Getting a Grip on Unreality at the Met’s ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’

These 10 standout artists — from Colombia to Egypt to Japan — redrew the map of Surrealism, the 20th century’s most provocative art movement. They and dozens more are reunited at the Metropolitan Museum.

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In dreams you can go anywhere; in dreams no place is too far. “Surrealism Beyond Borders,” a round-the-world tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a map of another globe: a planet redrawn by artist-mapmakers, where old geographic assumptions no longer make sense. Melting watches, men in bowler hats? You can keep them. In this show the classics of Surrealism — that lobster telephone! — cede the center stage to desires and nightmares from Haiti and Puerto Rico, Japan and Korea, Egypt and Mozambique. In these distorted reflections we see Surrealism as an all-pervasive approach to artistic freedom, where Europe has no monopoly on your desires.

Six years in the making, “Surrealism Beyond Borders” has been organized by Stephanie D’Alessandro at the Met and Matthew Gale at Tate Modern in London, to which the show will travel next year. As in recent shows like “International Pop,” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, or “Postwar,” at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, this new show conceives of Surrealism as not quite a movement, but a broad, tentacular tendency. Its forms and its aims mutated as they migrated, and therefore simple narratives of this-one-influenced-that-one won’t cut it. This is something grander, messier, and much more compelling: an unstable cartography of images and ideas on the move, blowing across the globe like trade winds of the subconscious.

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Left to right, works from a global array of artists: Antonio Berni, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Rita Kernn-Larsen, Hernando Ruiz Ocampo, Tarsila do Amaral, Dorothea Tanning and Richard Oelze at “Surrealism Beyond Borders” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

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At the opening of the show, Marcel Jean’s three-dimensional “Armoire surrealiste (Surrealist Wardrobe)” (1941). Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

These movements were, like everything with Surrealism, not quite rational and linear. Surrealism was a free-flowing network of exchanges, translations, idealizations and misunderstandings — and on this matter, all too rarely in this age of smug cultural moralism, the curators actually treat us like adults. For the Surrealists, in Paris but also in New York and Mexico City, had a serious primitivist streak, and celebrated the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas for a supposed vitality that capitalist Europe had squelched. They were, also, some of the loudest and most consistent opponents of colonialism anywhere in the West — protesting outside the Paris colonial exposition of 1931, demanding freedom for Indochina, and calling for Black self-determination in the Antilles. One great virtue of “Surrealism Beyond Borders” is how it thinks that opposition simultaneously, without unfounded superiority — and still places the regions these artists idealized on equal footing with Europe.

At the Met you will see artists from 45 countries — their works borrowed from 95 collections from Bogota to Canberra, which was no small undertaking during a pandemic. There are objects from the 1920s and also some as recent as the 1990s, well after the “Surrealist movement” had bit the dust. The more than 260 paintings, photographs and films here bristle with desire, and sometimes relish bad taste. Don’t expect a hit parade of masterpieces! This is a show where you might not love many works on view — certainly true of me, to whom most Surrealist painting feels outmoded — but you still walk away thrilled at this show’s intelligence, and grateful for the discovery of Caribbean, African, Asian and Eastern European artists who leave Dali and his friends in shadow.

Here’s what comes through most in “Surrealism Beyond Borders”: This was something more than a Parisian artistic movement with later (and lesser) foreign followers, in the way of Impressionism or Cubism. Surrealism was more like an epidemic: an ambient, variable, self-propagating language of refusal that artists like these could direct as needed. At their local bourgeoisie, or their local dictator. At the church, or at the colonists. At any constraints on the human subconscious, and on human freedom.

Rita Kernn-Larsen, Denmark

Dream Power

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Rita Kernn-Larsen, “Fantomerne (Phantoms)”, from 1934.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Surrealism was born in Paris in 1924, but the group projected itself across Europe from the start, and staged nearly a dozen official exhibitions abroad. The first of them was in Copenhagen, where Rita Kernn-Larsen quickly absorbed what Andre Breton, in the “Surrealist Manifesto,” called “the omnipotence of dream.” In “Phantoms” (1933-34), two balloonlike wraiths with pinprick eyes hover against stripes of pink, purple and teal: floating or falling, gliders or drowners, it’s hard to say which. Kernn-Larsen would go on to exhibit with the Surrealists in London and Paris — one of very few women in these official exhibitions — and would become the first Surrealist to show with Peggy Guggenheim.

Koga Harue, Japan

Scientific Surrealism

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Koga Harue, “Umi (The Sea)” from 1929.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

But even before the first international show, artists abroad were bridling against the movement’s Parisian bosses. “True Surrealism cannot follow Andre Breton’s authority,” one Japanese poet said in 1930 — and Koga Harue led a Tokyo Surrealist tendency that gave machines and industry the same prominence as the human subconscious. “The Sea,” his most important painting, set off a firestorm in the Tokyo art world when it was first shown in 1929: a submarine in cross-section floats by the feet of a swimming giantess, while a zeppelin glides (or divebombs?) toward a half-submerged factory.

Ladislav Zivr, CZECHOSLOVAKIA

Shoes in Waiting

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Ladislav Zivr, “Incognito Heart” (1936).Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Perhaps more than painting, Surrealism’s most representative works of art are objects: curious little fetishes, usually made of found materials and sized to hold in your hands, that collided with everyday good taste. The Met’s show has a case of a dozen such objects, including this one by Ladislav Zivr, who would go on to prominence in the Prague Surrealist collective Group 42. The heart of his “Incognito Heart” is actually a pair of high-heel shoes, tangled in fishing nets, strung with a rosary, impaled on metal rods.

Paul Paun, Romania

Freedom to Doodle

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Paul Paun, “Le nuage (The Cloud)” from 1943.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Another classic Surrealist technique: automatism, or unchoreographed doodling, through which artists believed they could escape the fetters of conscious composition to reveal a truth beyond rationality. Along with works by Miro and Masson, this show features automatic artworks from Hungary, Peru, Japan, New Zealand — and this drawing from wartime Bucharest, where the artist Paul Paun joined a local Surrealist circle that had to exhibit in secret. (Paun and several other Romanian Surrealists were Jewish; they published in French.) In his 1943 ink drawing “The Cloud,” a bowed human figure seems to sprout dendrites from his arms, amid rhizomatic tangles that feel as confining as rope netting.

Mayo, Egypt

A New Form of Nationalism

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Center, Ted Joans, “Long Distance” (1976-2005). Right wall, works by Byon Yeongwon, Salvador Dali, and Mayo’s “Coups de batons (Baton Blows)” from 1937.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Anyway, where was Surrealism’s greatest influence beyond Europe in the 1930s? It was in Cairo — where the group Art et Liberte allied with artists abroad to condemn the British colonial power and agitate for a left-wing revolution. (“Long Live Degenerate Art!” shouted its first manifesto.) The painter Mayo, born to a Greek family in Egypt, completed his jumbled battle scene “Baton Blows” in 1937, the same year as Picasso’s “Guernica”: spindly, abstracted protesters tangle and tumble with state authorities carrying misshapen and crooked truncheons. Here it wasn’t enough to look inward; Surrealism was also a language of speaking out.

Aime Cesaire, Martinique, and wifredo lam, Cuba

A Tool for Liberation

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A Spanish edition from 1942 of Aime Cesaire’s “Notebook of a Return to a Native Land,” translated by Lydia Cabrera and illustrated by Wifredo Lam.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Surrealism was a profoundly anticolonial movement — and long after it had stultified in metropolitan France, its oppositional languages found their highest expression in the Caribbean. “I lick you with my seaweed tongues / And I sail you out of piracy,” declares the narrator of Aime Cesaire’s classic “Notebook of a Return to a Native Land,” which merged Surreal poetics with Black Atlantic forms in a new philosophy called Negritude. Breton wrote the introduction to the French edition, but the copy on view here is in Spanish, with illustrations by the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam: hybrid, multiheaded beasts, beautiful but fearsome, and unafraid of anything.

Cecilia Porras and Enrique Grau, Colombia

An Experimental Partnership

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A photograph from Cecilia Porras and Enrique Grau’s series “La Divina” (1958).Credit…Fundacion Enrique Grau Araujo, Bogota; Fundacion Casa Grau

For many Surrealists working under dictatorships, the medium most amenable to experimentation and dissent became photography. In the black-and-white, soft-focus images of Cecilia Porras and Enrique Grau, made in secret after a coup d’etat in Colombia in the 1950s, women’s faces disappear behind veils, and sleepers lie tangled beneath driftwood. (Porras herself modeled for several of the images on view here.) Their search for a free space for creativity extended also to film: the couple’s 1954 movie, “The Blue Lobster,” made with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and strongly indebted to Bunuel, intercuts documentary footage of Colombian fishermen with a strange tableau of an American smuggling radioactive shellfish.

Jung HaeChang and Limb Eung-sik, Korea

The Uncanny in the Everyday

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Limb Eung-sik, “Jeongmul II (Still Life II)” (1949).Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Photography had the same outward-facing orientation in Japanese-ruled Korea, where artists (not all of them explicitly Surrealist) used distorted scale to picture the madness of colonial occupation. In Jung Haechang’s “A Doll’s Dream I” little figurines stand dwarfed by household objects, and the grainy development gives it the look of a cinematic horror story. Limb Eung-sik, in “Still Life II,” pictured a hand, deathly white, emerging from soil as if buried alive.

Malangatana Ngwenya, Mozambique

Revolution, First and Always

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Malangatana Ngwenya, “Untitled” (1967), oil on hardboard.Credit…Malangatana Ngwenya; Tate

The movement’s anticolonial potential reached as far as southeastern Africa, where artists in Angola and Mozambique commingled with Surrealists fleeing Salazar’s Portugal. In the 1960s Malangatana Ngwenya, known by his first name, painted densely packed panoramas of men and monsters, whose ferociousness reflected both an opposition to Portuguese rule and a darker, more interior sort of anxiety. Freedom as an artist and freedom as a citizen could not be so easily divorced outside the West, and the language of dreams and nightmares could serve all too well to picture the world outside your door.

Ted Joans, U.S.A.

Drawn by One Hundred Hands

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A detail of Robert Lebel’s drawing is seen on Ted Joans’s “Long Distance” (1976-2005).Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Perhaps this show’s most extraordinary reassessment happens closest to home. Ted Joans, born in Southern Illinois in 1928, discovered Surrealism as a child and applied its uncanny techniques to spoken-word poetry and free jazz. (He moved to Canada in 2000 to protest the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, by four New York City police officers. Joans died in self-exile three years later.) The Met’s show closes with Joans’s extraordinary “Long Distance,” which stretches 30 feet: an “exquisite corpse,” or collective drawing in which each participant extends the previous one’s work, which Joans carried from Europe to Africa to Latin America. It unites more than 100 artists, poets, intellectuals and musicians that style and geography would normally divide: Malangatana with John Ashbery, Michel Leiris with Betye Saar. Their connections are strange, unexpected, but also insoluble — forged in the fire of movement and dream. “Jazz is my religion,” Joans said. “Surrealism is my point of view.”

Surrealism Beyond Borders
Through Jan. 30, 2022, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.

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