From February 11th to May 28th the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen presents “Mad about Surrealism”, a comprehensive show on the Surrealist movement with top-class masterpieces from four famous European private collections, some of which have never left the gallery rooms. Icons of Surrealism are on display as well as unknown works by male and female artists to be discovered afresh.
In cooperation with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Kunsthalle Hamburg the exhibition presents about 300 works of art by artists as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Joan Miró, but also the female artists of the Surrealist movement as Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington und Dorothea Tanning, which had been wrongly disregarded for a long time. Surrealism as one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century is presented in a variety never seen before, with the four collections partly reconstructed providing an entirely new look at this spiritual movement. Not only the reception history of Surrealism in Europe, but also changes in the collecting behaviour in the developing art market of the 20th century are illustrated by the relationship between artists and collectors and their influence on the development of certain works of art.
Surrealism hasn’t been a school or a style, but a movement of like-minded people, whose goal was nothing less than to change life. That’s why it isn’t astonishing, that the boundaries between artist, collector and patron were fluid. An example of this collaboration are the four collections of Edward James, Roland Penrose, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. Partly these four collections are dispersed in the whole world today, all the more surprising and revealing is the conjunction of the works in the presented partial reconstruction, despite different collecting focuses they complement one another wonderfully. Documents, photographs, sketches, letters and last but not least the works themselves prove the fruitful exchange between the artists and their patrons and show, how they integrated the crazy world of Surrealism into their homes and passionately into their everyday life. Surrealism was and still is a philosophy of life, one can’t escape from anymore, as soon as one has succumbed to its power of seduction. In a sense also the collectors of its works have become Surrealists.
But how did the exceptional alliance of these three renowned art institutions come about? Here the circle closes, which makes the reception and distribution of Surrealism from Paris comprehensible. The Hamburger Kunsthalle is represented by Annabelle Görgen-Lammers, curator of the show and Surrealism expert, whereas the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh houses the collection of Gabrielle Keiller including her library, and the archive of Roland Penrose. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam finally has positioned itself as the leading museum of Surrealism in the Netherlands in the 1970s and has acquired large parts of the collection Edward James.
Max Ernst, Luncheon on the Grass, 1936, private collection (formerly collection R. Penrose)
The goal of Surrealism was to bring back the wondrous into everyday life.
Surrealism emerged from the artistic protest movement of Dadaism, the goal of which was to break with any social rules as a reaction to the horror of World War I. The rationality of a nationalistic society resulted in the disruption with civilization, in a war with more than 17 millions casualties. André Breton, who was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, called for switching off rationality by turning to the irrational and the own subconscious. Having been a follower of Dadaism initially, André Breton soon tried to emancipate himself from it, as the destructive nihilism of Tristan Tzara didn’t satisfy him anymore.
In order to build a new reality on the ruins of rationality, André Breton was in search of a new mindset and discovered “le merveilleux” – the wonderful, and “le désir” – desire. The wonderful of forgotten childhood memories and the desire of suppressed sexual instincts merge into “l’amour fou” – the crazy love, one of the key subjects in Surrealism. The goal of Surrealism, a neologism by poet Guillaume Apollinaire, was to conjure a world beyond reality. André Breton recognized the potential of this mindset early on and was looking for ways to find an outlet for the bottled up stream of subconsciousness. Together with Philippe Soupault he discovered “l’écriture automatique” – automatic writing, which they tried out in “Les champs magnetiques”, the key work of Surrealism, for the first time. Without control by rationality each word, that crosses the mind of the author, is written down as quickly as possible. Ethics and aesthetic issues are blocked out consistently, the collective protocol of several authors, as in the case of Breton and Soupault, results in a collective work, the explosive impact of which reaches beyond the one of a single author. Never seen absurd and subversive images emerge from the play of free association, which are meant to shatter the rationalistic world view.
Yves Tanguy, Outside, 1929, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (formerly collection R. Penrose)
Many creative techniques of Surrealism are applied still today.
For André Breton the mission of Surrealism was clearly defined: “There exists a certain spot in the mind from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the high and the low, the communicable and the incommunicable will cease to appear contradictory”. Here the congeniality with Zen Buddhism, which didn’t play any role in Western Europe in the 1920s, is conspicuous. Surrealism in its infancy had been conceived as a purely literary movement by André Breton, not before his first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 also artists joined, who transferred the principles of psychic automatism to visual arts.
René Magritte, Threatening Weather, 1929, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (formerly collection R. Penrose)
A bunch of new techniques resulted in this procedure, amongst them collage, frottage, grattage and decalcomania. The collective work, as practiced by Breton and Soupault, found its artistic equivalent in the game “cadavre exquis”, the “exquisite corpse”, in which several persons take turns drawing a part of a figure on a sheet of paper, with the drawn part being folded away, so that the subsequent person can’t see it. The arising magic of coincidence became one of the central themes of Surrealism. Thus a literary movement had turned into a spiritual one, with writers and artists inspiring each other and publishing poems and books as literary-visual overall works of art. Outstanding examples of this fruitful collaboration are on display at the exhibition as well.
Gabrielle Keiller (1908 – 1995) – Archivist of Surrealism
Although the collection of Gabrielle Keiller is small, it is exquisite in terms of quality and composition. Initially she collected art of the 19th and early 20th century, until she met Peggy Guggenheim in Venice in 1960. The comprehensive collection of Peggy Guggenheim with masterpieces of Surrealism impressed Gabrielle Keiller strongly and made her take the decision to focus on works of Dadaism and Surrealism. Also the Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, who exhibited his works inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism at the British pavilion at the Biennale of Venice, encouraged Gabrielle Keiller in her intention to realign her collection.
Gabrielle Keiller, who was a passionate amateur golfer, had inherited a fortune from her American father, who owned a large ranch. Through the marriage with James Keiller, the heir of the famous marmalade manufacturer Dundee, she even could enlarge her fortune. After his death she started to collect Surrealist art. Gabrielle Keiller had a taste for works in small format and had a penchant for the literary aspect of Surrealism, which is why one of her collecting focuses were books, magazines and manuscripts, which formed the basis for an incomparable library of the Surrealist movement. Many of these collectibles have an unusual provenance and refer directly to the works of art in the collection of Gabrielle Keiller. The relationship between word and image was very important to Gabrielle Keiller, therefore she also acquired works by René Magritte, amongst them the painting “The Magic Mirror”, with the words “Corps humain”, “human body”, written on a mirror. For years she worked as a volunteer for the British Museum and the Tate. From 1978 to 1985 she was a member of the acquisition committee of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, to which she bequeathed her entire collection of art and her library.
Roland Penrose (1900 – 1984) – The curator
Roland Penrose always pointed out that his collection came into being by pure coincidence and he never had the intention to become a collector. Penrose had settled in Paris in the 1920s, in order to establish himself as an artist. After the death of his father he inherited a fortune from him and decided to support his artist friends financially such as Max Ernst and Alberto Giacometti, by buying early works from them. He also financed Max Ernst’s collage novel “Une semaine de bonté” from 1934. In the 1930s he acquired important works by Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso from Paul Eluard, when he was in financial trouble.
Roland Penrose was clever enough to realize that he as an artist could never come close to the achievements of his Surrealist artist friends, and focused more and more on working as a curator, through which he could promote Surrealism in the most effective way. In 1936 he organized “The International Surrealist Exhibition” in the New Burlington Galleries in London with more than 400 exhibits. Then Salvador Dalí had his famous performance in a diving suit, in which he almost choked. At that time Great Britain hadn’t arrived yet at the art of the 20th century, the exhibition was utterly panned by the press and became a truimphant success nevertheless, which paved the way for modern art and Surrealism in particular in Great Britain.
In 1937 Roland Penrose fell in love with Lee Miller, who worked as a model and photographer and was to cause quite a stir as a war correspondent. In 1946 they settled in England in East Sussex, where they acquired Farley Farm from the 18th century. Farley Farm became their refugium and a Surrealist place par excellence, which was continuously frequented by the greatest artists of the 20th century: Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Paul Eluard and Henry Moore. In 1946 Roland Penrose was co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Since the 1980s the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh acquired regularly works from his collection, which laid the foundation for its internationally renowned collection of Surrealism.
Edward James (1907 – 1984) – The poet
Edward James stemmed from an aristocratic American-Scottish family, who had made a fortune in the mining and railway business. Already as a child he inherited a great fortune from his father. In the 1930s Edward James started to collect art of Surrealism intensely and became a pioneering patron, however, he didn’t consider himself as a collector, but as a poet, who wanted to support his artist friends.
Especially the young Salvador Dalí, who was still at the beginning of his artistic career at that time, he promoted as much as he could. For a monthly allowance Edward James bought Dalí’s entire production of a year from mid 1937 to mid 1938. Besides Dalí he focused especially on the work by René Magritte and the female artists of Surrealism, who had a hard time gaining the recognition they deserved within the Surrealist movement. From 1933 to 1939 he was editor of the Surrealist magazine “Minotaure: revue artistique et littéraire”. But Edward James was also commissioner and creative mind of certain works, he collaborated closely with Dalí, when he created his “White Aphrodisiac Telephone” for him in 1936 and the “Mae West Lips Sofa” in 1938. René Magritte’s famous painting “Not to be Reproduced” from 1937 is a portrait of Edward James.
He founded the West Dean College on his estate in Sussex and acquired a piece of land in Mexico, where he created a fantastic sculpture garden, which he called “Las Pozas”. Here in the Mexican jungle architecture, art and nature merge into a close symbiosis, as if they had sprung from a Surrealist dream. In order to finance his projects, Edward James sold his collection bit by bit from the 1970s on. He was in close contact with Renilde Hammacher, the then director of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, who had the intention to establish the institute as leading museum of Surrealism in the Netherlands and therefore acquired large groups of works from him, especially paintings and objects by Salvador Dalí and René Magritte.
Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch (1934 and 1930) – The donators
Just as Gabrielle Keiller, Roland Penrose and Edward James had been pioneers of Surrealism in Great Britain, the collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch contributes significantly to close the disruption of German art history in the 20th century caused by the National Socialists. As although German romanticism had a strong influence on André Breton when he fomulated the Surrealist world view, and with renowned artists of the movement coming from Germany, apart from Max Ernst also Hans Bellmer, Wolfgang Paalen and Richard Oelze, Germany was cut off from Surrealism due to the political situation between the two world wars. In post-war Germany of the 1950s artists, who had been ostracized as “degenerate” and had worked in Germany, were the first to be rehabilitated, mainly members of “Die Brücke” and “Der Blaue Reiter”. After the end of the war an exhibition with works from the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, which served to coming to terms with the Third Reich, was the first impressive encounter with modern art for Heiner Pietzsch.
When Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch started in the 1960s to invest the profits from their company in the plastic industry in the buildup of an art collection and shifted their focus from Informel to Surrealism in the 1970s, there was an incomparably more difficult market situation for Surrealist art than the pioneers had found. Ulla Pietzsch was fascinated by the psychoanalytical theories by Sigmund Freud, whereas Heiner Pietzsch was very much interested in history, especially the period between the two world wars. Their areas of interest intersected in Surrealism, an encounter with Max Ernst finally was the decisive moment for the couple Pietzsch to realign their collection to Surrealist art.
Max Ernst also was the link between Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism in the Pietzsch collection, his dripping technique to make a dripping can of paint rotate above a canvas inspired Jackson Pollock to the development of Action Painting. Max Ernst’s painting “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidian Fly” from 1942-47 is owned now by Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. In order to preserve their outstanding collection, the Pietzschs will donate more than 150 works to the city of Berlin, where they will find a new home in the new museum building of the Neue Nationalgalerie planned by Herzog & de Meuron, thus ensuring the underrepresented movement of Surrealism a grand entrance in public.
Surrealism in Eight Themes
In order to showcase the themes, Surrealism revolved around, and to visualize, how the four collections with their different focuses complement each other outstandingly, an oval space was created at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which unites important works of the collections and subdivides them into eight themes. The visual intensity and wide range of themes of the Surrealist movement, which is presented to the viewer here, is breathtaking. However, especially in this section a slightly more spacious exhibition design would have been desirable, as this area is very densely packed.
To surrender oneself to the magic of coincidence was one of the basic principles of the Surrealist philosophy of life. Inspired was the so-called “objective chance” by the Comte de Lautréamont alias Isidore Ducasse through his sombre cantos “Les Chants de Maldoror”. The sentence “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella” became the credo of André Breton. Objects alien to each other form new alliances to provoke a shock, that disrupts the chains of rationality. Within the context of “l’amour fou“, the “crazy love“, also coincidence played a major role for André Breton. In his essay „Nadja“, a key work of Surrealist literature, André Breton depicts the chance encounter with a young woman, who appears familiar with the narrator in a mysterious way and gets close to his life and thoughts intuitively. Chance creates a charged space, in the magnetic field of which the lovers don’t seek, but find each other.
Also to roam the nocturnal streets of Paris, to get drifted to undiscovered places, served the goal to enchant everyday life with magic poetry. In order to conjure the magic moment of chance, the Surrealists invented collective games such as the “Cadavre exquis”, the ”exquisite corpse” and experimented with chance techniques as collage, frottage and decalcomania, which evaded censorship of rationality and evoked images of the subconscious. Also the “objet trouvé”, an object found by chance, played a major role, it served as fetish and projection screen for unconscious obsessions, mostly of sexual nature.
André Breton defined psychic automatism as a protocol of thoughts in its purest form, regardless of ethic, aesthetic and rational aspects. In their collaborative work “Les champs magnetiques” André Breton and Philippe Soupault testet this principle in its literary form for the first time. In the field of painting the procedure was applied predominantly by Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy. They developed amorphous planes from abstract lines, which get the character of figurative shapes and start to take on a life of their own on the canvas.
In doing so, Miró represents abstract Surrealism, as he always sticks to the plane, whereas Tanguy stands for the veristic direction, with his figurative beings becoming objective characters and casting black shadows in a dreamlike landscape. The sculptures by Jean Arp seem to have sprung directly from the images by Yves Tanguy. With his amoeba-like wooden reliefs and biomorphic sculptures he is one of the main representatives of Surrealist sculpture.
Magritte’s Extraordinary Everyday Reality
René Magritte absolutely didn’t fit in the scheme of Surrealism and was in no way willing to fulfill the expectations in the appearance of a Surrealist artist. His bourgeois manner caricatured the dandyism of the bohemians, who formed the group around André Breton. Instead of abandoning rationality, as demanded by Breton, Magritte used it to conjure an everyday poetry, which questions the habits of seeing of the viewer. His philosophical approach can be expressed in his posit, that the art of painting is an art of thinking. Especially in his word images René Magritte explored the complex relationship between objects, their picture and their description.
Into these notional place holders there are written words of objects, which aren’t connected with the other visible and familiar objects in the picture in any way and question the reality of them. The word gives the unpainted object a meaning, whereas the painted object evokes the word linked to it. Magritte declared that an object was not so attached to its name that there couldn’t be found another one that would suit it better. The complex relationship between language, real things and their images, which the brain needs to bring into a logical order, is disintegrated in a subversive way. René Magritte wasn’t a dreamer, but a thinker, who sought to use logic in order to decipher the great mystery of existence, whose absurdity can be encountered only with humour. Concerning this point Magritte was closer to the Dadaistic world view of Tristan Tzara than the depth psychological approach of André Breton.
The Poetry of Delvaux
The Belgian Paul Delvaux never was an active member of the Surrealist group and didn’t share their political ambitions either, but took part in their exhibitions. After his expressive early period Giorgio de Chirico became his awakening experience, Delvaux changed his style of painting radically, since then nude or half naked women and skeletons populated his images with dreamlike residential streets. A visit to the Musée Spitzner, a fairground booth with skeletons and anatomical wax models of physical deformations and genital diseases was an impressive childhood experience for him. Also the novels by Jules Verne captured Paul Delvaux throughout his life, the character of scientist Professor Otto Lidenbrock from “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” appears in several of his paintings and embodies a bizarre counterpoint to the eroticism of his female nudes.
Since his childhood Paul Delvaux was fascinated by stations, they stand not only for arrival and departure, but also for the intermediate space between interior and exterior, between psychological introspective and a disrupted communication with the outside world. The predominantly female characters in Paul Delvaux’s visions don’t communicate with each other, like sleepwalkers they are lost in thought and meander between bourgeois brick façades in the nude, under a sky, whose light melts day and night. They are not aware of their nudity, they appear innocent as before the expulsion from paradise, their chaste look turns the viewer into a voyeur. Elements from ancient architecture such as temples and colonnades alternate with station concourses, if the characters by Paul Delvaux dare to leave the urban space, they will find themselves in desolate moonscapes, with screes of open pit mining in Wallonia obstructing the horizon.
Female artists had a hard time in the group of the Surrealists. Although they adored the female as a desirable msytic being, who possessed magic capabilities and could reveal the men of Surrealism the secret of natural forces, the female artists never were accepted as equally creative. The role of the woman was the muse, the model, the lover, who made the man aware of his own creative genius. Therefore eroticism became one of the key subjects of Surrealism. Shaped by the experiences of World War I, which had been a pure man’s business, the group around André Breton couldn’t escape their traditional role perception, much as they strived to revolt against bourgeois rules.
Some of the female artists in the Surrealist movement such as Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning rebelled against this chauvinistic attitude of their male colleagues. Social restraints and the threatening of females, maybe a manifestation of the suppression by men, are given more attention in their images than mystifying nature, as preferred by their male colleagues.
Also after World War II, when Surrealism had ceased to exist as a movement and was classified in the context of history, female Surrealists were continuously ignored, with the male-dominated art criticism bringing the influence of Surrealism on Abstract Expressionism to the fore instead. Not before the 1970s the situation started to change due to the debate on feminism and the role of Surrealist female artists was revalued.
Ernst’s Ominous Landscapes
Max Ernst as a German artist brought the heritage of German romanticism with its overwhelming sensation of nature to his adopted country France. For Max Ernst the forest stood for the ambivalent feeling between desire for freedom and being locked in. He tried to ban his unconscious fears, desires and dreams on the canvas by means of automatic techniques. For his forest images he used predominantly grattage and decalcomania. Applying grattage Max Ernst spread paint on the canvas, put it on a hard textured underground, for instance a washed-out plank with heavy grain, and scratched it off again with a palette knive, so that the texture of the underground was transferred onto the canvas.
For the technique of decalcomania he spread thinned paint on the canvas, covered it with a sheet of paper and pulled it off again, which created structures, that evoked visions of plants, corals and rock formations. The landscapes by Max Ernst alternate between apocalyptic rocky deserts and deep jungles, with carnivorous plants devouring anything, a metaphor for the metamorphosis of nature with its cyclic coming into being and passing away.
Thanks to his talent as entertainer and marketing genius Salvador Dalí became the synonym of Surrealism and was responsible for its success in America in the end. Surrealism as a literary movement, as André Breton had defined it, was strongly tied to the French language, it owes its international triumphant success primarily to artists as Salvador Dalí, who gave the movement major impulses in the 1930s. Dalí declared, that the only difference between himself and a madman was, that he wasn’t mad.
With this mindset he developed his paranoiac-critical method, whose principle was to create double images or picture puzzles, which can be seen and interpreted by the viewer in different ways. Dalí himself defined paranoiac-critical activity as “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena”, with imaginary snapshots being projected on relevant objects, in order to approach these snapshots in an interpretative-descriptive way. These phenomena already imply the complete structure and systematics and objectify themselves only a priori by application of criticism. A battle, with numerous figures bustling about, can be seen as a head as well, or a mountain lake as a fish, depending on how the viewer focuses his visual zoom to the picture.
At the beginning of the 1930s the Surrealist movement was in a crisis. André Breton’s political ambitions and his turning to the Communist party split the group into two factions, the political activists and the artists, who wanted to carry on working independently. In order to reunite the group, a list of collective activities was made. Salvador Dalí’s suggestion to create Surrealist objects was hailed enthusiastically and laid the foundation for the extension of artistic ways to express in the 20th century in the form of installation. The development of objects also moved Surrealism closer to design, which had a strong influence on subsequent generations of designers, who wanted to juxtapose emotion with the functionalism of the Bauhaus.
Alberto Giacometti, who shared the enthusiasm for Surrealism in the 1930s, but hadn’t been a committed member, developed objects, which he already had seen in his dreams, as he declared. His approach, however, still was strongly influenced by sculpture and demonstrated the possibilities, how the development of Surrealist sculpture could look. Dalí on the contrary wanted to go one step further by combining found objects and putting them into a new context, in order to cause a psychic shock due to the contrast of things alien to each other, exactly as the Comte de Lautréamont had called for. Especially the objects by Dalí were sexually charged and revealed the libidinous impulses of the subconscious.
11.02. – 28.05.17 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam