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Te Papa’s Surrealist exhibition shows how the weird became wonderful

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 

Te Papa June 12  – October  31

Surrealist Art | He Toi Pohewa

By Els Hoek and Lizzie Bisley

Te Papa Press

RRP $35.00

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

A major show of Surrealist art has just opened at Te Papa and will be on show for the next four months.  The works are all from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and includes sculpture, furniture, paintings, graphic design, prints, and photography.

Accompanying the exhibition is an excellent catalogue jointly produced by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and Te Papa.

The 180 works in the show include major works by artists such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, René Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp.

Visitors will be able to see iconic Surrealist works such as Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa (1938), a playfully subversive couch shaped as a lush pair of red lips, and René Magritte’s La maison de verre (The glass house) (1939), an uncanny masterpiece in which a man’s face looks out from the back of his head.

In 1916, a group of poets and artists in Zurich turned against academism and all common beliefs about culture. Their ideas were picked up by others and it was therefore not long before the Dadaists began making “anti-art” such as noise concerts and nonsense poems. Their views formed the breeding ground from which surrealism originated in 1924. Many Dadaists later joined the Paris surrealists around André Breton.

In response to the atrocities caused by the First World War, the surrealists rejected the rational and everything that is traditional. Instead, they wanted to make art that was contrary, irrational and shocking. Andre Breton who wrote the first of his several Surrealist Manifestos in 1924 defined surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”.

He also noted that surrealism could be applied to the other art forms such as poetry and literature stressing the  importance of the dream as a reservoir of Surrealist inspiration.

Probably the most recognisable artist in the exhibition is Salvador Dalí. His works includes some iconic paintings quirky prints, playful sculptures and unsettling film.

Salvador Dali “Couple with their heads full of clouds”

In surrealism, everyday objects are used to create unusual situations and René Magritte is a master of this depicting mental images and creating works that transform reality and confuse the viewer. In true Surrealist form, alongside the likes of Dali, his paintings are never a mirror of the reality surrounding us, it is a mirror of the reality imagined by him..

Te Papa was able to obtain the exhibition which is the only venue in the Asia Pacific region because the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is currently undergoing large-scale renovation work so the museum has been able to make available art from their extensive collection.

The catalogue is richly illustrated with an extensive text. The various chapters provide an excellent introduction to surrealism and the artists at the centre of the various movements which contributed to it. The background to many of the works is often as interesting as the works themselves.

Rene Magritte “Not to be reproduced”

Magritte’s “Not to be Reproduced” was one of three works commissioned by poet and Magritte patron Edward James for the ballroom of James’s London home. The work depicts a man standing in front of a mirror  (possibly James himself) but while the book on the mantelpiece is reflected correctly, the man’s reflection shows him from behind. The book itself adds another level to the mystery being a copy of Edger Alan Poe’s Les aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym), a French translation of “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”

There are several other large works by Magritte in the show including “The Living Mirror” of 1928, This  work with word inscribed over clouds has connections with Colin McCahon Cloud and number works of the mid 1970’s.

As well as his famous “Mae  Wes t Lips Sofa there are the  half dozen major paintings by Salvador Dali including ”Couple with their heads full of Clouds”  and “Impressions of Africa” which includes a self-portrait.

There are a couple of fine dreamy works by Paul Delvaux such as “The Red Tower” and there are several works by Marcel Duchamp including one of his exhibitions in a box containing 68 small works by the artist.

While Women have always played a role in the Surrealist movement, this was for the most part, as objects of masculine desire and fantasy as many male surrealist artists had a  blind spot when it came to gender politics. For them, the female body became the ultimate Surrealist object, mystified and fetishized.

Leanora Carrington “Again the Gemini are in the Orchard”

The exhibition does feature half a dozen female artist who carved out careers  including Eileen Agar’s “Seated Figure” which combines her interest in Cubism as well as Surrealism., Leanora Carrington’s Bosch inspired  dreamscape “Again the Gemini are in the Orchard” and Unica Zurn’s hallucinatory works. There are also works by  Rose Adler, Meret Oppenheim and Elsa Schiaparell,

There are a set of etchings by Salvador Dali produced to illustrate “The Songs of Maldoror”, a number of etchings by Max Ernst, several fetishist photographs by Hans Bellmer and a suite of works by Max Ernst.

The book also provides a history of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and its efforts to build a major collection which often involved negotiations with Edward James

Several surrealist films are in the show including  L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age) (1930), by Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali and  Entr’acte (Intermission) (1924), by Rene Clair

There will also be one screening of the Alfred Hitchcock film  Spellbound (1945), for which Salvador Dali created some dream sequences.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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