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Exhibitions/ Surrealism

Surrealism: Desire Unbound

February 6–May 12, 2002

Exhibition Overview

A central theme of Surrealism, a major artistic movement of the twentieth century, was desire in its many manifestations. The first major survey of Surrealism in more than twenty years, this exhibition presents the richness and diversity of this obsessive but very human and constant theme through more than three hundred paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs, and films. The selection ranges in date from the decade anticipating the first manifestations of Surrealism in 1924 to more recent years.

Surrealism embraced not only art and literature, but also psychoanalysis, philosophy, and politics. The Surrealists aimed to liberate the human imagination through an aesthetic investigation of desire—the authentic voice, they believed, of the inner self and the impulse behind love. Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), one of the movement's earliest precursors as well as one of its first proponents, initially reflected on how to express desire in art around 1912, and throughout his career he continued to make eroticism the central theme of his work. Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), whose interest in dreams and groupings of seemingly disparate objects (which would later become Surrealist hallmarks) is also regarded as a precursor of the movement. The focus on dreams and desire reflected, in part, a familiarity with the writing of Sigmund Freud, the influential founder of psychoanalysis and a theorist who identified the sexual instincts and their sublimation as factors central to the development of the individual and of civilization as a whole. The intensity of the Surrealists' commitment to a broad, uncensored vision of human nature helped sustain and define the movement from its birth in the 1920s to its demise in the late 1950s.

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.

The exhibition is made possible in part by Jane and Robert Carroll.

The exhibition has been organized by Tate Modern, London.

An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.