Surrealism received the museum treatment early in its history—early enough that André Breton, the movement’s charismatic ringleader and chief evangelist, was aggrieved at learning that he would not be allowed to dictate the selection and presentation of works, as he had for virtually every other Surrealist exhibition since the group’s 1925 debut at Galerie Pierre in Paris. Organized by Alfred H. Barr Jr., at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, the show, “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,” was conceived as a companion to “Cubism and Abstract Art,” held at the museum earlier that year, both part of a series of exhibitions that would, according to Barr, “present in an objective and historical manner the principal movements of modern art.” Yet if Barr recognized that Surrealism must be reckoned with, he was nevertheless equivocal about its significance, in a way that he was decidedly not about Cubism’s: “When [Surrealism] is no longer a cause or a cockpit of controversy,” he writes in the catalogue, “it will doubtless be seen to have produced a mass of mediocre and capricious pictures and objects, a fair number of excellent and enduring works of art, and even a few masterpieces.”
This comparative ambivalence extended to the show’s contextualization of the movement. Whereas “Cubism and Abstract Art” advanced a causal history of modernism, tracing a direct genealogy from the broken brushwork of Impressionism to the faceted planes of Cubism, and from Cubist dissection of form to the abstract geometry of Suprematism and De Stijl, “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” introduced a more haphazard lineage: the loose, transhistorical category of “fantastic art” encompassed an eclectic range of materials, from the work of premodern fabulists like Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Hieronymus Bosch, and William Blake, to art made by children and the mentally ill, advertisements, and even a Walt Disney cartoon. As Barr suggests, Surrealism is inherently resistant to the kind of formalist reading that anchored the previous exhibition: in the catalogue, he writes that under Breton’s leadership Surrealism springs from the ashes of Paris Dada after its 1922 demise, harnessing its predecessor’s anarchic anti-rationalism into a more systematic theoretical program, rooted in the exploration of the unconscious mind—but not in a corresponding aesthetic program. Surrealism was not a style, but a “mental attitude and a method of investigation,” as writer Georges Hugnet contends elsewhere in the show’s catalogue. This, for Barr, explains the fact that Surrealist artistic output tended in two formally irreconcilable directions: on the one hand, the dream imagery characteristic of Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, and René Magritte, in which impossible scenes are rendered with naturalistic precision, and on the other, the biomorphic pseudo-abstractions of André Masson and Joan Miró, rooted in the practice of automatic drawing. Per Hugnet: for the Surrealists, “what a work of art expresses formally is of no importance—only its hidden content counts.”
Three decades later, with the 1968 exhibition “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” MoMA revisited the movement, this time retrospectively. In curator William Rubin’s account, two years after Breton’s death, European Surrealism is officially done as a living, breathing movement, the advanced art baton long since handed off to Abstract Expressionism and Pop in New York. While Rubin reiterates Barr’s sentiments about Surrealism’s privileging of a shared philosophy over a cohesive style, he nevertheless attempts to find a place for these unruly avant-gardes in MoMA’s essentially formalist narrative of modern art: “No matter what the radicality of an artist’s démarche, or his commitment to extrapictorial concerns, he sets out from some definition of art,” Rubin wrote in the show’s catalogue. “Hence, despite the postures assumed by some of the Dada and Surrealist artists, they were all in an enforced dialogue with the art that preceded them.” But even as Rubin sets out to bring Surrealism—scathingly, and in some circles fatally, dismissed by Clement Greenberg as literary, reactionary, and academic—back into the modernist fold, an element of Barr’s initial skepticism persists in his exhibition’s overdetermined narrative, which is, in the end, primarily concerned with the “heritage” of the show’s title. By the early 1940s, the Surrealist émigrés who flee Europe for New York during World War II have little left to say as artists in their own right, Rubin argues, but their arrival is nevertheless catalytic for the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. In this account, long dominant in Anglophone art history, Surrealism’s capital achievement is opening a door for a generation of wayward American painters, who quickly pass through it and never look back.
Critics and historians of modern art may have regarded Surrealism with suspicion but the public loved it: both MoMA shows drew significant crowds and traveled to multiple additional venues; that Rubin’s show was met by protesters—a mix of Yippies, Chicago Surrealists, and members of the anarchist art collective Black Mask—outraged at what they saw as the premature memorialization of a still-active movement only seemed to heighten its allure. In the popular imagination, Surrealism was stripped of its politics, understood instead as an art of outré hijinks embodied by the madcap figure of Dalí.
This picture was complicated by the 1978 exhibition “Dada and Surrealism Reviewed” at the Hayward Gallery in London, which placed the production of little magazines and journals at the center of Dada and Surrealist activity, both as the movements’ “principal platforms” for reaching an audience and their most coherent articulation of group identity and collective authorship. Emphasizing the central significance of magazines likewise directed new attention toward the Surrealist use of photography, both in terms of its treatment of the found image and the camera experiments of Surrealist artists.
Rosalind Krauss cites the show as a turning point in her 1981 essay “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” in which she argues that the conventional art-historical privileging of painting and sculpture by figures such as Rubin had led to a fundamental misreading of Surrealist art. For Krauss, photography was not only the medium in which the Surrealists made their most significant artistic contributions, but “the key to the dilemma of Surrealist style,” namely its confounding lack of one. Informed by semiotic theory, Krauss argues that the crux of Breton’s hazily defined concept of “convulsive beauty”—and thus Surrealist aesthetics as a whole—is “an experience of reality transformed into representation,” emblematized by the uncanny manipulations of the real produced by Surrealist photographers. Krauss elaborated on this argument in 1985 in the exhibition “L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism,” co-curated with Jane Livingston, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but Krauss’s dense catalogue essays, simultaneously published in the journal October, were arguably more influential than the show itself, recasting Surrealism as an art of fetishistic transgression rather than baroque fantasy, and an ideal screen for theoretical projection.
“Surrealism Beyond Borders,” which debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this past October and is currently on view at Tate Modern in London, attempts to shift the terms of Surrealist history once again. The show opens under the sign of exile: Marcel Jean’s Armoire Surréaliste (1941), a massive painting on hinged wooden panels bearing a trompe l’oeil rendering of a wardrobe’s doors and drawers opening to reveal a landscape stretching out into the distance. Made while the artist and his wife were stranded in Budapest—where they had moved temporarily from Paris in 1938 and then found themselves unable to return due to the war—it directs the Surrealist trope of everyday objects transformed into the stuff of dreams toward a more concrete, and politically poignant, desire for a secret passage to elsewhere. As signaled from the outset, the show’s conception of a Surrealism “beyond borders” is defined by people and concepts in motion, voluntarily or otherwise. Instead of a Paris-based interwar movement whose precepts and membership rolls were determined by Breton, Surrealism, in this telling, is an idea invented and reinvented in many times and places—Prague, Belgrade, Port au Prince, Mexico City, Tokyo, Cairo, Chicago, and, yes, Paris—with Breton’s inaugural circle one interconnected node among many. In a sense, the show proposes that Surrealism isn’t an art movement at all, but something more diffuse: a phenomenon, a network, an impulse in the air, or, as the show’s lead curators, Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale, put it in their catalogue essay, a model of “rhizomatic connectivity.”
The choice of Jean’s Armoire Surréaliste as an opening salvo also hints at other more subtle but no less significant historiographic revisions that the show proposes. The first is its relatively late date, after what is commonly held to be the heyday of Surrealism, which is posited here as roughly the movement’s midpoint rather than its end—in fact, the show includes more postwar objects than prewar ones. The second is its medium, painting, conveniently and perhaps conservatively restored to the center of the Surrealist story, with both photography and Surrealist objects—sculptural agglomerations of incongruous found materials—largely confined to their own dedicated subsections, presented at the Met in small side galleries.
Departing from Jean’s imaginary portal, the sprawling show unfolds as a sequence of broad thematic clusters that intermingle works from different periods and locations, leveling the priority of Paris and the heroic interwar phase. One of the largest groupings, “The Work of Dreams,” which was spread across a long wall at the Met in a playfully undulating hang, sets canonical examples of Surrealist dream imagery like Max Ernst’s Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924) alongside those likely to be familiar only to regional specialists. The Polish-Jewish painter Erna Rosenstein’s Ekrany (Screens, 1951) depicts the heads of her murdered parents floating, in grisaille, against a crisp blue backdrop, as if projected on one of the titular screens. Behind it is an eerie nocturnal forest, alluding to the nightmarish memory of the couple’s 1942 death in the woods at the hand of a smuggler who was supposed to help the family escape Nazi-occupied Poland. (The artist managed to survive the attack, and spent the rest of the war in hiding.) Skunder Boghossian’s Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964), made while the Ethiopian-born artist was living in Paris, is a celestial panorama occupied by winged creatures soaring into outer space, synthesizing the influences of Coptic art, Négritude, the Surrealist paintings of Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta, and the work of Nigerian magical realist writer Amos Tutuola.
Though the section “Beyond Reason,” which takes up the Surrealist antipathy toward logic and order, includes textbook contributions like René Magritte’s Time Transfixed (1938), portraying a miniature train hovering in midair as it speeds out of the fireplace of an elegant bourgeois interior, the wall text prioritizes the work of Japanese “Scientific Surrealists,” who responded to accusations of escapism from members of the country’s ascendant proletarian art movement by asserting they would use reason as a “weapon.” Koga Harue’s Umi (The Sea, 1929), for instance, among the show’s standout works, combines technological imagery from mass media sources—including depictions of a submarine, a German zeppelin, and a factory cross-section—into a mechanized seascape, with a young woman in a bathing suit and cap, copied from a postcard set depicting “Western beauties,” raising her arm to preside over the scene. Another section, “Revolution, First and Always,” juxtaposes Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936, a gruesome depiction of a decaying body pulling itself apart in a desolate landscape, with an untitled 1967 work depicting a crowded field of graphically outlined monsters with bloodied claws and fangs by Mozambican painter Malangatana Ngwenya, an allegory for his experiences of political persecution as a member of the Liberation Front of Mozambique fighting for independence from Portugal in the 1960s.
These thematic groupings are punctuated by smaller sections devoted to “convergence points,” framed as particularly instructive hotbeds of group activity: Paris, with its Bureau of Surrealist Research, founded in 1924, serving as both a publicity organ and a clearinghouse for information and correspondence; Cairo, whose group Art et Liberté/al-Fann wa-l-Hurriyya issued a 1938 manifesto, “Long Live Degenerate Art!,” proclaiming art’s absolute independence from any state ideology; Mexico City, where many European exiles, including Breton, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Benjamin Péret, Wolfgang Paalen, and Alice Rahon, were drawn during and after World War II, making contacts with existing avant-garde groups like the circle around the journal Contemporáneos, eager for alternatives to the dominant muralism; and Chicago, where a countercultural Surrealist group formed in 1966, devoted primarily to the production of antiwar agitprop, direct action, and underground publications rather than conventional artworks. More unwieldy is “Haiti, Cuba, Martinique,” which doesn’t so much name a meeting point, or three, for that matter, as identify the homes of influential artists and writers who intermittently left for the metropole and returned, among them the Cuban painter Lam and Martinican writers Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, taking Surrealism and transforming it into a more rigorous and politically committed vision of antifascist, anticolonial liberation. Conversely, other sections function as case studies of lesser-known figures—the Illinois-born Black poet and jazz musician Ted Joans; documentary photographer Eva Sulzer, part of the circle around the Mexico City–based journal Dyn; and the Spanish painter Eugenio Granell—who exemplify the show’s emphasis on Surrealism as an art of “travel, exile, [and] displacement” by rarely staying in one place for long. Granell, for instance, a leftist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, fled Spain after the fall of the republic, initially for the Dominican Republic, until that country’s military dictatorship sent him into exile once again, then Guatemala, where he was soon driven out as a result of his opposition to an increasingly influential faction of Stalinist artists and writers. Eventually offered a teaching position at the University of Puerto Rico in 1950, where he remained for seven years before relocating to New York, he played an influential role in introducing Surrealism to the island: displayed alongside Granell’s own creaturely paintings are works by the members of El Mirador Azul (The Blue Lookout), a Surrealist group formed by his students, attesting to the long aftereffects of these itinerant wanderings.
“Surrealism Beyond Borders” arrives at the tail end of a decade-long wave of “global exhibitions” like “Other Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum (2014) and “International Pop” at the Walker Art Center (2015): revisionist histories of canonical movements heretofore assumed to be the exclusive province of Western Europe and North America, now revealed to be far more dynamic and geographically dispersed. What distinguishes this one is that Surrealism was explicitly international from the outset; this was, indeed, part of its mythology and self-image. Surrealist circles sprang up around the world—the first ones, in Tokyo and Belgrade, appeared almost immediately after the Manifesto’s publication—with varying degrees of allegiance to Breton, adapting Surrealist ideas to local circumstances. Surrealism could be malleable enough to offer artists in different places whatever they needed from it: a rejection of the status quo, of bourgeois order, of colonial power, of social and political restriction. The Paris circle was also far from exclusively French, with many of its most recognizable participants arriving from abroad: Man Ray, Max Ernst, Magritte, Dalí, Miró. All this is acknowledged even in conventional accounts like Barr’s and Rubin’s, but taken primarily as a sign of Breton’s enlightened despotism and the Paris movement’s resounding success in disseminating its vision of the avant-garde. The show’s revision, then, is primarily a shift in priority or emphasis rather than a wholesale redefinition.
In eschewing chronology and, for the most part, geography, as organizing criteria, the curators wish to push against the perception that Surrealism is primarily a Parisian movement, bequeathed by Breton to provincial, often colonial, satellites. Rejecting the notion that the Surrealism practiced in Colombia or Turkey in the 1950s is merely a belated reiteration of the innovations of 1920s France, they insist, instead, that artists outside Breton’s immediate orbit had just as much claim to Surrealist strategies and watchwords.
Yet this thematic approach also largely lets Breton and company set the terms, unquestioningly accepting the categories and concepts that the Paris circle held up as central to Surrealist theory and practice, and slotting in works from elsewhere accordingly, giving each grouping a grab-bag quality. In many of the sections, the work is genuinely remarkable enough to distract from this categorical flimsiness; elsewhere it shows. In the wall text for the section devoted to Automatism, the concept is polemically introduced by way of the short-lived 1940s journal Surreal, based in Aleppo, rather than Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto, though neither the journal nor the Aleppo Surrealists’ work is actually on view. Instead, it is represented by an eclectic and mostly unremarkable group of works, largely characterized by anodyne abstraction. A massive canvas by the French painter Jean Degottex, L’espace dérobé (The Hidden Space, 1955), featuring two informel-ish slashes of muddy color on a grubby white ground, is perhaps the show’s nadir: an utterly nondescript work taking up too much wall space, with little to say about Surrealism’s postwar trajectory—particularly given that the artist never joined the group—except that, according to the wall text, Breton happened to be a fan. What is the advantage of including this work as an exemplar of automatism instead of, say, one of Masson’s 1920s sand paintings, for which he threw sand over spontaneously applied areas of wet gesso, allowing the resulting forms and the chains of associations they inspired to dictate the rest of the composition, if not simply for the sake of being noncanonical?
Moreover, this approach threatens to obfuscate as much as illuminate, avoiding as it does sufficient historical context to explain when, why, and how Surrealist practice took hold in different places, and what it meant at different moments, under varying sociopolitical circumstances. Is the everyday made strange in Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s Byt (The Flat, 1968)—a stop-motion short clandestinely produced in the run-up to the Prague Spring, in which a man is held captive by his seemingly possessed apartment—coterminous with that of Brassaï’s “Involuntary Sculptures” (1932), close-up photographs of found detritus, made monumental by the camera’s framing, or Raoul Ubac’s Le Combat des Penthésilées (1937), a solarized tangle of fragmented bodies, titled after Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 tragedy about the mythological queen of the Amazons? All three are yoked together in the section “The Uncanny in the Everyday,” which ostensibly explores how Surrealist photographers “tapped into the rich vein of estrangement embedded in the ordinary world,” but in practice flattens radically disparate work into an almost undifferentiated mass of weird pictures. The same might be said for almost all the show’s thematic sections. While the substantial scholarly catalogue fills in many of these contextual blanks, its form—dozens of short essays homing in on particular circles or phenomena—prevents a syncretic view. That this is by design doesn’t make it less frustrating: the show dedicates an entire subsection to the fascinating figure of Ted Joans, who committed himself to Surrealism as a child after encountering the movement in copies of avant-garde periodicals like Minotaure tossed out by his aunt’s white employers, formally joining the movement after a chance encounter with Breton in Paris in the early 1960s, yet after multiple visits to the exhibition and a close read of the catalogue, I remain unsure of who else belonged to the group at the time of his arrival.
Nevertheless, the exhibition’s accomplishments are undeniable, not least in the sheer volume of research undertaken by the curatorial team (D’Alessandro and Hale, along with Carine Harmand, Sean O’Hanlan, and Lauren Rosati), highlighting any number of heretofore marginal figures in the annals of Surrealism whose future prominence now seems assured. Its most decisive intervention is in putting to rest the long-held belief that Surrealism had sputtered out by the onset of World War II, just as art-world hegemony passed from Paris to New York: as the show makes abundantly clear, outside that particular Atlantic axis, Surrealism took new shape in response to a radically reoriented postwar world order.
But there is a fundamental question that the show refuses to answer even provisionally, and without which its narrative collapses under the weight of methodological indecision: what makes an artist a Surrealist? The show’s criteria for inclusion is murky, encompassing both those who explicitly identified with Surrealist groups and “fellow travelers” who participated in Surrealist activities or circles without ever formally joining, along with artists like Hector Hyppolite and Maria Izquierdo, whose works were claimed by Breton for Surrealism, regardless of their own interests and motivations, and others with no direct connection to Surrealism at all, among them Yayoi Kusama (who has explicitly denied a Surrealist element to her work) and the Iranian photojournalist Kaveh Golestan, killed by a landmine on assignment in Iraq in 2003, included on the basis of a striking, if uncharacteristic, 1976 photographic series, “Az Div o Dad” (Of Demon and Beast), comprising composites of Qajar Dynasty monarchs and animals made by holding archival images in front of the camera with the shutter left open. On the other hand, I will admit to being stumped by Kitawaki Noboru’s spare and schematic painting Diagram of I Ching Divination (Heaven and Earth), 1941, which seems fundamentally remote from Surrealist concerns as elaborated elsewhere in the exhibition, regardless of the artist’s self-identification. In attempting to keep the tent as big as possible, the exhibition dilutes the definition to the point of meaninglessness, exacerbated by the nonchronological installation, which elides the particulars of each artist’s encounters with Surrealism in favor of perceived affinities and thematic allegiances.
I suspect that this sense of evasiveness, dubiously spun as an advantage in D’Alessandro and Gale’s surprisingly circumlocutory introductory essay, reflects a profound anxiety about the very enterprise of a “global exhibition,” and the gambit of canon formation, or reformation, that it inevitably entails. Hesitant to replace old protagonists with new ones, to pick winners, to pluck new masterpieces out of obscurity, the show declines to commit to any position at all, preferring a view of Surrealism as undefinable and amorphous—in today’s parlance, more a vibe than anything else. But as a result, the Pope in Paris paradoxically looms larger than ever, even if he rarely appears outright: in the absence of an affirmative definition of what Surrealism is or was, all routes eventually pass through Breton, as the shared point of contact who holds together heterogeneous artists and groups. But if the show fails to convincingly knock Breton off his pedestal, or to advance a coherent narrative to rival the received ones it wishes to displace, it is generative in its breadth, gesturing toward the possibility of more complete and complex histories of Surrealism that may one day be written.
This article appears in the April 2022 issue, pp. 44–51.