at the Tate Modern
by Borin Van Loon
a 'blockbuster' exhibition, if such a thing exists, and probably
all the better for it. As one of the most important, turbulent and,
it must be admitted, inherently flawed movements in art, poetry
and revolutionary politics of the last century, Surrealism explores
and uncovers that which is 'above the real', a dimension of meaning
which transcends bourgeois 'common sense'. Given their positioning
in history (born out of the unbridled nihilism of Dada, itself a
product of the horrors of the Great War) the founding fathers of
Surrealism (and it was mainly men at the start: women were seen
as muses for the males) didn't have much time for that dominant
and dreaded class dubbed by Marx 'the bourgeoisie'. Uneasy off-and-on
relations with the official Communist Party throughout the Stalinist
era didn't really help; it's clear that the hard left in France
couldn't cope with these semi-anarchic, strange young men and their
passionate, disturbing attitudes towards the stifling mediocrity
of the European middle class.
At the centre of Surrealism's agenda was the pursuit and examination
of desire. The word 'desire', as it appears in the title of this
exhibition, applies to all areas of human activity which are suppressed
by bourgeois values. Adopting the spirit and vocabulary of the Russian
Revolution and Freudian psychoanalysis (two unlikely bedfellows)
led the early practitioners to experiment with pure psycic automatism,
often to the exclusion of other forms of expression. These factors
conspired to destabilise a movement which was remarkably long-lived,
eventually being shattered only by the invasion of France by the
Nazis. As a coherent movement Surrealism found a figurehead (and
he did have a remarkably large, leonine head) in Andre Breton. Breton
himself embodied a revolutionary spirit with a questionable attitude
towards women and extreme homophobia. During the 'Discussions on
Sexuality' which were transcribed in the thirties and published
in full only recently, Breton threatened to terminate discussions
which wandered into same-sex practices on several occasions. Given
the free-ranging and openly frank intentions of these group discussions,
his impulses mark him out against many of the more liberal participants.
Needless to say, any women present remained largely silent or were
busy acting as secretary.
Many of the prejudices and contradictions inherent in society as
a whole were embodied by the Surrealists. Successive expulsions
from the group were often followed by tacit reacceptance into the
fold, in typical French counter-cultural mode (see also: Situationists
whose leader Guy Debord eventually expelled everyone from the inner
core except himself). The group were destined to drag their remnants
back together after the war and find Breton at the centre of a new
generation of followers in Paris, though with diminished influence.
Jean-Paul Sartre had a very existential and jaundiced view of Surrealism,
but I wonder what Simone de Beauvoir would have had to say about
the bundle of Maoist contradictions which was Sartre.
Slavish adherence to automatism, even though it had contributed
notable work such as the prose-poem 'Magnetic Fields' by Breton
and Paul Eluard and the automatic drawings and paintings of Andre
Masson, led to freer expressions. Salvador Dali, whose extreme posturing
shocked even the Surrealists, invented the Paranoic-Critical Method
of capturing dreams and nightmares on minutely detailed canvasses.
The dazzling vision and technique of these paintings from the thirties,
as well as his 'symbolically-functioning objects' and poems comprise
major works of the movement.
The Tate Modern offers us all the usual suspects from its own collections
and many rarities from around the world. Magritte is here only sparingly
('The Lovers' 1928), some major Ernsts ('The Robing of the Bride'
1940), fine sculptures by Giacometti ('Woman With Her Throat Cut'
1932, shown left) , great photography by Man Ray and Lee Miller
('Anatomies' 1929), and good selections from the man-child paintings
of Miro. Meret Oppenheims 'Object', which set American society alight
when it was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art, demonstrates
the characteristic paradox of object and material: a cup and saucer
covered in fur. Man Ray's flat-iron which has a row of nails welded
down the centre of its pressing surface, 'Gift', embodies the same
feeling of unease: an object which destroys that which it is intended
to improve. On the ironing theme, Marcel Duchamp proposed his own
version of the surrealist object: the Old Master painting which
is used as an ironing board.
extensive selection of documents, photographs and letters lies at
the heart of this exhibition. Not spectacular in itself, this gallery
contains much of the restless spirit of Surrealism. The star of
the show for me was the painting 'Gradiva' by Andre Masson (shown
above). Based on its own borrowed myths and references it contains
- quite literally - volcanic sexuality and a part human, part stonework
female figure bisected by a joint of meat (shades of Stanley Spencer
here), with a conch shell instead of genitalia.
In the words of the Comte de Lautremont: it's as beautiful as the
chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing
machine. At its best, it quite takes the breath away. We all know
that Surrealism continues to be the currency of much of today's
advertising. One only has to look at some of the slightly repellant
television advertisments on our screens (BBC internet: walking fingers
with little human heads; a monstrous computer-generated baby which
rampages through a hospital like Ridley Scott's alien: some make
of car or other) to see its dominance. Meanwhile it reverberates
in the stand-up comedy of Eddie Izzard and Emo Philips and the film-making
of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Jan Svankmajer. It informs
comic strips (modesty forbids...) and situation comedy ('Fast Show',
'Big Train', 'Smack the Pony'). "It's quite surreal" has become
a commonplace amongst people who have no idea what surrealism is;
quite often the situation so described isn't really surreal at all
(see also 'Kafkaesque').
Finally, one of my favourite artists, Dorothea Tanning, soul-mate
of Max Ernst and a superb painter to boot, leaves me with the most
memorable of images. 'Birthday' (1942) is a full length selfportrait
of the artist at the age of thirty, bare breasted and standing in
front of an endless succession of open doors. At her feet a grotesque
succubus crawls. In the specialist shop afterwards I spend 45 minutes
and loadsamoney on my choices. Tanning's autobiography, a book of
automatic texts (including 'Les Champs Magnetique') and Michel Foucault
on that most equivocal Magritte work: 'Ceci n'est pas une Pipe'.
A crystal paperweight with the enlarged eye of Lee Miller at its
heart and a few postcards and I am done. Disappointingly no t-shirts
(I didn't really want one of the extortionate 'TATE' ones with the
lettering composed of three dimensional Dalinian ants). But, all
in all, an exhilarating show.
As I walk into the huge halls of the Tate's main exhibition area,
I'm drawn by a crowd huddled into one of the mini-cinema areas where
once the full-frontal film of a naked artist disporting himself
was shown. There, transfixed, visitors stare at the projected animations
of Jan Svankmajer. 'Dimensions of Dialogue' explores two clay-sculpted
heads on a table top as they stare with glass eyes at each other
in an unnerving manner and fence with a variety of objects which
issue from their mouths. One of the finest pieces of film making
in the history of cinema.
Van Loon, January 2002
Surrealism exhibition ran from 20 September 2001 to 1 January 2002
at the Tate Modern in London. Our Chairman Borin Van Loon went along
and sent us this review.
Further info and images on the Tate