The return of surrealism in a very surreal era

Rabid forms of nationalism proliferate. Populist strongmen are taking their turn on the world stage. Meanwhile, big tech companies are designing a future full of augmented reality devices and fantasy realms. Are we living in a revival of the 1920s, when machines and despots transformed everyday reality and major artists embraced the surrealist art movement both as an escape and as a way to explain an increasingly incoherent world?

Certainly, if we consider what is currently happening in the visual arts, it appears that we are in a great surrealist revival. The most important barometer is the Venice Biennale, which opens to the public on April 23. The title of this year’s exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams”, is taken from that of a book by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington that depicts dreamscapes filled with disturbing images of headless children, vultures frozen in gelatin and human-eating machines. It’s a terrifying sight but, as the biennale’s curator, Cecilia Alemani, tells us in her curatorial statement, it’s also “a liberated world, overflowing with possibilities”.

Populist strongmen are perhaps more ascendant than they have been since the days of the early surrealists. But the art world has a formidable counterpart, offering both escape and inspiration. Alemani chose a slate of mostly female, gender-nonconforming artists, and included what is probably the largest non-Western and ethnically significant contingent to ever take part in the biennale, or any major international art exhibition for that matter. . It is “a choice”, writes Alemani, “that reflects an international art scene full of creative effervescence and a deliberate questioning of the centrality of man in the history of art and contemporary culture”. .

Shuvinai Ashoona, the renowned Inuit artist, embodies Alemani’s curatorial program. Ashoona produces sculptures and paintings that address female empowerment and environmental destruction through images that include spooky hybrid forms of wild animals and women giving birth to planets – a radical departure from the traditional inuit art. Ashoona was born in 1961 and, although she is a household name on the Canadian art scene, it has only been in recent years that she has begun to receive international recognition, having had her first solo exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2020. Certainly, its appearance at the next Venice Biennale should help cement its global reputation.

“The Milk of Dreams” is just the latest in a series of major art exhibitions inspired by surrealism, which since its inception has never been a style but rather a revolutionary movement that sought to shatter the status quo. quo by discordant juxtapositions: images of disembodied men and female organs; beings composed of parts of machines and human beings; the underground worlds that exist between dream states and everyday reality; mixtures of Western and non-Western motifs.

Surrealism has always been a truly international movement, and as such responds to contemporary concerns of diversifying existing Western cultural canons. A notable example is the sprawling show “Surrealism Beyond Borders”, currently on show at the Tate Modern in London. The exhibition, which covers the world and more than half a century of work dating to the movement’s beginnings in the 1920s, shows how many Western and non-Western artists used surrealist techniques to dismantle hierarchies and aesthetics. dominant Eurocentrics.

Even as major institutions revisit and reinterpret the history of the movement, prominent New York art galleries feature the work of surrealist-oriented contemporary artists such as Matthew Ronay, who recently had a major exhibition at the Casey Gallery. Kaplan. Ronay’s colorful, psychedelic sculptures have been described as existing “between a primordial state and a futuristic state”. Currently on display in New York’s Madison Square Park is the work of African-American surrealist sculptor Hugh Hayden, who anthropomorphizes traditional American furniture in installations that call attention to social inequality and racism.

When one considers the cultural policies and programs of many contemporary surrealists, it is striking how much they echo those of the original avant-garde. Indeed, surrealism was ardently “awakened”, long before the term even existed.

The Surrealist Anti-Colonialist Exhibition of 1931, for example, was intended as a counterpoint to a contemporary government-sponsored exhibition celebrating French imperialism and is considered by some art historians to be the first major exhibition to show how France subjugated black and brown peoples with brutality. violence and forced labor.

Early 20th century surrealist art and poetry may be ambiguous, but their manifestos could be as powerful as those of the Me Too or Black Lives Matter movements. In a 1932 manifesto, a group of prominent Parisian surrealists declared that France had “dismembered Europe, made minced meat from Africa, polluted Oceania and ravaged entire swathes of Asia”, adding that they were “to change the imperialist war, in its own right and colonial, into a civil war.”

Surrealist sculptor Hugh Hayden, seen in New York's Madison Square Park, draws attention to social inequality and racism with installations that anthropomorphize traditional American furniture.

The ancestors of surrealism, such as the poet André Breton, also celebrated and found inspiration in non-Western art, at a time when works of art from the Amazon, Oceania and Africa were presented to the public. more as anthropological curiosities than as aesthetic objects capable of inspiring admiration. .

Breton had an extensive collection of masks from the arctic Yu’pik people, to which he and his Surrealist collaborators attributed mystical and magical powers that matched their fascination with the unconscious and the occult. Breton’s friend, Italian-American painter Enrico Donati, kept one of Breton’s Yu’pik masks in his studio and he slept under another which he believed to be a talisman for his psyche.

Over the next few years, early European Surrealist followers of native art were singled out by critics for clumsy cultural appropriation, and some of their acquisitions were later revealed to be looted property. One of Breton’s native headdresses was returned by his daughter in 2003, along with a $40,000 donation, to the First Nations community of Alert Bay, British Columbia, from which it was seized during of a raid in 1921.

Breton and his friends borrowed from the Haida, Yu’pik and other indigenous communities, sometimes without knowing the provenance of the works, to revive an artistic scene that they felt had become moribund. Nearly 100 years later, it is striking how Ashoona and other artists of color are in turn deploying surreal-like dreamscapes populated by fantastical shapes and creatures to both shatter Eurocentric cultural stereotypes and reinvigorate their own artistic traditions.

It is no coincidence that today’s art world finds new meaning in a movement spawned by artists who fled war-torn Europe and responded to an increasingly brutal world. , intolerant and irrational. Indeed, given the oppressive cultural forces at work today and the weight of another major pandemic, it seems fitting that contemporary artists use surreal techniques to keep the human spirit free and hopeful.

Alex Ulam is a New York-based writer.

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