Against The Current: Surrealism Takes Over The World

There is a contradiction at the heart of the Tate Modern's big Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition, finds Poppy Richler

Koga Harue, Umi (The Sea) 1929. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Photo: MOMAT/DNPartcom

Surrealism is commonly associated with lobster phones, melting clocks and apple/pipe puns. The Tate Modern and MoMA’s Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition departs from this heavily trodden path and explores the movement’s lesser known avenues, showcasing Surrealist presence across South Korea, Bogotá and Haiti to name a few. Using André Breton’s Manifeste Du Surréalisme (1924) as the anchor, the exhibition centres Breton’s musings over psychic automatism and nonconformity as a springboard for exploring Surrealism as social protest from the 1920s–1970s.

In this way, the exhibition introduces the collages of Okanoue Toshiko and the photographs of Adnan Muyassar into the same arena as the works of Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and Salvador Dalí. Even more so, it does so with acute attention towards oppositional groups, from The Circle’s undermining of Serbia’s monarchical dictatorship in the 1920s to Cairo’s al-Fann wa-I-Hurriyya / Art et Liberté (Art and Liberty) who fought against British colonialism and Nazism throughout the 1930s and 40s. Importantly, the exhibition also demonstrates how Surrealism has operated on an individual level, upending the notion that it has functioned exclusively within groups. Such curation by Matthew Gale and Stephanie D’Alessandro ultimately delivers visitors a refreshed understanding of the subconscious and its revolutionary potential.

The first painting on entering the exhibition is American painter Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943), a fever dream depicting haunted children roaming a gothic mansion, indicative from the get-go of the exhibition’s efforts to destabilise the male face of Surrealism. The second room is populated by a plethora of found objects – both physical and photographed. Works by Roland Penrose and Eileen Agar amongst others sit central, questioning the erotic and fetishist male colonial gaze. Projected on the wall is the highly entertaining short-film Byt by Czechoslovakian filmmaker Jan Švankmajer which perfectly captures the Surrealist dichotomy between absurdist humour and political commentary. Created in 1968, the film sees a man confounded by his flat playing tricks on him – a metaphor for the totalitarianism of Soviet socialism during the Prague Spring of the same year.

On the opposite wall, a series of photo-collages and uncanny photographs are displayed. The best way to approach this gallery is with a blindness for chronology. This means that one jumps from Kati Horna’s Oda a la Necrofilia (1962) to Nikola Vučo’s Zadržano bekstvo nadstvarnosti (1929) to Limb Eung-sik’s Jeongmul II (1949), viewing the monochrome photographic explorations through a vacuum of pure aesthetic. This is precisely the aim of the exhibition, and is arguably its most successful statement.

The focus on female and non-binary Surrealists is most welcome, demonstrating how artists such as Claude Cahun and Remedios Varo used their art as a source of freedom from the intrusive male gaze and conventional gender norms. Whilst Cahun’s 1920s autoportraits explore androgyny through personage, Varo’s ecofeminist Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle triptych (1961) imagines a world where men and women are truly equal. What this exhibition lacks in western males depicting disembodied tits is gained in women depicting themselves hitting back at such tired portrayals. Importantly, the women are not sectioned off into their own space – a curatorial tick which only exacerbates the divide between ‘Surrealists’ and ‘female Surrealists’. Saying this, it’s also great to see female artists being exhibited in a totally ungendered light – lest we forget that women don’t always paint about their biology. Take Tarsila do Amaral’s Cidade (a Rua) (1929), a pastel-infused canvas which demonstrates how Brazilian Surrealists sought to undermine the cultural cannibalism of Europe in the 1920s, or the poetry of Aimé and Suzanne Césaire whose journal Tropiques was released in 1941 as a vehicle to destabilise colonialism in Martinique.

Eugenio Granell, The Magical Blazons of Tropical Flight 1947. Colección Fundación Eugenio Granell, Santiago de Compostela © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid. Photo by Margen Fotografía

A key element of the exhibition is the room dedicated to jazz poet Ted Joans. One of the ways the curators aimed to highlight themes of Surrealist fragmentation is through the ephemeral ‘traveller’ character. Outraged by systemic racism in America throughout the 1960s, Joans left the country to explore North and South America, North and West Africa, and Europe. After an encounter with Bréton (who seems to be the tenuous link running throughout), Joans proclaimed jazz to be his religion and “Surrealism [his] point of view.”

This brief enquiry into the connection between music and Surrealism is one of the exhibition’s most interesting tangents. The room hosts Joans’ Bird Lives! (painted in 1958 and depicting his flatmate in Greenwich Village, Charlie Parker) and an extract of Archie Shepp playing with Tuareg musicians at the First Pan-African Festival in Algiers (1969). The room visually represents Joans’ statement that jazz was “African music” and that “Surrealism originated from Africa” – a pivotal counter-narrative to the Eurocentric foundations of Surrealism and one that could have been explored further.

Surrealism Beyond Borders stands alone in its nuanced presentation of artists previously excluded from the Surrealist canon. It highlights how far the ethos of Surrealism as a form of resistance has spread, and questions the extent to which Surrealism remains with us today. However, is the Surrealism the Tate seeks to explore really ‘Beyond Borders’ if each nation is sectioned off in a series of rooms including ‘Haiti, Martinique, Cuba,’ ‘Convergence Point: Cairo/Mexico City’ or ‘Convergence Point: The Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes, Paris’)? Especially when considering that the first room’s blurb insists the exhibition reflects individual Surrealist pursuits ‘by avoiding nationalities’?

Antonio Berni, Landru in the Hotel, Paris, 1932 Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Sur. Photo courtesy Eduardo Baldizán

While the exhibit succeeds in establishing Surrealism’s presence outside of European borders, its initial emphasis on European artists such as Tanning and Magritte sets a confusing tone. It’s established that Surrealism was used as a form of political protest across many countries largely after its French explosion in 1924. Yet, what the exhibition fails to signpost is the fact that we’re not only talking about two periods of Surrealism (put simply 1920–30 and afterwards) but more importantly, there’s a lack of distinction between Surrealism as a vehicle to totally remove oneself from reality (awakening the unconscious through sleep) versus using the tactics of Surrealism to create subtly subversive social commentary.

In short, the exhibit’s rough fifty-year time-frame paired with a nearly incomprehensible catalogue means that it’s easy to get confused as to what is trying to be said. Nevertheless, it’s still an exciting and eye-opening exploration of the presence and influence of Surrealism around the world. With that in mind, Surrealism Beyond Borders crucially interrogates museum practice and asks questions surrounding how to display such expansive collections. A timely reminder that a telephone topped with a lobster does not represent the apex of creative genius.

Surrealism Beyond Borders is at Tate Modern until 29 August

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