“Surrealism Beyond Borders,” at the Metropolitan Museum, is a huge, deliriously entertaining survey of the transnational spread of a movement that was codified by the poet and polemicist André Breton in 1924, in Paris. It had roots in Dada, which emerged in Zurich, in 1916, in infuriated, tactically clownish reaction to the pointlessly murderous First World War. Most of the show’s hundreds of works—and nearly all of the best—date from the next twenty or so years. As you would expect, there’s the lobster-topped telephone by Salvador Dalí and the locomotive emerging from a fireplace by René Magritte, both from 1938 and crowd-pleasers to this day, smoothly blending into popular culture. But the show’s superb curators, Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale, prove that the craze for Surrealism surged like a prairie fire independently in individuals and groups around the world. The tinder was an insurrectionary spirit, disgusted with establishments. Not that the revolt required much personal valor: you couldn’t be prosecuted for your dreams. The formula looked easy. There were no rules or hierarchies, despite Breton’s efforts to police the ranks. Anyone could play, and for a while many sorts of people did.
The show tracks eruptions in about forty-five countries. Painting and photography dominate, though magazines, texts, and films explore certain scenes, such as a late efflorescence of politically militant turbulence in Chicago in the nineteen-sixties. By then, what had passed for the aesthetic sorcery of the movement had petered out. But it didn’t die. Today, there’s a surprising revival, unacknowledged at the Met, among younger artists who, like the movement’s founders, have turned inward from worldly imperatives to plumb the so-called unconscious, presumably a timelessly real realm that is superior to reason. Sigmund Freud, without meaning to, had inspired the lively delusion that the fracture of rationality (he was plenty rational himself) was a royal road to universal truth, rather than, as often seemed to be the case, a repertory of clichés.
“Baton Blows,” by Mayo, from 1937.Art work © 2021 ARS / ADAGP, Paris
Birds always meant sex for the German Max Ernst, although you can’t fail to adore his delicate construction of little figures, “Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale” (1924). The vivacity of the movement frequently ran to miniature scale, as with the poetic box constructions of Joseph Cornell, which the American artist began making in the thirties, and to such epiphenomena as the party game exquisite corpse, in which players take turns drawing parts of figures on folded paper and leaving traces of outline for others to continue. The show features an accordion-like version thirty-six feet long that the American poet Ted Joans took along to encounters with cultural luminaries until his death, in 2003.
Surrealism began in literature, though with impetus from the haunting cityscapes that the Italian Giorgio de Chirico had been painting since 1909. It rapidly infected artists worldwide, acting in opposition to arguably bourgeois modernisms including Cubism and Constructivism, albeit cribbing forms from them now and then. The movement was essentially conservative, rejecting engagement with external modernity despite such wishful identification with radical causes as that of a magazine edited by Breton between 1930 and 1933, Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution. (The Soviet Union would have none of this.) The association persists in the anti-colonial sentiments of several non-European artists. In fact, in addition to being a taste favored by educated élites, Surrealism was colonialist in its own way. Nearly interchangeable dream images popped up everywhere. A doctrinaire rejection of nationalism fostered a sense that the adherents stemmed from nowhere in particular. Surrealism was individualist Romanticism on steroids. I know the magnetism and its limitations well.
“The Dream of Tobias,” by Giorgio de Chirico, from 1917.Art work © 2021 ARS / SIAE, Rome
I was a Surrealist poet at the age of twenty in 1962, intoxicated but not terribly well informed at my small Midwestern college. Though hobbled by having next to no French, I struggled to translate a section of “Les Chants de Maldoror” (1868-69)—a proto-Surrealist text by the short-lived Uruguayan-born Frenchman Isidore Ducasse, who styled himself the Comte de Lautréamont—in which the hero joins a female shark in slaughtering seaborne rivals and then has rapturous sex with her. Extravagant grotesquerie in many flavors was all the rage. Evil excited certain Surrealists who, for instance, celebrated the predatory libertinism of the Marquis de Sade. (I quailed at that.) Breton’s 1928 novel, “Nadja,” about his brief affair with a young, waiflike possible clairvoyant, was Biblical to me; I failed to register that Breton’s attitude toward the girl was exploitative. He stepped away when she received a diagnosis of clinical insanity.
For me, much of the movement’s allure involved glamorized maleness, with the likes of the poets Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and close to a dozen others modelling a sexy cool in which I was sorely deficient. Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray figured as genius associates, and the darkling anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille provided intellectual ballast laced with pornography. Women were sex objects or muses, with rare exceptions such as the British-born Mexican Leonora Carrington, the German Meret Oppenheim, the American Dorothea Tanning, and the infallibly amazing Frida Kahlo. Breton, no slouch as a critic and in this instance just mildly sexist, termed Kahlo’s typical self-portrait “a ribbon around a bomb.”
“Night Flight of Dread and Delight,” by Skunder Boghossian, from 1964.Art work © 2021 Skunder Boghossian. Courtesy the North Carolina Museum of Art
I missed the fact that, by the time I stumbled across it, Surrealism was out of date from a Western point of view, its influence having been plowed under by formally rigorous painters like Joan Miró and Arshile Gorky, who are in the show, and, decisively, Jackson Pollock, who is not, and by laconic poets like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. It dawned on me that Pablo Picasso had, from the start, made the very most of Surrealism’s Dionysian audacity by combining it with his own Apollonian aplomb: one-stop shopping in erotic and perceptual revelation. After I fled East by stages and, in 1964-65, spent a disillusioning year in Paris, I became embarrassed by the longueurs of latter-day Surrealists. I think I can trace an aspect of my style to prior exercises in the Surrealist shibboleth of unguided “automatic writing,” hellbent on insulting the commonplace. It didn’t have to make sense. Maybe best if it didn’t. But I came around to concluding that the conscious mind, that flickering spark in cosmic obscurity, is the indispensable site of mysteries that matter.
The rest is charm, which abounds at the Met with particular élan from the border-crossing variants headlined by the show. Divisions into multinational cohorts, organized by theme, constitute a world tour with local nuances that modify a collective fervor. The variety of discoveries, detailed with exceptional scholarship in a ravishing keeper of a catalogue, defeat generalization, with such one-off, tonic shocks, new to me, as a hyperactive tangle of abstract shapes, “Baton Blows” (1937), by the French-Egyptian Mayo; “The Sea” (1929), a fantasia by the Japanese Koga Harue that displays, among other things, a bathing beauty, a zeppelin, many swimming fish, and a flayed submarine; and “Untitled” (1967), a weaponized throng of human and animal faces and figures, by the Mozambican Malangatana Ngwenya. Certainly, the show’s range satisfies an aim to pry the movement’s history from the grip of its would-be Mecca in Paris, where Breton devolved into a parochial tyrant whose powers of excommunication could descend without mercy even on Alberto Giacometti, in 1935, after the greatest of related sculptors dared to essay some relatively objective figuration.
It’s rare to have a conscientiously ordered overview teem with unfamiliar seductive delights, like a suite of uncanny photographs mostly of enigmatic women outdoors, from 1958, by the Colombian Cecilia Porras. The perspective applied to twentieth-century art will stay with you, as a standing challenge to modern art’s dominant march of formal avant-gardes. Man Ray idealized original art as “a creation motivated by desire.” That, for me, is the keynote of Surrealism, which was dedicated to anarchic motives that brooked no institutional authority. Each work is a jailbreak, successful or not, from a civilization that could be held responsible for spirit-crushing conformity and, in the annals of war and injustice, systemic lunacy. In the end, Surrealism came down to gamy incoherence. But its gospel of liberty encourages a rethink, even now, of what cultural adventure is all about. ♦