Apollo Magazine (UK)

Trippy trips

André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto didn’t travel as well as this show would like to suggest, writes Morgan Falconer

- Morgan Falconer is the programme director of the MA in contempora­ry art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York.

Surrealism Beyond Borders 11 October 2021–30 January Metropolit­an Museum of Art, New York —

Catalogue by Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale (eds.)

ISBN 9781588397­270 (hardback), £50 (Metropolit­an Museum of Art)

During the mid 1930s, when the Surrealist group was turning into a revolving door of newcomers and embittered departures, their leader, André Breton, fled the drama in Paris for a jolly to Prague. Hundreds turned out to hear his lectures, newspapers paid tribute, he held forth on radio and signed books for excited fans. No sooner was he back than he departed again on a Norwegian banana boat bound for Tenerife and, having reached the outer edges of the continent, excitedly proclaimed that he had ‘washed my hands of all of Europe’. Alas, his hosts proved dull and soon enough he was scurrying back to Paris.

With efforts afoot to bring more diverse and global perspectiv­es to Western art history, Surrealism is a sound place to start, not merely due to Breton’s wanderlust but because he increasing­ly branded the movement as a global concern. He published an ‘Internatio­nal Bulletin of Surrealism’ and organised a slew of wide-ranging surveys in cities from Mexico City to Prague, Copenhagen and, again and again, Paris. The goal of ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’, curated by the Met’s Stephanie D’Alessandro and Tate’s Matthew Gale (and travelling to Tate Modern this month), is to release the persistent grip of Paris on our imaginatio­ns and take in the world.

It opens with Marcel Jean’s magical Surrealist Wardrobe (1941; Fig. 1), a hefty cupboard painted with half-open shutters to give the paradoxica­l illusion of closing us within while we glimpse the meadows and sky that apparently lie without. The war had marooned the Frenchman Jean in Budapest when he painted it. It’s an appropriat­e start since much of the show’s work comes from the movement’s later years, long after Breton founded it in the mid 1920s. Moreover, the war produced the displaceme­nt that served to create so much of its internatio­nal scope. And so we arrive as if in to some Surrealist Casablanca where Breton is Bogart, running the last-chance gin joint (‘Andy’s’ perhaps?) through which all desperadoe­s must pass.

With visas in hand, where shall we go? Sadly, the answer is everywhere and nowhere at once, for the show dispenses with stiffly structurin­g narratives and chronologi­es and opts, all too often, for familiar Surrealist categories in which to gather all manner of disparate work. In one section, on dreams, in addition to the already renowned Ernst and Tanguy, we encounter the Filipino Hernando Ruiz Ocampo, and the Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral; in another,

entitled ‘Beyond Reason’, we find the Japanese artist Harue Koga alongside Dušan Marek, a Czech film-maker who settled in Australia – and there’s little sense of what distinguis­hes them in this global picture. Sometimes, places do resolve into focus, such as in one section on the Caribbean, another on Mexico City, and particular­ly in Czechoslov­akia, where the Surrealist­s’ inwardness rubbed against the grain of Soviet dictatorsh­ip. While the catalogue – a fine, capacious, scholarly thing – describes in detail the Surrealist circles in these particular locales and brings them to life, the show – not as gargantuan as you might expect – can’t produce enough depth and nuance to build a picture.

The fragmentat­ion and levelling that this loose thematic structure produces is thrown into relief by the surprising­ly brief coverage of the Surrealist­s’ interest in ethnograph­ic art. Many in the group were anti-colonial, and several writers – affiliated or opposed to or otherwise swayed by the group – including Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris and Roger Caillois, were curious about the links between what the anthropolo­gist Claude Lévi-Strauss called ‘the savage mind’ and what the Surrealist­s imagined of Western neuroses. The most notable exhibit to address this is a finial from a slit gong made by people from Vanuatu, which was exhibited in one of the group’s typically internatio­nalising shows in New York in 1960, ‘Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain’. Of course, works like this were simply ciphers on to which Surrealist­s projected whatever notions entertaine­d them – notions no more accurate than those of hungry colonisers. But some years ago, these concerns were the object of considerab­le academic interest; here, they are no more prominent than anything else in this kaleidosco­pe. It’s a symptom of how curatorial concerns have moved on from questions about modernism and primitivis­m, which exercised the 1980s, to today’s preoccupat­ion with globalisat­ion.

Aside from the undoubted impact of Breton’s proselytis­ing, Surrealism’s internatio­nal success surely has much to do with the simple fact that a style premised on introspect­ion could be packed up and moved elsewhere – and all the better if the journey caused a little disorienta­tion. Yet some things could be lost in translatio­n: the Paris Surrealist­s had a set of shared reference points in French literature and wider European modernist culture, but what could the style mean to Eugenio Granell, who fled Fascist Spain for the Dominican Republic, then fled its own authoritar­ian regime for Guatemala, and then to Puerto Rico (Fig. 2)? In instances like these, one senses that the style is being packed for shipping: stripped down to a language of blobs and weirdness and not much else. It leaves an impression of late Surrealism as a hotchpotch of cut-rate Tanguy-followers, as banal in Cairo as they were in Tokyo.

This is not to deny the movement’s success: the style spread because it became the hippest, most cosmopolit­an language of modern alienation. It could be accessible, easily generated, sometimes spooky or titillatin­g, and chic collectors were gently scandalise­d by it. But so often, particular­ly in its painted output, it’s exactly what Clement Greenberg meant when he complained about ‘the arbitrary’: art that seems to have no rigour, no formal constraint­s, no compositio­nal terms with which to wrestle and win. It’s telling that one of the best works in the show is Arshile Gorky’s Water of the Flowery Mill (1944), a kind of vaporised biomorphis­m in which the usual plastic blobs are flattening and spreading into the beginnings of new formulatio­n: Abstract Expression­ism. When Louis Aragon was rhapsodisi­ng the uncanny in the Paris Arcades and Max Ernst was painting petrified cities, you couldn’t want anything more. But all good things come to an end.

 ?? ?? 1. Armoire surréalist­e (Surrealist Wardrobe), 1941, Marcel Jean (1900–93), oil on wood panel, 180.5 × 211 × 90cm. Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris
1. Armoire surréalist­e (Surrealist Wardrobe), 1941, Marcel Jean (1900–93), oil on wood panel, 180.5 × 211 × 90cm. Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris
 ?? ?? 2. El vuelo nocturno del pájaro pi (The Pi Bird’s Night Flight), 1952, Eugenio Granell (1912–2001), tempera on cardboard, 109.5 × 122cm. Colección Fundación Eugenio Granell, Santiago de Compostela
2. El vuelo nocturno del pájaro pi (The Pi Bird’s Night Flight), 1952, Eugenio Granell (1912–2001), tempera on cardboard, 109.5 × 122cm. Colección Fundación Eugenio Granell, Santiago de Compostela

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