Thursday, 01 November 2007

Before the Mirror: surrealism in the 21st century

In 2001, the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London hosted the exhibition Surrealism - Desire Unbound. Focusing on the premise that desire was central to the surrealist vision of love, poetry and liberty, the exhibition displayed a comprehensive range of almost 300 paintings, sculptures, objects and documents stemming from the early pre-surrealist dada period through to relatively recent works of the 1970s.

While passing through the successive 13 rooms/domains of surrealist desire, one was initially introduced to works by Marcel Duchamp, Georgio di Chirico, Man Ray and Francis Picabia before plunging into the delirious surreality of artists such as René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, André Masson, Joan Miró, Aschille Gorky, Hans Bellmer, Meret Oppenheim, Toyen, Paul Delvaux, Roland Penrose, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. Also on exhibit were works by artists loosely associated with the movement such as Frida Kahlo and Leonor Fini.

The exhibition also displayed the recently rediscovered photographs of Claude Cahun, whose work was not exhibited during her lifetime.

Some of the works on display explicitly revealed the physical side of the surrealists' obsession with sexual desire: highly erotic collages from the Czech surrealist group plus the phallic costume created by Jean Bênoit for The execution of the will of the Marquis de Sade in 1959. Journeying deeper still into the 'darker side' of eroticism was Alberto Giacometti's sculpture Woman with her Throat Cut and Hans Bellmer's photographs of his artificial doll, some of which resembled a mutilated woman's body in erotically suggestive positions - and all this while recordings of gasps and sighs of women having sex were issued from speakers in the walls.

Documents on display included manuscript pages from André Breton's Nadja, as well as first editions of books by Breton, Paul Éluard, Valentine Penrose, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Péret and René Char. There was a copy of the surrealist journal Medium from the 1950s. There were books of pornographic poetry by the poets illustrated with pornographic drawings by the artists.

Among documents from various 'ancestors' of surrealism was a letter in minute handwriting on blue paper from the Marquis de Sade to his wife. Sade's will was also on display alongside Bênoit's costume piece. There was also continuous screenings of Luis Buñuel's movie classics Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or, followed by Maya Deren's beautiful Meshes of the Afternoon.

Overhead projectors threw photographic images onto a large blank wall, punctuated by texts of poems by Louis Aragon or André Breton:

They tell me over there the beaches are black
With lava that's gone down to the sea
And stretch out at the foot of a huge peak smoking with snow
Under a second sun of wild canaries…
(André Breton, They tell me over there)

Walking away from the exhibition, though, I couldn't help being struck by some ironies. Firstly, that an exhibition devoted to one of the great revolutionary movements of the 20th century should be sponsored by a major international financial group, Morgan Stanley. Also that the exhibition should be swamped by overwhelming hoards of pretentious middle-class art farts that Breton and Co would have despised (or at least according to the myths). Another irony was that the organisers of the exhibition stated that surrealism was an art and literary movement that started in the 1920s and ended in the 1960s, when surrealism, or at least the surrealist spirit, is still alive and all around us.

But these ironies, I suppose, are inevitable. Over the decades corporate capitalism has made a point of being a 'patron of the arts', all in the cause of marketing. Whether the art is comprehensible to them is probably irrelevant. Morgan Stanley's funding of this exhibition is certainly rendered absurd by declaring in its sponsorship statement that surrealism challenged traditional approaches to art in the same manner that the financial group encourages its clients to challenge traditional approaches to managing their finances!

Much art - particularly modern art - has found its way into the corporate world of banking halls, offices and boardrooms. Around Johannesburg, for example, Rothko, Miro and Kandinsky appear to be favourites. If this develops into a widened exposure or appreciation of the artist, excellent, but generally the response is either one of ignorance or ridicule. Often such artworks are not even selected on their artistic merits, but on whether they fit into the colour schemes of the building. I once managed to get a reproduction of Miro's Blue II hanging in my office. It was accepted on the grounds that my employer's predominate corporate colour was blue. Staring at the painting often sent me into some beautiful reveries (which I considered more important than the work at hand), but the response of my colleagues was one of ridicule - you know, 'my five-year-old daughter could have done that!'

Morgan Stanley apparently owns many of the paintings on display in the exhibition, but whether this is a result of genuine art appreciation could be subject to debate. Some capitalist art collections have been created out of art appreciation, others out of appreciation of their current (and future) financial worth. And in these instances the revolutionary and subversive spirit of surrealism - surrealism as a means of liberation - is probably ignored. It is not surprising that the surrealist commitment to political revolution - and in particular the Paris group's (albeit temporary) alignment with the French Communist Party - was not referred to at the exhibition.

Then again, capitalism had been courting surrealism almost since the beginning - the collections of Peggy Guggenheim and Edward James, for example, started back in the 1930s. Dalí became capitalism's pet and he revelled in the opportunity to make mega dollars, hence Breton's dubbing him 'Avida Dollars' (an anagram on 'Salvador Dalí'). But it wasn't just the 'charlatan' Dalí. Man Ray hobnobbed with French aristocracy and Hollywood stars and made no bones about it. The US surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford also made a point of keeping in with the rich, mixing with the likes of Cecil Beaton and Edith Sitwell. Breton himself hung around Guggenheim's salon. And there was Aragon's love affair with the wealthy Nancy Cunard…

The surrealists were - and still are - mainly products of a bourgeois culture, so in a way it is hardly surprising that it is from this culture - against which they were/are rebelling - that they receive the most (however misunderstood) appreciation.

Yet surrealism has never been an art or literary movement (or worse still, a form of escapism). To my mind it is a permanent revolution aimed at the transformation of life, its principal weapons being magic, poetry (visual, verbal or written), eroticism and revolt. Backed up with an unyielding belief in the omnipotence of liberty, dreams and desire, surrealism supports the victory of the pleasure principle over the reality principle and wages an uncompromising war against a paltry existence based on enslavement, bigotry and sham, as well as the abuse of money and power by corporate capitalism, religion, military and state.

So when surrealism finds itself in the hands of the very establishment whose values it seeks to sweep away, it's like a joke gone wrong.

South African poet Sinclair Beiles, commenting on contemporary surrealist poetry, wrote: 'Most surrealist poetry became mannered and its quest for unusual relationships between words, and ideas, were set down at the expense of feelings and motives. The poems became beautiful seashells devoid of life.'

Surrealism looks into the mirror of the 21st century and sees - what? A marketing director signing off a sponsorship cheque?

(first published online on donga in 2002)

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