Exhilarating Dreamlands of the Unconscious at the Met Museum

Tensions between resistance to Surrealism as cultural imperialism and the embrace of it as a universalist vision of freedom unfettered run through the show.

by Mark Dery

Koga Harue, «Umi (The Sea)» (1929) oil on canvas, 51 3/16 by 64 inches at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In 1938, the Pope of Surrealism — André Breton — arrived in Mexico. According to Hayden Herrera in Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, he pronounced it the “Surrealist place par excellence.” Pre-Hispanic gods lurked in the collective unconscious, disguised as Catholic saints. The national psyche was fascinatingly Janus-faced: joie de vivre on one side, memento-mori fatalism on the other, with a streak of black humor down the middle. Magical realism was an everyday affair, from the macabre festivity of the Día de Muertos to the axolotls — aquatic salamanders with uncannily human faces — paddling around Lake Xochimilco to the giant anteater that had the run of the garden at Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, where Breton was staying. Here, “at the other end of the earth” (by Breton’s reckoning), was a country where dreams bled into broad daylight, where “cruelty and humor” combined to make the magic potion that is “Mexico’s secret.”

As for Frida, she found her houseguest yawningly intellectual, as Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti tells it, a self-important manifesto-maker. “I never knew I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was one,” she deadpanned. She, and Mexico, weren’t going to play nature to European culture; exotic Other to Breton and his café-society revolutionaries (or cacas, as she liked to call them, out of earshot).

Even so, her desire to go beyond the social realism championed by her ardently Communist husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, often took her into Surrealist waters.  Herrera quotes one of her typically Surrealist pronouncements: “I would like to see lions come out of that bookshelf and not books.” A devout Communist herself, she dismissed Surrealism as “a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art,” but took readily to techniques like automatism (free association), and to the notion that the subconscious is the wellspring of our personal mythologies. “After 1938,” notes Herrera, Frida’s “paintings became more complex, more penetrating, more disturbingly intense.”

These tensions — between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation by Surrealists like Breton; between resistance to Surrealism as cultural imperialism, on anticolonial grounds, and the embrace of it as a universalist vision of freedom unfettered and desire unbound — are the live wires running through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Surrealism Beyond Borders.

Installation view of Surrealism Beyond Borders (photograph by Anna Marie Kellen)

Prepare to be boggled: The show sprawls over 14 galleries, encompassing 45 countries and the movement’s first 80 years. (I digested it at ruminative length over the course of two visits and still suffered an acute case of artburn, although that may have been mask-induced hypoxia, who knows?)

The “first extensive exhibition devoted to Surrealism from a transnational and transhistorical view,” according to the show’s architects — Stephanie D’Alessandro, Curator of Modern Art at the Met and Matthew Gale, Senior Curator at Large at Tate Modern — Surrealism Beyond Borders is nothing if not ambitious. The curators want to redraw our conceptual map of the movement, acknowledging the foundational role played by Breton and the Parisian clique but reimagining them as a node in a network that spans the globe. Nodding to postcolonial studies and, implicitly, the many reckonings of our time, they want to “challenge the hierarchies of cultural dominance” (race, gender, class, etc.) “that were — despite the radicalism of Surrealism — among its determining conditions.” By decentering Paris in favor of a counterhistory of “rhizomatic connectivity” that emphasizes “adjacency and exchange, in contrast to a hierarchical structure,” they hope to “rebalance the power relationships” of past histories of the movement.

Installation view of Surrealism Beyond Borders (photograph by Anna Marie Kellen)

Deleuzean dog-whistle duly noted. Behind the academic bric-a-brac that mars the curators’ otherwise perspicuous catalogue essays — an overfondness for the pet word “adjacency,” a weakness for jargon (“We have been especially careful … to avoid othering works of art”), the critical-theory tic of “interrogating” this and “inscribing” that (or, better yet, “reinscribing” it) — lies a laudable and long overdue impulse: decolonizing art-historical narratives about the movement. “We aim to change the equation of Surrealism with Paris and the related idea that Parisian Surrealism was then spread around the world,” they declare, in their introduction to the catalogue. In large part, the exhibition does just that.

The show introduces us to new names and moves previously unknown or marginalized groups center stage. These offshoots reinterpreted Surrealism in the light of their cultural contexts and political situations, repurposing its volatile mix of Marx and Freud as an improvised explosive device to challenge authorities and subvert social norms. Often, they did so in ways never imagined by the movement’s founders, in places far from the cafés of Montparnasse: Aleppo, Cairo, Cuba, Martinique, Haiti, Chicago, Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, Sydney, Nigeria, Lisbon, Bucharest, Mexico City, and beyond. All dream politics are local.

Installation view of Surrealism Beyond Borders (photograph by Anna Marie Kellen)

“We accepted Surrealism as a means, but not as an end; as an ally, and not as a master,” recalled Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet and co-founder of the anti-colonial Négritude movement, in 1960. A case in point is Wifredo Lam, an Afro-Cuban painter of African, Chinese, and European descent who regarded his work as “an act of decolonization.” From Surrealism Lam took the empowering insight that 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.”  

Threading your way through the maze of galleries, you’ll encounter Turkish Surrealists steeped in Sufism, the “Scientific Surrealism” of a Japan future-shocked by the Machine Age, a Filipino artist who managed the improbable feat of reconciling his Catholicism (anathema to party-line Surrealists) with psychoanalysis, and Brazil’s Antropofagia (“anthropophagy”) movement.

Antropofagia was dedicated to the proposition that it was time to cannibalize the cannibals — the colonizers, that is, and even the Parisian Surrealists who exoticized folk cultures and Indigenous peoples as access points to the collective unconscious, antidotes to the straitjacketing rationalism and bourgeois conformity of modern Europe. “The cannibalism attributed to the country’s Indigenous population served as a model for [Brazilian] modernists,” writes Zita Cristina Nunes in her catalogue essay on the movement. “Foreign influences would no longer be copied but digested as a precondition for a new, independent nation.”

François Boucher Why, or The Promontory by the Black Brazilian Surrealist Octávio Araújo is a case study in Antropofagia. Rendered in a style informed by Surrealism, Socialist Realism, and Rococo portraiture, it’s a hallucinatory vision of one of Boucher’s 18th-century odalisques lounging in a virgin landscape. Both the nude and her New World are pincushioned by tools of conquest: pennants, a cross, a wicked-looking gaff. Sloughing off her creamy skin, she reveals a Black head and foot — a commentary, perhaps, on the traumatic legacy of the slave trade that built Brazil, a gothic horror that’s just beneath the skin of its multiracial society, especially its fetishization of whiteness.

Although Araújo carried its flag well into the late 20th century, Antropofagia’s heyday was in the ‘30s. At the same time, in Japan, the painter Ichirō Fukuzawa, who’d traveled in Surrealist circles while studying art in Paris, was crossing dream-logic juxtapositions with a flatly reportorial style reminiscent of scientific illustration to satirize the growing militarism of the government and its clampdown on Japanese society. In his painting “Yoki ryōrinin (The Good Cook)”(1930), a hand lights the stem of a floating pear as if it were a cigarette; a diagrammatic arrow points, for no particular reason, at a piece of kitchenware.

During World War II, Fukuzawa’s insistence on jabbing a thumb in the far-right eye landed him in prison — a teachable moment, if your idea of Surrealism is Salvador Dalí’s harmless Freudian shtick. In certain places, at certain times, the Revolution of the Mind has posed a clear and present danger to thought police.

Elsewhere in the show, we come face to face, again, with the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. His interest kindled by Surrealism’s fascination with myth and the occult, Lam tapped into the power of African art, the Afro-diasporic religion of Santería, and the dense, predatory jungles of the Caribbean to “thoroughly [express] the Negro spirit.” His moody, chiaroscuro work in oil and pastel, “The Eternal Presence” (1944), summons Cubist incarnations of Santería deities: Oshun, the orisha of love, caught in mid-shapeshift; Ogún, the orisha of war, wielding a knife. A voluptuous woman with a prodigious booty and a face reminiscent of an African mask “represents ‘the paradise that foreigners seek in Cuba,’” the wall text informs. “Resistance to corruption is embodied in the warrior deities.”

Wifredo Lam, “Le présent éternel (Hommage à Alejandro García Caturla) (The Eternal Present [Homage to Alejandro García Caturla])” (1944) oil and pastel over papier mâché and chalk ground on bast fiber fabric, 85 1/4 × 77 1/8 inches., lent by Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Nancy Sayles Day Collection of Modern Latin American Art (© 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, photography by Erik Gould, courtesy of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence)

The inexhaustibly fascinating Ted Joans — an African-American artist, passionate advocate of pan-Africanism, and self-styled Surrealist jazz poet — is well-represented by a section given over to his collages, which marry Max Ernst and Romare Bearden. Also in the section devoted to Joans is his cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) “Long Distance” (1976–2005), a 30-foot-long collaborative drawing, 30 years in the making, which includes contributions by William S. Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, Dorothea Tanning, and Amiri Baraka.

Ted Joans, “Long Distance” (1976–2005) ink and collage on perforated computer paper, dimensions variable, private collection 
(© Ted Joans estate, courtesy of Laura Corsiglia, photo by Joseph Wilhelm / Meridian Fine Art)

Joans moved among Breton and the Paris Surrealists, roomed with Charlie Parker, lived a life as beautiful as the chance meeting of Malcolm X and Lautréamont on the Village Vanguard bandstand. The 1968 quote cited in a wall text is a mini-manifesto:

I was born a Black flower … I use my senses exercised by Surrealism … I am Maldoror, Malcolm X, the Marquis de Sade, Breton, Lumumba, and many others still, so many that you cannot know them all. They are my fuel, my endurance, and I will continue to use all the means to win my freedom, which will become freedom for all. Black Power is a means to achieve this freedom.

Surrealism Beyond Borders is an exhilarating, if overwhelming, blockbuster of a show that cuts the ribbon on new Luna Parks and Dreamlands of the unconscious. It does for anti-colonialism what the groundswell, in recent decades, of group exhibitions and biographies of female Surrealists such as Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo has done for feminism.

What it doesn’t do is confront, head-on, the lessons Surrealism has to teach us in the here and now. In the catalogue, the curators write:

Today, the project of Surrealism is even more urgent, especially as it represents an invitation to imagine a position beyond what is presently circumscribed in our own moment of political and social instability marked by a global pandemic, economic hardship, social unrest, and growing nationalism, isolationism, and repression.

This is true to Surrealism’s universalism, and to its anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism.

But Surrealism is a big church whose saints include the Marquis de Sade and whose high priests include Georges Bataille, a rogue anthropologist whose studiously amoral fascination with the linkages between eroticism, sadism, and religious ecstasy is on full display in The Tears of Eros, where he rhapsodizes about “Chinese torture” and “Aztec sacrifice” and the exploits of the 15th-century aristocrat Gilles de Rais, a sodomizer and serial murderer of children. Bataille gets a passing, anodyne mention in Surrealism Beyond Borders and while the Dalí who prophesied the Spanish Civil War in “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans” (1936) gets a nod, no mention is made of Dalí the Hitler fanboy, Dalí the unrepentant coprophage, Dalí the fawning monarchist.

Salvador Dalí, “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans” (1936) (photo by the author)

Whether Dalí’s ickier side or Bataille’s tendency to fish where the dark rivers of Eros and Thanatos run together are just so much performative bad boy-ism, intended to the troll the bourgeoisie, who can say? But one thing is certain: Surrealism challenges our discomfort with the “problematic” and our tendency, these days, to view everything through a moral lens and with unshakable moral certitude. Surrealism is many things, a force for social justice among them, but it can’t be reduced to that role, as the curators seem to want to do.

In his first Surrealist manifesto, Breton was unequivocal: Surrealism, he decreed, is “psychic automatism in its pure state, in which one proposes to express … the actual functioning of thought.” Then comes the mind bomb: “Thought dictated, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (italics mine).

If you’re going to explore the labyrinth of the unconscious, expect minotaurs.

Mark Dery

Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He coined the term “Afrofuturism” (in the 1994 anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, which he edited)… More by Mark Dery


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