By Carter B. Horsley
While many of its finest works are beautiful
and most are exotic, Surrealism was an intellectual pursuit rather
than a specific style.
The movement began to flourish in Paris under
the leadership of André Breton in the early 1920's in the
aftermath of World War I and dominated much of the art world until
well after World War 11.
In his catalogue essay, "To Be or Not
To Be Surrealist," José Pierre wrote that "The
Surrealists found it grotesque to die for any flag whatsoever,
even if its colors were harmoniously composed."
"They were repulsed by the very idea of
God, and procreation seemed an aberration for them. There was
a time when Breton insulted pregnant women in the street, and
Benjamin Poret publicly insulted priests and nuns. Only Liberty,
Love and Poetry were looked upon favorably, and together these
constituted the heart of the Surrealist platform....This great
libertarian impulse paradoxically lead them to Marxism, an evolution
made apparent in the titles of the first two magazines published
by the group: La Révolution surréaliste (1924-29)
and Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution
(1930-33). Although, as early as 1935, the Surrealists broke
definitively with the French Communist Party, Louis Aragon, who
had been Breton's longtime lieutenant, became once and for all
an obsequious servant to Stalin, supporting the cause of Soviet
Realism and unabashedly defending the abominable Moscow trials.
In 1928, in Mexico, Breton wrote with Trotsky the resounding manifesto
Pour an art révolutionarie indépendant, which
condemned both the Nazis, who proclaimed Modern Art 'degenerate,'
and the Stalinists, who attacked Modern Art as 'bourgeois.' After
World War 11, however, Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara, and Picasso
joined Aragon in an unconditional celebration of Stalinist propaganda
clichés; in 1949, Picasso offered the dove as an image
of anti-American, pro-Soviet propaganda, and it was effective,"
"Eroticism, understood both in light of
the Marquis de Sade and Sigmund Freud, was fundamentally important
to the Surrealists," observed Pierre and the exhibition includes
numerous works of a sexual nature.
Surrealism's subject matter ranged from the
bizarre to the sublime, from the unconscious to the irreverent,
and its works could be very humorous and very ruthless, primitive
and very polished.
Catacyclismic and contrapuntal, Surrealist
art was never without a focus, a strong stance, an unavoidable
glare, les bons mots and exclamations.
Despite its intellectuality, most of its works
were not cerebral and indeed many are quite earthy. One usually
first conjures the super realism of Salvador Dalí's dreamscapes,
shown in this exhibition to exquisite effect in several small
and very powerful works, and then remembers the mysterious, finely
sculpted landscapes of Yves Tanguy, and the lush but macabre jungles
of Max Ernst, and the sinuous forms of Jean Arp and Joan Miro,
or the miraculous dimensional works of Matta and the great warmth
of Rufino Tamayo's paintings.
In all, obsession and intensity rise and climb.
There is always a particularity about the subject matter and its
twists and turns and convolutions and exploded thrusts, the gestures
of individuality, a specificity that defies mere humanity, just
While some works are merely the fanatical fantasies
of "bad boys," or proud polemics, most are rooted in
poetry and indeed the movement takes much of its impetus from
This important exhibition includes more than
700 works of Surrealist art including not only paintings and sculptures
but also collages, drawings, photographs and an extraordinary
collection of fabulous bookbindings.
The works come the from the collections of
the late Nesuhi Ertegun, who founded Atlantic Records with his
brother, Ahmet, and Daniel Filipacchi, the chairman of Hachette
Filipacchi, the publisher.
The show, which is sponsored by Elle Decor,
includes splendid works not only by such famous artists as Salvador
Dali, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, André Masson,
Max Ernst, Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico, Jean Arp, Wilfredo Lam
(see The City Review article on the Spring
1999 Latin American Art auction at Sotheby's for a reproduction
of one of his better works), Matta (see The
City Review article on the Spring 1999 Latin American Art auction
at Christie's for three reproductions of his work), Pablo Picasso,
George Grosz, Paul Delvaux, Paul Klee, Joseph Cornell, Frida Kahlo,
Rufino Tamayo, Saul Steinberg, Victor Brauner, Francis Picabia
and Joan Miró, but also major works by such important but
lesser known artists as Hans Bellmer, Wilhelm Freddie, Oscar Dominguez,
Wolfgang Paalen, Roland Pen-rose, Meret Oppenheim, Richard Oelze,
Enrico Donati, Pierre Fau, Joaquin Ferrer, Yyes Laloy, Georges
Malkine, Stanislao Lepri, Dora Maar, Jorge Camacho, Leonora Carrington,
Heriberto Cogollo, Conroy Maddox, Kondrad Klapchek, Leonor Fini,
Jacques Hérold, Remedios, Pierre Roy, Kurt Seligmann, Kay
Sage, Toyen, Clovis Trouille, Jindrich Styrský, Alfred
Jarry, Marcel Jean, John Melville, Pierre Molinier, Musika, and
Valentine Hugo, among others.
According to Filipacchi, Tanguy was the favorite
of both collectors.
All the works are lavishly illustrated in a
large, two-volume catalogue that is available in both hardcover
and soft-cover. At $45, the latter is an incredible bargain. The
reproductions are excellent although, unfortunately, many of the
finest works are spread across two pages.
In his foreword to the catalogue, Thomas Krens,
the director of the museum, described the collections as "perhaps
the finest holdings of Surrealist art in private hands today,"
adding that "never before has such an in-depth overview of
Surrealism been presented in an American institution."
Filipacchi met Ertegun in 1957 and recounts
in the catalogue that Ertegun, whose father was the Turkish ambassador
to Washington, was "sophisticated and knew much more than
I did about many things." Filipacchi recalled that Ertegun
told him that he didn't like going to museums because he did not
like "going to places where there's nothing to buy."
"Nesuhi wasn't especially a fan of Surrealism, as I was.
He was very interested in Cubism, an interest I didn't share....Nesuhi
and I came to share many pleasures. We vacationed together, with
his wife, Selma, and with my companion, Sondra Peterson....One
day, we were in Mexico City, where he was busy with meetings for
his record company. At the end of the day, I joined him with a
painting under my arm. I'd been to Rufino Tamayo's house and had
bought a large, rather amusing picture from the artist. Nesuhi
wasn't happy about it. Later on, he did the same thing to me with
Wolfgang Paalen. There was a certain competitiveness between us.
It was a game. It was a race to see who would find the rare pearl.
We had our friendly rivalries. It was cool."
Filipacchi, whose father arrived from Turkey
in Marseilles in 1922 "wearing his pajamas and with a violin
his only piece of baggage" and went on to play the guitar
in clubs in the Montparnasse section of Paris and then to produce
books with lithographs by Robert Delaunay, said that he and Ertegun
looked together for paintings, exchanged them: "we even tossed
a coin for some of them...We played poker for other pieces. There
was one essential difference between Nesuhi and myself as collectors.
At first, he had far more money to spend than I did. Sometimes
I had to sell paintings....I've also made donations, because I've
always hated having art locked away in storage rooms and banks."
Early in his career, Filipacchi, who admits
to having been to the Louvre only once in his life, was a photographer
and for a while was the "French correspondent for Ebony
and photographed all the famous American blacks in Paris."
He recalled asking Man Ray what kind of cameras and lenses he
used and that the artist responded by asking, "Would you
dare ask a painter what brand of brushes he used?"
Filipacchi said that his father would often
go "to the Cafe de Flore with his leftist friends and my
mother was at the Deux Magots with her aristocratic friends, who
were rather snobbish. I went from one terrace to the other and
sipped various drinks....I even had the honor, when I was about
ten, of being slapped by Antonin Artaud for overturning a glass
of orange juice onto his parts. I was really terrified, because
he had eyes that pierced you like daggers."
Filipacchi published books on numerous artists
he wanted people to discover such as Wolfgang Paalen and Wilheim
Freddie, but he never did one on Miró: "there were
already 150 books on him." He did a book on Hans Bellmer,
but the artist detested the translation in the German edition
and his companion, Unica Züna, had killed herself- "The
book is a painful memory. All the same, I am proud to have done
it, as it was important in making his work known. He is to my
mind one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century."
Dali, Filipacchi noted, "never asked for
anything...and he was always the one who picked up the tab."
"Magritte," he continued, "was
both someone very serious, very bourgeois, and someone with a
great sense of humor who knew how to laugh. He was rather complicated.
In Max Ernst's dining room in Paris there was a painting by Magritte,
entitled Force of Habit (I 960, cat. no. 15 1), in which a heraldic
image of a large green apple is inscribed in English, "This
is not an apple." Max and Magritte had exchanged pictures,
as artists often do. And Max, in the middle of the apple, had
painted a cage with a bird inside. Below this cage, Max had written,
"Ceci n'est pas un Magritte - signs Max Ernst." It was
pretty funny, at least I thought so. It transformed that painting
by Magritte, which was a little boring, into something exceptional.
The only problem is that when Magritte came and saw the picture,
he laughed politely, but he hated it."
Of Dorothea Tanning, who became Max Ernst's
great love after Peggy Guggenheim, Filipacchi remarked that "she
suffered from two things: First, having married a genius a who
did the same thing she did. Second, from having been an expatriate
American in France, which has tended to alienate American art
Filipacchi once asked Giorgio de Chirico where
he would like to go to dinner. "I like those little Parisian
bistros - perhaps Maxim's," the artist responded. At the
dinner, André François Petit, the dealer, told the
artist that without him the Surrealists "might not exist."
"That wouldn't be a great loss," he answered. "Apart
from Hieronymus Bosch the Surrealists were worthless," de
Chirico said, according to Filipacchi.
One artist that Filipacchi particularly liked
was Clovis Trouille. "One can always say that he was a bad
painter, that is colors are vile, which is probably true, but
that's what he wanted," he maintained. The artist did not
like to part with his paintings, but finally agreed to sell Filipacchi
a painting, only to ask for it back sometime later to make "a
little change." Filipacchi got the painting back and could
not discern any change. Finally he asked the artist who pointed
out that he had added a beauty spot to the thigh of one of the
two nuns who are kissing in the painting. The play, "Oh,
Calcutta!" is named after one of the artist's paintings.
There are many masterpieces in this show: Catalog
No. 2.1-9 is a 1963 album of nine sheets by Jean Arp (I 886-1966)
that are lyrical, pastelish doodles; No. 9, "A Thousand Girls,"
is a 1950 gouache and pencil by Hans Bellmer (1902-1975); No.
30, "Untitled," is a delightful 1954 wax on paper by
Victor Brauner (1903-1966), who also is well represented by the
lovely No. 32, "Shapes and Countershapes, 1958 oil on canvas;
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is represented by several superb
small works including No. 44, "The Mysterious Sources of
Harmony," No. 45, "Surrealist Objects, Gauges of Instantaneous
Memory, No. 50, "The Phantom Cart," No. 54, "Suburbs
of a Paranoic-Critical Town: Afternoon on the Outskirts of European
History," and No. 59, "Myself at the Age of Six When
I Thought I Was a Girl Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Skin
of the Sea to Observe a Dog Sleeping in the Shade of the Water",
and No. 394, "The City"; No 60, "The Fatal Light,"
a 1915 oil on canvas by Giorgio de Chirico (I 888-1978), who is
also well presented by No. 62, "The Disquieting Muses";
and Max Ernst (I 891-1976) by No. 72, "The Blue Forest,"
No. 73, "Caged Bird," No. 74, "The Idol,"
No. 75, "Birds That Cannot Fly," No. 78, "A Moment
of Calm." No. 81, "The Harmonious Breakfast in Santa
Monica," No. 85. "A Beautiful Day," and No. 86,
"Head of a Bird".
Also, No. 91, "The Obscure Act,"
a 1978 oil on paper by Joaquin Ferrer (b. 1929); No. 100, "La
Liseuse d'aigle," a 1942 gouache and pastel on paper by Jacques
Hérold (1907-1987); No. 106, "What the Water Has Given
Me," a 1939 oil on canvas by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954); No.
111, "The Musical Association," a very atypical ink
on glass by Paul Klee (1879-1940); No. 112, "Untitled,"
a very Kandinskyesque 1960 oil on canvas by Yves Laloy (b. 1920);
No. 119, "The Mask," a memorable 1962 oil on canvas
by Stanislao Lepri (1905-1980); No. 125, "The Journey of
the Flowers," No. 136, "Collective Invention,"
No. 143, "Perspective: Gérard's Madame Récamier,"
No. 146, "The Song of the Violet," and No. 147, "The
Art of Conversation," by René Magritte; Nos. 169,
"Imaginary Portrait of D. A. F. de Sade (2nd)," and
170, "The Artificial Florist," by Man Ray (1890-1976);
No. 173, "Metamorphoses," No. 174, "Nude and Architecture,"
No. 179, "Skull City," No. 180, "Apple Eater,"
No. 191, "Sybille," No. 464, "Nude with Star,"
No. 595, "Broceliande," and No. 596, "In Honor
of the Volcano," all by André Masson (1896-1987);
No. 184, "The Apples We Know," a 1943 oil on canvas
by Matta (b. 1911); No. 201, "Fata Alaska," and No.
202, "The Strangers," No. 203, "Ancestors to Come,"
No. 204, "Ancestors to Come II," No. 205, La Clé
Duchamp," all by Wolfgang Paalen (19051959); No. 216, "Untitled,"
by Kurt Seligmann (1900-1962); No. 224, "She Sleeps,"
No. 230, "A Lasting Smile," No. 232, "Untitled,"
No. 234, "Solar Perils," No. 235, "Closed Sea,
Wide World," and No. 237, "Untitled," all by Yves
Tanguy (1900-1955); No. 250, "At Chateau de Silling,"
a 1969 oil and collage on canvas by Toyen (1902-1980); and No.
319, "The Specter of Gardenia," a 1972 mixed media sculpture
by Marcel Jean (1900-1993).
The show is bound to be discovery for those
unfamiliar with the work of Bellmer, Lepri, Paalen, and others
and is a fine opportunity to see many fascinating works by Joseph
Cornell (1903-1972) Dali, Ernst, Magritte, Masson, Matta and Tanguy.
The reputations of Masson and Tanguy in particular
are sure to be enhanced by the exhibition while those of Dali,
Ernst and de Chirico are strongly reinforced.
The Surrealists loved playing games and the
exhibition includes many examples of their famed "exquisite
corpses," collaborative sequential works of art, and poetry,
that are fascinating and delightful.
The greatest discovery, however, will be the
sensational bookbindings by Rose Adler, Paul Bonet, Jean de Gonet,
Alain Devauchelle, Renée Haas, George Leroux, Pierre-Lucien
Martin, Monique Mathieu, Henri Mercher, Jean Arp, Georges Hugnet
(1906-1974), and Man Ray.
The last few exhibitions at the Guggenheim
Museum, including this one, have dramatically altered Frank Lloyd
Wright's famous spiral rotunda. Last year, the museum's wonderful
Chinese Art exhibit witnessed the erection of three large pylons
with Chinese inscriptions against the spiral ramp and the hugely
popular motorcycle exhibition covered one side of the ramp with
highly reflective material the better to appreciate all the show's
This exhibition grouped paintings against different
strongly colored, plain backgrounds rather than the ramp's traditional
off-white. All these major installation changes have been temporary
and very effective. It is difficult to imagine, however, what
Frank Lloyd Wright, or many of the city's more vocal preservationists
might have had to say if they could. Wright probably would have
raised a tantrum in principle and been very impressed in reality,
especially since the installations, thankfully, have been temporary.
The space is one of the world's greatest and is splendid for large
modern works and as a sculptural work of art in its own right.
These installations have only reinforced how excellent the space
is and hopefully have drawn more attention to it for jaded museum
visitors and awe-struck tourists.
It is a shame that this exhibition will close.
It would be marvelous if somehow it could become a permanent Surrealist
museum in New York, located perhaps in Battery Park City as Lower
Manhattan could use more important cultural attractions and that
large waterfront enclave still has space available and is generally
free from the city's many of the city's zoning and planning restrictions.
The Ertegun-Filipacchi Museum of Surrealism would instantly become
one of the city's most important cultural institutions and because
of the city's great history in jazz and publishing would not be
an inappropriate venue. It would also offer architects a splendid
opportunity to create something spectacular, something surreal,
in the spirit of Rem Koolhaus's book on "Delirious New York"
with the Chrysler Building in bed with or a melting Dalíesque
In the meantime, all art lovers should see
the exhibition and buy the catalogue.
While not all of the works are magnificent,
and some now appear just plain provocative, the Surrealist corpus
bristles with life and energy and challenging perceptions.
Click here to order the catalogue from amazon.com