well as Egyptian motifs and symbols in their work.
They were strongly critical of the conservativism and British presence in Egypt and aligned themselves with the idea of a revolutionary, independent art liberated from state interference, traditional values, and ideology. The Art and Liberty group took up the subject of women as a way to convey the social and political oppression in Egypt. Especially in this context, the work of female members is really noteworthy. Amy Nimr played an essential role in promoting and disseminating Surrealism in Egypt. Her home became a center for Cairo's intellectual and creative circle, and she was a key member of Art and Liberty, contributing works on paper such as this delicate watercolor which represents a macabre corpse and suggests a poem by her colleague Georges Henein, who wrote about a body resting, "Like a magnetic flower "on the whole indecipherable bottom of the sea." Another vibrant location of Surrealism are the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Haiti, and Martinique which have not only been a convergence point, but also a relay point for Surrealism.
But Surrealism came to the Caribbean in multiple and concurrent waves, some arriving with newcomers, but many others generated by people from the islands. Theorist René Ménil, as well as the poets Aimé Césaire and Suzanne Césaire, carried the tenets of Surrealism to Fort-de-France and produced a journal, Tropiques, launched in April 1941 after their return home. Over its four years of publication, Tropiques promoted Surrealism as a critical tool to cast off colonial dependence and assert Martinique's own cultural identity. Editor Suzanne Césaire powerfully identified in Surrealism the possibility to transcend racial inequities and colonialism. She called it, "The tightrope of our hope."
Wifredo Lam is a noteworthy example of an artist connected to Surrealism working in the Caribbean. While he was born in Cuba, he was living in Paris when the hostilities of World War II forced his return to the Caribbean. Soon after his arrival, he re-immersed himself in the cultural environment and merged its Afro-Cuban traditions with Surrealism's tenets that he had engaged with while living in Paris. He saw Surrealism as a powerful weapon in which he could, "Act as a Trojan Horse "that would spew forth hallucinating images "with the power to surprise, "to disturb the dreams of the exploiters." Within this tangle of lines and images we might find a woman on the left side, who represents for Lam the paradise that foreigners seek in Cuba. There are two other figures, however, in this composition.
They are warrior deities who represent for Lam resistance to corruption. To many, especially in the Black diaspora, his work communicated the liberatory possibilities of Surrealism. Individuals who found Surrealism found the potential to navigate various issues. Their stories tell us about how Surrealism was a useful tool in the pursuit of independence from colonialism, political pressure and strife, and the isolating experience of exile and displacement wrought by international conflict. Eugenio Granell was a political radical from Spain, who left in 1939. In his exile, he moved within the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and became a target of censorship and persecution at each location.
"The Pi Bird's Night Flight" was painted by Granell while he was living in Puerto Rico in 1952. It's a large-scale painting of beautiful colors of a mythical Pi bird that reflects the artist's celebration of the natural world and the Indigenous symbols of the Americas that were part of his new home. It also conveys the artist's own sense of freedom in this newly adopted place.
Granell remained an energetic proponent of Surrealism, seeing in it, "Freedom for art, and as a consequence, "freedom for mankind." While in Puerto Rico, he inspired a new interest in Surrealism, especially among his students at the University. In 1956, some of Granell's students began a new Surrealist group called The Blue Lookout. Cossette Zeno was a member of this Surrealist group. At the University, she faced conservativism, but countered it with her own Surrealist compositions that had great humor and feminist messages.
In this painting called "No Use to Talk About the Little Wig," Zeno presents a Surrealist portrait of a toupee atop fleshy, leaf-like forms that mock male vanity. The subject of desire is a recurrent theme in Surrealism. And examples that likely come to mind are ones that project the gaze and desires of male artists onto the body of a woman. In expanding our focus, we have included examples of more fluid identifications of gender and sexuality, and different invocations of bodies of desire. One example is here: this painting by Ithell Colquhoun, a member of the London Surrealist group. The work is called "Scylla."
It's a clever example of a Surrealist double image. At first we might see two rock-like phallic forms, that rise from the water. If we continue to look we might see seaweed and even a boat between those two forms. But if we look again at the image, which she described as what she could see of herself in the bath, the image becomes an empowering second composition of a woman's gaze upon herself. Automatism is something many of us are familiar with. It's the kind of doodling we do when we're on the phone or in a meeting.
It's a kind of creation without complete conscious control. For the Surrealists, this is a way to tap into the unconscious. Automatism, with its connection to improvisation, often produces abstract compositions, but not all are on canvas or paper. For example, here's a work by Françoise Sullivan that she made in Montreal in the 1940s. Sullivan was part of a group of artists gathered together to find expressive freedom in Surrealism, united under the name Les Automatists.
They were engaged in work that depended on various modes of sensory perception. For Sullivan, this included a performance in 1948, documented today with photographs, called "Dance in the Snow," a series of improvised gestures and movements as an exploration of the winter season set to the score of snow crunching underfoot as she moved. Artists have used Surrealism likewise to push against social structures. Here is an example of work by Cecilia Porras and Enrique Grau, who between 1954 and '58 made experimental photographs set along Colombia's coast. And they made these images during the time that the Colombian government pushed greater conservativism.
This drove artists to see in their art an allegorical means of escape. Porras and Grau's photographs are playful and filled with fantasy. Porras herself was known for her masquerade, and here, in some of the photographs, she takes the form of a figure called La Divina, or the Divine, with a sleeveless dress and bare shoulders, which would have been completely inappropriate at the time. The potency of these photographs was demonstrated by the fact that they were hidden away for years in a private album, and it's a special opportunity to see them in this exhibition.
Artists have used Surrealism likewise to challenge the legacy of colonialism and racial injustice. Malangatana Ngwenya was part of a network of African artists who drew upon Surrealism in the anti-colonial struggle. He came to know Surrealism through a variety of sources, including Portuguese artists living in Angola and Mozambique who took up Surrealism themselves at the moment of oppressive rule in Portugal. Malangatana was imprisoned for his activities with the Mozambique Liberation Movement during the war of independence from Portugal in the 1960s and '70s.
This work was painted after his release from prison. And it's nightmarish figures, the composition uses Surrealism to relay the terrifying experiences of war, hunger, and death under colonial rule. Artists have also come to Surrealism to question political power and oppression. Mayo was another member of the Art and Liberty group in Cairo. At first, this work seems like a familiar sort of Surrealist image. We see a jumble of abstracted, organic, almost automatic forms.
But the more we look, we can make out details: an overturned bottle on a table, a chair, a fence with greenery. And within this net of forms, limbs, mouths, and brown batons. Egypt, while not a British colony any longer, was still under British influence.
And at the time Mayo painted this composition, its resources were being diverted to growing international hostilities, which would ultimately lead to World War II. Labor and student unions often protested the great suffering on the streets of Cairo. Mayo's composition is called "Coups de Batons" or Baton Blows, and it represents an unfortunately common scene at the time, the cruel dispersal of crowds at a cafe by police. Another route to navigate Surrealism are examples of artists who faced real moments of pressure and peril and found in Surrealism a route out.
The journal "De Schone Zakdoek," or The Clean Kerchief, is a poignant example. It was published by Gertrude Pape and Theo van Baaren during the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1941. It emerged from Monday night gatherings in Pape's apartment among friends, many of whom were poets, authors, and artists. The group engaged in discussions, made collaborative drawings, and recited poetry, which led to the making of a secret journal. It was made of precious and rationed materials, by hand, and as a single object.
In the first issue, instead of an editor's statement, we see a square of black paper with the caption "Darkened principles," which connects to the circumstances of wartime production and secrecy. This is the time, of course, when those in Holland used blackout paper to conceal windows during air raids. By March 1944, the Monday-night meetings became impossible because of enforced curfews and the journal ceased production. It was so secret that "De Schone Zakdoek" remained virtually unknown for decades and has rarely been shown. Surrealism is often experienced as a collective body connected to going beyond what can be done in isolation.
One of the most familiar examples is the Cadavre Exquis, a kind of parlor game known to many as the Exquisite Corpse. A Cadavre Exquis is made when a group of people come together to make a drawing. They take a piece of paper, section it into parts, and then each person draws in the section, covering up the work that they've made but leaving lines for the next person to connect and continue the drawing. And when they're done, all together, they reveal the drawing to each other.
It's a magical kind of body; it's an exquisite corpse. And you're looking at two works here made by Frida Kahlo and Lucienne Bloch. One based on an idea of Frida Kahlo, another humorously based on Diego Rivera.
But there are many examples from a multitude of locations and across a large period of time. Ted Joans's work, "Long Distance," is a more recent example. Joans began this work in 1976 and it traveled alongside him for years. He left the U.S. because of endemic racism, for Paris, London, Lagos, Dakar, Marrakesh, Rome, Berlin, Mexico City, and Toronto.
His equation of Surrealism, travel and community, is powerfully presented in this work. Here you'll see 132 artists, poets, writers, and musicians who come together but are separated by distance as well as time. This work even continued two years after Joans's death. It's not a typical communal project in that even its initiator didn't see its final form, but it's a fascinating example of collective identity that makes visible a vibrant Surrealist network.
Surrealism is an idea, and an elastic one. Its potential is as strong today as it was in the 1920s, to interrogate our circumstances, wake ourselves up from the habits and customs that we are almost unaware of in our daily lives, and in doing so, consider an alternate view, open ourselves to possibility. Surrealism offers a revolution.
It can be political, social, artistic, or personal, but it offers freedom. With these various routes, we hope to expand the appreciation of Surrealism beyond traditional narratives. We also hope visitors will see that Surrealism is still with us today, and in fact has an urgency in our present time.