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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Koga Harue (Kurume, Japan 1895–1933 Tokyo), Umi (The Sea), 1929. Oil on canvas, 51 3/16 × 64 in. (130 × 162.5 cm). The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo



At The Metropolitan Museum of Art we have "Surrealism beyond Borders" (through January 30).   This mammoth exhibition, with work from 45 countries in all six inhabited continents, has nearly 300 items in it. God forbid anybody should say that surrealism – as defined by André Breton -- not only started in Paris in 1924, but also reached its acme there in the later 1930s. The good people who put together this show proceed instead on the assumption that surrealism went on for eight decades and could be defined all over the world and in all sorts of ways. 


Certainly they include a lot of work that sustains this assumption -- as long as one is not too particular about the esthetic quality of most of the later, non-Parisian work on view.  This is a show heavily dependent on big blocks of wall text and quantities of small pieces of paper in vitrines – the latter about equally divided into prints and drawings, on the one hand, and memorabilia on the other – posters, books and so forth.


In other words, this is a show in which you read the exhibits more than you respond to their visual appeal.  And this is true even when the artwork claims to be drawing and not writing – as for example in the all-too-numerous examples of that now-standard (not to say overworked) surrealist exercise, le cadavre exquis.


There were so many of these on display that I lost track, but (according to the illustrated checklist), the largest is the 30-foot-long one created by Ted Joans (1928 – 2003). This Illinois-born African-American poet, jazz musician and activist spent his last 28 years taking sheets of perforated computer paper that he called (collectively) "Long Distance" around to what looks like as many artists as he could line up in as many countries as possible to add parts of his cadaver's body.


Among the 132 participants were Gregory Corso, James Rosenquist , David Hammons and a raft of others including artists throughout Africa and Europe as well as in the U.S.  This monument to whimsy didn't end with Joans, either. Begun in 1976, it didn't end until 2005, two years after the death of the artist who had conceived it.


To be sure, not all of the later work on display in "Beyond Bordeers" is more significant for its sociopolitical virtues than it is for the way it looks.   I quite liked "Nus" (1945) by the Egyptian artist Samir Rafi  (1926 – 2004).  The label says it depicts more than one nude women but I was most impressed by the large one in the foreground.  She is seated with long wavy hair completely covering her head and the top of her body – plus on top of her head a little birds' nest with three eggs in it. Well done.


Wilfredo Lam, the Cuban-born artist whose recent solo show at Pace I discussed in this column just before Christmas, is represented here by "The Eternal Presence" (1944), a large, predominantly gray & brown painting with narrow vertical yet humanoid forms that is much better than anything I saw in that solo show.


And there is no denying either that Arshile Gorky's "Water of the Flowery Mill" (1944) is a very pretty picture – or that Salvador Dalí's "Lobster Telephone" (1938) is a most delicious "poetic object."


I only wish that the Met's director, Max Hollein, and the rest of the cast of thousands who put together this show, were not quite so fixated on deep-sixing Paris and the best work of the best Parisian surrealists. 


True, the earlier galleries of this show do suggest that originally surrealism was codified by André Breton, the poet and so-called pope of the movement, in Paris in 1924 in his "Manifesto of Surrealism." 

Also that he defined "surrealism" as pure "psychic automatism"  -- by this seeming to  mean that its artistic creations could in one way or another incorporate dreams, unconscious wishes, aggressive and sexual drives -- indeed everything else that Sigmund Freud believed was harbored within the depths of the human psyche.

That was in the beginning.   But the way this show evolves,  Freud  recedes more and more into the background, and politics comes more and more into the fore.. I won't deny that some of the early surrealists – most notably the poet Louis Aragon – were Communists, but most of the emphasis on politics in the latter galleries of this show simply screams the latest postmodernist chic.


It is all about revolutionary slogans and sentimentalizing about the Sixties and introducing art less distinguished as art and more distinguished by the race and/or gender of the makers. In the process, art of quality gets ignored, in favor of much lesser art.


The most egregious example of this treatment is Joan Miró (1893-1983).  In my opinion (and that of Clement Greenberg) Miró was the finest artist to emerge from the surrealist milieu.  Though born in Spain, he came to Paris after World War I and painted many wonderfully wise and witty pictures in the 1920s and the1930s, masterpieces of surrealism in its prime.



The Museum of Modern Art has a great collection of them, and in the spring of 2019 put on a marvelous show with 60 works by Miro (mostly from its permanent collection, and from its earlier Mirós – see my post of June 5, 2019).


I don't think it would have been difficult for the Met to borrow just one of these great early Mirós from MoMA and maybe it was there at the Met, but I missed it among all the other less admirable work. 


For whatever reason, the first Miró I could find in "Surrealism beyond Borders" was a "Constellation" gouache and oil wash on paper done in 1941.  Sure, it's owned by the Met but it's minor work and here creates the impression that Miró was merely a Johnny-come-lately like all the others in the show. 


And as though that weren't enough of an insult, in one of the last galleries is a second, even less satisfactory Miró. It is entitled "Mai 68," and was done between1968 and 1973. Its label says that this painting's title and date "demonstrate the artist's interest in the student uprisings of 1968, during which protesters spray-painted Surrealist slogans on the walls of the Sorbonne. Within this energetic composition that mimics graffiti, the artist added his handprints, connecting himself to their cause."


True, "Mai '68" is large and comes from the Miró museum in Barcelona but those messy graffiti-like markings make it in my opinion into a real eyesore. It looks more like Keith Haring or Jean Michel Basquiat than it does Miró, and  I am not a fan  of either of   these latter-day "saints."


I explain the poor quality of this Miró it by the fact that by 1968, the artist was 75 and maybe not in the best of health.  Certainly there is a lot of other weak work by him from this period.


All that said, I am sure that many of the younger people who have been thronging to this show are finding it full of charming entertainment. They won't miss Freud because they never heard of Freud, and they will welcome all the politics because Politics is In like Flynn just now. 


According to observers of the 1930s and 40s, from John Graham to Greenberg, surrealism divided into two main styles, the automatist and the academic. The automatists were said to let their unconscious minds direct the pen or brush.  The academics chose to portray subjects from dreams or fantasies utilizing the lessons on perspective, shading, anatomy and so forth that they had learned in art school.


And perhaps inevitably, the automatists were more likely to create abstractions while the academics based their visions on what for lack of a better word I shall call verism.


When I first became aware of surrealism, it was upon the basis of a great show staged in 1968 at MoMA.  It was entitled "Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage," and organized by the late William Rubin. Rubin had an eye.  The work in his show was a lot easier to look at (among other reasons because there wasn't as much of it), and Rubin also introduced me to this dual heritage of surrealism, the automatist and the academic.


On the basis of the Met's show, I'd say that academic surrealism proves to have been far easier to export and copy (the section at the Met entitled "automatism" is painfully short and dominated by smaller pictures, such as the Miró "Constellation"). Then again, aren't literal portrayals always easier and more familiar than abstraction?


Personally, I'm more interested in the automatist – after all, it led to Pollock – but if your taste is for the academic, you will find a lot to surprise and delight you here.


The typical academic surrealist canvas is full of oddly juxtaposed (and sometimes oddly shaped) objects, big and little, very precisely rendered. Back in the 20s and 30s, it was Dalí and Magritte who led the way, but halfway around the world – in Japan – they were already being copied.


Consider "Umi (The Sea)," created in 1929 by Koga Harue  (1885 - 1933), an early disciple of the French surrealists. 


Back in the '20s, Koga was already reading and copying French art publications, just the way his opposite numbers in Japanese industry and munitions were already reading and copying Western-style industry and munitions plans and publications, the better to build themselves into the juggernaut that would shortly be unleashed on the world as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, aka the new Japanese empire.


The label to "The Sea" at the Met would have you believe that its rendition of the mechanical elements underlying a factory on the left and a submarine on the lower right are intended to express "dissatisfaction with reality" and as such part of a political protest against modernization and industrialization. 


I say it's just as likely that they are part of a hymn in praise of these same subjects – or at best, ambivalent about them.


After all, in World War II, the Japanese were not notable for non-conformity. And the smaller elements in the picture – fish, gulls, a dirigible, an old-fashioned sailing boat and an old-fashioned light house – are not all that threatening, while the fair-skinned, Western-style bathing beauty on the right looms larger than any of them.  Reputedly, she is an image of Gloria Swanson, and as such to be admired the world around.


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