SURREAL ENCOUNTERS: COLLECTING THE MARVELOUS
by Mary Ann Caws
Works from the Collections of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
June 4 – September 11, 2016
An exhibition jointly organized by SNGMA, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and the Hamburger Kunsthalle, where it will be shown after the only United Kingdom showing in Edinburgh.
Sometimes, as we know, re-reading gives a depth to the initial reading. That is, let me not belabor the point here, what some of us feel about translation as interpretation and expansion of the possibilities of the original text we so care about.
With that in mind, let me take two looks at the quite extraordinary (and extraordinarily large) presentation of the collections of four connoisseurs par excellence of surrealism: the first being Roland Penrose, the super-intelligent British friend of Picasso, first married to the surrealist poet Valentine Boué, and next, to the celebrity photographer and beauty and chef Lee Miller, whose son with Roland, Tony Penrose, keeps up the family connection and legend at Farley Farm. Much of Britain’s welcome to French surrealism is due to Penrose, whose detailed recounting of his visits to Picasso and their times at Mougins are enlivening, and in fact, moving. (Full confession: when I was working on my biography of Dora Maar, his interchanges concerning her and with her were invaluable: rather a snob, she enjoyed her contacts with Sir Roland Penrose, lending some works and insisting on their recovery.) Right up there with the sparkling of legend and this time, the wayoutness of exoticism, the very very eccentric Edward James, whose home in West Dean welcomed us impassioned surrealist seekers summer after summer, had a truly wonderfully bizarre collection of objects and traces of the magisters of the movement: my favorite trace was the footsteps of the dancer Tilly Losch mounting the steps right beyond the room where we would meet and munch and quaff whatever we were munching and quaffing.
1. First Look
Outside the gallery is mounted a sort of Magritte playground termed “Surreal Adventures” for kids of all ages, sporting an immense clock you can stand in, games you can lose yourself in, a train-and-chimney complex—all sorts of Magrittey delights I had to tear myself away from to navigate the fourteen rooms and the more than 400 works of art in the gallery itself. How can you not love the irony of the get-off-my-track painting that graces the cover of the catalogue: La reproduction interdite/Not to be Reproduced (1937)—a portrait of Edward James contemplating himself in a mirror, where we see only the rear view—anything forbidden is of course beckoning. Once we see and optimistically answer surrealism’s beckon, this time on such a gigantic scale, we of course want to DO IT, whatever it might be. In this case, it might be, among thousands of other possibilities, the opening of that book by Edgar Allan Poe (who else?) about the adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, inside of which lurk obstacles and unreadabilities beyond measure. THE WHOLE THING IS NATURALLY AND SUPERNATURALLY AND EXTRANATURALLY BEYOND MEASURE. Like, who would try to set any kind of ruler alongside such documents of the imagination.
You have finally the feeling that at least some part of everything is here, even the women surrealists so long overlooked and underlooked: Alice Rahon, Remedios Varo (one of our favorite scientific/literary models), Dora Maar the photographer and Picasso friend and victim, and besides, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning, neither overlooked in any way at all. What you would hope and expect: lots of Max Ernst in all his modes, parody and serious combined, lots of de Chirico all haunting everything, lots of the semiotically-challenging Miró and, you know, everyone.
I remain haunted by André Masson and was delighted to see La Corde (1924), one of those pieces with a rope, a glass jug upon a table, and angles all sharp, as in Kay Sage’s architectural constructions, La Grande Dame, one of those sand-thrown pieces of 1927 so important for Pollock’s throwing of paint, and then the fierce Massacre, with some daggers here and there, and some body parts strewn here and there. The delightful curator who took me around had me guess—as I could not, of course—to whom one might ascribe a painting by the early Rothko. It was Figure in Archaic Sea of 1946. O.K.
But the amazingness of all of this was dwarfed by the GIGANTIC triptych of Dali, Landscape with a Girl Skipping Rope (1936), so immense that had it been two inches immenser, it could not have made it, even in the three parts into which it was, obviously, sectioned, into the gallery. It is not that it dwarfs the rest, but rather gives a center to the massiveness of the exhibition, which will only travel, after its magnificent presentation in Edinburgh, to Hamburg and to Amsterdam.
What I couldn’t see but SAW IN THE SETTING UP OF was James’s film of subtropical jungles of Xilitla in Mexico between the late-’40s and mid-’80s: I love that with surrealism, everything is always Being Set Up. It isn’t DONE. We’d be ultimately bored.
Fully worth making it over to somewhere it is shown from wherever you are.
2. Second Look
Now looking over the press release and recontemplating my visit with a bit more leisure, so much comes to light: despite all my work on Dora Maar, I had forgotten Penrose’s astonishment at Picasso’s selling him his print of La Femme qui pleure of 1937, and now have a chance to admire the outstanding work of the Edinburgh’s exhibition curator, Keith Hartley, with whom I was fortunate to speak, and to read his essay about Roland Penrose and his collection (now turned over to the Edinburgh museum, where I remember visiting the Dean Gallery many years ago.) It is thanks to Penrose’s non-success as a painter and enthusiasm for the ongoing art scene, helping to organize the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 in London and contributing to the 1938 Exposition internationale du surréalisme in Paris and the 1938 showing of Guernica, advising the show of Dada and Surrealism Reviewed in 1953, serving as the British Council’s Fine Arts Officer in Paris from 1956 to 1959, continuously working with the Arts Council and organizing exhibitions at the ICA and the Tate.
The essays by Dawn Ades and Elizabeth Cowling are crucial to any understanding of how this exhibition matters to surrealising readers. In Dawn Ades’s account of the history of André Breton’s collection—the dispersal of which caused such a tumult in 2003—one detail stands out for me: his having to sell de Chirico’s The Child’s Brain, a work for which—if I remember correctly—he jumped off a Parisian bus to acquire. So many other details matter to those of us who have been and are still involved in the spirit of surrealism: ones we have forgotten, such as one of the four Magrittes sold by Paul Éluard to Penrose (then bought by Gabrielle Keiller) under the name La Représentation (a partial representation if there ever was one) having been originally entitled as Le Ventre or The Stomach. Indeed, it is just that, but what an enlarged title!
A few works leap out at you from the pages, when you only remember your visit to the splendid exhibition. So many Max Ernsts, among them the all-enveloping Elle garde son secret (She Keeps her Secret) of 1925, with the great rise of an unfolding leaf against a textured cliff, and the dizzying, whirling, fox-faced centering of his Jeune homme intrigué par le vol d’une mouche non-euclidienne (Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly (1942 – 7). Reminiscences of de Chirico: the vertical column of Les noces chimiques (Chemical Wedding) of 1946 with its “Old Faithful” glove like a parody of those other gloves we know so well. We might well be haunted by the lone table with its three glasses each bespooned, the wide stretch of sand at Cadaquès with its upturned vase near us, further out to the water, its boats and hills, and always the child gazing out, at such a sight.
Such a plentiful sighting is this exhibition.
ContributorMary Ann Caws
MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.