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issue 60, October 2001

Real enough

Surrealism: Desire Unbound
Tate Modern Admission £8.50
20 September 2001 to 1 January 2002
Reviewed by Manny Thain

LOVE IT or loathe it, surrealism has fundamentally affected the way we perceive the modern world, especially in the West. Set up in Paris in 1919, it was led by the French poet, André Breton, who published the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. In the course of 30 years it drew in, and sometimes spat out, such people as Max Ernst, Luis Buñuel, René Magritte, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning and Salvador Dalí. Fellow travellers included Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Frida Kahlo. They all feature in this exhibition.

Before surrealism, and alongside it, cubism and futurism had revolutionised the way we perceive art, ourselves and the world. Later, abstract expressionism, would further alter perceptions. Art lives. Reflects. Provokes.

Surrealism has infiltrated our language as part of common parlance. People do not, in general, say, 'That was an abstract expressionist conversation,' 'She's a bit cubist', or 'I've had a dada day'. Everyone has had some pretty 'surreal' experiences though.

Surrealism was a movement in a very real sense. It had manifestos and declarations, international seminars and exhibitions. Artists were expelled from its ranks. It was challenging. Walter Benjamin, a writer and Marxist critic until his death in 1940, considered the way surrealism assaulted traditional values as revolutionary, shaking up the bourgeois world. The fascist regimes of Germany, Spain and Italy denounced it as degenerate.


Juxtaposing items not normally connected questions the 'natural order' of things. Dalí stuck a lobster on a telephone. Not only that, he called it Lobster Telephone. This was 1936 and his home country, Spain, was in the throes of revolution and civil war, so it was only natural to think about that kind of thing. And that's just it: it is. It's about perversion. Subversion, too. Meret Oppenheim, however, could have had Dalí for breakfast. Her Objet (le déjeuner en fourrure) (1936) is a cup, saucer and spoon made out of gazelle fur. Now, that is dangerous. Oppenheim's Ma Governante - My Nurse - Mein Kindermädchen (1936) is a pair of women's heeled shoes, upturned, strung together and dressed like a bird ready to roast: one of the most powerful images connected with women in the exhibition.

Tate Modern's theme is desire. The majority of these artists were men. The surrealists, out to shock, embraced hedonistic, excessive behaviour. They might justify this in the name of experimentation, spontaneity and the drive to explore fantasies, dreams and nightmares. That inevitably raises questions about the portrayal of women. The allegation is that many of these artists viewed women purely as objects of male sexual desire. Joseph Cornell's photos of film stars, Hedy Lamarr and Greta Garbo, are evidence for the prosecution.

Tate Modern's guide says, 'such stereotypes can be considered as a counter-attack against the equally limiting view of women as mothers or wholesome virgins promoted by church and state at that time'. That's right. It should be considered. It is a double-edged argument, though, one which can be used as an excuse for exploitation. The stars' fame is based on their sexual attraction. They may have used it for their own ends, but it can reinforce the image of woman as sexual object.


There is room for discussion and argument, however. Surrealism cannot be so conveniently dismissed. It was not black and white.

Some of the surrealists were very active politically. In 1938, Breton visited Leon Trotsky in Mexico. They drew up a manifesto, Towards a Revolutionary Art, also signed by the Mexican artist-revolutionary, Diego Rivera - an attempt to bring together artists and writers opposed to capitalism and Stalinism. Breton spoke at meetings against the Moscow Trials and in defence of Trotsky.

He was involved with FIARI - the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Artists and helped produce the first issue of its newsletter, Clé (Key), published in January 1939. (Only two issues were produced - Trotskyists and anti-Stalinists were the victims of fierce state repression.)

On the eve of the second world war, patriotic fervour was being whipped-up in all countries. Anti-asylum seeker propaganda was universal. Clé commented: "The FIARI considers it as its prime duty to denounce this new degradation of bourgeois 'conscience', and to expose these xenophobic manoeuvres as one of the main dangers of the present time... In the more specific sphere of our own activity, we will take good care not to forget that if Paris has long been in the artistic vanguard, that is essentially a result of the hospitable welcome which artists coming from all countries have found there... Art has no country, just as the workers have none. To advocate today a return to 'French' art, as not only the Fascists but also the Stalinists are doing, means opposing the maintenance of this close link which is necessary to art; it means acting deliberately in favour of historical regression. Our comrades who are foreign artists are today threatened in the same way as our comrades who are foreign workers". (Culture and Revolution in the Thought of Leon Trotsky, Porcupine Press 1999)


The surrealists drew on Sigmund Freud. He revolutionised psychoanalysis. And sex, gender, sexuality, attraction, repulsion, and repression were core themes for the surrealists. To emphasise the point, the first painting in this exhibition is Ernst's Men Shall Know Nothing of This (1923), based on the memoirs of Daniel Schreber, whose fantasies about becoming a woman were analysed by Freud. The Bride Stripped Bare, completed in 1923 by French artist, Duchamp, expresses eroticism between men and women via physics and engineering. From 1920, Duchamp produced some works under a female pseudonym, Rrose Sélavy - a pun on Eros and 'c'est la vie' (that's life). Dressed in drag, he would pose for Man Ray, an American photographer. Claude Cahun was born Lucie Schwob but adopted a more androgynous sounding name. She lived in Paris and was openly lesbian. Some of her photographs are displayed, although she never promoted herself as an artist and her works were never exhibited in her lifetime. There is real emotional depth here. In 1930 she wrote: 'Under this mask another mask. I shall never finish stripping away these faces.'

Man Ray is technically superb. He seems to be attempting to deconstruct beauty, metamorphosing conventionally beautiful bodies and de-personalising them. The heads are often cropped off. A woman's body merges with the background, or is it the other way round? It's dispassionate. Cold and distant. Voyeuristic. Some might say pornographic.

Magritte's The Lovers (1928) depicts a couple kissing, each of their heads covered in cloth. There are examples of 'automatic painting' by Joan Miró, an attempt at unlocking the unconscious via spontaneous work. There's film and sound.


The heart of the exhibition is the most disturbing. Three rooms, named Her Throat Cut, The Games of the Doll and Eros, plunge the visitor into a much darker place. Hans Bellmer used mannequins, distorted and contorted. Photos of them: harsh images, broken, diseased. Disturbing.

The power of this exhibition took me by surprise. It's easy to be blasé about surrealism. It has been tamed, incorporated into the system it once confronted. Strange juxtapositions are commonplace in advertising, film, comedy, all over. Surrealist art can often seem pretentious. Some of it appears to be bad taste for the sake of - you can never be too sure. It makes people think about what beauty is - that there are not necessarily strict rules which have to be followed. It was a varied movement using all media. There was no common agreement. It was stimulating. Sometimes funny. It still is.

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