At the time of writing, the concept of a 'lockdown' or 'furlough scheme' feels like something of the past. Yet, it would be all too foolish to forget the 30-something weeks in total England spent hunkered down, not allowed to visit let alone kiss loved ones if they weren't, too, locked under the same roof. The only time any of us attempted to mix beyond the members of our own household (Downing Street not included) seemingly either happened via a poor connection on Zoom or when our bodies were firmly planted to our mattresses, our minds flat out unconscious (a time that was considered most precious for many surrealists). For the first time in history, reality felt more surreal than fantasy as the contents of what would normally be considered 'dreams' poured into our waking minds, disrupting the status quo with one bad press conference at a time. In short, you're not alone in thinking the past two years have not only been hell but utterly Surreal, which leads me to mention Tate's latest exhibition in recent years; Surrealism Beyond Borders. Talk about tapping into the zeitgeist, huh?
Open to the public as of last week, until 29 August, the Tate Modern exhibition - although planned and orchestrated before the pandemic even began - has proven to slot into a period in time where more people than ever understand the notions at the very crux of one of the 20th century's most famed art movements. As our own reality was turned on its head in 2020, Surrealism no longer felt like an art movement but a lifestyle; an exact representation of Oscar Wilde's infamous 'Life imitates art' quote that saw us all scrambling for direction and a need to explain the unexplainable. Not only is this exhibition here to remind us how the surrealists dealt with the real, but its artful curation also challenges everything we've ever known about the term, turning our knowledge on its head by making us rethink the art movement's entire narrative. No, Surrealism wasn't just white, nor just male. No, it didn't just happen in France and no, it doesn't just include trippy 1930s paintings courtesy of Salvador Dalí. Surrealism was - and is - so much more, as disclosed to me when I interviewed assistant curator Carine Harmand at the opening this week.
Starting off by telling me Surrealism Beyond Borders is part of a seven-year-long collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Harmand is quick to affirm that this exhibition, and the MoMA partnership as a whole, is all about 'a wider mission to challenge conventional art histories. It's about giving more space to female artists and countries as a whole who have been often overlooked; trying to incorporate as many female surrealist artists and nationalities as possible into the history of Surrealism.' Yet the burdening question of how one does that when the movement's entire portrayal stems from one inner circle in Paris, 1924, towers head and shoulders above all else. And yet, the answer is simple; it all starts with one map published in a Belgian publication by an anonymous artist in 1929. Titled Le monde au Temps des Surréalistes (The World at the Time of the Surrealists), its surreal viewpoint of the world (Europe is nowhere to be seen, while the equator has completely shifted) alters our focus away from European Art into previously uncharted territory. 'By putting the Pacific in the middle, they've completely shifted our Atlantic-centred view of the world', Harmand briefs me. 'Some of the places are way bigger like 'L'île de Pâques, then the other countries which would've been the colonising powers at the time - Western Europe, Japan, the US - have completely disappeared, the equator line has also been entirely displaced. The map represents a total change in vision, and this is what the exhibition is doing; moving our vision away from the Atlantic centre, Japan and the US and looking at how Surrealism was truly a transnational and an international movement.' Thought Surrealism relied solely on white men in 1920s France? Harmand is telling you to think again.
From Columbia to Seoul, Portugal to Chicago, over 150 works make up Tate's Surrealism Beyond Borders, all of which span 80 years-worth of art rooted in 50 countries. No doubt the magnitude is an impressive spectacle of flourishing creativity, but volume seldom equals greatness, as esteemed art critic Waldemar Januszczak pointed out in his review: 'A few classic surrealists have made the cut — Dalí, Magritte, Ernst, Miró -but they sit uncomfortably in the new mix. Mainly because they are so obviously better than their fellow exhibitors.' Sure, there are still some Man Ray objects flying around, but for such a show to challenge itself with presenting Surrealism in an authentic way could be considered a near-impossible task if said Man Ray and his cohort of artists do not take up centre stage. After all, there's a difference between weaving a new narrative into a movement that's set in stone rather than looking at it through a freshly-curated lens.
At any rate, Januszczak is a white heterosexual male; why wouldn't he be uncomfortable with the changing narrative away from a movement that's, for the most part, always been associated with folks like him (white and male, that is)..? This exhibition is clear in its purpose; it's in no way there to show how amazing these artists really were; Surrealism Beyond Borders sells itself on ascribing depth to a movement that's strictly attached to known raging sexists. Lest we forget, it was Andre Breton who wrote Surrealism’s two manifestos, the first in 1924 and the second in 1929 - the latter spewing the sentence, 'The problem of woman, is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world.' And, as Frieze perfectly clarified in 2018, 'In this short sentence, Breton laid the foundations for Surrealism's infamous misogyny: women were revered and central to the movement but as muses, not artists in their own right.'
Harmand is in total agreement, and even though we barely touched upon Breton's misogynistic language, she recognised that this is all about 'artists not as "the partners of" but as artists in their own right, showing the important impact they've had.' Harmand went on to divulge...
'For example, we've dedicated a section to Cairo, Egypt, where there was an important Surrealist group called Art et Liberté that settled there. At the end of the 1930s, many female artists were a part of this movement, and not only were they just there, but they were intrinsic to the group. Amy Nimr was a crucial figure in the kind of semination of Surrealism, her home became a gathering place and acted as the group's base, and yet her name has been brushed out of history, along with her work.' Mentioning their involvement in understanding Surrealism as a tool of political power, Harmand added, 'They (Amy Nimir and co) really responded and anchored the Art et Liberté group's commitment to anti-authoritarianism and anticapitalist regimes... many of the group's female members became involved in activism for women's rights in the Communist Party and Communist activism overall.'
Harmand was as defiant in the viewpoint of communicating Surrealism’s activism influence as was Amy Nimir to Art et Liberté, using politics as a thread connecting the surrealist dots that have spread so far and and so wide. My final question reflected on why Surrealism spoke to the many artists it did and with that came an answer that rather speaking about its dream-like aesthetics, was rooted in more than an escapism from a world in disarray, it was anchored in a fight for justice. ‘Surrealism is about personal, social and political liberation’, Harmand asserted. ‘Naturally, it felt relevant to so many artists in so many different contexts. The ones that were fighting about colonialism in their own context. For example, the ones who were in Korea or in North Africa. The ones who were fighting against authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, or even Portugal. They were also interested in alternative ways of seeing the world that were separate from the dominating rational, modern and technological vision. For me, it makes sense - it’s such a polymorphus movement but also something that can be absorbed so easily and then all of these different places in turn, influence Surrealism so it’s not a dogme.’
'Surrealism fought against political and social standpoints. It was used as a tool in North Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe not only to fight but rise against global powers', affirms Harmand. This exhibition is timely in more ways than one. Using Surrealism as a weapon to combat colonialism or political aggression isn't a new spin on the movement, but Tate's vast inclusion of artists, attributing 'even the good, the bad and the ugly' as Januczack put it, is. There may be ifs, buts, and overwhelming gaps in their overall narrative, but the story itself is as timely as ever. Russia invaded Ukraine last week on 24 February 2022, the same day as Surrealism Beyond Borders opened to the public. Although a mere coincidence, its pertinence offers food for thought regarding Ukraine's current situation and conflicts beyond.
'Our Surrealism will enable us finally to transcend the sordid antinomies of the present… we shall recover the mettle of our metal, our cutting edge of steel, our unique communions. Surrealism - the tightrope of our hope'. - Suzanne Cesaire, 1943