AVANTGARDE ART

Surrealism Beyond Borders. A new anthology written by the Tate Modern

Header Dalí, Téléphone Homard / Surrealism Beyond Borders / 2022 / Tate Modern, London

The Tate Modern currently stages “Surrealism Beyond Borders”, another exhibition on the ever-present art chapter of Surrealism one might think. What could art lovers possibly find at THIS new show after seemingly everything has been said everybody’s darling of modern art? Well, a lot. But let’s start take a look at some of the most intriguing pieces of the show!

About the (SECRET) stars of SURREALISM

Surrealism is one of these art chapters that everyone seems to like and to know: Dalì, Miró, Magritte or Max Ernst are all part of the canon of the super famous artists of modern art. Their paintings have – more than any other modern paintings – entered mainstream Pop History and are internationally known amongst art lovers as well as art deniers. An incredible amount of writings has been published – and an equally incredible number of exhibitions has been organized ever since Guillaume Appollinaire coined the term “surreal” for the art of his contemporaries in 1917 and ever since the Surrealist manifesto was published in 1924. So what is there left to say?

Outside View / 2022 / Tate Modern, London
Outside View / 2022 / Tate Modern, London

The Tate Modern’s answer is called “Surrealism beyond borders”, an exhibition shedding light not only on the very well-known topics of the art direction but on many, not so well-known protagonists of the huge movement as well. And I can tell you one thing: As an art historian, as an art educator and as a HUGE fan (yes, me too!) I have to admit, that even me I was not only charmed to meet my chéris but also discovered some new treasures!

What is SURREALIST art?

Surrealist art depicts what Appolinaire called “surréaliste” – “sur-réel” meaning the realities, that lie beyond reality. The “Armoire Surréaliste” by Marcel Jean is a perfect example for sur-real art: Painted in a perfectly ILLUSIONARY style Jean seemingly offers us a window to another world. And he actually does. It’s just that this window opens a purely unreal world: The painting pretends to be a 3-dimensional wardrobe, with its closet doors open. But inside the closet one does not find any fancy clothes but the blue sky.

MARCEL JEAN

Surrealist art depicts what Appolinaire called “surréaliste” – “sur-réel” meaning the realities, that lie beyond reality. The “Armoire Surréaliste” by Marcel Jean is a perfect example for sur-real art: Painted in a perfectly ILLUSIONARY style Jean seemingly offers us a window to another world. And he actually does. It’s just that this window opens a purely unreal world: The painting pretends to be a 3-dimensional wardrobe, with its closet doors open. But inside the closet one does not find any fancy clothes but the blue sky.

Exhibition view "Surrealism Beyond Borders" / Marcel Jean / Armoire Surréaliste / 1941 / (c) Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
Exhibition view "Surrealism Beyond Borders" / Marcel Jean / Armoire Surréaliste / 1941 / (c) Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

And it’s not even ‘only’ the sky, it is two landscapes painted one on top of the other – separated by grey clouds. And as soon one comes closer to the artwork one can clearly see the Surrealist trap: The painting is a wardrobe with flat, closed doors, the open doors are painted.
It is this specific play with different layers of reality that has always INTRIGUED me: Art, that pretends to be something else. Art, that opens a DIFFERENT world.

LEONORA CARRINGTON

Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / Leonora Carrington / Self Portrait / 1937-38 / © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / Leonora Carrington / Self Portrait / 1937-38 / © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

While Marcel Jean focuses on the surface of things Leonora Carrington shows a Surrealism, that deals with the deeper story of the things depicted. Her “Self Portrait” from 1937-38 shows her interests in alchemy, fortune telling and Celtic folklore (yes, you’ve read these three right!). The horse in the background represents the Celtic goddess of fertility and freedom while a hyena and a rocking horse play their own parts of the stage of Carrington’s imagination. The artist herself is dressed rather unusually wearing white, tight (riding?) pants and sitting on an isolated pompous chair showing an armrest in the form of a blue arm. Carrington uses symbols of different mythological worlds to tell her own story – in the truest sense of the word.

RENÈ MAGRITTE

Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / René Magritte / La durée poignardée / 1938 / © The Art Institute of Chicago
Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / René Magritte / La durée poignardée / 1938 / © The Art Institute of Chicago

René Magritte on the other hand is another beautiful example of how Surrealists were mixing realities. His “La durée poignardée” (“Time Transfixed”) from 1938 shows a locomotive leaving a dining room fireplace. Now what might sound quite interesting as a combination was actually perceived as an affinity by the artist. Magritte always found absurd associations between the most prosaic objects and combined/painted them in a perfectly figurative way. On top he often gave titles that had absolutely nothing to do with the paintings themselves just to increase the absurdity and simultaneously make people think and find possible connections. His form of Surrealism shows fragmentation as an aesthetic strategy, and subsequent juxtaposition of the things he depicted. And this – might I add – with an delicious sobriety.

SALVADOR DALÍ

Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / Salvador Dalí / Téléphone-Homard / 1938 / © Tate
Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / Salvador Dalí / Téléphone-Homard / 1938 / © Tate

Talking about delicious sobriety we of course have to mention the most famous piece of “Surrealism beyond Borders”: The “Téléphone-Homard” (“Lobster Telephone”) by Salvador Dalí. The artist took a simple telephone and added a big plastic lobster on top, creating a VERY surreal combination. A somehow funny and somehow dangerous object. And a somehow sexual sculpture, since the lobster’s tail (where his sexual organs are) is placed exactly at the height of the telephone’s mouthpiece. Hail to Dalí, who with a few very simple decisions created an iconic masterpiece.

OKANOUE TOSHIKO

Okanoue Toshiko / Yobi-goe / 1953 / The Wilson Centre for Photography
Okanoue Toshiko / Yobi-goe / 1953 / The Wilson Centre for Photography

But enough of the established stars! We have to focus on a secret star of the art of surrealist combination: Okanoue Toshiko, a Japanese artist, who concentrated on the technique of collage. Made of second-hand magazines she illustrated the introduction and influence of Western pop cultural symbols in post-war Japan.

LUIS MAISONET CRESPO

Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / Luis Maisonet Crespo / Pas de Deux / 1953 / © Museo de Arte de Ponce
Exhibition view “Surrealism Beyond Borders” / Luis Maisonet Crespo / Pas de Deux / 1953 / © Museo de Arte de Ponce

Many artists such as Miró or Tanguy opted for an abstract version of “le surréel” and created entirely new worlds and fantastic figures. Luis Maisonet Crespo, a late Surrealist from Puerto Rico, is one of the artists to be discovered when it comes to this chapter of Surrealism: His “Pas de Deux” from 1953 shows night and day devoured in a dance. While the ‘figures’ are clearly to be deciphered (showing legs, arms and heads) they are made of many curvy lines and little jags and peaks. Both seems to have spots on their heads and thus enlighten the otherwise black room.

RITA KERNN-LARSEN

Rita Kernn-Larsen / Fantomerne / 1934 / Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Rita Kernn-Larsen / Fantomerne / 1934 / Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Rita Kernn-Larsen, a Danish painter and one of the rare women in the otherwise very male Surrealist groups, is another wonderful discovery at “Surrealism Beyond Borders”: Her “Fantomerne” (“Phantoms”) from 1934 shows seemingly floating abstract figures. The story behind the painting is much more somber than the soft pinks and blues: The figures were inspired by a drowning at sea, that the artist witnessed. Style-wise I can’t help but wonder if Kernn-Larsen also used to “find” her figures by throwing a thread and thus ‘using’ the ideas of automatic painting just as Max Ernst did for example? The outlines of the grey figures look very much like it in my humble opinion.

Outside View / 2022 / Tate Modern, London

Needless to say: Visiting “Surrealism beyond Borders” is a MUST – it’s not ANOTHER show on Surrealism. It’s the show, that completes the story by focusing not only on the established stars but extending art history’s focus on the female artists of this art direction, on the not so well-known names of it as well as the many very international subgroups.

I have to say: Even as an Art Historian and Surrealism specialist one can discover many new actors of the very intruiging tale of Surrealism. So off to London, off to the Tate Modern: The exhibition is on view until 29 August 2022.
Ivana
Madame F

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