JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue
ArtSeen

Surrealism in Mexico

Frida Kahlo, La Venadita (The Little Deer), 1946. Oil on Masonite. Private Collection. © 2019 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

On view
Di Donna Gallery
April 25 – June 28, 2019
New York

This wonderfully hung exhibition celebrates the wondrously worded “robust creative moment” when a group of internationally colorful surrealists left Europe for Mexico, fleeing World War II. Appealing in its landscape and its myths, Mexico welcomed them, first in the persons of the painters Frida Kahlo (whose St. Sebastian-like arrow-wounded Frida-faced deer adorns the postcard invitation) and Diego Rivera, as hosts to Breton and Jacqueline Lamba, Breton’s then wife. (It is Rivera’s name, substituting for that of Trotsky, which appears along with that of André Breton as the signatories of the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art.) A great foursome, they made. Jacqueline, very beautiful, adopted Frida’s long skirts and colorful blouses, and their friendship was an image of the mingling of European and Mexican surrealism.

Wherever you come into this inventive exhibition, you will experience something now unlike anywhere else, either in Mexico, or then in Paris. What first—and continuously—astounded me was the proliferation of works rarely seen together in one place. I will start off with the seven Remedios Varo works—the carefulness and precision of detail along with the hauntingness of the implied narratives mesmerizes. So many strangenesses: Ojos sobre la mesa (Eyes on the Table)(1935) with not only the glass frames confronting the pair of eyes minus the face, but on a table floating about, and Mi generalito (My Little General) (1959) with one eye reposing in his face while the other is somehow enclosed above, in a kind of chandelier, or the Papilla estelar (Celestial Pablum) (1958) being ground out in a cave-tower construction ensconced in some wafting clouds. But the recurrences! The stairs in the superb Paisaje, torre, centauro (Landscape, Tower, Centaur)(1943) as they echo each other have that same repeated lyricism as the boat/ship in the Hallazago (Discovery) of 1956 and the Exploración de las fuentes del Rio Orinoco (Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River) of 1959… This one gets to me. I looked at it with Paul Branca of the gallery, who pointed out how the boat/ship is actually a trench-coat with its pocket, and there it is, sailing right on through those tree stalks with their small onlookers in the holes near the top.

Remedios Varo, Papilla estelar (Celestial Pablum), 1958. Oil on Masonite. Colección FEMSA. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid.

So much else, of course, Leonora Carrington, how not? And the photographer Kati Horna, with those bizarre details and impassioned part of the Ode to Necrophilia series, photographed in 1962, in which I was guided by Jennifer Field of the gallery to see the profiled back of Leonora Carrington with that candle aflame, and then I saw the bronze bell on the open book, being nostalgically prompted to remember the calling bells we used in the South ages ago to ask someone to come bring something, and thinking of the film Bell, Book, and Candle of 1958, and finally that amazing pillowed mask no one but Kati Horna would have thought of…

I was delighted to see two pieces by Alice Rahon of 1952 and 1954 respectively—whose three volumes of poems under the name of Alice Paalen (when she was married to Wolfgang) I found intriguing and have translated for The New York Review of Books. So, this exhibition so close and so far away perhaps, not really, strikes me as present in New York. For its mythological resonance, for its closeness to home. Faraway is of course Augustín Lazo, and even Gunther Gerzso, and every time the calle Gabino Barreda comes up, I gasp. There they all were. Of course, Gordon Onslow-Ford and Leonora Carrington and the very, very bizarre Bridget Bate Tichenor, with those tiny slits of eyes all looking in other directions, like some deeply creepy group portrait of the Surrealists of 1956! Enough to make you give up any thought of contemplating those actual surrealists and their ilk, apart from this astounding art. But that is a big apart.

Contributor

Mary Ann Caws

is the 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.

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JUNE 2019

All Issues