“This is so surreal,” said Kiefer Sutherland, accepting his Golden Globe award. Everyone knew what he meant. They wouldn’t have had he said, “This is so cubist.” Similarly, whenever former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell got excited, she’d squeal, “Reeeally surreeeeeeal,” never—although it might have been more interesting—”Reeeally fauuuve.” Their choice of words reflects the fact that surrealism is the one modern art movement everyone knows about and experiences on a regular basis. If they don’t know about it, the language and ideas of surrealism are so thoroughly absorbed into the culture, they don’t have to.
Creepy, weird, all about urges and uncanniness, dreams, nightmares, the unconscious, the irrational, unexpected juxtapositions, transgressions, and hallucinations, surrealism is perhaps the most influential art movement of the 20th century—in its effect both on popular culture and on subsequent art. By now it’s also showbiz—in the words of British critic Adrian Searl, “a rattling of furry teacups and refrigerator magnets.” Nevertheless, when other isms are all but forgotten, when Dine and Kline are only names in art history books, people may still look back at surrealism, if not with art on their minds, then at least with a gleam in their eyes.
That’s because surrealism had sex on the brain. In the words of André Breton—its self-anointed “Pope,” its despot, and author of its manifesto—surrealism was devoted to “the omnipotence of desire.” Whether straight-male fantasy, postadolescent fixation, or inner journey, surrealism is the most outwardly randy movement of the last 100 years. Seeking to pull back the curtain on our secret lives, the surrealists weren’t interested in the public part of our existence; they wanted to peer into the private part.
“Surrealism: Desire Unbound,” the frisky, flawed show currently filling 13 galleries at the Metropolitan, is hot. It is not, strictly speaking, a show about surrealism, but rather a slice of surrealism, albeit the spiciest slice. I don’t remember the Met looking more risqué—at least outside the Greek, Asian, or Persian galleries. Maybe the Met is loosening up. Or getting down. Either way, after reading the warning label, you can see photographs of fellatio, erections, a woman inserting a dildo into her vagina, another with her fingers in her anus, a vulva with a jewel in it, couples making love, breasts, and buttocks galore. William Lieberman, the Met curator responsible for the installation, should be commended for not burying this material.
“Desire Unbound” is not, as claimed, “the first major exhibition of international surrealism in more than 20 years.” The Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago, mounted a big surrealist survey in 1984, and the University Art Museum at Berkeley originated another in 1990. A larger version of this exhibition debuted last season at the Tate Modern. Here there are funny fur-lined vitrines, unnecessarily blue and yellow walls, fewer books and letters than in London, and too many wall texts. One gallery has 11 objects and nine text panels; another, with five De Chiricos, sports three explanatory panels. The catalog is smart and handsome, but has annoying passages of theory-speak. Titles of essays by different authors read like papers at an academic conference—”Staging Desire,” “History, Pornography and the Social Body,” and “Violation and Veiling in Surrealist Photography: Woman as Fetish”—and the entries are littered with clichéd theoretical locutions like “doubling of the gaze” and “the privileging of the erotic.”
Unlike most 20th-century art movements, which were based on formal breakthroughs, surrealism is predicated on a revolution in form and subject matter. There’s more to it, in other words, than realist techniques and wacky subjects (think René Magritte). Following Duchamp’s lead, artists like Joseph Cornell, Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, and Salvador Dalí (all of whom are included in “Desire Unbound”) worked with found objects and assemblage. At the Met you can see Dalí’s silly but still strange Lobster Telephone and his Venus With Drawers. The pebbles embedded in the surface of Bather (1928), his marvelously sicko painting, on the other hand, show how experimental and visionary Dalí was, especially early on. And don’t miss his Metamorphosis of Narcissus, which Dalí showed to Freud, who found it “tedious.”
The supersexy, almost abstract works by Joan Miró and André Masson stand out and prove how important “automatism” was to artists like Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock (whose wild Pasiphaë, is perhaps the strongest work in the show). Other high points include the photography of Claude Cahun, Man Ray, and Hans Bellmer (looking more kinky and contemporary than ever), and the amazing face-off between Giacometti and Picasso. Never mind that Picasso was all about what the outer world looked like, and didn’t subscribe to any surrealist dreamworld mumbo-jumbo.
Breton insisted on the surrealist’s “absolute nonconformity,” but his views were fairly narrow. He “deplored” prostitution and had “objections” to homosexuality. Louise Bourgeois said Breton & Co. “promised the truth and just came up with theory.” Really, what we get from surrealism, and therefore “Desire Unbound,” is how a small group of white, European, apparently heterosexual men thought about sex in the early decades of the 20th century.
Which is too bad, because surrealism was the only early-20th-century art movement that included large numbers of women. You wouldn’t know this from looking at their “official” group photos, which are almost always composed of bourgie-looking guys in suits and ties. If you want to see what the women looked like, they’re here—often naked—in the work (and snapshots) of their male counterparts. Meret Oppenheim, the maker of the iconic Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), a/k/a the “fur-lined teacup,” has inexplicably been excised from this show, but you can see her nude, at 18, in a photograph taken by the 34-year-old Man Ray, with whom she was having an affair. The painters Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning (both of whom had affairs with Max Ernst) are here in photos taken by Lee Miller, whose topless torso is featured in photographs taken by Man Ray, whose good friend, Duchamp, sent a vial of semen to his mistress, the Brazilian sculptress Maria, whose tacky sculptures are on hand, and who was the model for the naked figure in Duchamp’s Etant donnés. All of which makes you understand why Cahun—in a proto-Sarah Lucas move—posed in a white jersey that read, “Don’t Kiss Me.”
Even so, “Desire Unbound” does do something better than any show of surrealism has ever done. Although they’re often sequestered into little girl ghettos at the Met and sometimes suffer from weak selections, there are more women in it than in any previous surrealist exhibition. Paintings by Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo (each sadly represented by only two canvases), Carrington (who currently lives in Mexico), and Tanning (who lives in New York) look extremely fresh, and are revelations of pictorial ambition and female fantasy. If future surrealist exhibitions follow the lead set by “Desire Unbound,” the movement will seem less bound and more fraught with desire.
More surrealist art with a decidedly erotic bent can be found in two other local shows. “Behind the Surrealist Curtain: Sex, Sensuality and Silence” at Ubu Gallery, 16 East 78th Street, through March 16, includes work by Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Raoul Ubac, Joseph Cornell, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, and others. “Surrealist Collage,” which includes vintage pieces by Cornell, Ernst, Georges Hugnet, André Masson, Valentine Penrose, and others, continues through February 23 at the Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street.