Drawing Surrealismby Valery Oisteanu
The Morgan Library & Museum | January 25 – April 21, 2013
Drawing Surrealism, curated by Leslie Jones of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Isabelle Dervaux of the Morgan Library & Museum, is a scholarly overview of an impressive 165 works on paper by 79 artists who shared the dream visions of Surrealist practice. The show begins chronologically in 1915 and ends, somewhat abruptly, in the 1950s. Of course, Surrealism proved to be not just a passing trend in art, but a whole attitude toward life—for some, even a way of life. For others, Surrealism was a spiritual activity of expression in different mediums, representing the unrepresentable, visualizing forbidden dreams, exposing repressed desires, and much more.
Poet-philosopher Giorgio de Chirico opens our journey with a metaphysical drawing, prefiguring dream acts to come with a haunting image of an enigmatic mannequin. Although the technique is traditional, the subject is a philosophical and retinal mystery. The French poet, theorist, and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire who invented the term “Surrealism,” is represented with a calligram, “Mandolin, Carnation and Bamboo,” a delicate, lyrical drawing made out of words. Francis Picabia whose work on paper “Olga” also graces the accompanying catalogue’s cover, offers a classical face drawn in a superimposed double exposure, suggesting a dreamy portrait-vision.
Eight thematic sequences follow the evolution of new graphic techniques being employed by the Surrealists, such as automatic drawing, sleeping fits, the cadavre exquis, frottage, grattage, and decalcomania—just a few tricks of the trade used to tap into the subconscious realm. The art and accompanying text on view at the Morgan unravel in the viewer’s retinas as short vignettes of a larger story. Here in experiment after experiment we witness the Surrealists’ mental and aesthetic revolution, along with the telling results of its impact on art in general, and on American Abstract Expressionism in particular.
The first of André Breton’s Freudian obsessions was automatic drawing, which he defined in a 1924 manifesto as occurring “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, beyond any aesthetic or moral concern.” Eventually, scores of poets/artists experimented with sleep writing, sleep painting, and even chess played while blindfolded. Another early adherent to the movement was André Masson, whose “Vegetal Delirium” attempted pioneering inroads into the unconscious. “The hand must be fast enough so that conscious thought cannot intervene and control the movement,” Masson wrote. His “Battle of the Fishes” (1926) presents underwater fauna mingled with blood-red pigment and sand glued to paper.
Meanwhile, in a state of grace, Man Ray invented rayographs, the results of ordinary objects placed on photographic paper and exposed to light. “Les Champs delicieux” (1922) and “Silhouetted Forms’’ (1924), the latter a cloud resembling a corkscrew, combined chance with a more deliberate approach.
The exquisite corpse proved a rite of initiation for Surrealists in the form of an entertaining parlor game, which tempted the group with its chance-operational possibilities. Juxtapositions of images and secret contributions made the unveiling (or birth) of a “corpse” into an almost coherent, telepathic collaboration. A 1926 composition in graphite and colored pencils by the quartet of Breton, Marcel Duhamel, Max Morise, and Yves Tanguy depicts an elephant-headed beast with a torso marked by small umbrellas for hands and hermaphroditic sexual organs, ejaculating numerals and a clock, all ending in a long tail.
The second gallery emphasizes other artists from the United States, Japan, and Mexico. The first section here, “International Collage,” begins with a small but powerful black-and-white work by Joseph Cornell (“Untitled,” 1930), a troubling image of a man with a colander on his head. With its cheap, easily blended elements, collage challenged painting while embodying Surrealism’s populist and countercultural expressions.
Max Ernst dominates the show with 13 artworks revealing his absurd theater of visual dreams. The artist assembled his narratives in a graphic gothic novel called “Une Semaine de Bonté” (1934), displayed here. This legendary masterpiece was made from old catalogs and pulp-novel illustrations. Ernst’s main contribution to Surrealist drawing was the discovery of a new technique known as “frottage,” and later “grattage.” The old technique of rubbing, used for the mechanical copying of low-relief objects such as coins or engraved architectonic signs, was here adapted with an element of chance, recording visions roused by different materials, “leaves and their veins, the ragged edges of a bit of linen, or the unwounded thread of a spool,” all inspiring biomorphic chimerical creatures.
The section titled “Decalcomania” refers to a technique invented in 1935 by Oscar Domínguez, in which ink or gouache is placed on paper, its wet residue transferred to another piece of paper to produce proto-psychedelic effects and rich imagery, as in an untitled piece here from 1937. Other experimentations included the work of Wolfgang Paalen an Austrian who relocated to Mexico and the U.S. He produced paintings and drawings by holding up a canvas or piece of paper above a candle and collecting the soot from the combustion. While Paalen exerted a certain amount of control over the effects, the result ultimately was susceptible to the whims of the flame, as in “Fumage” (1938).
The “Dream Imagery” section presents more drawings by Salvador Dalí, who sought to visualize “delirious phenomena” with the utmost detail, in the academic style of the old masters. His study for “The Image Disappears” (1938) shows a girl in a hula skirt transformed through tromp l’oeil into the face of an old man with a naked girl adorning his brain. “Late Surrealism,” the final section of the show, is a “theater of mind dreams” that includes the best of Surrealism and introduces the birth of American Abstract Expressionism.
Hans Bellmer came in contact with Surrealism in 1934 and was unique in that his primary approach was drawing and graphic art. Bellmer’s subversive eroticism continued a direct line from Sade to Bataille, whose work he illustrated several times. Sometimes his eroticism bordered on cruelty, as in the morbid disintegration and transparency of the body, with naked skeletons of copulating couples as well as multiplied images of sexual organs charged with inexhaustible libidinous energy. Also in the ’30s, Victor Brauner (1903 – 1966) developed his mythological biomorphic fauna, while Jacques Hérold evolved his mineralogical style; the structure on display here recalls Masson’s crystalline skeletons of the same time, moving toward the fetishization of the landscape instead of advertising and popular culture.
The end of the journey features early Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, two American representatives of local Surrealism, both admired by Breton and both early pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. Pollock’s untitled drawing from 1943 (inscribed “for P.G.,” Peggy Guggenheim) uses pen and ink, wash, gouache, and red chalk in an example of the fusion of primitivism and modernism. The work is populated by mask-like figures, mythical animals, and pictographs of primitive art. The loosely applied wash and spattered ink anticipate Pollock’s drip paintings of 1947–52.
Glaring omissions in the ancestral lineage of Surrealism as presented here are Marcel Duchamp, Paul Delvaux, and Jean Dubuffet, three impeccable draftsmen who brought the affirmation of pictorial Surrealism to fruition. There is also an inadequate presence of women Surrealists. Nevertheless, “Drawing Surrealism” is an historical event, focusing for the first time on drawings within this important movement. These major artistic innovations helped Surrealism to expand and flower, and its influence is still being felt around the world. The show at the Morgan offers a monumental source of inspiration for students, art historians, and artists of our time.
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