Vol. 44 No. 10 · 26 May 2022
At Tate Modern

‘Surrealism beyond Borders’

Hal Foster

1915 words

There​  is an urgent project in the humanities today to ‘provincialise Europe’, to open its cultural histories to critical views from elsewhere. One of the project’s imperatives is to decolonise European modernist art, to reveal its underpinnings in empire, including movements such as Surrealism that were more engaged than most with other perspectives and places. In this spirit, Surrealism beyond Borders (at Tate Modern until 29 August) moves beyond the Western European orientation of the usual accounts based on the familiar story of Parisian artists and writers around André Breton to explore a variety of practices in multiple locales. This ambitious show, co-curated by Matthew Gale of Tate Modern and Stephanie D’Alessandro of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where it appeared last autumn), is filled to the brim with paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, films and documents from an extraordinary array of towns, cities, regions and countries.


Long Distance (1976-2005)

Some of these sites (Cairo, Mexico City, Brazil, the Caribbean) are familiar as Surrealist haunts, while others (Aleppo, Belgrade, Turkey, East Asia) are unexpected. Although the exhibition includes a fair share of celebrity Surrealists, like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, it highlights figures who range from the underappreciated, such as the Chinese-Cuban painter Wifredo Lam and the Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral, to the all but unknown. The curators are especially drawn to adventurous souls who understood Surrealism as a call to travel widely, sometimes on a quasi-ethnographic mission to encounter the other as a means to decentre the self à la Michel Leiris. In 1939 the Swiss-born photographer Eva Sulzer sailed along the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, where she documented the old longhouses and totem poles of Indigenous tribes; in 1960 the African American artist Ted Joans departed the Beat milieu of Greenwich Village to roam throughout North and West Africa, Central America and Europe in search of other Surrealists of colour.

A centrepiece of Surrealism beyond Borders is a thirty-foot-long work by Joans produced with no fewer than 132 collaborators over the course of three decades. Long Distance (1976-2005) is a wildly extended ‘exquisite corpse’, a Surrealist device in which different hands draw consecutive parts of a figure without knowing what comes before or after, a serious game of (anti)composition in which chance and calculation collide on the same page. Here Joans turns this disjunctive form into an inspired chronicle of encounters and exchanges with writers and artists from the Egyptian-French Joyce Mansour to the African American David Hammons. The exhibition as a whole, too, is the result of multiple meetings with many contributors: a collective research project reminiscent of early Surrealist enquêtes into the nature of dreams and desires.

The curators chart three paths through the copious material: different understandings of what Surrealism entails; key groups as they gradually coalesce, sometimes intersect, and then disperse; and belief systems that parallel or cross Surrealism in telling ways (these run from esoteric religions like Sufism in Turkey to movements like Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany). Along the way the exhibition works to ‘loosen temporal and geographic borderlines’. The usual narrative of Surrealism, the curators argue, tends to peter out around 1939, when many European artists were forced to flee the coming war. With pieces from the 1920s to the 1980s, Surrealism beyond Borders blows right past this date, with the implication that, when it comes to such international movements, the assumption that the Second World War was a global caesura is another Eurocentric artefact that we need to question.

The talisman of the show is a Surrealist map of the world first published, unsigned, in the Belgian journal Variétés in 1929. In this mostly anti-Mercator projection, a reduced Europe is subsumed by Germany, Austria and Hungary; only Ireland remains of the British Isles; Russia has absorbed Eastern Europe; and China is diminished, as is Africa. The United States and Canada are given over to Alaska and Labrador respectively; Greenland retains its scale, as does Mexico, even as South America shrinks. Other parts of the Global South expand, but not along the lines of contemporary concerns about deprivation and inequality. Blown up beyond recognition are the archipelagos of the Pacific – from the Easter Islands through the Solomons to New Guinea up to Hawaii and the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west coast of Canada. The map privileges this vast Oceanic region because the Surrealists favoured its Indigenous art, which is generally more imagistic than African sculpture and more outlandish in its totemic combinations of animal and human forms. And the Expressionists and Cubists had already plundered African art for formal inspiration, which is presumably why Africa appears so small on the Surrealist map.

The map turns the entire world into an archipelago, and the exhibition attempts the same with Surrealism: it wants ‘to challenge the hierarchies of cultural dominance’ by way of ‘a transnational and multidirectional reading’ of the movement to reveal ‘the adjacencies, connections and confluences of ideas’. In this ‘history of rhizomatic connectivity’, Surrealism arrived from the metropoles via visitors, magazines, letters and rumours, or sprouted all but autochthonously from regional cultures, or, more commonly, developed through a combination of the two. In any case, there were always ‘local variations and specific applications’. Implicit in the show, then, is a form of ‘archipelagic thought’ now associated with the Martiniquais poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, for whom ‘continental thought’ sees ‘the world as a single block, as a mass, as a projection’, whereas archipelagic thought ‘thinks not in the world, which would have brought back the idea of conquest and domination, but with the world – in terms of relationships and equivalences (of difference)’.

Despite good intentions, many of us still order culture in terms not only of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ but also of ‘original’ and ‘belated’: with movements like Surrealism, what happens in Paris is taken to be a primary cause and what appears elsewhere a secondary effect. The curators chafe against this deterministic notion of artistic influence – ‘our project proposes Surrealism as a fractured process rather than a singular one propelled by formal progress’ – and have structured the show as a ‘network’ of dispersed artists and writers. (This model was pioneered ten years ago to great effect in Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 at the Museum of Modern Art.) Implicit in the exhibition, however, are two more provocative arguments. The first is that some contexts, such as the Caribbean of Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, were always already Surrealist, founded as hybrid cultures and so intrinsically open to the collaging of images and ideas – an assumption that might risk a primitivism of its own. The second, derived from the Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade, is more radical still. ‘We already had a Surrealist language,’ Andrade writes in the Cannibalist Manifesto (1928). Imperial Europe was gobbled up by the New World, and ‘the sacred enemy’ was transformed ‘into a totem’. In this way Andrade flips lateness into firstness and clears an imaginative space for other narratives: ‘Against the stories of men that begin in Cape Finisterre. The world without dates. Without rubrics. Without Napoleon. Without Caesar.’

Whichever scenario we favour – artistic network, innate Surrealism or cannibalistic culture – ‘the condition of dépaysement (being unlanded)’, the curators argue, was central to Surrealism. At the same time they acknowledge that the effects of dislocation were distributed unequally: where for some dépaysement felt like freedom, others experienced it as displacement from home (the show includes many diasporic artists), and others still as oppression at home (Surrealists in the Eastern Bloc, for example). For all Surrealism’s political bona fides – early on, the Breton group staged an anti-colonial exhibition in Paris, and later supported the uprising in Algeria, among other gestures – colonialism was one of its conditions of possibility: many of the Oceanic objects that beguiled the Parisians came from French colonies, and even the Surrealist map is imperial in its carving up of the world. More problematically, the Surrealists often conflated otherness within (the unconscious) with otherness without (colonial cultures) in a way that, however disruptive to European norms of subjectivity, was also fundamentally primitivist. Although the curators are aware of these problems – they call them ‘the fantasy of solidarity and the fallacy of appropriation’ – they also insist on ‘the alignment of Surrealism’s dépaysement with postcolonialism’s worlding’. Both things have to be thought at the same time.

For the curators the chief aim of Surrealism was to explore automatism, the dream and the uncanny – in short, the unconscious – and to connect personal freedom to social liberation through revolutionary desire. This is true, but it isn’t very different from existing accounts. Many of the formats on display are also familiar. The Surrealist image was derived from the fractured perspective of the ‘metaphysical paintings’ of de Chirico, which Max Ernst combined with Dada collage techniques and delivered as a template to Surrealists-to-be in his revelatory show in Paris in May 1921. In Belgium, Magritte soon developed a related model of the image – Ernst called it ‘painted collage’ – that was also disruptive in composition but more uniform in facture, and it was even more influential. Meanwhile Yves Tanguy, along with Dalí, contributed the picture as barren dreamscape, a lush version of which was later conjured by Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning. Remedios Varo pushed this kind of painting towards medievalesque illustration, while Frida Kahlo spiked it with symbols of personal and native trauma. Others painted dream chambers which sometimes open onto dreamscapes; Rimbaud’s metaphor for the unconscious – ‘a drawing room at the bottom of a lake’ – is one antecedent here. The show also features plenty of distorted figures, often human-animal hybrids, that suggest a Surrealist version of the grotesque, and objects of ‘symbolic function’ (as Dalí called them) which are often fetishistic in appearance and sometimes sadistic in effect (think of the early ‘disagreeable objects’ of Giacometti).

These formats recur throughout the exhibition, and sometimes they harden into clichés. The curators are reluctant to acknowledge this partial typification of Surrealism (they also overlook its partial recuperation by advertising and movies, a fate shared by psychoanalysis), perhaps because it brings back the spectres of influence and lateness. But then these spectres can’t wholly be dispelled by invocations of ‘rhizomatic connectivity’. How exactly does a ‘network’ operate anyway? And might the synchronic model tilt the presentation of this (or any) movement away from historical understanding? Historicisation doesn’t necessarily streamline narratives and exclude artists, as the curators fear. Sometimes extending a purview can thin it out, and sometimes inclusion can come at the cost of coherence.

Yet the primary contribution of the show is its generous sweep, even though, with its many abrupt juxtapositions, it sometimes resembles an exquisite corpse writ large. Like the exhibition, the catalogue oscillates between ‘specific applications’ of Surrealism and Surrealism as a general sensibility. This oscillation amounts to a kind of method for the curators, who are guided by a line from Leonora Carrington: ‘The task for the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.’ That double vision might work for an artist, but what about a student of Surrealism, let alone an amateur? What is lost without more mediation between the far and the near, the big picture and the small? Of course, the fact that this show raises such questions is a virtue in itself, and certainly it acts as a prompt to further scholarship and curatorship. Surrealism beyond Borders is an important step – at once smart and bold – towards a decolonial account of European modernism.

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