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Commentary: The present state of the world makes it appropriate to consider Surrealism in art


When talking to people about today's world, many folks refer to the surreal times in which we are living. The term surreal just keeps popping up. I see that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is featuring an exhibition on Surrealism.

The Surrealists were fascinated by dreams, desires, magic, sexuality and the revolutionary power of art to transform how we understand the world.

Wikipedia says that Surrealism was a cultural movement which developed in Europe in the aftermath of WWI and was largely influenced by Dada. The movement was best known for its visual artworks and writings and the juxtaposition of distant realities to activate the unconscious mind through the imagery.

In a wall text from an exhibition of Surrealism at the Tate in London, Surrealism is described as aiming to revolutionize human experience. It balances a rational vision of life with one that asserts the power of the unconscious and dreams. The movement’s artists find magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and uncanny and they disregard the unconventional. At the core of their work is the willingness to challenge imposed values and norms, and search for freedom.

James Voorhies from the Department of European Paintings at the MET wrote in 2004, "Surrealism originated in the late 1910s and early ‘20s as a literary movement that experimented with a new mode of expression called automatic writing, or automatism, which sought to release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious. Officially consecrated in Paris in 1924 with the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism by the poet and critic André Breton (1896-1966), Surrealism became an international intellectual and political movement. Breton and other intellectuals of his time were influenced by the psychological dream theories of Sigmund Freud and political ideas of Karl Marx. The cerebral and irrational tenets of Surrealism find their ancestry in the clever and whimsical disregard for tradition fostered by Dadaism a decade earlier.

Three Surrealist artists that come to mind are Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. There are dozens more that are all well known.

Tanguy was in many respects the quintessential Surrealist. Just Google and have a look at some of his works. He was a sociable, eccentric who ate spiders as a party trick and a close friend of André Breton. He was best known for his misshapen rocks and molten surfaces that lent definition to the Surrealistic aesthetic.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung used a canvas by Tanguy to illustrate his theory of the collective unconscious.

Salvador Dali was influenced by Freud and Freud's writing on the erotic significance of subconscious imagery and his affiliation with Paris Surrealists who sought to establish a greater reality of the human subconscious.

Rene Magritte became well known for depicting ordinary objects in an unusual context, His work is known for challenging observers' preconditioned perceptions of reality.

MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, recently had an exhibition which featured the importance of women in the Surrealism movement. Meret Oppenheim's "Cup, Saucer and Spoon," a work which showed these objects covered in fur made one touch them and yet were very repulsive. And Frida Kahlo, who didn't consider herself a Surrealistic artist, was featured with her bizarre and unreal works.

Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, says, "Surrealism came out of a moment of social and political change in the 1920s in Europe, between the two world wars. Yet, all over the world artists at this time were turning to dreams, the unconscious or the seemingly irrational as ways to explore important issues from the personal to the collective."

Klemm also says, "At the Saint Louis Art Museum works by Surrealist artists like Alberto Giacometti's ‘Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object),’ made in 1934-35 embody the feeling of psychological alienation. Or Max Ernst's ‘Long Live Love’ or ‘Charming Country’ from1923 emphasizes the uncanny. In it two dream-like figures appear entwined within a hollow tree trunk. Even almost a century later, Surrealism's dreamy mode has continued to be influential to contemporary artists and contemporary viewers alike."

The description of "Surrealism Beyond Borders," the exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC says that nearly from its inception, Surrealism has had an international scope, but understanding of the movement has come primarily through a Western European orientation. This major exhibition reconsiders the true "movement" of Surrealism beyond boundaries of geography and chronology--presenting it as networks that span Eastern Europe to the Caribbean, Asia to North Africa, and Australia to Latin America. Including examples from almost eight decades, produced across at least 45 countries, the exhibition offers a fresh appraisal of some of the collective concerns and exchanges--as well as historical, national and local distinctions--that will recast appreciation of this most revolutionary and globe-spanning movement.

It's fascinating to look at these strange works, but I frankly would like to snap-out of this dreamlike haze that I've been in.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.

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