Surrealism Beyond Borders

Surrealism Beyond Borders
Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
384 pp., illus. 340 col. Trade, $65.00
ISBN: 9781588397270.

Reviewed by: 
Allan Graubard
November 2021

Quite recently, a rather unique exhibition, Surrealism Beyond Borders, opened up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art thence to move to the Tate in London. Unique, but why? Scholarship on Surrealism has entered an expansive phase with new books and research articles. And while this exhibition and catalog chart the evolution of Surrealism from its beginnings to the late 1970s, excluding several groups that developed then or thereafter – whether defunct or active now -- the taxonomy that the curators devised speaks to contemporary issues: the transnational character of the movement and how groups, specific to time and place, sustained; the difficulties of exile, displacement, and translation; the gendered portrayal of identity, sexuality and love; the inspiration drawn from indigenous cultures and the ambivalence of appropriation; contesting racism, colonialism and imperialism; violence and revolution; the influence of religion and myth in the 20th century; the use of media, and more.

The curators also have another purpose. By exploiting this expansion of discourse on Surrealism, they analyze its radical arc across the decades in striking works, collective improvisations and provocations, and the consequences that apply. How well it’s all done is up to those who attend the exhibition and read the catalog. And while there are obvious lacunae and lapses, both in representation and critical coverage, the overall effect makes for an effort to come to grips with the most long-lasting movement of cultural expression and revolt in the 20th century. This latter perspective, which the curators cite, seems apropos. What it means when facing our current malaise -- fed by nationalism, poverty, repression, homogenization, and global change phenomena -- is a take away that raises its own concerns.

From Paris, its birth place, Surrealism finds ready ground elsewhere. In Europe, England, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, China, Japan, Columbia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Caribbean, the United States, etc. creators respond to Surrealism, some individually, others in surrealist and allied groups. They do so in times of peace, political struggle, and war, exhibiting, publishing, and intervening for audiences large and small. When oppressive circumstances require it, they go underground to preserve their agendas despite the dangers at hand, from professional marginalization and silence to imprisonment and worse. Painters, photographers, writers, poets, sculptors, choreographers, theater artists, film makers and musicians – the majority of arts presented – find in Surrealism a vehicle for the kind of creative elan that sparks discoveries and enriches experience.

The full-bleed images on the catalog’s covers also frame the curator’s foci. Both artists represented, Eugenio F. Granell (front cover) and Toyen (back cover), however different their histories were, grappled with WWII, exile, and its concomitants.

Granell, a combatant and journalist defending Spain’s republican government against the fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco, flees to France shortly after the fascist victory. In 1940, with other political and Jewish refugees, he makes his way to the Caribbean. There, he joins the surrealist group around Breton while becoming an axial presence in the Hispanic diaspora. From his time in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico, he enlivens the cultural scenes there while openly criticizing the twin sides of authoritarianism, Fascism and Stalinism; which, in Guatemala, provoke reprisals from Stalinist agents forcing Granell and family to find refuge in the Belgian and Italian embassies. In 1957, he moves to NYC, where he produces exceptional art and gains a professorship in Spanish Literature at Brooklyn College. With Franco’s death and the liberalization of Spain, Granell returns to his native country, recognized as a major artist, where he lives until his death in 2001. Several years later the Granell Foundation and Museum in Santiago de Compostella opens -- to preserve Granell’s legacy and promote research on him and surrealism, with numerous exhibitions.

Toyen, a founder of the Czech surrealist group in 1934, suffers the war years in Nazified Czechoslovakia. In her Prague apartment, she hides her surrealist colleague, Jindrich Heisler, for an extensive period of time. With Heisler half-Jewish from his father’s side, the threat of arrest is quite real. In 1947, as the Iron Curtain descends and political conformities vitiate cultural freedoms, Toyen relocates to Paris. There, she makes brilliant contributions to Surrealism.

Also fraught are the paths of other surrealists. This is especially the case in countries, like Japan, where Surrealism flourished prior to WWII but then, with the war and the general militarization of life, went underground. Post-World War II, particularly in Bucharest, Surrealism sees a significant, if brief, resurgence, until the same aforesaid regressive Soviet bloc policies smother it. In the U.S., where émigré surrealists informed the birth of Abstract Expressionism, for one, a distinctive group does not form until the 1960s in Chicago. Unfortunately, in this instance, the curators adumbrate their coverage, skewing the evolution of this group. At the same time, tracking Surrealism in Egypt, Turkey, Syria and China is eye opening.

With nearly 300 works from 45 countries in the exhibition and catalog (with 50 short essays), this is a moment to consider what it took and takes to identify sentient areas for exploration by image, word, gesture, object, critique, protest and rebellion; actions that can preserve our humanity, and reveal how we relate to, configure and use our natural and constructed world. For the curators, Surrealism, then as now, casts a distinctive light on this compact. Hopefully, creators and scholars drawn to this light will find it an ever seductive and animating force.