Surrealism Beyond Borders at The Met

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday October 7, 2021

Surrealism, the art movement that originated in Paris around 1924, is widely perceived to be a European model that engaged in playful but often darkly realized takes on dreams and the unconscious as they materialize in daily life. Salvador Dali’s melting watch, or Rene Magritte’s miniature train that shoots out of a fireplace come to mind in this context. A new exhibition, Surrealism Beyond Borders, opening next week at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, aims to broaden the view, presenting this art ism as a idea that went global, and continues to evolve today. Above: Eugenio F. Granell, El vuelo nocturno del pajaro pi (The Pi Bird’s Night Flight), 1952; all images courtesy The MetropolitanMuseum of Art Unless noted

The exhibition arrives at a moment that seems to have been custom made for an art movement that originated nearly 100 years ago and which is surely an idea for our time. As Max Hollein, the Marina Kellen French Director of The Met said in his opening remarks at the media preview on Monday, “The spread of Surrealism had been underway [for some time] in many other locations, and it continues in ever-changing forms to this day. Regardless of its location, Surrealism represents a shared means of revolt against the status quo, adopted and adapted by those who value its promise of freedom.”

The dynamic, transhistoric, and transnational paths presented in the exhibition acknowledge not only the shared and special interests of artists associated with Surrealism but also the conditions under which they lived and worked. The presentation includes paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photography, films, and radio plays, as well as examples of rare publications that animate the vibrancy of Surrealism.
Giorgio de Chirico, Italian (born Greece), Volos 1888–1978 Rome; Le reve de Tobie (The Dream of Tobias), 1917

In their introduction to the exhibition catalog, the curators, Stephanie D’Allesandro of The Met and Matthey Gale of Tate Modern, also present evidence from their research that the Paris Surrealists were intent upon exposing the evils of racism born of imperialism and the imbalances of power created in the fishbowl of European unity of the time. In their 1932 publication, “Murderous Humanitarianism,” the artists proclaimed, “In a France hideously inflated from having dismembered Europe, made mincemeat of Africa, polluted Oceania and ravaged whole tracts of Asia, we surrealists pronounced ourselves in favor of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution—of the proletariat and its struggles—and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the color question.”



Attacking the evils of racism born of imperialism, the curators found, was central to the global diaspora of the Surrealist movement as it rapidly self-exported to places such as Mexico, Egypt, Belgium, Japan, Turkey and Yugoslavia, and as far afield as Peru, Thailand, and Korea, to name a few. They saw this dynamic movement, with overlapping themes conducted by artists, poets, and writers of many different languages as key to the exhibition they went on to assemble and present. Above: Mayo, French-Egyptian, Port Said, Egypt 1905–1990 Seine-Port, France. Coups de batons (Baton Blows), 1937

Exile and displacement were central to the values of Surrealism, including feelings of disorientation and displacement. Travel, the curators found, could also “unland” the artist and induce the specific conditions that encouraged the growth and continuous renewal of the movement. A positive encounter with a new place and culture; liberation from a country and its political or social restrictions; freedom to create a new identity, consciousness or activism—even with its perilous ramifications during periods of war, this was a foundational globalism that inhered to migration more so than any previous art movement. The life and works of Leonora Carrington, Eugenio Fernandez Granell, and Ted Joans exemplify these themes. Above: Koga Harue, Japanese, Kurume 1895–1933 Tokyo  Umi (The Sea), 1929

Anglo-Irish artist and writer Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was an established Surrealist working in Paris before she became involved with the German artist Max Ernst—a fact for which, until quite recently, she was best known. As the Nazis took over France, the couple became separated; Carrington underwent something of a breakdown, which caused her to consider her options apart from those of Ernst. She made a marriage of convenience to a Mexican diplomat, with whom she moved to Mexico City in 1942.

She later married the Hungarian photographer Chiki Weisz, had two children, and created a new “Surreal Family” of artist friends whom she entertained with parties and elaborate meals that established her as a feminist matriarch who sought to dissolve boundaries between the daily work of family and the daily work of art. Her 1943 manifesto states, “To possess a telescope without its other essential half—the microscope—seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension. The task for the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope,” These words filter throughout her life and actions, coming into play in her paintings, two of which are included here, and her novels, three of which were recently released by New York Review BooksAbove: Leonora Carrington, Mexican (born England), Clayton Green, Lancashire 1917–2011 Mexico City. Chiki, ton pays (Chiki, Your Country), 1944 

The Spanish artist Eugenio Fernandez Granell stated that Surrealism was “Freedom for art—and as a consequence, freedom for mankind.” He fled his homeland during the Spanish Civil War. His political views, however, made him enemies during his stay in the Dominican Republic, forcing him to move to Guatamala, where he became an educator and a journalist whose publications served to anneal the Spanish-speaking Surrealist artists. During his seven-year exile to Puerto Rico during the 1950s, he influenced a new generation of artists, including the proto-feminist Cosette Zeno, who won a scholarship to study in Paris, where she met the founding father of Surrealism, Andre Breton. Top of page: Eugenio F. Granell, El vuelo nocturno del pajaro pi (The Pi Bird’s Night Flight), 1952

Ted Joans, born in Cairo, Illinois on July 4, 1928, came to Surrealism at age ten, when his aunt brought home some publications she had pulled out of the trash bin at the house of her white employers. In her essay on Joans, Joanna Pawlik writes. “Joans was a prolific traveler, and his itinerant lifestyle saw him reside in North and Central America, North and West Africa, and Europe, ensuring that he introduced his adoption of Surrealism into a wide variety of contexts.

"His travel was borne of a notion that identity was not reducible to nation, language, or culture, and that these boundaries could impose artificial, and sometimes violent, limits on freedom…. Joans’s travels were as much about traveling toward one location as rejecting or being rejected by another. He twice left the United States of America, citing racial injustices. He attributed his departure for North Africa in the early 1960s to discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the South, and he exiled himself again, along with his partner, Laura Corsiglia, to Vancouver following the acquittal of the police officers who shot and killed the young Black man Amadou Diallo in 1999 in New York." Left: Ted Joans, American, Cairo, Illinois 1928–2003 Vancouver. Long Distance, 1976–2005; photo © Peggy Roalf

While the art and the artists of Surrealism are global, the work is also local in the sense that the movement was, at its core, a social experiment that embraced collaboration. From its beginnings in 1920s Paris, the game of exquisite corpse was played in the form of drawings and writings. Peppered throughout the exhibition are examples, starting with those initiated by Andre Breton and later on, those by Frida Kahlo. Towards the end of the show, Long Distance, a 137-page drawing by Ted Joans (above left), done on dot matrix printer paper measuring over 30 feet in length, and displayed in a long vitrine, encapsulates some of the core values of an art ism that could be said to be of and for our own time. The curators have installed many of the packages, or “skins”, in which Long Distance made its way into 132 hands around the world. 

I took this work, done by Joans between 1976 and 2005, as a reminder that today we have the freedom to launch new social networks based on the reality of personal encounters and involvement with analogue materials. Joans knew that the success of Long Distance relied on his choice of participants (which include Bruce Conner, Allen Ginsberg, and Dorothea Tanning, among others) who shared beliefs about art and who knew how to join a project for which all measures were levelled through its communal structure. 

Above: Maria Izquierdo, Mexican, San Juan de los Lagos 1902–1955 Mexico City. Calabazas con pan de muerto (Squash with Pan de Meurto), 1947; photo © Peggy Roalf

Surrealism Beyond Borders
opens on October 11 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY. After closing on January 30, 2022, it will then be seen at Tate Modern, London.

Related programs include a virtual Educator Workshop on November 6, 10 a.m.–12 p.m.; and a Virtual Teen Studio (Ages 15–18) on November 20, 1–3 pm.

The exhibition is featured on the Museum's website, as well as on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #SurrealismBeyond. 

The catalogue includes more than 300 works of art in a variety of media by well-known figures. Contributions from more than forty distinguished international scholars explore the vast network of Surrealist exchange and collaboration. Info

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