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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Attack of the Surrealists

Imagine walking into an art exhibition past a taxi in which two mannequins inside are being constantly hit by jets of water. Or finding the main exhibition hall looking something like a cave with 1200 bags of coal hanging from the ceiling. Okay, perhaps this sounds pretty tame beside what some artists are doing today, but imagine how it must have struck the Paris art crowd in 1938? The occasion was the
Aurora, Paul Delavaux, 1937
Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme. The Water Taxi (not preserved) was the product of the fertile mind of Salvadore Dali, and the tons of coal hanging from the ceiling, that of Marcel Duchamp. The exhibition was organized, not by an artist, but by the poet, Andre Breton, something of the intellectual guiding force of the Surrealist movement. Held in January, the show was a big hit, talked about for years later, but sadly, perhaps because of the war, never held again.

A Mid Summer's Night Dream,
1930-38, Marc Chagall
Paul Delavaux displayed his metamorphic painting Aurora, in which the rising sun turns tree trunks into nude women. (Nude women are a constant element in his work.) Chagall contributed his A Midsummer Night's Dream wherein a lovely bride seems about to marry a half-man, half-goat while egged on by a red, devilish cupid. 
The Treachery of Images,
1928-29, Rene Magritte

Belgian artist, Rene Magritte, contributed The Treachery of Images, an exquisitely detailed depiction of a brier pipe under which he'd written, "This is not a pipe."  The inscription made the silent point that it was a picture of a pipe. It was here that Salvadore Dali's Premonition of Civil War, or Soft Construction with Boiled Beans was first displayed. It was as apocalyptic as it was prophetic.Also displaying at the exhibition were Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Man Ray, and a dozen other artists that had taken up Surrealism at the time.

Premonition of Civil War, or
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans,
1938, Salvadore Dali
The whole point of the show was to force the viewers to look at things differently--even radically. It attempted to impose new demands on bourgeois manners and fears about, "What would people think?" The Surrealists wanted to free themselves and others from traditional ways of thinking, not just about art but about life. It was a political as well as artistic movement with the members espousing every left-leaning political doctrine that was fashionable at the time. However, disciplined political action was not the strong point of free-spirited men such as these and the art has long since outlasted any political meaning that may once have been attached to it. One lasting item that did come of the show however was A Dictionary of Surrealism, containing sarcastic biographies of the artists and the lexicon needed to understand them.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Jim,

    I've been following your blogposts for a few months now and I can only say one thing: you are running an amazing art history e-classroom here! Thanks for sharing your knowldege.

    Μinor observation though: I think Magritte was Belgian.

    Greetings from Greece!