“Anxious Visions”

University Art Museum

One of the central ideas to emerge from the recent post-Modernist/post-Structuralist theoretical vogue is the notion that history can be understood as fiction—that “facts,” far from being immutable, are highly susceptible to all kinds of manipulation by the teller of the tale. Although history has always been subject to periodic reinterpretation, the recent preoccupation with hidden subtexts has instigated new readings of parts of the past about which we thought we knew the truth.

“Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art” revises one of this century’s most important and influential artistic movements. Concentrating on the period between the World Wars, curator Sidra Stich both emphasizes the participation of formerly neglected Surrealists—most notably Czechs, Mexicans, and women—and proposes a startlingly different view of the sources for the imagery in the 175 works she has included in the show. Rather than focusing on the interior, psychological landscape of dreams and myth, which has been thought to be the movement’s inspiration, Stich draws attention to the chaotic, often brutal sociopolitical environment in which the Surrealists lived.

Like Stich’s essay for the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, the show is divided into three parts: Surrealist interpretations of the body, the Surrealist environment, and depictions of human interaction/confrontations. The show’s didactic intention is made abundantly clear through substantial wall texts, lengthy explanations on the labels of many works, and the big black and white photographs that line the ramps leading up to the galleries. These grainy images of death, loss, dismemberment, and fanaticism form a grim prologue to each thematic grouping and are included here to remind us of the importance of the camera to these artists—in particular, the advent of small, portable cameras that could be carried easily from battlefronts in France to demonstrations in Germany. We see pictures of mutilated veterans, book-burnings, and ruined towns as the Surrealists might have seen them.

Although a wide range of artists is represented, particular works have been chosen to support Stich’s ideas, and the net effect at times seems strained. Surrealism’s cheerful, dreamy, or humorous aspects are entirely neglected; even the work of artists like René Magritte is made to reflect militarism, cruelty, and aggression.

There are other surprises. At one point, we are asked to consider Max Ernst’s frottage technique as a means of expressing the illogical chaos of nature: “a barren environment that also doubles as an apocalyptic image of mass extinction.” Stich goes on to interpret the abstracted forests in Ernst’s paintings as barriers, representing the debated border between France and Germany during the interwar period. As imaginative as this reading is, it is difficult to accept wholeheartedly. After all, these ideas were never mentioned by either the artist—who wrote about frottage at length—or any of his contemporaries.

At times, it seems convenient that the artists whose works are represented here are virtually all dead and, therefore, unable to comment on Stich’s sometimes overzealous interpretive fervor. Still, the distance time affords often makes the discovery of surprising new meanings possible. By emphasizing the chaotic context that fostered Surrealism, “Anxious Visions” has added a valuable commentary to the existing discourse about both the movement and its motivations, revealing ways in which Surrealism was as much informed by sociopolitical developments as by dreams or the unconscious.

Maria Porges