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The Canonisation of Surrealism in the United States part (1 of 2)

by Sandra Zalman (reprinted with permission)

Sandra Zalman is Associate Professor and Program Director of Art History at the University of Houston, where she teaches classes on modern and contemporary art, museums, and curatorial issues Her book Consuming Surrealism in American Culture: Dissident Modernism, won the 2016 SECAC Award for Excellence in Research and Publication

 

L.Amour Fu

In a pointed assessment of the first show of Surrealism in New York, in 1932, the New York Times art critic asked, “How much of the material now on view shall we esteem ‘art,’ and how much should be enjoyed as laboratory roughage”? The question encompassed the problem Surrealism posed for art history because it essentially went unanswered. Even after the 1936 endorsement by the Museum of Modern Art in a show organized by its founding director Alfred Barr (1902-1981), Surrealism continued to have a vexed relationship with the canon of modern art. Above all, the enterprise of canonisation is ironic for Surrealism – the Surrealists were self-consciously aiming to overthrow the category of art, but simultaneously participating in a tradition of avant-gardism defined by such revolution. Framing his exhibition, Barr presented Surrealism as both the most recent avant-garde export, and also as a purposeful departure from the avant-garde’s experimentation in form. Instead, Barr stressed that Surrealism focused on an anti-rationalist approach to representation. Though Barr made a strong case to integrate Surrealism into the broader understanding of modernism in the 1930s, and Surrealism was generally accepted by American audiences as the next European avant-garde, by the 1950s formalist critics in the U.S. positioned Surrealism as a disorderly aberration in modernism’s quest for abstraction. Surrealism’s political goals and commercial manifestations (which Barr’s exhibition had implicitly sanctioned by including cartoons and advertisements) became more and more untenable for the movement’s acceptance into a modern art canon that was increasingly being formulated around an idea of the autonomous self-reflexive work of art.
However, by the 1960s Surrealism’s exclusion from the modernist canon advocated by Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) and younger scholars such as Michael Fried (b.1939) clashed with the increased relevancy of Surrealism’s fantastical and everyday vision of modern life. As Surrealism’s hybrid quality became a point of interest for artists in the 1960s thanks in part to Pop Art, MoMA’s new curator, William Rubin (1927-2006), presented Surrealism as a crucial forerunner for contemporary art. Rubin’s exhibition ‘Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage’ (1968) was an attempt to incorporate Dada and Surrealism into the modernist canon, but Rubin did not realize that the parameters of the canon itself were being actively re-evaluated in light of the expanded field of artistic production. Critics disdained Rubin’s didactic approach for draining the lifeblood from movements that were inherently unruly and subversive, yet Rubin’s exhibition allowed Surrealism to gain a foothold in the modern art canon. Then, in 1985, Jane Livingston’s (b.1944) and Rosalind Krauss’s (b.1941) exhibition ‘L’Amour Fou: Surrealism and Photography’ challenged Rubin’s stylistic positioning of Surrealism by tackling Surrealism’s theoretical underpinnings. Though the exhibition’s scope was limited to Surrealist photography, by explicitly dispensing with the formalist understanding of modern art, it nonetheless opened up discourse on Surrealism in the USA; both from those scholars who sought to examine Surrealism beyond its formal qualities and perhaps particularly by those who challenged Krauss’s narrow focus. This article sketches a brief survey of a half-century of Surrealism’s reinterpretation in the United States by American curators to give a richer picture of the complications and contradictions that Surrealism presented to the formation of a canon for modern art.

Surrealism in the 1930s
The first time Surrealism received institutional recognition in the United States was in 1931, when the Wadsworth Athenaeum, an established museum in Hartford, Connecticut, hosted an exhibition of the then seven-year-old movement. The exhibition had been orchestrated in large part by Julien Levy (1906-1981), who had opened an art gallery that year. Instead of hosting the first U.S. exhibition of the new movement in his newly established space in New York, Levy recognized the value of having Surrealism’s initial presentation in a more official institution – a strategic way of lending the movement the endorsement of a recognized art museum before he presented it in his commercial gallery.
Despite these earlier exhibitions of Surrealism in the USA, the movement was still largely uncharted territory. Modern art in general was relatively new on U.S. shores. There were only a few major institutions where Americans could see the 20th-century avant-garde work that had emerged in Europe. One notorious example was the Armory Show of 1913, generally credited for waking American audiences from their parochial aesthetic habits. The exhibition of the Societé Anonyme at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926, and the establishment of the Philips Collection in Washington DC in 1921 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 helped to bring increased attention to modern art in all its diversity, but nonetheless, the experimentation that educated audiences accepted in advanced art still tended toward abstraction.
When Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, began planning the exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ set to open in 1936, he conceived it in tandem with his now more famous exhibition of that year, ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’. Barr understood Cubism and Surrealism as representing interrelated though divergent aesthetic foundations for modern art. In the introduction to ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’, Barr described Cubism and Abstract Art as ‘diametrically opposed in both spirit and esthetic principles to the present [Dada and Surrealism] exhibition’. And yet, he included several of the same artists – at least 22 – in both shows. Barr even pulled a Picasso painting (The Bather, 1929) from the traveling version of ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ so that he could include it in ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’. Eventually, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism was billed both in press releases and in the exhibition catalogue’s preface as the second in what was to be a series of five exhibitions designed to highlight important movements in modern art to the American public. The subsequent three exhibitions – which focussed on untrained American artists, realism and Magic Realism, and Romantic Art – demonstrate that under Barr’s leadership, MoMA’s presentation of modern art tended toward representation rather than abstraction. For Barr, abstraction was already an accepted tradition of the avant-garde and he openly acknowledged in the preface to ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ that “[e]xcept in a few of its aspects this exhibition is in no sense a pioneer effort.” Instead, Barr considered his Surrealism exhibition experimental in a way that his previous exhibitions had not been. Reflecting on – and defending — his presentation of Surrealism, Barr wrote to the museum’s president: … that the Museum has not in the past, except in architecture and industrial art, played the role of the pioneer in its exhibitions. It has rather shown things which have been generally accepted or which in any case are already fairly familiar to the interested public. The present exhibition is in most of its aspects an exception to this rule. Barr believed that the Surrealism exhibition was unique in charting new territory of a still unfolding movement. He was also conscious that the aesthetics of Surrealism ran counter to what had been accepted as modern art, and that was why he was being called upon to defend some of his choices to the trustees of the museum:
“I think that the heart of the misunderstanding lies in the fact that the exhibition has been assembled upon a Fantastic-Surrealist aesthetic rather than the more usually accepted aesthetic of form and technique expressed through the conventional media of painting and sculpture. A good many people will always object to any new aesthetic …. The aesthetic of form and color and of distorted or disintegrated objects which so exasperated people in the Armory Show is now generally accepted but the aesthetic of Surrealist fantasy, incongruity, spontaneity and humor, though it is already a dozen or twenty years old, is still exasperating to some of our friends, who are likely to call it silly or absurd (the adjectives I think have not changed since 1913).”

Arcimboldo. Summer, 1563

Barr stresses that while the aesthetic of form had once been ridiculed, 20 years onward, art audiences were now more comfortable with formal experimentation. Yet Barr did not shy away from the elements of Surrealism that were ‘exasperating’ and Barr’s exhibition also differed dramatically from earlier iterations of Surrealism in that it placed Surrealism firmly within an art historical context. Barr accomplished this in two ways – first, he refused to let the Surrealists dictate the planning of the exhibition, instead creating an installation that was as straightforward and didactic as possible. Not only was the exhibition ‘not an official Surrealist manifestation’ (much to the disapproval of the movement’s leader André Breton), but secondly, Barr situated Surrealism in a 500-year-lineage of fantastic art. Thus the context for the exhibition was not exclusively modern art, following Barr’s understanding of modernism as both a revolt from and continuity of tradition. In letters, Barr bristled at the arrogance of Breton to think he could dictate what was included in the exhibition, asserting the integrity of the institution to frame Surrealism as the curator saw fit.
By the conclusion of the exhibition, Barr (thanks to Margaret Scolari Barr, and Duchamp) had resolved the disagreements with both the trustees and the artists involved in the show and was gratified that the exhibition had served to expose the public to Surrealism. Barr wrote to the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: “The exhibition was one of the most controversial ever held by the Museum, and we hope served its purpose in making a report to the public upon one of the most original and conspicuous of contemporary movements”. Even as he placed Surrealism within a long art historical tradition, Barr reveals that his primary hope for the show was merely reportage, rather than canonisation. Barr’s objective was successfully met not only by the 50,000 people who visited the exhibition, but by the scores of reviews of the show, which for the most part avoided the question of artistic merit, and instead commented on the variety and novelty of the works on display.
Barr had given Surrealism the museum’s institutional endorsement, but a double-edged one. He had underscored the uncertain legacy of Surrealism in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue when he, rather cavalierly, stated: Once Surrealism is “no longer a cockpit of controversy, it will doubtless be seen as having produced a mass of mediocre pictures …, a fair number of excellent and enduring works of art, and even a few masterpieces.” Perhaps the true sign of whether Barr considered Surrealist works to be valuable was if he urged the museum to purchase them for the collection. By 1936, he had already acquired Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (1931), and from the exhibition he also was able to obtain Rene Magritte’s False Mirror (1929). Years later in 1946, after much lobbying, Meret Oppenheim’s Object (1936) also entered the collection.
In addition to providing Surrealism with an art historical lineage, Barr also recognised its commercial and vernacular associations. MoMA’s initial endorsement of Surrealism did not initially secure the place of Surrealism within the fine art canon, but opened the movement up to further pilfering in the realm of mass culture. These commercial manifestations were often facilitated by Surrealists themselves – or those artists associated with Surrealism in the minds of the public, even if, like Salvador Dali in 1939, they had been officially expelled from the movement by Breton. Thus, the immediate aftermath of Barr’s exhibition was public exposure to Surrealism not only in the museum, but also in the marketplace as Surrealist-inspired window displays, advertisements, and movie sequences circulated in American mass culture. As a writer for Scribner’s noted, while Surrealism was currently being used to promote luxury goods, “come a few more years, and we may be examining Surrealism in Macy’s bargain basement”. The writer warns that Surrealism’s power in advertising signalled an increasing danger of being further diluted, or perhaps more precisely, discounted. What Barr had termed Surrealism’s ‘conspicuous’ presence, one amplified by MoMA’s exhibition, meant that its fine art and commercial pursuits were increasingly intertwined in the public imagination.

Part 2: Historicizing Dada and Surrealism and Challenging the Modern in the next issue.

Volume 34 no 5 May / June 2020

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Rosemary Caron
24/06/2020 8:48 am

Years ago at an exhibition of Salvador Dali’ in Spain, a small child left an unforgettable impression on me and other visitors while talking animatedly about the paintings on display. He had a very clear vision and found the images perfectly normal to his imagination. Could it be that the unconscious mind of a child has the key to the potential of our creativity?

25/06/2020 6:41 am

Are you implying that children don’t want to understand whatever it is they are trying to understand? Children are able to understand many things intuitively, while as adults we mostly lose this ability. However, I think that children also want to understand.
The best of Surrealism gave us a glimpse inside the human mind, whether it showed a loss of control or not. Do you think Surrealism is a loss of control?

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