It is and isn’t Art

Surrealists’ at the Art Museum (1st review)

4 minute read
Dali's 'Self Construction With Boiled Beans' (1936): Another way to think about war.
Dali's 'Self Construction With Boiled Beans' (1936): Another way to think about war.

You see a painted three-fold screen that looks like decoupage, a pair of woman’s shoes, a sofa that can’t be sat on, a painting depicting Guillaume Apollinaire and a bronze standing lamp. It makes an interesting assemblage, although I’m not certain that you’d want it in your home.

It’s all art, all the time. Far from being revolutionary, it seems more evolutionary—the endgame of the 19th Century Arts-and-Crafts concept, i.e., everything you own should be artistic.

Of course it’s all a bit odd-looking. You really couldn’t sit comfortably on Dorothea Tanning’s sofa. I suppose you could wear Elsa Schiaparelli’s leopard skin shoes, but you’d better have an outfit that they wouldn’t upstage.

Rejecting business as usual

The portrait of Apollinaire is almost a monochrome and depicts him atypically as a French soldier during World War I. So this is part of the surrealist game: that it both is and isn’t Art.

The “story” of Surrealism is one of disgust, discovery and deception. The young men of the movement had either fought in the first World War or fled from it to neutral lands. The war left them angry and afraid. They had seen a generation of creative talent wiped out, and had lived in an irrational state.

After the war they weren’t much interested in returning to business as usual. They were mad at the world, and for good reason. Consequently they were ready to challenge all of society’s shibboleths—the State, the Church, the Social Register. Surrealists were ready to embrace the irrational precise because they saw where an ordered, rational social structure had led them.

Embracing Stalin

Freud, dreams and the Unconscious offered one escape route— games like The Exquisite Corpse were one method of releasing their creative juices. Another route, unfortunately, was the belief that Communism would point the way to a better life. In shunning the irrational monster Hitler, some Surrealists fled into the arms of Stalin, the rational one. How odd that a group so down on rationality would gravitate to a political movement that was as far from true anarchy as Greta Garbo was from the Marx Brothers.

Now, the nice thing about “From the Collection” shows is that they allow the public to see works that usually aren’t very accessible. Yes, the big names of Surrealism— Dali, Ernst, Miró, de Chirico, Man Ray— are all present. But this Art Museum show also includes interesting works by names you rarely if ever hear of.

Pierre Roy’s Metric System is a good example. It’s a large work painted at the movement’s height (1933) and with an impeccable provenance (The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection), but I’d never seen or even heard of it. Somehow it got lost in the shuffle of time and changing tastes. It’s a grand gesture of a painting.

Recognizable, and not

There are others here: Dorothea Tanning’s “Birthday”(1940) and Eugene Berman’s “View in Perspective of a Perfect Sunset” (1941). These paintings take the fantastic and delineate it. They are recognizable images, but also images that none of us have ever seen.

Berman’s forest of baroque columns and obelisks bathed in a lurid sunset glow can also be seen as an elegy for European civilization in the face of mounting barbarism.

Tanning uses a different technique; her “Birthday” is so exact in every detail, so insistent upon the physical actuality of everything you’re seeing, that you don’t know whether you should try to mentally unravel that maze of half-opened doors that form the painting’s background or be thrown by the sphinx-like creature that crouches at the feet of the woman— who, we assume, is the work’s true subject. A more conventionally dream-like work is Valentine Hugo’s “Playing Cards and Lotus Blossoms.”

Warmer than abstract art

The real revelations of the show are what I call the dreamscapes. These paintings tread ground between abstract and representational art. They don’t depict things, so much as the idea of things— what the thing suggests to the painter. To me, they are warmer and more romantic than conventional abstract art.

Leon Kelly’s “Ancient Bird and Mummified Bird” and “Primordial Landscape” and Enrico Donati’s “Carnival of Venice” can neither be called “depictions” (as the Tanning might be) nor “schematics.” There’s too little technique for the one and two much emotion for the other. I’d like to learn more about both of these artists; my thanks to the staff of the Art Museum for bringing them to my attention.

To read another review by Victor Schermer, click here.

What, When, Where

“The Surrealists: Works from the Collection.” Through March 2, 2014 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Special Exhibitions Gallery, Perelman Building, 26th St. and Benj. Franklin Pkwy. (215) 763-8100 or

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