Megan Dunn spends an afternoon with the Surrealists at the hit Te Papa show and manages to leave without buying a flat iron Man Ray sweatshirt.
“Mom, is this woman pooping?” “
I instantly see what my daughter means. The brown curve near the back of this molten torso takes on a fecal connotation. But why is this anatomically incorrect white trunk so unmistakably feminine anyway? Is it the pink hips, the dangling white crowds dripping, or that purple fan waiting for a beat? It is perhaps the button of gold silk cloth in the foreground accentuated by the lace cloth. Afternoon by JH Moesman is a crisp oil painting, one of the many stars in Te Papa’s surreal art exhibit, in part because it’s a surprise.
I didn’t know anything about JH Moesman, allegedly “the only true Dutch surrealist” who worked as a designer for the railroads, one day discovered surrealism in a French magazine and decided to give it a try. The afternoon is framed by a coiled rope – when it was first exhibited in Amsterdam in 1933, it was considered perverse.
And now it’s here in this naughty little room, painted ‘Au chico’, a blushing shade of brown, by sponsor Resene. It’s a great shot. Near Afternoon is a playful painting by Francis Picabia, a naive poo smeared with oils stares up with dotted eyes, then at the end of the wall, Hail Mermaid (1932). A red jellyfish floats under the psychic sea, framed by sharp black coral; she is holding a fish as if for a kiss. How I would like to sit on the couch with Willem Wagenaar and ask him what his mermaid means. But as if a surrealist knew it.
“Desire” is an eclectic room at the back of surrealist art: masterpieces from the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum. The show is not chronological but organized into thematic areas: the dreaming spirit, delirium, automatism, collage, etc. There is something I want to talk to you about: in ‘Désir’, Marcel Duchamp’s powdered rubber breast fixed on the cover of a book of lithographs entitled Please Touch (in French); Hans Bellmer’s illicit photoshoot with his headless dolly, a twisted protest against the rise of Nazism; Dali’s perfume bottle, Le Roy Soleil (Le Roi Soleil); its compact in the form of a telephone dial.
Then there is what I have to tell you: it was in high school that I first studied surrealism, a European artistic movement that erupted from the chaos of the First World War, favoring the unconscious, dreams , the strange and the irrational. When I try to write this review in order, I close my eyes and find myself in my twin bed in the dark, a teenage girl, listening to Cabaret Voltaire sing “freak yourself”, before knowing that the British band is wearing the name of the Zurich nightclub where dad was born. And dada gives birth to surrealism, then Salvador Dali’s ostentatious oiled mustache takes off …
But wait, let’s go back to the beginning.
Ihe showcase at the entrance to the salon is the Surrealist Manifesto written by André Breton in 1924. I have never read it – the book is closed – but it does not matter because I have swallowed all its ideology. The show first immerses you in a sumptuous entirely dark room, immediately takes your head with some masterpieces – Les Amoureux de Dali with the head in the clouds, the feet of Magritte (more information in a minute) – while an Eric Satie soundtrack plunges along, priming the subconscious for more pleasures. Including 180, on loan from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, famous for its surrealist collection.
In the vigorous darkness, I put on my audio guide and lean over Leonora Carrington’s unfathomable oil painting, Once again Gemini is in the orchard, the chickens in her heavenly garden bristling with magical realism. Carrington now receives his art history due, but the back catalog of surrealism remains male dominated. She is the only female artist featured on the Te Papa poster, and she is represented by this work, probably because Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen only owns one other Carrington.
However, I am not in the mood to criticize surrealism. No girl has her own room here like Dali or Magritte, but the works offered by the female artists are wonderful. Later, in the “Automatism” room, I meet a wild circus scene engraved in black paint by Unica Zürn, who was also a writer and collaborator of the artist Hans Bellmer. Zürn committed suicide by jumping out of the window of an apartment in Paris, at the age of 54.
My biggest revelation? Magritte’s feet are huge. I had always imagined these curious dead white toes so small, slowly but surely transforming into leather boots. But the canvas is giant, the eyes in the complex wood grain. “There are two coins,” my daughter pointed at the dirt as if she could pick them up. The Red Model is adorned with a golden frame as if Magritte’s morbid feet could be hung in a dining room.
This was my second visit to surrealist art since it opened and despite the timed entry (and this visitor from Sydney), it was still packed. I suspected as I did that everyone had studied surrealism in high school.
“WWhen I’m good I’m good, but when I’m bad I’m better, ”Mae West said jokingly. I crouched behind the window. Inside, Mae’s giant lips were made of wool flannel and brass rivets. I looked for cracks and found some. Dali first made this plump sofa in 1938 for his British patron Edward James, the original owner of many surrealist works in this collection.
In the dark, I suddenly appeared from behind the sofa with my notebook.
“Damn, you scared me getting up,” a man said, taking a step back with his two teenagers.
The life of an art critic is perilous. Then my daughter decided she wanted my audio guide. My time with surrealism has been short. I ran through the dada tunnel once more, stopping to listen to the absurd poems played on the trumpets. In the dictionary of surrealism, reason is defined as a cloud eaten by the moon. Unfortunately I don’t speak French. Also, she who does surrealism with a six-year-old child does not watch films and does not read books.
Man Ray was my other big takeaway. I knew him before for his photograms, and I forgot his iron. The Gift is an iron punctuated by a line of nails stuck in the middle. “There is an object that is almost invisible, maybe I can do something with it,” Man Ray thought in 1921 when he first saw the iron that inspired him. I’m still playing around with the idea of going back to the gift shop and buying the gray sweatshirt with The Gift for my partner, a consummate ironer.
Imagine surrealism without Dali? Impossible. It would be like removing “Bohemian Rhapsody” from the Queen’s catalog. The centerpiece of the show rightly consists of five paranoid-critical Dalis presented in a fake rotunda. “Mom, don’t look at the zombie!” my daughter warned. Nearby, Impressions of Africa (1938) by Dali has become an immersive film. We stood in the small black room as Dali’s outstretched hand moved towards us – extending the logic of the painting’s composition, leading us inside his easel. When the donkey from the soundtrack glowed, my daughter laughed. Classic.
Outside, the surrealist office was closed – coughing – so no one could write down their dreams. It does not matter.
It was only the second time that I noticed three sculptures of the Venus de Milo that roamed the exhibition. Dali’s first, its open drawers, its fur pompoms on display. The second Venus has her ear where her nose should be. The third, Venus Restored (1936) by Man Ray, is a torso tied with ropes next to the thong PVC curtain at the entrance to ‘Desire’. I thought back to Mae West: “A woman who knows the tricks of the trade is not at risk of being tied up. Then I left the living room, doubly satisfied.
My partner was however disappointed. I had failed to get a photo of the back of his head in the interactive Magritte scene not to be reproduced. “The phone button didn’t work,” I said. “It’s a touchscreen,” he replied.
Cloud devoured by the moon, again.
Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum is in Te Papa, Wellington, until October 31, 2021. More information and tickets.
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