Giraffes On Fire

We went to see the Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition at Tate Modern. This has a few of the usual big names of the movement, but also tries to broaden out and taken in the influence and expansion of surrealist styles outside Europe and America and its reintegration with indigenous styles of art that were part of its sources of inspiration. There is also an attempt to show more of the female artists in the movement, such as Ithell Colquhoun, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and also Eileen Agar, whose reputation was growing since the 80s.

The show is organised with 2 different structuring principles: about half the rooms take up themes from surrealist theories and manifestos about the uncanny, the unconscious, the relation to political action, whilst the others focus on geographical centres of surrealist activity.

Here are some images of the images. Unfortunately some of the smaller works, such as the ones by the Iranian artist Kaveh Golestan did not photograph very well and the displays of surrealist writings do not make great pictures.

“Surrealist Wardrobe” (1941) – Marcel Jean.
“A Little Light Night Music” (1943) – Dorothea Tanning.

“Lobster Telephone” (1938) – Salvador Dali.
“Everyday Tribulations” (1934) – Richard Oelze.
“The Message” (1941) – Juan Batlle Planas.
“The Guide” (1962) – Herve Telemaque.
“Ogou Feray” (c.1945) – Hector Hyppolite
“Papa Lauco” (1945) – Hector Hyppolite
“Belial, Emperor Of The Flies” (1947) – Wifredo Lam.
“The Pi Bird’s Night Flight” (1952) – Eugenio Granell.
“We Hear Her Silence” (1957) – Rafael Ferrer.
“No Use To Talk About The Little Wig” (1952) – Cossette Zeno.
“Warrior And Sphinx” (c.1957) – Frances del Valle.
“Pas De Deux (Dawn)” (1953) – Luis Maisonet Crespo.
“The Magical Blazons Of Tropical Flight” (1947) – Eugenio Granell.

The 9 metre long poem composed by Ted Joans during one of his travels:

“Fairground Stall” (1937) – Taro Okamoto
“Alphabet of Passion” (1962) – Konrad Klapheck.
“Body Snatcher In Switzerland” (1959) – Enrico Baj.
“My Wife Looks At The Petrol Engine, The Dog Looks At Me” (1940) – Wilhelm Freddie.

Fun fact: I use the exhibition guide to check some of the names of these pictures, and I put a marker in at page 224 when I found the Taro Okamoto picture. Then when I wanted to find the one above, I opened the book and I was already at the right place, it was on page 225. That’s the sort of moment Breton would have appreciated.

“Time Transfixed” (1938) _ Rene Magritte.

This last work was of course referenced in a film, a book about which is in the gift shop:

Back to the show:

“The Sea” (1929) – Koga Harue.
“Plant And Animal Analogies” (1934-5) – Helen Lundeberg.
“We Are Betrayed” (1934) – Victor Brauner.
“The One In The Other” (1965) – Toyen.
“Scylla” (1938) – Ithell Colquhoun.
“To The Tower” (1961) – Remedios Varo.
“Embroidering The Earth’s Mantle” (1961) – Remedios Varo.
“The Flight” (1961) – Remedios Varo.
“Nudes” (1945) – Samir Rafi.

This one has similarities with Dali’s “Premonition Of Civil War”:

“Untitled” (1939) – Ramses Younan.
“The Young Girl And The Monster” (1942) – Inji Efflatoun.
“Untitled” (1940) – Fouad Kamel.
“The Ballad For Frida Kahlo” (1955-6) – Alice Rahon.
“Chiki, Your Country” (1944) – Leonora Carrington.
“Self Portrait” (c.1937) – Leonora Carrington.
“A Present For The Past” (1942) – Gordon Onslow Ford.
“Surrealist Composition” (1956) – Kurt Seligmann.

I’ve lost the title and artist of this one, and it doesn’t seem to be in the exhibition guide:

“Baton Blows” (1937) – Mayo.
“Untitled” (1967) – Malangatana Ngwenya.
“May 68” (1968-75) – Joan Miro.

This is not included in the exhibition guide:

“Deification Of A Soldier” (1967) – Yamashita Kikuji.
“The Dream Of Tobias” (1917) – Giorgio De Chirico.
“Landru in the Hotel, Paris” (1932) – Antonio Berni.
“Two Children Are Threatened By A Nightingale” (1924) – Max Ernst.

The exhibition also features films by Jan Svankmajer and Maya Deren (not Meshes Of The Afternoon, the scariest movie ever made). There are various examples of surrealist writings, including the work of a Czech underground group during the German occupation. Were they being alluded to in Kundera’s Life Is Elsewhere, which featured an avant garde artist who fancied himself as a follower of Breton? Surrealist writings have been back in print for many years: Breton’s Nadja and also De Chirico’s Hebdomeros, but the big prize that finally got a new edition last year is The Eater Of Darkness by Robert Coates, which is now classed as “dada” but could just as well pass for the first ever surrealist novel. I have not checked that new edition to see if they get the typography right – there was an awful print-on-demand digital edition on Amazon in which the text was mangled by passing through a scanning system that tried to convert it back to a conventional text. We could of course say that that was a further extension of the textual instability… but still ask for your money back.

Some of the later works in the exhibition blur into heavy metal album sleeve art or mass-market fantasy imagery, which I suppose marks the success of the movement in reaching a wider audience, but also failure by simply becoming assimilated to the category of a familiar visual style and coding. Even Meshes Of The Afternoon ended up referenced in a music video. The Uncanny becomes ordinary and expected and needs to be deinterpreted.

Sadly no mention of Leslie Roy Hobdell, who got overlooked from the last big surrealist retrospective 2 years ago, at Dulwich Picture Gallery. “Nocturnal Adventures” should be remembered.

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