Somebody at the Morgan Library and Museum knows how to tout an upcoming show. Certainly the Morgan knows how to promote a press release, let alone how to have it written. Or maybe it’s a work product of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the show being touted — Drawing Surrealism — has been on view since October. Either way, or both ways, it sounds like a great exhibition.
++ Drawing Surrealism ++
January 25 – April 21, 2013
New York, NY, December 14, 2012 – Few artistic movements of the twentieth century are as celebrated and studied as surrealism. Many of the works of its best known practitioners — including Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, and Leonora Carrington — have become touchstones of modern art and some of the most familiar images of the era.
Critical to the development of surrealism was the art of drawing. For those involved in the movement, it was a vital means of expression and innovation, resulting in a rich array of graphic techniques that radically pushed conventional art historical boundaries. Yet the medium has been largely overlooked in visual arts studies and exhibitions as scholars and institutions have focused more on surrealist painting and sculpture.
Now, for the first time in New York, the central role drawing played in surrealist art will be explored in a large-scale exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum entitled Drawing Surrealism. The show will include more than 165 works on paper by 70 artists from 15 countries, offering important new understanding of surrealism’s emergence, evolution, and worldwide influence. The exhibition is co-organized with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and will be on view at the Morgan from January 25 through April 21, 2013.
Occupying two of the Morgan’s largest galleries, Drawing Surrealism will be presented chronologically with interwoven thematic sections devoted to the surrealists’ principal drawing techniques and to international developments. Important drawings will be shown from countries beyond the movement’s Western European geographic roots, including sheets from Eastern Europe, Japan, the United States, and Latin America.
Drawing Surrealism includes works from the Morgan, as well as from the collections of LACMA, Tate Modern, the Musée national d’art moderne at the Pompidou Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Menil Collection. It also includes drawings from a number of major private collections in the United States and abroad, which are rarely accessible to the public.
“Because the Morgan’s collection of works on paper is of such international renown, one of the principal goals of our exhibition program is to present new insight and fresh perspectives on the medium of drawing,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “Drawing Surrealism is an example of just such an exhibition. The show breaks new art historical ground by demonstrating the fundamental importance of drawing to the surrealist movement on the worldwide stage.”
ORIGINS OF SURREALISM
Surrealism emerged as a literary movement in Paris in 1924 with the publication of André Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism. Inspired by Freud’s theories of the unconscious, nineteenth-century mysticism, and Symbolist art and literature, surrealists sought to liberate the imagination through an art that involved chance, dreams, and the unconscious, as well as the play of thought itself.
Almost at once, the movement’s proponents realized the potential of the visual arts for expressing the imagery of dreams and the unconscious mind. The practice of drawing, which offers the advantages of immediacy and spontaneity, became the most fertile medium of expression and innovation among the surrealists, allowing them to bypass the conscious mind and produce new ways of seeing.
Central to the exhibition will be examples of the diverse drawing techniques that the surrealists used in their efforts to bypass the conscious mind and access the subliminal realm. The first graphic process adopted by the surrealists was automatic drawing. In this technique, inspired by André Breton’s definition of surrealism as “pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express . . . the actual functioning of thought . . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason, beyond any aesthetic or moral concern,” the artist simply allows his hand to meander across the sheet. According to André Masson, who was the first to develop the process, “the hand must be fast enough, so that conscious thought cannot intervene and control the movement.” Afterwards, however, Masson would alter his drawings according to suggestions emanating from the original web of lines. Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and Yves Tanguy also practiced a form of automatism that combined chance with a more deliberate approach.
Denouncing the passivity of automatism, a few surrealists relied on more traditional techniques to create dreamlike images and express their fantasy. Chief among them was Dalí, who sought to materialize his “delirious phenomena” and dream imagery with the utmost detail in the academic style of the old masters.
This illusionistic mode was predominant in American surrealism of the 1930s, notably in the work of Federico Castellon, one of Dalí’s most successful followers. Artists seeking to express the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and World War II also often adopted this style to create images as disorienting and destabilizing as the atrocities they represented.
Max Ernst was the main surrealist to explore the technique of frottage, which consists of rubbing graphite or other drawing media on a sheet of paper placed over a textured surface, such as a wood floor, strings, or leaves, in order to reproduce that texture on the paper. For Ernst, frottage was equivalent to automatic writing because of the mechanical and unconscious way in which the imagery surfaces. Several frottage drawings by Ernst will be on view, including Le Start du Châtaigner (The Start of the Chestnut Tree), 1925, recently acquired by the Morgan, which belongs to the first series in which the artist systematically explored this technique. Ernst later adapted the frottage technique to canvas in what he called “grattage.”
Some of the most striking surrealist drawings were exquisite corpses, a game that involved collaboration and chance. In the game — the name of which derives from a sentence created when the surrealists first used the process to write poetry: The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine — each participant made a drawing on a section of a folded sheet of paper without seeing the others’ drawings. The resulting hybrid creatures generated by the game influenced surrealist imagery, reappearing in artists’ individual works, as can be seen, for instance, in the strange anatomy of Victor Brauner’s figures on view. While the earliest exquisite corpses were drawn in graphite, ink, or colored pencil on ordinary writing paper, later examples could be in pastel or tempera on black paper. Beginning in the mid-1930s, collage was also used.
In the mid-1930s artists developed new automatic techniques to bypass the rational mind in the creative process. One of the most popular was decalcomania, which involves applying a wet medium (ink or gouache) to a sheet of paper and then pressing it against another sheet. When the sheets are pulled apart unexpected patterns appear on the transfer image. Originally a decorative technique — used notably in nineteenth-century ceramic design — decalcomania was rediscovered in 1935 in the context of surrealism’s exploitation of chance effects by Spanish artist Oscar Dominguez. Nearly ten decalcomania drawings by Dominguez and other surrealists who employed the technique — including Yves Tanguy, Georges Hugnet, and Marcel Jean — are included in the exhibition.
Although collage was used earlier in the twentieth century by the cubist and dada artists, the technique took on particular importance with the surrealists. The odd juxtapositions and dislocated imagery it produced were particularly effective in conjuring a dream world or suggesting the irrationality of unconscious desire. Miró, Ernst, Ei-Kyu, Breton, and Arp are among the many artists whose works are featured in this section of the exhibition.
The 1930s marked surrealism’s growing internationalization. Artists outside of Paris approached and adapted surrealist drawing techniques to their respective cultural and political contexts, and active surrealist centers developed in London, Prague, Tokyo, and Mexico. Although surrealism was envisioned as an international movement, rarely have works by these artists been presented alongside their European cohorts centered in Paris.
On view will be drawings by such masters as René Magritte of Belgium, Roland Penrose and Eileen Agar of England, Gunther Gerzso and Frida Kahlo of Mexico, Toyen and Jindřich Štyrský of the Czech Republic, Federico Castellón, Arshile Gorky, and Kay Sage of the United States, Cesar Moro of Peru, and Yamamoto Kansuke of Japan.
In the 1940s automatism played a major role in the elaboration of new forms of lyrical abstraction. In Europe, Henri Michaux and Wols created fluid images in washes and watercolor in which barely recognizable shapes suggest a visionary world. In the United States, stimulated by the presence of European surrealists in exile during the war, artists such as Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes, and Jackson Pollock explored freer techniques to make drawings that fuse visions of nature and of an interior universe. These works on paper laid the groundwork for what would become abstract expressionism.
Although surrealism as a movement lost its vitality at the end of the forties, its tenets remained a springboard for several postwar developments, as can be seen in Ellsworth Kelly’s abstract compositions based on chance and Louise Bourgois’s expression of subconscious psychological states through symbolic imagery.
Spoiler alert: Christopher Knight, the art critic of the Los Angeles Times, reviewed the show at LACMA earlier this month.
Postscript: The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has since reviewed the show at the Morgan. Her review ran on Jan. 24, 2013,