Drawing Surrealism, the fascinating exhibit which just opened at the Morgan Library and Museum, appears to be a classic case of trying “to square a circle.” To define or even capture the essence of Surrealism, an art form devoted to the irrational or spontaneous side of human nature, would seem to be an impossible task.
From its start around the end of the First World War, this pivotal art movement aimed to tap into the emotions of humanity, especially those lurking in the unconscious state. Surrealism rejected almost all of the formal theories and techniques of Western art from the Renaissance onward and, most importantly, spurned the ideas of beauty and “truth to nature” objectivity.
The value of drawing, however, remained unchallenged by proponents of Surrealism like André Breton (1896–1966). Drawing retained its central importance because it was seen as a means to capture the immediate sensations and reflex actions of human beings.
Incredibly, no previous exhibition devoted to Surrealism has used drawing as its central theme. A slightly different version of the Morgan exhibit was displayed during the autumn of 2012, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But until LACMA and the Morgan collaborated in organizing this joint presentation, the vital role of drawing in Surrealism had been neglected.
Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan is skillfully presented, showing the relation of Surrealism’s chronological and thematic development. More than 160 works on paper are displayed by artists from around the world, including the great Cuban artist, Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982), who infused an Afro-Cuban spirit into his version of Surrealism.
A close examination of Olga, Francis Picabia’s portrait sketch from 1930, confirms the crucial role of drawing in Surrealism. In this remarkable work, Picabia (1879-1953) has superimposed the face of a female model, reproduced as little more than an outline of her self-absorbed features, over a more finished depiction of the same young woman. This carefully defined portrait gazes directly – and intensely – at the artist and at the viewer. In a brilliant stroke, Picabia positioned the right-hand eye of the less-finished, reflective portrait, so that it forms a “third eye” situated on the forehead of its full-faced counterpart. This conforms to the iconography of the “inner eye,” the visible manifestation of heightened spirituality, in many of the religious traditions of Asia.
Picabia’s unsettling portrait sketch is part of a series which he called “Transparencies.” By juxtaposing these overlapping images, Picabia vividly evoked the emotional turmoil of the post-World War I era. Indeed, the very nature of these Transparencies added to their air of mystery and anxiety. Did Picabia plan in advance to create the effect of Olga’s “inner” eye? Or did this amazing detail grab his attention only as the creative process unfolded?
Whatever the answer, there is no denying the importance of drawing for Picabia’s Transparencies or for Surrealism in general. Drawing achieved this favored position because it was held to be the artistic media best adapted to automatism. Serious or concerted intellectual effort had no part in the process of creating Surrealist art – at least in theory. Artists were expected to switch-off their ideas about art and just draw.
“The hand must be fast enough,” declared André Masson, “so that the conscious thought cannot intervene and control the movement.”
Impelled by an “écriture automatique” or automatic script, Masson impulsively drew works that were then given titles like Furious Suns and Feminine Allegories. One may discern elements of the female body in this latter work, albeit only after a profound shift in consciousness.
Masson (1896-1987) had been admitted to the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels at the age of eleven, so impressive was his artistic promise. But the beautiful world of the Belle Époque was swept away by the First World War in which Masson was severely wounded. Surrealism appealed to Masson’s shattered spirit and he put his convictions into practice, making repeated efforts to achieve spontaneous creativity by “automatically” sketching the images called forth from his battle-scarred subconscious.
The Morgan exhibit also includes one of Masson’s “sand paintings,” Battle of Fishes, created in 1926. To achieve the desired effect, Masson poured and spread glue on a canvas laid on the floor. This was done quickly and without any prior planning. Sand was then sprinkled on the canvas which was then tilted with the result that some of the sand adhered to the glue, the excess falling away. Masson rapidly brushed on thinned oil paint or paint straight from the tube to achieve “bursts, puddles . . . something that made no sense but that could provoke . . . and all that done with the speed of a toss…”
From the other side of the Western Front, the German artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) also embraced Surrealism. Trained in psychology at Bonn University before the outbreak of war in 1914, Ernst examined art work created by psychotics as part of his studies. This experience, along with his military service, primed his entry into the ranks of Dada. This subversive, anti-authoritarian art movement began in Zurich in 1915. Its heyday was brief, ending in 1922, but it set the stage for Surrealism.
Ernst moved to Paris in 1922 and helped guide Surrealism to the visual arts. Surrealism was originally launched as a literary movement in 1924. In that year, Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism appeared. With Masson and Ernst exploring automatism and other spontaneous methods, it seemed that Breton’s theories were being realized. Art was being created in accordance with Breton’s assertion that it be done “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, beyond any aesthetic or moral concern.”
The amazing versatility that Ernst brought to Surrealism is on view at the Morgan with a number of signature works from the different artistic formats which he explored. One of these, frottage, was a technique which Ernst considered to be the equivalent of automatism. In frottage, graphite or other drawing media is rubbed on a sheet of paper that had been placed over tree bark or grained wood. In Le start du châtaigner (The Start of the Chestnut Tree), Ernst created frottage images that could mean many things to many people.
Having joined the Surrealist camp, Ernst helped pioneer other new techniques or revitalized ones that had figured in Dada. These included decalcomania, pressing a sheet of paper over a wet painting or inked-page and then pulling it away to create unforeseen effects.
It was with collage that Ernst made his most novel contribution to Surrealism. Ernst was such a master of collage-making that he sparked a world-wide mania for creating these assemblages of unusual images. The Morgan exhibition displays numerous examples, several by skilled Japanese artists. But the results of the international collage revival were very uneven, often with a degree superficiality that undermined the credibility of Surrealism.
In Ernst’s capable hands, however, collage achieved effects that had not been seen in European art since Hieronymus Bosch’s visionary paintings like The Garden of Earthly Delights. Ernst literally deconstructed European civilization for the source material of his collages. He meticulously cut-out images from Victorian-era magazines and natural history journals. These he reassembled, creating bizarre images of elegant ladies from the Belle Époque conversing with monstrous bird-headed creatures or scenes of horrifying torture that left nothing to the imagination – except to wonder why they were happening.
The titles of his Ernst’s collages have nothing to do with the content and only heighten the mystery. Whatever is happening in this example from 1925, La femme 100 têtes ouvre sa manche auguste (The 100-headed Woman Opens Her August Sleeve), defies rational explanation. This, of course, was exactly the aim of Ernst and the Surrealists.
Ernst’s collages had the effect, however, of undermining Breton’s insistence on the automatic, involuntary nature of Surrealism. Ernst carefully planned and articulated every of detail of these extraordinary vignettes. No matter how fantastic they are, these masterful collages are anything but a negation of consciousness.
It soon became apparent that the basic premise of Surrealism was unworkable, if not fraudulent. Art of lasting value cannot be created “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, beyond any aesthetic or moral concern.” The examples of sadistic cruelty in Ernst’s collages were not gratuitous. Rather, they were outraged rejections of the inhumanity that was again raising its head in Europe with the rise of Nazism. And Breton, himself, the “Pope of Surrealism,” insisted on giving a Marxist slant to the movement. It was an understandable, if misguided decision, given the looming threat of Hitler and the failure of Western democracy to make a stand against Fascism during the 1930’s.
Surrealism was guilty of its own form of appeasement, as well. A number of its leading artists frittered their talent away on nonsensical pursuits such as the artwork made in conjunction with a game of chance called “Exquisite Corpse.” Like the figure in René Magritte’s La Tempête (The Storm), Surrealism ignored the gathering storm. Then in 1940, with the Nazi blitzkrieg on France, the sky fell in.
After France fell, many of the Surrealists found refuge in the United States. Masson lived for some years in Connecticut, where his art, especially the sand paintings, influenced Jackson Pollock and other Abstract-Expressionists of the post-war United States.
Perhaps the best example in the Morgan exhibit of the way that Surrealism passed the torch to American artists is Arshile Gorky’s series of drawings, Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia. Significantly, Gorky drew the 40 works in the series, which in turn led to a painting now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, during the early 1930’s.
Gorky actually produced many other sketches for the Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, which he discarded, keeping only those that he valued. Thus, his work replicated something of the experience of automatism that Masson and other Surrealists had experimented with only a few years previously. Indeed, Gorky worked from the traditional stance of careful study of the work of other artists, even though his “old masters” were modernist painters like Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso.
Gorky (1904-1948), a survivor of the 1915 Armenian Genocide by the Turks, contended with his inner demons and painful memories with Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia. The drawing from the series on view in the Morgan exhibit, with its biomorphic masses on the left side of picture and what looks like an x-ray of a flayed corpse on the right, is open to endless interpretation. But like all great works of art, there is no mystery here that Gorky used art as the mirror of his soul.
The Morgan Library and LACMA are to be credited with an exhibition that is really needed. Drawing Surrealism succeeds in filling in the gaps of our knowledge and leaves us with a great deal to ponder. Many of the works in Drawing Surrealism are indeed unsettling. As a result, there is a danger that this thoughtful exhibition may not draw the attention that it deserves, given the host of other spring art exhibits being readied for display.
But to ignore or glance away from the message of the Surrealists would be a great mistake. At their best, the Surrealists confronted the contradictions and cruelties of life with affirmations of the human spirit. It was André Masson, after all, who uttered one of the great truths about art, “Painful contradictions are sometimes the source of the greatest riches.”
Drawing Surrealism appears at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016 (January 25–April 21, 2013)