Surrealists

(Mostly about art.)

In the current New York Review of Books (4/4/13), a piece by Sanford Schwartz, “Surrealism Made Fresh”, on the exhibition “Drawing Surrealism” (organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it showed 10/21/12 through 1/6/13), now at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York (1/25/13 through 4/21/13). It sounds fabulous.

From the LACMA website:

Drawing Surrealism explores the significance of drawing and works on paper to surrealist innovation. Long considered the medium of exploration and innovation, drawing was set free from its associations with other media and valued as a predominant means of expression and innovation with the advent of surrealism. Automatic drawings, exquisite cadavers, decalcomania, frottage, and collage, for example, are just a few of the processes invented by surrealists as means to tap into the subconscious realm.

The exhibition examines the impact of surrealist drawing on a global scale, with approximately 200 works representing 90 artists from 16 countries. Drawing today is in many ways indebted to the expansive and innovative approach to artistic creation and the primacy of drawing encouraged by surrealism. For contemporary artists, drawing is a process more than a medium; it functions as a metaphor for experimentation and innovation that defies any strict material definition. The inclusion of drawing-based projects by contemporary artists Alexandra Grant, Mark Licari, and Stas Orlovski, conceived specifically for the exhibition, aims to elucidate the diverse and enduring vestiges of surrealist drawing.

Two drawings from the show. Francis Picabia’s Olga (1930):


and Salvador Dali’s Study for ‘The Image Disappears’ (1938):

Schwartz’s piece begins:

“Drawing Surrealism” is an exhibition that puts us in two minds, which befits an art movement that sought the release of unconscious drives. The Morgan Library and Museum’s show, organized with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is one of the few major efforts ever to look at the wide range of drawings, collages, and other kinds of work on paper done both by well-known associates of Surrealism such as Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte and by the many other artists and writers drawn to the movement at the time. Including pictures made by figures from Eastern Europe, the Americas, England, and Japan, it is a jampacked, illuminating, and lavishly engaging event. Even before getting close to the drawings, which were made primarily from the middle of the 1920s into the 1940s, one is given the pleasure, simply in walking into the galleries at the Morgan, of seeing many smallish Surrealist works, sporting frames of every description, hung—as if in the living room of a knowing collector—in invitingly rhythmic ways.

… where Dada flippantly said nothing mattered, Surrealism sought to find, foster, and celebrate precisely the impulses that traditional or generally accepted thinking seemingly said had no place at the table. It was after instinctive, irrational awarenesses, which might come from dreams, or from accepting results derived by chance—or from a receptivity to what is taboo—that could shake up and alter our sense of everyday reality.

There’s a language aspect to the story:

Surrealism was in good measure the brainchild of André Breton, who had initially studied medicine and worked in psychiatric wards during the war. It was his background as a scientist of sorts that helped give the movement its character of an ever-changing, and always carefully monitored, experiment in living. Breton embodied a paradox of Surrealism. His role was to instigate and welcome the spontaneous, the illogical, and the inexplicable. His goal, it would seem, was to extend personal liberty. Yet he was a born guru and organizer with a flair for holding meetings, getting out position papers, marshaling his cohorts, and banishing the insubordinate. His efforts helped make Surrealism, as much as any movement of any era, a group endeavor.

Breton and his associates at times worked jointly on writing poems and, eventually, in making drawings. As Mary Ann Caws notes in her Surrealism (2004), a helpful compendium of artworks and writings related to the movement, group activities included “sleep séances to induce automatic speech while in a trance.” There were even meetings every day at six in the same café (they always lasted an hour and a half), and in the early 1930s everyone drank the same drink. (It was different in the winter and the summer.) The collective spirit didn’t, however, attest only to Breton’s need to control. Surrealism shared with Dada a desire to dispense with vaunted notions of authorship—with the aura, in the arts, surrounding training and mastery, uniqueness and the special, personal touch. These qualities were seen as components of the egotism that produced the war.

And then to drawing:

Although we may think that some of the deeper contributions of Surrealism are the paintings of Miró, Magritte, Dalí, and others, painting in itself was initially something of the enemy for many of the Surrealist (and Dada) artists. For figures who tended to be left-wing in their politics, oils on canvas were objects that all too easily could be seen as trophies of capitalism. Drawings, on the other hand, or anything done on paper, set down with any materials that were near to hand, suited a movement that in the beginning attracted writers as much as visual artists and that, opposed to artistic virtuosity for its own sake, saw in works on paper a way for anyone, trained or not, to record at the moment whatever was bubbling up from within.

On particular artists:

The collages by Ernst on view at the Morgan are merely all right. But he isn’t exactly missed, because there are a number of engaging and unfamiliar works on hand that are indebted to him. The Chilean painter Roberto Matta, for example, known for his enormous canvases showing planets or asteroids held in suspension, is seen here in a winning photocollage from 1936 with the very Surrealist title Wet Sheets. It presents the outer-space world he was always creating but minus the gauzily synthetic colors and textures that so often make his paintings less powerful than they ought to be.

… But probably every viewer of this show will come away with a highly particular group of favorites. My (long) list would include Minutes (1943), a tense, mysterious, and softly shaded pencil drawing by the little-known American painter Kay Sage that appears to show columns in a cathedral crowding one another to the point of airlessness. Yves Tanguy (who was married to Sage) makes an impact with an untitled 1936 work of decalcomania—a matter of voluptuous undulant pitch-black and grayed lines—that beautifully suggests the sea (his recurrent theme) at night. Grace Pailthorpe, an English psychiatrist, presents a vigorous and unhackneyed explosion of the id in Ancestors II (1935), in which waves surging this way and that become faces, teeth, fingers, and bodily swellings. And a Frida Kahlo drawing of a web of shapes stands out for having, on the bottom, in a large script, the wonderful title El Verdadero vacilón, meaning The True Vacillator.

Matta’s Wet Sheets:

On Matta:

Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren (November 11, 1911 – November 23, 2002), better known as Roberto Matta, was one of Chile’s best-known painters and a seminal figure in 20th century abstract expressionist and surrealist art. (link)

In searching for images from this LACMA show, I came across material on another LACMA surrealist show from last year. From the L.A. Times (“Female artists’ surreal visions unfold in LACMA’s ‘In Wonderland’ ” by Reed Johnson, 3/25/12):

Almost everyone falls down a rabbit hole sometime in life. A trapdoor opens under your career, your relationships, your beliefs, and headlong you go, like Alice, into the void.

For a few of the 50 female surrealist painters and sculptors represented in LACMA’s exhibition “In Wonderland,” that descent was a terrifying tumble into mental depression, physical danger, even suicidal despair.

But for others it was a subterranean passage to creative fulfillment, erotic liberation and self-discovery, themes that artists such as Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo visited time and again in their works.

… Spanning the early 1930s to the late ’60s, “In Wonderland” is being billed as the first major international survey of female surrealists working in the United States and Mexico.

… Compared with brand-name male surrealists like Max Ernst and Miguel Covarrubias (some of whom were their husbands and lovers), female surrealists until now have been relatively neglected, exhibited in only a handful of museum shows, mainly solo ones.

The exception, of course, is Kahlo, whose hauntingly graphic, rawly confessional self-portraits were embraced by feminist scholars and spawned a global cult of Frida-mania decades after her death in 1954. But Kahlo’s singular prominence has been a mixed blessing for her female contemporaries.

… Among female artists who discovered a surrealist mirror in Mexico’s burnished landscapes and matriarchal indigenous societies were Alice Rahon, who joined the surrealists in Paris in 1931 but later moved to Mexico City; Carrington, an England native who fled Europe after her then-lover Ernst was captured and sent to an internment camp (triggering Carrington’s mental breakdown); and Olga Costa, a German who resettled in Mexico and married painter-muralist José Chávez Morado.

Like the topsy-turvy, inverted-logic “wonderland” of Lewis Carroll’s famous story, Mexico and California, where several female surrealists settled, seemed places where the normal art-world rules were made to be broken. They were free-form zones where female artists felt empowered to explore their own fantasies at a comfortable distance from the male art-critical establishment in New York and Europe.

Most of them lived outside conventional marriage. Several took both male and female lovers, and the majority were childless. While their male counterparts were infatuated with Freud, the women were more likely to tap the unconscious through indigenous shamanism, Jungian mythic archetypes and esoteric and occult practices, from the kabbalah and Tarot to Haitian voodoo.

From that show, Bridget Tichenor’s Autorretrator (Self-Portrait):

On Tichenor:

Bridget Bate Tichenor (born Bridget Pamela Arkwright Bate on November 22, 1917 – died on October 20, 1990), also known as Bridget Tichenor or B.B.T., was a Mexican surrealist painter of fantastic art in the school of magic realism and a fashion editor. Born in Paris and of British descent, she later embraced Mexico as her home.

… Tichenor’s painting technique was based upon 16th century Italian tempera formulas that artist Paul Cadmus taught her in New York in 1945, where she would prepare an eggshell-finished gesso ground on masonite board and apply (instead of tempera) multiple transparent oil glazes defined through chiaroscuro with sometimes one hair of a #00 sable brush. Tichenor considered her work to be of a spiritual nature, reflecting ancient occult religions, magic, alchemy, and Mesoamerican mythology in her Italian Renaissance style of painting. (link)

Ah, the connection to Paul Cadmus, who comes up on this blog every so often — notably in my posting on magic realism (with an example of his work), which combines realist composition allied to surrealist content, and then in a posting on George Tooker (who was influenced by Cadmus), and also in a posting on cartoonist Bill Griffith’s taste in art:

Griffy’s favorites include several “magic realists” — Hopper, Tooker, Cadmus — people who probably wouldn’t turn up near the top of other people’s lists of great artists.

Two more paintings by Cadmus. First, Study for David and Goliath:

From the notice for a “Faces in the Crowd” show at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (10/13/07 through 1/20/08):

Works included in the show include Paul Cadmus’s Study for David and Goliath, which depicts the artist and his longtime partner [Jon Andersson] reenacting Baroque artist Caravaggio’s paintings that were based on the Old Testament story.

(On the homoeroticism of Caravaggio, see this posting. One of the Caravaggio David paintings:

The Cadmus painting replaces the David figure above with something like the Cupid figure from Caravaggio’s famous Amor Vincit Omnia, in my Caravaggio posting.)

Then a male nude — a Cadmus specialty — The Bath (1951):

To complete the trio of homoerotic magic realists working in egg tempera, I bring you Cadmus’s friend Jared French:

Jared French (1905–1988) was an American painter who specialized in the medium of egg tempera. He was one of the artists attributed to the style of art known as magic realism. Other artists of this movement included George Tooker and Paul Cadmus. (link)

French’s The Double (c1950):

Challenging to interpret.

One Response to “Surrealists”

  1. Surreal Zippy | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Surrealism on this blog, see the posting of 3/22/13. Magritte has come up a number of times, notably on 7/19/12, 7/21/13, and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: