Metamorphosis Victorianusby Valery Oisteanu
October 30, 2009 – January 30, 2010
“Modern Collage, Victorian Engravings & Nostalgia” is the subtitle of a scholarly exhibition that serves as a concise intro to the history of “paste-ups” from 1929 through the mid-1990s. More than 120 works from nearly seven decades of “oneiric-collage” are on display in the intimate setting of a Dada salon, contributing to a dream-narrative dredged from the subconscious. Mostly in black-and-white, these works are built from images clipped from the popular press, natural history, picture postcards, photography, and 19th-century engravings and jammed into incongruous juxtapositions across futuristic, fairytale landscapes.
The show reveals something of a mutual admiration society among the collagists on display, a reminder of how pervasive the movement galvanized by the Parisian Surrealists has become, up to and including the neo-Dada and post-Surrealist collages being produced today.
Standing out from the pack, of course, is Max Ernst (1891-1976), but we can trace threads of influence among all the artists chosen by curator Meredith Harper. The pioneering Dada/Surrealists of the late 1920s and 1930s, including Max Bucaille (1906-1992), Dr. Franz Roh (1890-1965), Jindřich tyrský (1899-1942), and Otto Hofmann (1907-1994), had a big impact on Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) and Gerome Kamrowski (1914-2004), who were, in turn, followed by Ray Johnson (1927-1995), Jess (1923-2004), and Bruce Conner (1933-2008).
The kind of collage practiced by the Surrealists, unlike the form pioneered by the Cubists, came out of fantasy in art as well as the popularity of dream interpretation and the influence of hallucinations stimulated by drugs or hypnosis. Ernst’s collage novels, starting with La Femme 100 Tetês (The Hundred Headless Woman, Edition de Carrefour 1929), turned harmless images from 19th-century illustrations, technical catalogues, and commercial publications into erotic tales with touches of Grand Guignol. It could be justifiable to say that these works ignited “collage madness” among the Parisian Surrealists. In his “Advice to the Reader,” published as an introduction to La Femme 100 Tetês, André Breton states that each element in Ernst’s images has left its original purpose behind for a new objective, provoking “innumerable illusions of true recognition that is up to us, and us alone, to have in the future and the past.” His declaration that “Surreality will depend on our will toward complete disorientation from everything” remains the best definition of surrealism from Breton or anyone else.
Jess and Bruce Conner both used Ernst’s collage novels as a jumping-off point, which led to collages incorporating words and poems, such as the former’s “Norma Cole: Entropicas Catasters & Doubtful Fragments” (1995) or his quirky series “No Smoking,” presented here in five paste-ups from 1972, including the hilarious “Lung Tonic Smoke Not.” An original collage by Conner, “Hashish” (1961), is so atmospherically descriptive that we could be led to believe that the artist, seen here as a headless figure, was under some kind of influence, probably hallucinogenic. Another edition of his etchings feels like an attempt to activate new cells in the viewer’s brain through stimulating juxtapositions, as in the potpourri of architectural details devoid of human presence, except for a woman’s hand, in “Take Two, D.H.O.M.S.”
The show also collects some dark assemblage/constructions by Kamrowski, Roh, and tyrský and concludes with four collages on black stock by Hofmann, a product of the Bauhaus school who combined science, naturalism, and subversive sexuality in images such as the literally uptight women in corsets displayed in “Women’s Power or a Conversation on High Intellectual Levels” (1934).
Although the exhibit is well-orchestrated, this is not a major overview. There is a certain delight, however, in seeing so many works from across the decades brought together, showing a clear continuity and evolution of the surrealist collage. For a more complete history of the use of Victorian engraving in figurative/narrative collage, art-lovers and curators should also look at the images and collage novels of such European and native surrealists as Juan Benet, Norman Rubington, Valentine Hugo, Georges Hugnet, Jacques B. Brunius, Toyen, Karel Teige, Jindrich Heisler, Adolf Hoffmeister, Laurence Vail, Ted Joans, Ludwig Zeller, Conroy Maddox, Jorge Caceres, and Braulio Arenas, just to name a few.