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'Surrealism: Desire Unbound'
at the Tate Modern
by Borin Van Loon

Not 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.

An 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.

--Borin Van Loon, January 2002

The 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 Modern website.