Surrealism at GoMA

July 30, 2011
Rene Magritte, Les marches de l'ete ( The summer steps) (detail) 1938

“This life is a hospital in which every patient is tormented by the yearning to move to another bed.

- André Breton

It’s probably been said many times, but Queensland is a highly appropriate setting for a Surrealism show. Not only does one meet the most surreal personalities north of the border, only a few months ago Brisbane was a drowned city, resembling the scenes of devastation in Max Ernst’s Europe after the Rain (1940-42).

This painting is in Hartford, Connecticut, and does not feature in Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams, an exhibition put drawn from the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Having been in the French museum only a few weeks ago, I didn’t notice any empty spaces on the walls where masterpieces had been loaned to Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art. Despite the fact that many important works have ended up in the United States, and even London, the Pompidou has the world’s most comprehensive Surrealist collection.

While there are a few too many photographs and large movie projections in the GoMA show, it does manage to convey a vivid overview of the Surrealist adventure. One might wish for a higher percentage of paintings, but the gallery has put together a very good catalogue, an impressive amount of original documentation, non-stop film screenings, plus a children’s program that takes up an entire floor and has its own publication. This is why journalists mutter flattering but fatuous things about Brisbane being the emerging “culture capital”.

Surrealism may have styled itself an international movement, but there is no doubt that Paris was its headquarters. One might be even more precise and nominate an apartment at 42 rue Fontaine in the 9th arrondissement, home to the Surrealist commander-in-chief, André Breton.

Surrealism was largely Breton’s invention, and it is conventional to date the end of the movement to 28 September 1966, when he died. This schema has been challenged by historians such as Alyce Mahon, who see the upheavals of May ‘68 in Paris as a logical extension of Surrealist activities, but without Breton it feels like a different game.

The Surrealist impulse grew almost imperceptibly out of Dada, the anarchistic anti-art movement born in Zurich during World War One. Breton was attracted to the iconoclastic approach of the Dadaists, but repelled by their live-in-the-moment attitude. He had more ambitious designs when he sat down to write the first Surrealist Manifesto (1924).

The word “surrealism” was reputedly coined by Guillaume Apollinaire, the charismatic apologist for the early moderns, but it was Breton who laid the foundations and came up with two definitions. In abbreviated form they are as follows:

“Psychic automatism, by which it is proposed to express either verbally, in writing, or in any other any other fashion, the real functioning of thought.”

“Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected until now, on the supreme importance of the dream, and on the disinterested play of thought.”

Such definitions tended to raise more questions than they answered, and members of the group were perpetually arguing about the meaning and purpose of Surrealism. It obviously had something to do with dreams and free association, those staple tools of Freudian psychoanalysis. There was also a revolutionary political program, which drew the Surrealists into an uncomfortable alliance with the Communist Party. There was an occult dimension; a fascination with magical and religious rituals, mediums and alchemy. There was also an anthropological element: a worshipful respect for the art and myths of tribal cultures.

In brief, it could be all things to all artists, so long as they accepted Breton’s absolute control. Not many managed this feat for very long, and the history of Surrealism is one long saga of bust-ups, excommunications, and even fist-fights. Breton could be charming, but he often comes across as dictatorial and unscrupulous. However, he was an angel in comparison with his friends, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, who became idolaters of Stalin.

The Surrealists set out to offend bourgeois society, and one sure way of doing this was dwell on the most depraved forms of sex and violence. They made heroes out of the Marquis de Sade and a succession of murderers whose crimes were chronicled in the newspapers. They saw hysteria as “the greatest poetic discovery of the nineteenth century” – which was news to Sigmund Freud, who had no time for Surrealist antics.

Breton hailed the “acte gratuit” as the supreme Surrealist gesture, giving the example of firing a revolver at random into a crowd. Salvador Dalí eventually took this idea a stage further, proclaiming that the Second World War was the gratuitous gesture of that supreme masochistic artist, Adolf Hitler. This was too much even for Breton, who had already expelled Dalí from the movement at the end of the 30s, allegedly for his attraction to Hitler, but more likely because of his penchant for self-aggrandising publicity stunts.

One of the keys to Surrealism was that it was basically a literary movement. Contributors to Surrealist publications such as Pierre Naville and Max Morise would declare there was no such thing as Surrealist painting, but this was overruled by Breton, who had a life-long love of the visual arts. He enjoyed an early infatuation with the works of Giorgio de Chirico, whose “metaphysical” paintings anticipated Surrealist dream imagery, but issued a damning rebuke when the artist changed his style. De Chirico, who was not shy, declared that Breton was “a pretentious ass”.

From time to time, Dalí, Ernst, Giacometti and Miró all won Breton’s glowing admiration, while he kept up a hopeless longing for Picasso, who flirted with Surrealism but never became a member of the group.

All these artists are represented in the GoMA exhibition by at least one important work, from de Chirico’s Melancholy of an Afternoon (1913) with its two mysterious artichokes; to Ernst’s Ubu imperator (1923): a homage to the delinquent playwright, Alfred Jarry, that grew out of experiments with collage. There is a classic Dalí: Partial hallucination: six images of Lenin on a piano (1931); and a set of important Giacometti bronzes, including Woman with her throat cut (1932/40). There are Miró’s quasi-abstractions from the late 1920s, and one of Picasso’s odes to his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse, Femme couchée (1932).

There are also works by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, André Masson, Jean Arp, Victor Brauner, Yves Tanguy, Francis Picabia, and many others who dabbled in Surrealism, including figures such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, better known as Abstract Expressionists.

If there is a major Surrealist crowd-pleaser nowadays, it is René Magritte, whose enigmatic, deadpan paintings have transcended fine art and entered the realm of popular culture. Included in this exhibition are such iconic images as The red model (1935) – a pair of boots that seem to be metamorphosing into feet; The murderous sky (1927), with its bloodied corpses of birds slain by the air itself; and a version of The rape (1945), in which the features of a woman’s face have been replaced by a naked torso. This disturbing picture seems to take us into the mind of the rapist, for whom the woman is only a body.

Magritte’s paintings are executed in a plodding fashion, but they are realistic enough for their subjects to have an instant recognisability, which is purposefully thwarted by many a cruel twists. These works come across as cool and intelligent, in contrast to the frenzies of an artist such as Masson, who had a strange fetish for depicting massacres when not producing dull abstractions.

Making a virtue of it own exhibitionism, Surrealism was always intended to be disturbing. If it has now become one of the most popular art movements of the twentieth century, it may be that we are merely titillated by those things that previous generations found scandalous. Surrealism is accepted, consciously or unwittingly, as a precursor to the fantastic scenarios of video games and big budget Hollywood movies. The stable bourgeois world the Surrealists detested has given way to a restless, anxious society, in which nothing is certain. This has not been the creation of an artistic avant-garde, but a by-product of consumerism and globalisation. With the Surrealists today the bizarre theories, the obsessive intellectualising, the appalling politics, have all disappeared behind a series of memorable images that take us out of this world into a realm of the imagination. Little did these radical artists suspect that the revolution of everyday life they sought would eventually become a revolutionary form of entertainment.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 30, 2011

Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams
Gallery of Modern Art, QLD Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 2 October.