When Marcel Duchamp designed the 1938 surrealist art exhibit in Paris, he hung the paintings in shadows and issued flashlights to visitors. Once in the gallery, they discovered that tiny dark particles were falling gently from above, creating indoor smog. The particles were coal dust, Duchamp having covered the ceiling with old coal sacks to create a nightmarish aura. He was staging a surrealist happening: unexpected, never to be repeated, slightly threatening, as inscrutable as a dream.
Clement Greenberg, most influential of 20th-century art critics, considered surrealism a blind alley and probably expected that museums would have exiled it to their basements by now. Instead, surrealism has infiltrated every precinct of our culture, from rock videos to movies, thereby stoking interest in the original European practitioners. Most of them are long dead, but their work retains its power as visual stimulant while delivering the charm of the old rather than the shock of the new.
This became clear in a major international show, Surrealism: Desire Unbound, which closed recently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. On June 14, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto opens its own big summer exhibition, Dreaming with Open Eyes, containing 200 items from the Israel Museum's Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art. The catalogue makes it look rich and exciting, one of those shows people will linger over for hours.
Surrealism discovered the energy of dreams and taught the world how to use the unconscious as raw material. It was the poet André Breton who worked this out and made himself the only literary man to inspire a modern art movement. A reader of Freud, he imagined the unconscious as a repository of unique wisdom and tried to chart neural pathways leading toward it. He invented automatic writing, which meant putting down every word that entered the writer's head. The results were often incoherent, but, in their way, original. In any case, Breton's insights mattered little till visual artists appropriated them.
They took his theories as a licence to hunt for incongruous images, impossible juxtapositions, visual puns. René Magritte, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Picasso found, in hidden corners of their minds, unique dreamscapes they installed in the modern imagination. In the end, Breton had more influence on painting than any writer since the authors of the Gospels.
Wondrously arrogant, he believed surrealism was the key to humanity's future and decided in the 1930s that it could fulfill its destiny alongside the Communist Party. Although he later rejected Stalin, his movement retained a Marxist flavour. He and his surrealist colleagues issued their last collective statement in Paris in 1964, two years before Breton's death. It praised the Castro government of Cuba, "a revolution that defends the freedom of creation."
Arturo Schwarz, who collected the art to be shown in Toronto, was born in 1924 in Alexandria to Jewish parents, his father from Germany and his mother from Italy. Forced out of Egypt during the Jewish-Arab conflict of the 1940s, he ended up in Milan, first as a penniless but determined collector, then as a bookseller, eventually as an art dealer and scholar. His obsession with Breton & Co. led to a prosperous career. In 1968, when few collectors were interested in either surrealism or its predecessor, dadaism, the estate of Tristan Tzara came up for auction. Tzara had been a founder of dadaism and later Breton's colleague. Schwarz took out a bank loan, bought 300 items from the estate, and within a decade was able to sell a single piece for 10 times the cost of the entire lot.
Salvador Dali appears in the collection, but not prominently. As Schwarz writes in the catalogue, Dali was "an ephemeral, marginal presence" in the movement, and his success created a false public image. In truth, he was the worst calamity that ever befell surrealism. At first, his slick paintings of absurd subjects (like gigantic pocket watches wrapping themselves around tree branches, below,) seemed to open fresh possibilities. It was hard not to be impressed with the way he precisely painted every detail and glazed the surfaces to resemble enamel. But quite early he began repeating his effects, and today his work (a few early paintings aside) looks embalmed.
Unfortunately, his genius for publicity (he once gave a lecture while wearing a diving suit) made him look like the king of the surrealists. Advertising agencies and movie producers loved his calculated images and built them into mass culture as a plausible version of what we see while dreaming. Alfred Hitchcock hired Dali to design dream scenes for Spellbound, a 1945 thriller that popularized psychoanalysis (Ingrid Bergman was the analyst, Gregory Peck the patient). Hitchcock wanted to depict the dreams with sharp clarity, sharper than the rest of the movie. Not surprisingly, he found some of Dali's ideas strange: "He wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants!" Hitchcock decided that was a bit over the top.
Beginning in the 1940s, surrealism inspired artists everywhere, including great artists. It led directly to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and, in Quebec, the first abstract artists (notably Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle) followed Breton by naming themselves the automatistes. Surrealism also flowed into popular culture, first in England. It informed Spike Milligan's radio comedy, Richard Lester's Beatles films, and Monty Python, most obviously Terry Gilliam's graphics. Surrealism shaped movie directors from Luis Buñuel to David Lynch. In 1957 Ingmar Bergman made his surrealist masterpiece, Wild Strawberries. Painters and sculptors such as Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and Claes Oldenburg have pushed surrealism in their own ways. Even the earnest, feet-on-the-ground Toronto Star has a resident surrealist, the columnist Joey Slinger, whose adroit juxtaposition of reality and fantasy marks him as one of Breton's progeny.
Breton's ideas, while often expressed in a scattered and light-hearted way, turned out to be far more durable than anyone at first guessed. They led, through dreams and the play of ideas, toward what he called "an absolute reality, a surreality." He summed up his method with a little story about a poet who, before going to sleep, placed a sign on his bedroom door: "The Poet Works."