Such Surrealist luminaries as Man Ray (1890–1976), Max Ernst (1891–1976), Joan Miró (1893–1983), André Masson (1896–1987), René Magritte (1898–1967), Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), and Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) are represented, as well as artists not so widely known. The exhibition includes works by several women artists—such as Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), Dorothea Tanning (born 1910), Leonora Carrington (born 1917), and others—some of whom have been largely overlooked in previous surveys. Also featured are examples of Surrealist writings about love and desire in an illuminating selection of rare and original books, manuscripts, letters, and other documentary materials.
Among the highlights is Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934, cast ca. 1954–55, The Museum of Modern Art, New York). This beckoning sculpture by Alberto Giacometti captivated André Breton (1896–1966), the leader of the Paris-based Surrealism group, who saw it in Giacometti's studio and wrote about it extensively in his revolutionary texts. In Breton's evocation of the work, Hands Holding the Void encapsulates the dynamics of the Surrealist encounter—the desire to love and be loved, the potential prelude to amorous and erotic experience, the impulse to make contact and at the same time maintain distance. The Robing of the Bride (1940, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York), by Max Ernst, is a theatrical and rich narrative painting evocative of witch trials of the Middle Ages. The universal, mystical symbolism in Men Shall Know Nothing of This (1923, Tate, London), Ernst's image of a copulating couple floating in mid-air, suggests inexplicable ritual and alchemistic design that both generates and suppresses eroticism.
The Rape (1934, The Menil Collection, Houston), René Magritte's meticulously painted image of a woman's face depicted as a female body, also suggests ambiguous sexuality; it was seen as a key Surrealist work by Breton. Always her own favorite subject, Frida Kahlo used her image in scenarios that were vibrantly symbolic and naive, unfettered by either the realism of Mexican muralists or the formal concerns of modernism. Her 1940 Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) is an angry and forlorn expression of retaliation against Diego Rivera, to whom she was married, divorced, and remarried. In this depiction, painted during a time of their separation, she has cut off the long hair he loved, and stripped herself of feminine adornments except for her earrings and shoes. The shorn hair multiplies and spreads across the landscape as if alive.
Following a love affair with Leonora Carrington and his subsequent marriage to Peggy Guggenheim (a collector of Surrealist works), Max Ernst met Dorothea Tanning in 1942. The exhibition includes a self-portrait that Tanning had painted on the occasion of her thirtieth birthday, in which she portrayed herself standing at the nexus of a labyrinth of open and closed doors, bare-breasted yet semi-clothed. A winged creature resembling a griffin crouches at her bare feet. The painting suggests discovery and flight. Tanning and Ernst later married and lived together in Sedona, Arizona, and Paris, France; she now lives in New York.
The mingling of love and a demanding, sometimes aggressive sexuality is perhaps nowhere better or more disturbingly shown than in the work of Hans Bellmer (1902–1975), whose Surrealist photographs explore sensual pleasure and psychic anxiety through pictures of large, specially-constructed dolls. Darker aspects of desire are also evoked in works by Surrealist masters Joan Miró and Roland Penrose (1900–1984), among many others who remain remarkable not so much for their openness in sexual matters as for their refusal to allow love to be divorced from eroticism. In their portrayals of encounter, desire, and carnality, the Surrealists continue to facilitate ways of seeing the world anew.