Review by Amelia Groom
In 1942 André Breton staged an exhibition in New York at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion called First Papers of Surrealism, the title referring to the immigration forms the exiled European Surrealists had been forced to complete upon arrival in the US. Having by this time ostensibly given up art for chess, Marcel Duchamp acted as art director, designing the catalogue and the exhibition space where paintings were conventionally hung in partitions, but access to them was hindered by the elaborate webs of string that were constructed around them, and by the young children he arranged to be playing ball games in the room.
There are no such obstacles standing between viewers and the carefully placed and beautifully lit Surrealist artworks on loan from the Centre Pompidou, Paris that are currently on show at GoMA in Brisbane. Indeed, for a presentation of a movement that was so bent on making the familiar strange, Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams somehow makes what was supposed to be strange, a little too familiar. But the works stand up, and there is welcome inclusion of many very good, lesser-known, examples amongst the iconic crowd pleasers.
In the first room of the exhibition’s labyrinthine procession, a section dedicated to Surrealism’s genesis in Dada, there is for example a very small, easily missed, Man Ray photograph titled Élevage de poussières or Dust Breeding (1920). The image was published in Breton’s journal Littérature in 1922 with the caption “view taken from an airplane”, though astute eyes will recognize the lines as belonging not to an aerial landscape but to Duchamp’s enigmatic artwork The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass (1915-23). In the disorienting extreme close-up of the surface, dust, great marker of time and neglect, denies the glass its essential feature of transparency.
This work is later mirrored by another artist’s representation of The Large Glass more than half a century later, at the very end the exhibition. The Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta’s seven metre-long Trans-appearance of Language (1977-80) recalls the lines of Duchamp’s work, and plays on the resemblance in the French title (Trans-apparence du Verbe) to trans-apparence du verre or ‘transparent glass’, though again transparency of the surface is denied, this time by the material basis of paint on canvas. As it happens, in 1945 Matta had, with the wealthy patron and then-owner of the The Large Glass, Katherine S. Dreier, written an English monograph on the work, in which Duchamp is valued for the priority he placed on the viewer’s participation in the act of seeing, and on the idea that objective things exist only through subjective perception of them: “The essential principles of human consciousness cannot be grasped until we abandon the psychological attitude of conceiving the image as a petrified thing or object […] The image is not a thing. It is an act which must be completed by the spectator.”
The idea of dynamic perception runs throughout the Surrealist movement and throughout this exhibition. A famous painting about painting by Victor Brauner, Painted from nature (1937), for example, equates eyes with paintbrushes and the act of seeing with the act of creating. Nearby is a 1929 Max Ernst painting from his Interior Sight series (after Breton had established his ‘pure interior model’ for art) where an egg is analogous for sight, the eye being treated not as a portal for unmediated perception but as the organ of vision from which the world is actively generated.
Eyes being the most external parts of the brain, they are equated with windows because they are liminal zones bridging inside and outside worlds. The Surrealists’ fascination with objects and how we see them meant that this organ of vision, the eye, was itself to be abstracted as an object. Right throughout Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams eyeballs float around all on their own. Herbert Bayer’s uncanny photograph of a felt-lined box of prosthetic eyes, Glass Eyes (1928), for example, is echoed in Henri Stork’s film For Your Beautiful Eyes (1929-30), which features another box of glass eyes lined up next to each other with fixed, blind stares. Artificial eyes like these of course proliferate after WWI as a practical response to the needs of maimed soldiers, and the Surrealists’ morbid fascination with prosthesis and fragmented bodies (think also of their collages and Exquisite Corpses, and their long-running love affair with masks) runs parallel with the horrors of this historic context.
Another reason disembodied eyes are repeated so obsessively in Surrealist photography and film is because the camera is itself considered a prosthetic eye, where images are cast on a surface via transmission of light. The notion of the internal mind meeting the external world without the mediation of though (the basis of the early automatist drawing and writing) was also well aligned with the directness and immediacy that the camera was seen to offer. One of the most famous images in the history of cinema and easily read as a visual analogy for cinematic operation and experience, the slicing of the eyeball in the Buñuel-Dalí collaboration An Andalusian Dog (1929) evokes physically the discontinuity of dream images. The notion of getting behind the surface of the window of eye by slicing it with a blade is cleverly carried into the exhibition design here where the film’s projection penetrates a translucent screen that viewers can navigate both sides of.
The curators are to be commended for the exhibition’s highly considered weaving of ready-mades, ethnographic objects, painting, sculpture, collage, photography, film and writing. In particular, the importance of cinema in getting ‘beyond the real’ is more than adequately acknowledged, with many shorts included throughout the exhibition and a major survey of Surrealist film showing at the gallery’s cinémathèque over the next three months. The movement’s early basis in and continued emphasis on the written form is also well documented in a special exhibition of all the Surrealist journals, where every issue of the Minotaur has been scanned and is pursuable (for those who read French) on slightly clumsy touch screens. Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams is also accompanied by an excellent and enormous catalogue, which is the first English-language publication on the Centre Pompidou’s Surrealism collection, and includes many English translations of original Surrealist texts.
Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams continues until 2 October.
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L’immaculée conception manquée (1929)
© Max Ernst/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2011