"Untitled Rayograph (Kiki and Film strips)"
Man Ray, "Untitled Rayograph (Kiki and Film strips)," 1922, Gelatine silver, raygraphprint. PHOTO: The J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angles, Man Ray Trust /SODRAC (2011).
THE COLOUR OF MY DREAMS: THE SURREALIST REVOLUTION IN ART
Vancouver Art Gallery
May 28 – Sept 25, 2011
By Agnieszka Matejko
Some art movements are less fashionable than others. While it’s acceptable to admire – say, abstract expressionism - mere mention of surrealism in art circles is apt to elicit scowls. Such experiences don’t give surrealism any intellectual cache. So, it was with curiosity, dosed with reluctance, that I went from Edmonton to see The Color of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Dawn Ades, one of the world’s leading scholars of surrealism, guest curated this high profile exhibition featuring the works of more than 80 artists, from over 60 prominent museums and collections around the world.
The exhibition is filled with surprises. The most astonishing new perception of surrealism relates to its strong ties with Canada’s First Nations and Pacific Northwest culture. The surrealists were among the first European artists to recognize the talents of First Nations people and to exhibit indigenous work alongside their own. As early as the late ‘30s, surrealists such as Kurt Seligman and Wolfgang and Alice Paalen traveled to remote Haida Gwaii and Northwest coast communities in British Columbia to purchase work, draw, film, photograph and collect stories and myths. Many never before exhibited drawings and photographs are included. And while Andre Breton (the father of surrealism) did not venture to Canada, one of his prized possessions was a Yaxwiwe Peace Dance Headdress from the West Coast. He spent hours gazing at it in the last year of his life, including the night he died.
This link is emphasized in the first room of the exhibit. A large Yakan'takw (Speaking-through post) from the Kwakwaka'wakw nation dominates the entrance. It towers over de Chirico’s “The Child’s Brain Awakes” and the “Pietà or Revolution by Night” by Max Ernst. The nobility of the Aboriginal artwork contrasts sharply with the paintings about troubled relationships that de Chirico and Ernst had with their fathers.
It only took the first two rooms of this labyrinthine exhibit to realize my measly knowledge of surrealism was embarrassingly inept. The show was superbly organized – clear as any “Complete Idiot’s Guide To…” complex subject matter. Each thematically arranged space, with excellent curatorial panels, opened doors to startling, even shocking, perspectives to this least understood and most maligned of all 20th century art movements.
For example, surrealism was not initially a visual movement at all. It began as a literary group that adopted visual art reluctantly - art being a bourgeois commodity. The founders –notably Andre Breton – were writers whose passionate ideas were born in the trenches of WW1. These young men who witnessed some of the worst horrors that European culture ever produced launched a fervent plea for a revolution of thought to overthrow the morally bankrupt European culture founded on rationality.
Inspired by Freud’s pioneering theories, they developed fascinating ways to loosen the grip of reason and tap into the seat of creativity, the unconscious. As the “Cadavre Exquis” room aptly shows, they often adapted children’s games as a means of fostering creativity. For instance, in one game each participant drew a body part on folded paper without seeing the work of others. Later they unraveled the paper to reveal strange, human-like forms beyond logical recognition. The room’s title “Exquisite Corpse” takes its name from the verbal game played where each writer contributed one part of a sentence (verb, noun etc.) which eventually formed sentences such as “The exquisite corpse will drink the red wine.”
The “Automatism” section of the exhibit describes Rorschach test-like techniques which tap into the unconscious. The most evocative method was developed by Wolfgang Paalen who, using candle smoke, “painted” smudges onto canvas and drew spontaneous images into the mysterious shapes. Max Ernst created rubbings over textured surfaces such as old wooden floors, evoking images from the intricate patterns of the grain. Rayographs were widely used by American photographer and painter Man Ray who placed objects directly on light sensitive paper, exposed the image to light and then developed the photograph.
The desire of the surrealists to break with established norms was not confined to paper or canvas. Their acceptance of sexuality, alternate lifestyles and suppressed inclinations is disturbing even today - as the warning sign to the “Anatomies of Desire” room cautions. Hans Bellmer’s photos depict genitally explicit doll parts rearranged into contorted poses. The most troubling of his works is based on a turn-of-the-century pornographic photograph depicting a sexual act between a child and an old man – the latter face altered into Bellmer’s own.
While Bellmer’s misogynistic and pornographic inclinations may have best remained suppressed, the sexual tolerance the group propagated is admirably expressed in the works of Claude Cahun (originally Lucy Schwob, who changed her name to obscure both her gender and her Jewish roots). Despite their small scale, her images glow with theatrical power that outshine those of her mostly heterosexual, male colleagues. In one magnetic work “Self Portrait” (1920), Cahun poses with a partly exposed back; head shaved, her bird-of-prey profile stark against a dark background. She gazes back with contempt and potent, erotic confidence.
Viewers can’t leave this superbly curated exhibition without an increased appreciation for the depth and breadth of surrealism. Yet, on the flight back to Edmonton, nagging questions reverberated in my mind: “Do sirens truly sing when reason sleeps or do monsters dance?” While the surrealists neither took nor condoned drugs, their experiments can take the viewer into hauntingly disquieting places. Yet, the sheer fascination of the mind let loose to dream keeps us riveted.