“Surrealism: Desire Unbound” at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York. February 6–May 12, 2002

Considering advance hype from Tate Modern, London, where the show originated, “Surrealism: Desire Unbound” landed flat-footed in New York. A mangled kewpie doll from Hans Bellmer, a “SADE” branding iron from Jean Benoît, a scatological shoe from Salvador Dalí: these erotic artifacts, from a simpler time, feel anodyne by contemporary standards. Penis sheaths? It takes more than that. This show failed first of all to scandalize.

More fundamental, however, was the failure to convince. A wall text in the ante-room explains: “Surrealist desire explored diverse areas from the sublime to the transgressive. Central to Surrealist thought was sexuality, the voice of the inner self and a key to understanding human nature.” The effort to cast (or recast) Surrealism as an art of sexual liberation is the show’s pretext, but it does not succeed.

You have to wonder why. In an initial room dedicated to Giorgio de Chirico—I had nothing less than a revelation. Staring appropriately into The Enigma of a Day (1914), I thought: What if this is not about sexual liberation? What if this is another version of anti-formalist narrative—with liberation thrown in for sentiment? The emperor has no clothes! For a moment, I could swear I detected de Chirico’s sailboat and steam locomotive emerging from his horizon line into view. This is a show about literature.

“It was not realistic imitation in itself that did the damage,” wrote Clement Greenberg in “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” “so much as realistic illusion in the service of sentimental and declamatory literature.” This Greenbergian history is certainly written into the art of the first half of the twentieth century, despite much contemporary disapproval, and Surrealism, if not every Surrealist artist, is still the old maid cousin of expressionism and abstraction. “Desire Unbound” is a tiny attempt to revivify Surrealism’s legacy, the legacy of literature, by displaying the lineage of anti-formal concerns—even as the show does not admit to its own devices.

The heavy rotation of de Chirico in the first room, whose works pre-date André Breton’s codification of the Surrealist collective (1924) by up to ten years, attains new meaning in this light. De Chirico is the missing link. The show calls it “orthodox space,” but what is remarkable about de Chirico, by bringing to mind an Albertian sense of Renaissance order but perhaps only its dream-like state, is the way his paintings flicker between an assembly of shapes and colors on the painted surface and the illusion of depth and space. In paintings like Ariadne (1913) and The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913), a subtle dialectic is set up between ut pictura poesis (narration) and ut pictura musica (form, immediacy), a contest that is enacted within the theatrical confines of de Chirico’s own work.

If we see de Chirico as the fork in the road, the remaining works in this show, with few exceptions, follow only the narrative path. Concerns of the medium are tossed aside in favor of illusionism. Yet it is remarkable to note the morphological indebtedness many of the Surrealist painters display towards de Chirico. Salvador Dalí repeatedly took up de Chirico’s overture to pseudo-Cartesian space but desiccated and regularized it. In Dalí there is little concern for the picture plane, but beyond the melted objects and other kookiness, his space looks a great deal like air-brushed de Chirico. In Dalí’s Meditation on the Harp (1932–1934), one can even detect a flight of birds, no larger than a few brush-hairs’ wide, emerging from ruins on the horizon, not unlike de Chirico’s obstructed boats and transports. Max Ernst likewise in Aquis Submersus (1919) strikes a remarkable resonance with Ariadne in both space and theme. (Surprisingly, Max Ernst had talent. The lush formal textures in Robing Of The Bride [1940] make you want to break up his paintings and keep only the good parts.)

Up next was a small room dedicated to the erotic photography of Man Ray, followed by another called “Transgender and desire transformed” with Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q (1919) and René Magritte’s The Rape (1934), along with Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington. Pretty self-explanatory. I then came across a sixth room by my count called “Desire and the written word.” Aha! Is this not the logical continuation of the story line? Ut pictura poesis becomes pictura poesis est. One can see the visual arts dissolving into the narrative and textual arts, and here arranged was a reliquary of manuscripts to that effect: Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928), Breton’s erotic Nadja (1928), and the romantic poetry of Paul Éluard (which, by the way, communicates little of the Symbolist Verlaine’s concern for “la musique avant toute chose”). Divided by a narrow space set aside for Picasso’s Nude Sketch by the Sea (1929) and Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) (looking here lithe and forlorn after the MOMA retrospective), there was another room dedicated to text: Bataille’s Mme Edwarda with engravings by Hans Bellmer (1955).

The final spaces of the show featured a few literal gems by Joseph Cornell, including Taglioni Jewel Casket (1940) and L’Egypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode, cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle (1940), the village-idiot self-portraits of Claude Cahun, and a large final room meant to mimic the Surrealists’ last show: the 1959 “Eros” exhibition in Paris. It is here that “Desire Unbound” has highjacked an important Pollock (Pasiphaë [1943]) and two Gorkys. But by this point the show’s own narrative had sealed its fate, as the Surrealist movement did to itself, and these paintings seemed little more than stage props to a failing production. With the dissolution of visual concerns, the movement had played itself out. In my mind’s eye I returned to The Enigma of a Day (1914), with its space now superimposed onto the maze-like rooms of the show, and I could see this narrative theater slowly curving into an abîme.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 9, on page 51
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