The Surreal Deal

In his lifetime, Nesuhi Ertegun, a partner in Atlantic Records, rarely visited museums. "I don't like going places where there's nothing to buy," he reportedly remarked. His friend, French media mogul Daniel Filipacchi, went to the Louvre once and didn't enjoy it. But the two men, who met in New York in the 1950s, shared passions for jazz and modern painting, and they egged each other on to amass loads of surrealist art. "Surrealism: Two Private Eyes" is a mammoth exhibition of over 700 works, drawn from their collections, that both arouses and confounds our desire to understand their acquisitive ardor and the art that inspired it.

Emerging from the utopian social ferment of the '20s and '30s, Surrealism kept one foot in politics and the other in café society; its practitioners claimed it was a way of life and a state of mind rather than an aesthetic program. Under the sway of their peculiar brand of Freudianism and theosophy, they aimed at nothing less than a revolution of everyday perception.

To a certain extent, they succeeded, judging by the masses currently swarming up Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda (itself an organicist echo of 1930s ideals). Yesterday's avant-garde now looks oddly familiar. (It's no accident that the chairman of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, which publishes Elleand Paris Match, found himself drawn to an art that became a template for modern advertising.) Surrealism's disjunctions, dreamlike visions, and wild, irreverent juxtapositions may now be glimpsed on every urban streetcorner—in the men sleeping in the shadows of cathedrals and the lobsters crawling across evening gowns in Barney's windows, and in the lingua franca of MTV.

Surrealism "proper" was born in 1924, with the publication of poet André Breton's first Surrealist Manifesto, the founding of the magazine La Révolution surréaliste, and the regular gathering of certain writers and artists in certain salons and cafés. But Breton, the movement's pope and chief theorist, traced its antecedents back to Heraclitus, and its death is still a matter of dispute, with some purists insisting that World War II laid waste both to Surrealism's community—whose members died in deportation or were scattered in exile—and to its ideals of lightness and artistic removal from humdrum reality.

Ertegun and Filipacchi, who began the bulk of their collecting in the 1950s, arrived late in the day aesthetically speaking, but they took a broad view of Surrealism's parameters, and, armed with passion and substantial capital, they acquired a lot of stuff. Exactly how they did it is left to speculation; this exhibition offers little in the way of explanation. Still, the visual splendor and wealth of material here is extraordinary. The Guggenheim's every nook and cranny, it seems, is stuffed with oneiric creatures, extraterrestrial vistas, and eroto-maniacal debris. Yves Tanguy's canvases filled with amorphous forms, whose colorless horizons recede into oblivion; Salvador Dalí's astonishingly luminous small landscapes from the '30s, before the painter succumbed to the charms of commerce; Jindrich Heisler's photographic ghosts cavorting in lunar regions; Matta's swirling, cosmic abstractions: all suggest a deeply interior vision, byproducts of Surrealism's research into the self's remotest recesses.

There are plenty of major works: De Chirico's dummies casting their shadows across empty piazzas; Magritte's nightgown and shoes sporting a woman's breasts and toes; Frida Kahlo's erupting volcano, burning skyscraper, plant life, parents, and her own painted toenails emerging from the waters of her bathtub; or Man Ray's hilarious portrait of the Marquis de Sade, in which the old libertine's bloodshot eye stares out from a face made of cracking bricks.

These collections were formed according to idiosyncratic personal tastes rather than the demands of art history (little Picasso, less Duchamp, no Giacometti). So their charm lies in their peculiarity. Somebody here liked naughty pictures. Works by Hans Bellmer, who did unspeakable things with dolls, and photographs by Pierre Molinier, an old man who dressed up as a girl and had sex with himself, are tucked discreetly into side galleries. Clovis Trouille, however, makes it onto the rotunda; a minor surrealist painter, his visions of nuns smoking while adjusting their garters are indelibly perverse.

For their purchases, Ertegun (who was born in Turkey) and Filipacchi drew upon far-flung Surrealist outposts. They were equal-opportunity buyers: in a movement dominated by men's erotic fantasies, they regularly acquired work by women artists, including Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim, and many others. Unica Zürn and Valentine Hugo tend to crop up in Surrealist histories as mistresses (to Bellmer and Breton, respectively); here they're represented by paintings and drawings. Dora Maar's portrait of her lover, Picasso, echoes uncannily his famous images of her face shattered by anxiety.

And they knew how to recognize a kindred spirit. Working from his mother's house in Flushing, Queens, Joseph Cornell's relation to the central currents of Surrealism was limited; but his marvelous boxed dioramas, at once intimate and cosmological, suggest a parallel exploration into the sealed, hermetic landscape of the psyche. An entire gallery devoted to Cornell's work, though lamentably installed, is one of the exhibition's highlights.

Don't miss the vitrines displaying prints, collages, and collaborative publications, and the side galleries housing astonishing collections of photography, drawings, and bookbindings. In these marginal spaces, liberated from the seemingly endless parade of masterpieces, Surrealism's anarchic spirit breathes more freely.

For above all, surrealists cultivated the art of the encounter—the fertile meeting of opposing forces, the messy coming together of creative energies, the spilling over of art into life, the rendezvous of chance and destiny. They championed techniques like frottage(rubbing), grattage(scratching) décalcomanie(Rorschach-like blotting), fumage(markings made with the smoke of a candle), automatic writing (produced in trances), collage, and assemblage—all meant to help free art from the empire of the self's directive impulses. (It's funny how this list of tricks to unleash the unconscious sounds like a catalogue of things to do in bed.)

The surrealists' unparalleled spirit of collaboration produced an extraordinarily fertile magazine culture, remarkably inventive bookbindings, and illustrated publications. (Publisher Filipacchi's holdings in this area are truly exceptional.) Their games gave rise to "exquisite corpses," collaborative drawings or poems made by scribbling words or pictures on a sheet of paper, folding it, and passing it among several participants.

They aimed for a "communism of genius," as a 1924 business card from the Surrealist Central Bureau of Research proclaimed, but that's not what they got. Museums maintain art works in prophylactic isolation, sealing off artistic reputations, establishing hierarchies, paying due respect to private property, and keeping the distance between life and art safe and uncontaminated. Perhaps that's why they so often offer dulling experiences. The fact that we still yearn for something different may be Surrealism's most enduring legacy.

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