The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art an enthralling survey show
At the Vancouver Art Gallery to September 25
Walk into the dimly lit gallery that introduces you to The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art, and you are immediately immersed in a realm of encompassing strangeness. Here, two early modernist paintings are installed alongside two historic Kwakwaka’wakw artworks. The paintings are Giorgio de Chirico’s The Child’s Brain, dated 1914 and representing a deathly pale man with closed eyes and long black eyelashes, tilted in an inexplicable space, and Max Ernst’s 1923 Pietí or Revolution by Night, in which a man with a curled mustache holds a figure turned to stone in his arms. The Kwakwaka’wakw works are a “peace dance” headdress with a delicately carved and painted wooden frontlet and draped strips of ermine skin, and a tall, imposing “speaking-through” post carved out of wood.
The de Chirico and the headdress were both at some time owned by the father of surrealism, French poet André Breton. Ernst once possessed a “speaking-through” figure like the one on view. And while the paintings anticipate surrealism in their Freudian attempts to defy or overthrow the father figure, the Kwakwaka’wakw art communicates honour and respect for ancestors. Together, these four artworks establish the enthralling mood of this big survey show.
Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and guest-curated by British scholar Dawn Ades, the exhibition reveals surrealism’s extraordinary breadth of expression. It does so through more than 350 objects, including paintings, drawings, photographs, films, sculptures, and assemblages, borrowed from private and public collections around the world. In acknowledgment to its location, the show also pays close attention to the surrealists’ interest in the First Nations art of the Northwest Coast. Photographs, films, and aboriginal artworks, many of them collected by surrealist artists or writers, suggest how they drew inspiration from pre-industrial cultures.
While touring the Straight through the exhibition, early on its opening day, Ades explains that no single theme prevails here. Complexity rules and works are organized under a number of poetic subheadings, such as “Myths Maps Magic”, “Dream Habitats”, and “Anatomies of Desire”. Among the wealth of ideas explored in the show is the way surrealists used spooky architectural spaces, dark forests, or winding labyrinths to suggest the realm of the unconscious. “I wanted to give as comprehensive a view of surrealism as I could,” Ades says. “But doing that involved demonstrating how extremely various surrealist practices in the visual arts were. It’s much more exciting and much more radical than people tend to think.”
Ades goes on to state that part of The Colour of My Dreams is intended to reveal “that there’s no such thing as a surrealist style”. Unlike, say, impressionism or cubism, whose unifying formal qualities are easily identifiable, Surrealism embraced a range of visual expression and technique. In painting, that includes the highly detailed “veristic” surrealism of Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Yves Tanguy, in which realistic representational devices are used to depict unreal, fantastical, or dreamlike scenes, and the biomorphic abstractions of Joan Miró and Jean Arp. Both approaches are well represented here. An example of the former is Magritte’s L’Anniversaire, in which an enormous granite boulder entirely fills a small room. Of the latter, look for Miró’s Personnage, with its enigmatic white drop on a washy blue ground.
In three-dimensional form, work in the show ranges from bronze sculpture, such as Pablo Picasso’s Baboon and Young, in which the adult primate’s head is also a car, to “surrealist objects”. These are assemblages in which familiar forms and materials are juxtaposed in unfamiliar and unsettling ways, such as Maurice Henry’s Silence, Hospital!, a telephone bound up in white bandages.
Perhaps most intriguing with respect to creative innovation, the exhibition examines the surrealists’ highly experimental photography and film, by such breakthrough artists as Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Luis Buñuel. The program of historic films on view in the VAG exhibition is extremely impressive—and made even more entrancing by the inclusion of some of the American films beloved of the surrealists, such as Buster Keaton’s brilliant One Week. (The exhibition is also complemented by a program of Surrealist films at Vancity Theatre.) Rather than accept mainstream ideas about the documentary nature of photography and film, Ades points out, the surrealists used these two media to pursue exactly the opposite aspiration, the ability to “go beyond recorded reality”.
The reason Ades gives for all the show’s diversity is surrealism’s origins in the literary rather than visual realm. Breton hovers like a holy ghost in this exhibit: it was his 1924 manifesto, after all, that launched surrealism, defining it as “pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the prime function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”
Certainly, the exhibition conveys surrealism’s desire to defy social and cultural conventions and make a break with the past by tapping into the power of the unconscious mind. Surrealists’ methods include not only automatic writing and drawing but also the use of dream imagery, games of chance, and such techniques as frottage (creating rubbings of textured surfaces) and decalcomania (pressing watercolour paint between two sheets of paper). Again, these techniques are well represented here.
The Colour of My Dreams is so big, so rich, and so intelligently organized that it deserves repeated and prolonged visits. The films, alone, demand a day of viewing. Get there, now and often through its summer run. And dream the surrealist dream.