Los Angeles

“Surrealism”

Santa Barbara Museum Of Art And University Art Gallery, U.C., Santa Barbara

Art Movements, Like old soldiers, never die: they just fade away. Or sometimes, just when we think they have finally disappeared, they march back in like conquering Caesars from the provinces of near oblivion. Just so with Surrealism, returned to our consciousness by the exhibition entitled “Surrealism: A State of Mind (1924–1965),” initiated and presented by the Art Gallery of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in conjunction with a showing of earlier Surrealist works at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Now that we are far enough removed for a revival of interest in Surrealism to acquire an archaeological cast, it is quite clear that most of our critical and historical concepts about Surrealism need to be radically revised, It is precisely this desperate lack of a new and coherent framework of intellect and sensibility that is so unmistakably, if inadvertently, demonstrated at Santa Barbara.

At the Museum are works by Surrealist artists from before 1924; at the University are works from 1924 to the present. Both parts of the exhibition raise, or might have raised, a multiplicity of fascinating historical problems.

For example, there is the existence of proto-Surrealist art: back to the composite heads of fruit or vegetable images by the 16th-century painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, or the unearthly visions of Hieronymous Bosch. Or, the relationship Surrealism bears to its more immediate literary and artistic sources. Or, in a different direction, it might have been asked just how Surrealism has retained (or lost) the characterist ics of a clearly-defined movement during its course of “development” through the last forty-odd years. Or, which of today’s artists, and in what ways, either link into Surrealism or have been influenced by it? A concern with such issues is, sadly, nowhere apparent.

One important point does emerge implicitly, despite the limitation to a sampling of only two or three examples of each artist’s work: some Surrealist artists continued their creative activity throughout the entire period, and indeed some of the finest of individual works have been produced in recent years well after the movement as such had declined considerably both in fervor and in relevance to the contemporary world of art. But then, as we are forced to ask further, to what degree are these artists consistently Surrealists; or, putting it the other way, precisely how has Surrealism been expanded in definition or transformed in character by its latter-day and ever growing army of practitioners?

Of all 20th-century movements, Surrealism was the most exclusivist and doctrinaire with respect to its own self-image and definition. Surrealism may have been, as Max Ernst asserted in 1932 (quoted in the University’s catalog) “helping, with a smile on its lips, to hasten the general crisis of consciousness due in our time.” And it may have been just that smile on Ernst’s lips, or the sense of humor that can be found in much of his art, that precipitated his expulsion from their midst by the Surrealists as late as 1955. Indeed, Surrealism took itself so seriously that the element of humor might provide an accurate touchstone for sorting out non-Surrealist “impurities.” Developing critical concepts like this would greatly aid in distinguishing the Dada and the Surrealist elements in the work of those artists such as Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp who, like Ernst, were associated with both movements. Hence Duchamp’s well-known “Boite-en-valise,” an example of which is exhibited at the University, betrays a suspiciously un-Surrealist worldliness and wit; it is possibly the only great work in the show, but just why it was included in an exhibition of Surrealist art is not at all clear.

Salvador Dali is very well represented by two oils, Honey is Sweeter than Blood from the Santa Barbara Museum, and Spectre du Soir, a fine, typical early work from 1930 lent by the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego. Yet both of these remain minor works in the context of Dali’s oeuvre, and give no hint as to its breadth, nor of the megalomaniacal compositions of more recent years. Some compensation is afforded by the exquisite drawing, Beach Scene (1936), owned by the University Art Gallery. Despite running competition with the Magritte retrospective in New York, Santa Barbara has managed to obtain the loan of two first-rate works, La Folie de la Grandeur and L’Etat de Grace.

A curious and fascinating painting by Man Ray, La Fortune of 1938, is of particular interest in view of the renewed scholarly attention being devoted to this brilliant American expatriate. Alberto Giacometti is represented by two fine bronzes. The total half-dozen pieces of sculpture (and Duchamp’s unclassifiable Boite) are, with one exception, all significant works in themselves, although perhaps none is really Surrealist sculpture. Both Giacomettis are more Cubist than, say, his Main prise (1932), which bears at least some correspondence to Surrealist principles of painting.

The problem of what Surrealist sculpture is, if it can be said to exist at all, is worthy of full-scale serious investigation now, such as could be successfully attempted perhaps only in the context of a major exhibition. At Santa Barbara, however, there is no evidence that even the barest awareness of such a problem exists. Hence, it is very difficult to rationalize the juxtaposition of Joseph Cornell’s assemblage, Birth of the Nuclear Atom, with Hans Arp’s abstract bronze, or with Max Ernst’s superb, more or less figural piece, My Anxious Friend. With so few examples, so widely divergent stylistically, it is quite impossible to contribute very much to our understanding of what Surrealist sculpture is or might be.

Similar disappointments attend efforts to discover any stylistic or conceptual coherence in the other parts of the exhibition dealing with painting and graphics, despite a rather partisan sentiment in the catalog quaintly defending the Surrealist movement as such. As the whole notion of schools and movements daily recedes into the past, it would seem more intelligent, and useful, to identify and characterize those elements of Surrealism where and when they exist in the history of art rather than seek to somehow guarantee the survival and development of Surrealism qua specific historical movement. Such an objective approach, relatively freed from personal involvement, also enables us to investigate the historical point of most imminent consequence, the impact (inspiration? influence?) of Surrealism upon those contemporary artists who were not members of the Surrealist movement, i.e., not Surrealists with a capital “S”. But even if this problem is too close to us for “proper historical prospective” (a really dubious requirement, most often advanced as an apologia for the lack of creative historical insight), there still remain the problems surrounding the primary subject. Nevertheless, it may be some time before the movement of Surrealism proper enjoys a comprehensive exhibition of its major monuments, together with an intelligent and incisive reassessment of its historical significance. As Michael Canney, Acting Director of the University’s art gallery, writes in his foreword to the catalog, “No significant exhibition devoted to surrealist art alone has been held in any public gallery on the West Coast for over twenty years.” Unfortunately, even after Santa Barbara’s efforts, this remains all too true.

Kurt Von Meier