Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous

SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART (SNGMA), Edinburgh.              4th JUNE − 11th SEPTEMBER 2016.

T07346

Dorothea TANNING (1910-2012) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik [A Little Night Music], 1943. Oil on canvas, 40.7 x 61cm. Collection: Tate (formerly collection of R. Penrose) Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1997.

Having just completed a review of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition for the TLS, I want to focus more specifically here on the Feminine elements of the show. One of the most satisfying aspects of this exhibition is the way that it reconnects the viewer with the underlying passions, obsessions and political activism of Dada and Surrealist Art; expanding what Surrealism can be in the popular imagination and challenging what collecting Art has become in the 21st century. Drawn from four extraordinary private collections; those of Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Edward James (1907-1984), Gabrielle Keiller (1908-1995) and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, the range and quality of work, including key female Surrealists, is stunningly immersive.  Jointly organised by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Hamburger Kunsthalle and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the unique juxtaposition of paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings, photographs, original prints, rare artist books, objects, design and ephemera, presents a golden opportunity for reappraisal of the movement and its masters. There are over 190 works on show by artists including; Salvador Dali, Reneé Magritte,  Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Mark Rothko, Man Ray, Henry Moore, André Masson, YvesTanguy, Eduardo Paolozzi , Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Hannah Höch, Eileen Agar, Valentine Penrose (nee  Boué), Paul Delvaux, Francis Picabia, George Grosz, Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer, Hans Arp, Balthus (Bathazar Klossowski de Rota), Roland Penrose and Georges Hugnet.

I could easily devote an entire blog post to individual collectors, the content of their collections or individual artists who provided some of the highlights of the exhibition; the exquisite work of Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Eileen Agar or Max Ernst’s paintings, collages and rarely seen collage novels. This exhibition presents the opportunity for greater public awareness of lesser known work,  part of a wider struggle for equality. Although recent scholarship continues to shed light on the work of female artists traditionally outside great male creator canon, I’m not convinced that this level of consciousness has really entered the cultural mainstream. The world of Art History is something of an academic bubble and people are too familiar in an age of celebrity with the artist as a marketable brand, rather than a creative force of intention or aspiration.  The objectification of Art in an age of mass consumption (and an Art Market driven by ad men and oligarchs investing in their own shares) makes it hard to imagine that the value of Art can be anything other than the highest price paid at auction-until alternative ways of seeing are made publicly visible.

For me the beauty of Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is the way that it does exactly that. We see by example that collecting Art isn’t necessarily driven by investment and status, but by love, collaboration and a desire for the common good. There is also a collective sense within the movement of qualities beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion, rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings. With Dada as it’s critically savage precursor, unlocking the imaginative, collective unconscious becomes a cultural imperative and a matter of survival. Although we equate Surrealism today with a penchant for bizarre, absurd juxtapositions of images and ideas, what is often forgotten is the outrage of its outrageousness; of striving to be anything but the respectable, compliant, banal mediocrity that enabled extreme militarism to thrive.  Hitler’s regime, like all extremist ideologies past and present, understood extremely well what liberal, democratic governments too often forget:  the value of culture, the capacity of the visual to focus intentionality and human aspiration for good or ill. It is not surprising that subversive, so called “degenerate art”, was identified as a serious ideological threat that had to be eradicated by the Nazis.  The Surrealists were visibly defiant advocates of free love, thought and expression, qualities which remain radical even today. Crucially that radicalism encompasses how we see and define ourselves.

La Représentation [Representation], 1937

René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La Représentation [Representation], 1937 Oil on canvas laid on plywood, 48.8 x 44.5 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990 © DACS & The Estate of René Magritte.

René Magritte’s La Représentation /Representation (1937, Oil on canvas laid on plywood SNGMA, Edinburgh, formerly collections of R.Penrose and G.Keiller, purchased 1990) reminds us of the ambiguous truth of seeing and attributing meaning. The Feminine is narrowly edited; “Woman” defined by her sex with the visual focus on the child rearing hips, abdomen and vulva which become an object framed in isolation. Minus the head (intellect), torso (heart) and active limbs, the female body is coolly divorced from its own consciousness; the frame hugging the sensuous contours of the amputated abdomen. However there is always more to a Magritte painting than meets the eye. Here he seemingly reflects the focus of a male gaze, but also suggests the artificiality of the man-made object in its two dimensional representation. The self-conscious framing device is alluring, but equally cerebral in terms of what it suggests about the feminine “other”. The confinement of the frame draws attention to the lie of the canvas and the seduction of idealised Beauty. In juxtaposing these ideas in a single image Magritte playfully questions what we assume we’re looking at- one of his greatest strengths as an artist. It would be easy to appropriate this image as the calling card of one of the Surrealist Boys- but it is more than that. Gender is an aspect of the painting’s multi-layered meanings, not the sum total of them. What it says to me as a woman and as an art historian in 2016 is not to be complicit in the lie- that “representation” is precisely that- with all its attendant dynamics of power. In the context of his oeuvre, Magritte is fundamentally (and very consciously) about how we see and create meaning. To dismiss him as a painter of dreams is to miss the point of his work entirely. There is a sense in which La Représentation enshrines a faceless, voiceless, Classical Feminine ideal in a gilt frame, but it also focuses our attention on the crafting of the image and the idea of received meaning, actively grappling with those perceived truths. Part of the SNGMA permanent collection, it’s a work I’ve returned to many times because it is such a contentious, brilliantly confrontational image that the viewer is forced to negotiate, rather than simply look at, admire or desire.

Being looked at by men is the traditional role assigned to women throughout the Western figurative tradition and the female muse is also a well-established trope in Art. However this passive companion to male engendered Creativity is challenged by the latitude of exploration Surrealism allows- made visible in the scope of this exhibition. Unlocking the unconscious through free association, automatic writing, assemblage and collage techniques creates a heightened sense of alternate reality. The free form craft of placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute asserts the political right to freedom of expression. The beauty of Surrealism is that in its purest form, it brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively. It is possible to perceive the world within and without in new ways. There are many sublime examples of this kind of confrontation in the show, presenting alternatives to received ideas, passive Femininity and the supremacy of the Great (male) Artist. In Picasso’s drawing La fin d’un monster / Death of a Monster (1937, Pencil on paper, Formerly collection of Roland Penrose, SNGMA, Edinburgh)  the Minotaur is confronted by his monstrous reflection, revealed to him by Athene, the Goddess of wisdom, holding a mirror to his face in one hand and a phallic spear in the other. It’s an image of male ego, a wildly virile masculine persona confronted by his fallibility and by an alternative state of being. Athene appears as a balancing force of grace, intellect, action and conscious awareness within the composition. In Jungian terms she is a projection of Feminine anima within the male psyche that in Picasso’s case is screaming to be assimilated, rather than being exploded into Cubist fragments as a potential threat. Argentine artist Leonor Fini’s (1907-1996) foreground vision of Feminine self-possession; The Alcove (1939, Oil on canvas, West dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) is another magnificent example of foreground creative Femininity (in this case within and in front of the canvas. ) On painting Fini remarked: “I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms something I like.” This intuitive, instinctual approach to making Art, acknowledging the artist as a conduit, is balanced by her undeniable mastery of the medium. As in so many Surrealist works, contradictory ideas dynamically co-exist and new ways of seeing emerge. In The Alcove Fini skilfully sets the historical stage of expectation and then subverts it completely, creating tension and the need for imaginative resolution in the mind of the viewer. In Dadaist Art that tension is a knife edge, much more overtly critical of the powers that be-the inclusion of work by George Grosz in the exhibition gives the viewer a potent taste of this quality.

Aus der Sammlung Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection From an ethnographical museum], 1929

Hannah HOCH (1889-1978) Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection: From an ethnographical museum], 1929. Mixed media, collage and gouache on paper. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995 © DACS 2016.

Also created during the inter-war /Weimar period, Hannah Höch’s collage Aus einem ethnographischen Museum / From the Collection: From an Ethnographical Museum (1929, collage, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a fascinating visualisation of Feminine and Ethnological “otherness”.  Höch’s striking image combines an indigenous carved mask like the head of a deity with a female eye cut from a contemporary magazine. Colonised into Modern Art the human figure looks startled, looking over her shoulder with a quizzical, alarmed expression, also confronting the viewer in that moment with their own act of seeing and attributing meaning. There is a distinct feeling of violation conveyed by this disembodied eye set at a distressed angle, recalling the often painted Biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders; the self-consciousness anxiety of being seen as an object to be conquered and being subjected to a gaze which essentially frames you as subordinate. The body which is androgynous and child-like is combined with a bestial foot and tiny stool-like plinth beneath; a hybrid of ancient knowing, innocence, naivety and instinct. Höch positions the figure on an abstract, cage –like ground of geometric forms, juxtaposing Western ideas about Primitivism with collectively inherited values of a dominant “civilized” tribe. She calls into question Western attitudes towards “the other”, presenting the statuette object, “From the Collection: From the Ethnographical Museum” as a conscious human presence. It’s the emotional impact of Höch’s collage that hits you viscerally, the museum type categorisation turned on its head by Feminine resistance.

Resistance to the dominant gaze takes many unexpected forms in the exhibition. Salvador Dali ‘s The City of Drawers (Study for The Anthropomorphic Cabinet , 1936, Pen and Indian ink on paper , Private Collection, Formerly collection of Edward James) is a surprisingly insightful image of modernity. The female nude in the foreground extends her decaying arm and palm as if to ward off persistent assault. Her torso is a construction of drawers, drawer knobs and a key hole becoming erogenous, her face buried in the top drawer as if bowed in sorrowful resignation. Only a tattered rag can be seen coming out of the seemingly empty inner structure. The eye of the viewer is led by her hand into the mid ground of curvaceous discarded drawers, then into the distance where two seated women are similarly composed, one of them searching for herself in the open top drawer of her chest. Beyond we see gentile silhouettes moving through a cityscape, the reality of the foreground more vivid and arresting than the receding world of urban familiarity. This image of Dali’s Anthropomorphic Cabinet; a reclining Venus transformed by Freud’s theories, embodying an inner world of unconscious drives, is also an image of society. In the painted version a well to do woman in silhouette walks away into the background as if in denial of the open drawers of psychic revelation revealed by her other (or collective) self in the foreground. The element of display here is more complex than a reclining Venus arranged for seduction and the result more unsettling; a personification of civilization in decay.

La poupée, 19361965 by Hans BELLMER

Hans BELLMER (1902-1975) La poupée [The Doll], 1936/1965.Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 50 x 27 x 25cm. Collection: Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection.

It would be impossible to talk about the feminine aspects of this show and not address the elephant in the room; i.e. the male surrealist preoccupation with the Feminine as object(s) of desire. The most disturbing manifestation of this tendency towards sexual objectification is undoubtedly the work of Hans Bellmer.  In La poupée / The Doll (Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 1936/1965 Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection) he utilises the seductive high shine patina of a lustrous, reflective metal sculpture, elevating the repulsive hybridised  twin form of a pubescent girl/ doll onto a plinth. Engineered to satisfy his own gaze, Bellmer confronts the viewer with the framing devices of high art, introducing in the context of the gallery space an image of dominance, power and sexual objectification.  The girl hinges in upon herself as a contorted, inverted object, dehumanised and mechanistic, beyond Nature but subject to the artist’s nature and will. More disturbing still is the placement of Bellmer’s sculpted dolls in different settings, recorded photographically by the artist like sociopathic trophies. La poupée / The Doll (1935, Gelatin and silver print, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin.) is an example of Surrealism in its darkest form; projected fantasies realised in an assemblage of objects, arranged for gratification of the artist but also by implication, the viewer in the act of looking. Even if we turn away in disgust, the feeling is still of complicity in that white columned Art space. What Bellmer brings the 2016 viewer face to face with is a culture of consumption and sexualisation that is aesthetically and socially accepted. His crafting of objects and images when coupled with his underlying subject matter calls Art itself into question. Although I find his work deeply abhorrent, it is also a good example of work which makes the viewer confront the darkest corners of the human psyche, manifested today in the Surreality of cyberspace or the dark web where any desire can be made real. The work of Hans Bellmer reminds us that freedom of expression, now so prevalent in the visual/ textual bombardment of our digital age, also comes with responsibility to something greater than the gratification of our own desires. Presented as objects of beauty Bellmer’s creations are incredibly sinister, but they are also windows into the human mind and what we are capable of as a species.  Most of us would prefer not to look, to label the work and its maker, filing both away and thereby placing the internal threat outside ourselves. Perhaps in this way Bellmer is a Surrealist artist par excellence in making the unthinkable visible.

Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 1963

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Marcel Duchamp’s Coin de chasteté/ Wedge of Chastity (1954/63, Bronze and dental plastic, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is also an object of implied violence with hard bronze cleft into pink, glistening dental plastic. There is the suggestion of possession in the Wedge of Chastity; of female sexuality effectively plugged by the more permanent and more highly valued material of ancient bronze, over and above the disposability of plastic. Feuille de vigne femelle / Female Fig Leaf (1950/61, Bronze, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a more dualistic object; on the one hand enshrining a cast of female genitalia in bronze but also suggesting modesty, even shame in the fig leaf, recalling the Garden of Eden and by implication the Fall from grace initiated (according to the Old Testament) by Eve. Apparently the only way to keep female desire in check is to dam it. The dichotomy of Duchamp’s fig leaf as a representation of the Feminine lies in its disempowerment, functioning rather like a drain cover, whilst being an object cast in a permanently exposed, tactile state .  Although I’m sure Duchamp would have viewed this object as an expression of eroticism, it feels like a medieval door nailed shut rather than blissfully opened in the spirit of free love.

Feuille de vigne femelle [Female Fig Leaf], 1950 1961

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Max Ernst’s painting Gala, Max and Paul 1923, oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) is a fascinating image; a depiction of the ménage a trois between Ernst, Gala (Elena Ivanovna Diakonova), and her first husband, the poet Paul Éluard, representing the Feminine in an unexpectedly powerful light. Charged between the cool blues and rich ochre of Ernst’s palette, the female protagonist retains her mystery. She is an immediately foreground presence and remarkably underexposed. Her face is turning away from the viewer, half in shadow, becoming the ground of the painting. Anchored to a plinth like a Modernist sculpture, she also creates a sense of anticipation, movement and tension in the sheet that she holds by a thread which spills into the viewer’s space. At face value it’s a gesture of coquettish puppetry, Ernst visualising the human experience of having the world pulled out from under you by desire. But it is also an earthily sensual and grounded image, tangibly real in its abstraction. Ernst and Eluard appear as doll-like figures in the background, leaning into each other in intimate contemplation of Gala.  Her svelte figure in a backless gown, appears like a mermaid, split and tapered down to the sensuous curve of her hand, which like her hollowed eye, draws the viewer deeper into the abyss of the background. She is resoundingly present, part of the depth of the painting and aware of her own power- there’s a sense of what is withheld as well as what is on display. The male figures appear school boyish and immature in relation to the world of the painting, which is her. The viewer is caught off balance by these dynamics and by the unexpected acknowledgement of Gala as an independent being. We are made aware of a mind, connected to her body – a presence which we never see in vacant portraits of Gala by her second husband Salvador Dali, who binds her erotically in his own pictorial technique.

Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik /A Little Night Music (1943, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London) is a beautiful example of revealing that which is hidden and bringing it into conscious awareness. It is a vision flawlessly executed by a truly masterful artist. On an otherworldly, red carpeted landing and stair case a decaying sunflower, petals strewn with creeping green stems aligns with the fourth in a series of numbered doors, left ajar and sunlit from within. Two doll-like girls, their hair suspended in mid-air as if submerged underwater stand adjacent to each other. One leans half undressed, slumbering in a doorway, a fallen petal in her hand. Acidic green walls contrast with the opposing warmth of her red jacket. The tattered clothing of the girl not facing us mirrors the forms of creeping stems, broken and beginning the process of decay. It is a subterranean image of burgeoning awareness, awakening in dreams. Tanning reflects the altered, transitional state of female adolescence, rendered in painterly hyper reality more perceptively real than life. Unlike Bellmer’s depictions, these pubescent girls inhabit their own interior world, un-beholden to the viewer and aligned with natural cycles of human growth. Tanning’s painting Voltage (1942, Oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) also depicts a transformative process of becoming in female form. In the absence of the head, a coiled plait of blonde hair attached to the nipple exposes an internal circuitry of self-possession. The pale torso is contrasted with an oceanic background of turquoise green in the birth of a new kind of Venus. She beholds herself, disembodied blue eyes held in repose by an elegant, manicured hand. Like a headless Classical goddess of antiquity, the serpentine curves of drapery and hair adorn and animate the female body in a process of deconstruction. She is her own muse.

Leonora Carrington’s beautifully ethereal, Bosch-like vision The House Opposite (1945, Tempera on board, West Dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) displays her delicate command of tempera. The house appears as a labyrinth of the mind rendered with the devotional detail and palette of an illuminated manuscript. Carrington’s conservative English upbringing informs Ladies Run There is a Man in the Rose Garden (1948, Tempera on wood, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin), a delightfully humorous but incredibly grounded image, which has comic kinship with the work of illustrator and designer Edward Gorey (1925-2000). Carrington’s juxtaposition of the walled garden inhabited by Edwardian ladies, invaded by a Green Man is an intricate, playful and extraordinary work, etched in ghostly negative, seemingly scratched out of a richly fecund, umber ground of timeless earth. The sky precipitates dawn and groups of associative figures animate narratives intertwined in non-linear time. A heron, cat and monkey with their attendant meanings sitting on the chest / stomach of an outstretched figure in bed and the positive silhouettes of birds and animals receding into the background create a natural sense of archetypal. This image is all the ancient knowing invested in prehistoric Rock Art colliding with the genteel restraint of illustrative storytelling. One of the escaping veiled ladies points with her umbrella to a fishing hook suspended like a noose, while making an exit out of the frame on the far right, a woman in a broad skirt wearing a tribal headdress disappears into negative space. There’s an imprint here, like the ancient Aboriginal technique of blowing paint over the hand to recreate the imaginative space left by the Dreaming of our ancestors. Carrington was and is a Surrealist master who was dismayed at being described as a “Female Artist”. Unfortunately things have not yet progressed sufficiently in the Art World to make the term completely irrelevant in terms of acquisition, display and public awareness.

I loved this show for its richness and expanded frame of reference, the archival material bringing context to the work and the imperative of collecting Art in an attempt to understand.  As dreamlike as many of these images might be, they are built on strong, resistant foundations that still have the power to make us question everything we think we know about the world and ourselves. One of the dynamics that makes this exhibition so strong is engagement with the Feminine on the part of private collectors, curators and within the creative process of individual artists, both male and female. Spend time in this exhibition, allow your perceptions to shift and bring that heightened awareness into your life.

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René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced) ,1937.Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © Beeldrecht Amsterdam 2007. Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.

The Scottish National Galleries website has a series of introductory online videos on each of the four collectors/ collections in the  the Surreal Encounters ; Collecting the Marvellous exhibition:

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/surreal-encounters/about-the-exhibition-23687