surrealism exhibit - milton art bank - this one

SURREALISM – A Survey Exhibition – Milton Art Bank – Milton – Pennsylvania

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Surrealism has existed for almost a hundred years now and its influence in art has been critically attacked and ridiculed, but its importance as a movement among artists, writers and critics in France, England and America can never be dismissed.

Once the banner of one of the 20th century’s most dynamic art movements, the term, “Surreal” – like Franz Kafka’s name – has entered our common usage as a colloquial descriptor of absurd, inexplicable and at times, unpleasant events. Yet, the original usage of “surreal” in purely artistic terms might surprise those who don’t know its etymology.

In his program notes to the Paris debut of Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie’s modernist ballet, Parade, performed on May 18, 1917, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, described Parade’s jarring atonal score, mechanistic choreography and cubist set design by Picasso, as “a kind of surrealism.”

Apollinaire is referring to an experimental, literary technique known as automatism or automatic writing; a method already then in use among writers and poets. In some respect it was a game of freely associating words, memories, or dream images as a means to gain creative access to their unconscious and record what they would discover.

As automatism became better known, artists such as Max Ernst and André Masson began experimenting with automatic techniques in their work, providing them with new stylistic approaches. Masson’s 1923, automatic drawings are generally cited as a tipping point toward surrealist, visual arts. Another important step toward artistic acceptance of surrealism was the publication of Andre Breton’s 1924, Manifesto of Surrealism. This manifesto, strongly influenced by Freud’s psychological theories and dream studies, was a clarion call for this new style.

A current exhibition entitled SURREALISM, demonstrates the broad extent to which Breton’s initial writings opened up a new avenue and style of art, and offers visitors a first-hand chance to experience the writings and artworks by surrealist artists whose works historically define and personify the term, surreal. The exhibition is on view in the Milton Art Bank, a former bank building located on Front Street in the downtown section of Milton, Pennsylvania. The show is curated by Brice Brown, who has assembled the gallery’s first historical survey of surrealist works by forty artists. All the works are on loan from private-and-museum collections.

The gallery’s exterior consists of high, white marble columns resembling a detail from a Dali dreamscape. The gallery’s interior is also white and has a floor space of approximately twelve hundred square feet with fifteen foot high ceilings. From the moment you enter the gallery, your ears fill with the sounds of Satie’s dream-like music, setting a perfect mood for encountering the works.

Ten feet above the gallery floor, toward the rear back wall, and suspended from a balcony, hangs an iconic Man Ray work; A l’heure de l’observatoire: les amoureux, 1970. This image of Lee Miller’s red lips with their incongruent beauty, floating in the air among clouds, smiles down upon the exhibition. Lee Miller was one of Man Ray’s former lovers.

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Ray_LipsMan Ray (1890-1976), A l’heure de l’observatoire: les amoureux, 1970, Offset lithograph on wove paper, 19 ½ x 39 ½ inches, Edition number 86/150.

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In the middle of the same wall beneath the balcony, hangs a major drawing by the artist Leon Kelly: Champêtre Royal – Lunar Personages at Lluch, 1963. The work measures sixty-nine by eighty-five inches, and was done in conte and colored crayons on canvas, it is the largest drawing the artist ever did. For some unknown reason, the strange forms in Kelly’s drawing reminded me of the contorted figures in a Renaissance engraving, Battle of Ten Nudes, 1465, by Antonio Pollaiuolo. Kelly was an American artist who worked in different styles throughout his career, but during the 1940s, his surrealist drawings and paintings were at the forefront of the movement. Unfortunately, his reputation declined as trends in surrealist art lost favor in the nineteen fifties, replaced by Abstract Expressionism. By the 1960s, Kelly’s work fell into serious neglect.

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Kelly_Champetre-Royal-Lunar-Personages-al-LluchLeon Kelly (1901-1982), Champêtre Royal Lunar Personages al Lluch, 1963, Conte and colored crayons on canvas, 69 x 85 inches.

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To the right of the Kelly drawing, perpendicular to the wall is another wall, recessed back about four feet, framing the doorway entrance of a bank vault. The heavy, metal vault door is open but a four-foot high, stand-along sign prohibits you from entering the vault. This sign doubles as a wall label describing the vault as a KUNSTKABINETT, a cabinet of curiosities. Originally, these cabinets were also known as ‘wonder rooms’, where small collections of extraordinary objects which, like today’s museums, attempted to categorize and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.[1] The objects in the vault are situated on numerous, small box-like shelves or on rugs adorning the vault’s floor. The curiosities / objects range from oriental Buddha to Greek and Roman antiquities, books, small pictures, statures, etc. The vault’s contents should be viewed as one, huge surreal work rather than an array of interesting objects.

The works on the gallery walls are hung salon style with each piece given enough wall space for clear viewing; medium-to-large-paintings are flanked by small groupings of three and four framed pictures and photographs interspersed between them. I found myself amused by a number of works beginning with a Victor Brauner painting, Interconnaisance, 1961, containing images of anthropomorphic humans interacting with small creatures. There is a beautiful Masson pastel of two lovers floating in a night sky; three hand-painted porcelain plates, 1913, by Florine Stettheimer reminding me of works from a Meissen factory; Meret Oppenheim’s unique, framed photo collage on paper, 1936, is the half-title page from Julian Levy’s book, Surrealism, 1936. The photo shows a woman fencing, but attached to the end of her foil, a stiff lock of horse hair extends out of the picture, giving it a three dimensional quality. There is a small, mixed media work by Joseph Cornell, Pocket Object, 1936, consisting of a metal hoop encircling a white bird against a dark blue background.

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Brauner_InterconnaisanceVictor Brauner (1903-1966), Interconnaisance, 1961, Oil on canvas, 39 ½ x 32 inches.

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One of the strengths of this exhibition is seen in the number of drawings shown, and serving as prime examples of automatism in a visual mode. These surrealist drawings demonstrate how good draftsmanship in surreal art creates an expectation of realism that is belied by the overall content of the work.

Another strength of this exhibition can be found in the surrealist art by women artists. While Meret Oppenheim’s work is known on an international level, the paintings by Ethel Edwards are relatively unknown. Edwards lived and painted in New York with her husband Xavier Gonzalez, from 1942 to 1949. Both of them taught at The Art Students League. Her painting in this exhibition demonstrates a nuanced absorption of surrealist influences that freed her style without subsuming it. Her work stood up alongside very powerful surrealist personalities then exhibiting in New York, but her reputation failed to rise.

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Edwards_NoonEthel Edwards (1914-1999), Noon, 1948, Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 inches.

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Another woman, Peter Miller, is an artist whose work was neglected and has only been recently excavated and appreciated. Her painting of elongated figures suspended in a landscape space is dated 1940, which is early and before many of the European surrealists arrived in New York. Her work seems closer to Indian Space Painting, an American-styled surrealism.

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Peter Miller_Five Ceremonial DancersPeter Miller (1913-1996), Five Ceremonial Dancers, ca. 1940, Oil on canvas, 38 x 50 inches.

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A third strength of the exhibition shows how a number of surrealist artists continued creating unique works beyond the classic, surrealist decades between the twenties to the post-war forties; Meret Oppenheim’s experimental collage and spraypaint on paper, Shadow Multiplication, 1979; a beautiful work by Max Ernst, Arizona, 1966, resembles an abstract Indian sand painting; Mike Bidlo’s appropriation of de Chirico’s work, The Jewish Angel, 1990, is both an original/appropriated homage to one of surrealism’s brilliant precursors.

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Ernst_ArizonaMax Ernst (1891-1976), Arizona, 1966, 7 1/2 x 9 inches, Oil on canvas mounted on plywood.

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Located in the approximate center of the gallery are two, free standing vitrines measuring two feet by four feet, four feet apart. Each vitrines is clear, allowing you to see the books, letters and art works displayed in them.

The vitrine on the right-hand side of the gallery contains small surrealist works such as Sage’s Homage aus Traducteurs, (Hommage to the Translators), 1956, consisting of a random group of letters packed into a clear, plastic box, a copy of Julien Levy’s book/catalogue, Surrealism, 1936, with Joseph Cornell’s cover design, plus Duchamp’s Le Surrealism (Priere de touches), 1947, a foam rubber breast on board. There is a unique work by Man Ray, Cadeau, 1960. This copy is an amusing variation on his earlier original piece of a laundry iron with a row of nails attached to the face of it. This version of Cadeau, is unique because it is an electric iron, which Man Ray created as a gift for his niece, Naomi Savage.

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Kay Sage-_TraducteursKay Sage (1898-1963), Homage aus Traducteurs, 1956, Mixed media, Dimensions variable.

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The vitrine on the left side contains an exhibition brochure designed by Duchamp for a 1945, May Ray exhibition. Dreams That Money Can Buy, 1947, is film brochure for Hans Richter’s surrealist film, illustrated by Max Ernst; and Playing card, 1946, created by Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy as a one of a kind Christmas gift.

Most of the space in this vitrine is taken up by a terrific selection of VIEW magazines, accompanied by letters written by Charles Henri Ford, the editor. The letters are mostly written to his sister, the actress Ruth Ford, or his close friend the poet/critic and associate editor, Parker Tyler. Ford considered letter writing an important part of his job as editor, sometimes writing five-page letters to various artists, friends, business associates and relatives. One particular letter relates his daily routine of how he “stopped by Nierendorf’s (a gallery) to pick up the Paul Klee which we’re acquired (must re-sell it right away thought because we need the money”). The magazine’s office was located at 1 East 53rd Street in Manhattan: while upstairs was the fabled New York night spot, The Stork Club.

Ford was born in Mississippi in 1908, and grew-up in different towns throughout the South. When he was nineteen, he published a short-lived modernist poetry magazine, blues. In 1929, he went to Paris with Paul Bowles and Edouard Roditi, and met a number of poets and writers associated with an avant-garde magazine, TRANSITION. All three of them were among the youngest poets to be published in it.

In 1932, Ford returned to Paris accompanying Djuna Barnes. Here he met the Russian, neo-romantic painter, Pavel Tchelitchew, becoming his companion for the next twenty-four years.   During the nineteen thirties, Ford lived and travelled in Europe for almost seven years, writing poetry and meeting many of the surrealist artists and writers on the scene. He left Europe in 1939/40, because of the impending war, returning to New York in 1939/40. Clearly, the time Ford spent in these surrealist circles gave him a strong background and knowledge of the movement.

The first issue of View appeared in September 1940, (a copy is in the exhibition), with the first twelve issues appearing in a newspaper format. In the second year, Ford changed the format to a magazine size with color covers by Tchelitchew, and many surreal artists. VIEW had a look that was new and different from then current art magazines, helping to establish it as one of the most prominent arts journals in the country. Looking at VIEW today, and the various covers created for each issue, demonstrates how unique it was, mapping out New York’s 1940s cultural scene.

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Charles Henri Ford_letters-1Charles Henri Ford, et al. Letters, ephemera, 1940’s, Various letters on View letterhead, mostly from Charles Henri Ford (editor) to his sister Ruth Ford and Parker Tyler.

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Besides being a vehicle for surrealist art and writings, VIEW, also showcased poetry by William Carlos Williams, stories and articles by Henry Miller, work by Man Ray, Andre Mason, Duchamp, Noguchi, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger, stories by Paul Bowles, printed the first English interview with Andre Breton.  Many notable photographers also published their work in VIEW, among them Helen Levitt, Maya Deren, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Andre Kertesz, and Rudy Burkhart. Ford published the first monograph on Duchamp’s work, which unfortunately is not in the exhibition.

Ford published VIEW until 1947, and by then the magazine’s focus was moving away from surrealism. Later issues contain poems by men in prison, articles on outsider art, Parker Tyler’s reviews of Hollywood films. The 1946 issue is devoted to Existentialism, and contains the first English language excerpts of Camus’s novel The Stranger, The Nationalization of Literature, by Jean-Paul-Sartre, and It’s Your Funeral, an excerpt from Jean Genet’s novel, Notre Dame des Fleurs. When many of the exiled, European surrealist returned to Europe after the war, Ford and Tchelitchew followed suit.

There are only two works by Dali in this exhibition, a short film, Destino, 1945, which began as a collaboration between Dali and The Walt Disney Company. It was abandoned after eight months and only completed fifty-eight years later in 2003. The second work by Salvador Dali is a book collaboration, Notes sur la poesie, 1936, with Andre Breton. The book presents a certain irony as Breton would dismiss Dali and his work as too commercial and not within the serious framework of surrealist tenets. Breton nicknamed Dali, “Avida dollars,” (because of the dollars), making Dali an outcast from the group. Breton himself was known as “the pope of surrealism.” Nevertheless, Dali was the outrageous, commercial face of surrealism, and the most famous surrealist in America. When The Museum of Modern Art gave him a one-person exhibition in 1941, the attention not only served to increase his already considerable fame but solidified his prominence in Surrealist history, regardless of what Breton thought about it. Dali’s 1945, dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Spellbound, perhaps, not only catapulted Dali into popular culture but cemented his personal brand of surrealism as the mainstream understanding of it, and being most responsible for infiltrating the term surreal into popular usage.

Erik La Prade

C 2019

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ABOUT ERIK LA PRADE

Erik La Prade lives in New York.  His interviews and articles have appeared in Art In AmericaThe Brooklyn Railartcritical, and others. His latest book is NEGLECTED POWERS. Last Word Press. 2017. Some of his poems currently appear in J Journal.  He has a B.A. and M.A. from City College.

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ENDNOTES 

[1] LEARNING Timelines: Sources from History. The cabinet of curiosities. 1710.   The British Museum.

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IMAGES

Images, including lead-in, courtesy of Brice Brown and Milton Art Bank