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Surrealist America
by Lewis Kachur
As a trio of recent shows demonstrates, Surrealism continues to hold its share of mysteries for U.S. audiences, even in the 21st century. Taken together, the exhibitions illustrate a movement full of contradictory personalities and styles that are still being sorted through.

Few artists are more central to Surrealism than Max Ernst, who was given a full-scale retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Apr. 7, 2005-July 10, 2005. Yet he also had a unique position. Sabine Rewald, who co-organized the Metís show with Werner Spies, points out that Ernst was the only German-born artist in the Parisian Surrealist group.

This wasnít easy at first. As a national of the recently defeated German state, Ernst was unable to obtain a visa to attend the opening of his first show in Paris, in 1921. Thus, his small early collages stand out as an early form of "mail art," posted to his friends who set up his exhibition in absentia. They are wondrous. The Masterís Bedroom (ca. 1920), for example, uses its title, rendered in both French and German, to transform childrenís primer illustrations into a scene of implicit sexual encounter.

The allusions in the unsettling Oedipus Rex and the weirdly twinned Castor and Pollution (both paintings from private collections, like many key works that were in the Met show) hint at Ernstís knowledge of Freud, a study that began during his university years. Reading Freud in the original German must have given Ernst some nuggets for his café conversations with his French friends.†

Rice University art historian William Camfield brought the early Ernst collages to the Museum of Modern Art in 1993. In the full retrospective at the Metropolitan, we also were also reminded of Ernstís monumental side. It begins in the sacrilegious provocation of the large The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses (1926), Ernstís still-incredible painting of Mary administering a good spanking to the Christ Child.

To make its satirical point, Ernst adapted the pictorial vocabulary of the Old Masters: life-sized scale, deliberate modeling and dramatic Baroque lighting -- not necessarily the kind of Surrealist psychedelia that American audiences might expect.

Ernst uses the same art-historicism in Monument to the Birds (1927), the implicit subject of which is a traditional Ascension. It is here recast to star Ernstís alter-ego, the "Bird Superior;" fluttering wings stand in for swirling drapery. Loplop Introduces a Young Girl (1936) has the birdman as a dealer in gilt-framed pictures. It is an innovative "combine painting," with flea market finds and a painted rock sculpture suspended from the surface -- a heavily plastered wooden door.

Monumentality and three-dimensional illusion recur in the regal The Robing of the Bride (1940), Ernstís partial "re-dress" of Marcel Duchampís Bride Stripped Bare, and again in Surrealism and Painting (1942), Ernstís demonstration picture for the landmark "First Papers of Surrealism" exhibition in New York, where the artist helped his friend Duchamp unspool the Mile of String installation. The large canvasí apparent argument for automatism is contradicted by the fact that the birdman artist is wielding a delicate brush.

This paintingís note of domestic harmony also seems idealized for a man who logged four marriages to women of three nationalities. Ernst also went through three citizenships. Despite his internments and forced displacements -- including arrest upon arrival in New York -- Ernst painted some of his best works during this period, including that sponged and scraped post-apocalyptic landscape of émigré pessimism, Europe after the Rain (1940-42).†

The Met retrospective effectively concluded with Ernst in Sedona, Arizona, painting the four-panel Vox Angelica (1943) in a tiny studio. As Werner Spies details in his catalogue essay, Ernstís compartmentalized painting chronicles the years of his life, and is the artistís own retrospective of his techniques and works -- in all their unresolved contradiction.

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Of Surrealism itself, Spies concedes, "Ernstís significance as a major figure notwithstanding. . . it was largely through Salvador Dalíís work and especially his eccentric behavior that the general public gained awareness of the movement." This situation seemed to prevail in 2005 as well, with the concurrent run of the Salvador Dalí retrospective at the Philadelphia Art Museum, Feb. 16-May 30, 2005. Publicity about the Dalí extravaganza regularly reached New York, while in Philadelphia an animated version of Dalí's lobster telephone rang frequently in TV spots.

A gigantic mural of the mustachioed Spaniard striped the art museumís steps, where Rocky once trod. The adaptability of Dalí to such PR campaigns reflects the artistís own image-making, part of his plan to popularize Surrealism. And indeed, over 370,000 visitors made the pilgrimage to the Acropolis-like museum for this show -- an outpouring topped only by Cézanne in 1996.

These visitors were treated to an enormous show, over 200 items, an exhausting number given the frequently intense detail to be observed. A judicious selection of interesting late works with religious themes was included, notably Madonna of Port Lligat (1949), The Sistine Madonna (1958) and Portrait of my Dead Brother (1963).

Yet one could argue that the ultimate case had not been made for late Dalí, given the unloanability of the huge canvases at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. In Philadelphia, one monumental 10 by 15 foot mural dazzled, The Railway Station at Perpignan (1965), a trippy painting which partakes of 1960s spirit, perhaps reflecting the subculture which encircled Dalí in Cadaques.

Ironically, back in 1994, the Met had mounted an exhibition that likewise focused on the early Dalí in parallel with Ernst, whose works were then on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Those who do not remember this, or havenít had the chance to see the collections in Figueres or St. Petersburg, would have been surprised this time around by the stylistic precocity of the young Spanish painter on view in Philadelphia. Dalí was a very good and inventive Synthetic Cubist, and tried a bit of collage. His large figure paintings on the "Sailor and Venus" theme seek to recast Picassoís Demoiselles in the vocabulary of mid-Ď20s neo-classicism -- a very ambitious program for an art student.

The classic Surrealist period, beginning with the first Paris show of 1929, was well-represented in Phillie. Less familiar works from European museums were joined by a judicious number of drawings, some with infinitesimally tiny inscriptions, like the perverse Des Douceurs fines pour les enfants (1931) for Paul Eluard. One almost could forget MoMAís shameful refusal to lend the iconic Persistence of Memory.

The show included some 3D surprises, especially the multicolored striped jacket worn by Gala, displayed near her portraits of 1935 and Ď36. Dalíís mannequin and Rainy Taxi for the 1938 Surrealist exhibition were documented by Ubac photographs. However, the artist phantasmagoric "Dream of Venus" pavilion for the following yearís Worldís Fair, with its carnival-like atmosphere and employment of semi-nude live models, remains a pariah; it was notably not mentioned here -- the curators eschewed taking that plunge into wholesale popular culture.

Instead, the darkening clouds of war predominated, beginning with the Philadelphia Museumís own (and almost only) Dalí, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936), along with a group of three paintings containig images of black telephones, appropriately Surrealist references to Hitler, Chamberlain and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. This is war represented as monstrosity, like Ernstís Fireside Angel (1937), with bodies morphing into the grotesque.

Subsequent emigration to the USA deeply affected both artists, moving Dalí toward the financial assurance of portraiture, and Ernst toward the use of decalcomania and spray paint to create some of his most experimental and entrancing works. Yet after 1944 Ernst was lightly represented at the Met, while Dalíís late works seem ripe for reappraisal, and were the focus of a related symposium in Philadelphia.

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Despite the concurrent retrospectives, both Dalí and Ernst were well represented by smaller gems in the National Academyís "Surrealism USA" show, which bowed a little earlier this year, Feb. 17-May 8, 2005. Something of a sleeper, the Academy was a surprising venue to hop on the Surrealism bandwagon. And it made an effort to customize the installation itself as a Surrealist experience through the use of curtains, mannequin arms and, in the last space, a mild reprise of Marcel Duchampís notorious "Mile of String" installation from New York in 1942.

Curator Isabelle Dervaux presented an appropriately academic sampling of Surrealismís spread across the country. Taking a truly national overview, including unknown regionalist Surrealists, plus the California group, the show demonstrated that Dalí was indeed the predominant influence here in the mid to late 1930s -- though deChirico also loomed strong, as seen in very comparable early work by Reuben Kadish and Philip Guston in 1935, at that time Los Angeles school friends of a certain Pollock.

In the last rooms of the National Academy show, the more familiar story of Surrealismís impact on the New York School was encapsulated. Just as Dalíís influence seemingly waned, a very different strand of abstract-automatist Surrealism took center stage. Dazzling Mediterranean light is replaced by the murky hues of ectoplasmic biomorphism. Matta is key, of course, but there were also interesting works by Charles Seliger and Gerome Kamrowski.

Yet Dalí has been only partly eclipsed, as the Dalí-esque perspective persists in paintings by Dorothea Tanning and in Charles Rainís truly magical Magic Hand, from 1947 -- the same year of Pollockís first group of poured paintings. Rainís illusionist still life includes Tarot cards, mirroring traditions of trompe líoeil and certain still life set-ups photographed by Man Ray, while at the same time predicting Photo (Sur)Realism. This show was a tonic archaeology of the period that showed Surrealismís legacy in the U.S. to be more complex than the textbook summary.

LEWIS KACHUR is a New York art historian and critic.