Courtesy of The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
As Surrealism moved across oceans and continents, a commitment to social progress remained a core, yet little recognized, tenet of the movement.
By 1935, a decade or so after being formally established in Paris via a published manifesto, Surrealism had spread. Prevalent in locations as geographically dispersed as England, Japan, and the Canary Islands, it would continue to rapidly gather momentum worldwide. Two years later, the periodical Minotaure featured a photo essay on international Surrealist publications, citing titles from Denmark, Egypt, Peru, Poland and the United States, among others. By that time, the movement had also evolved in Chile, China, Korea, and Mexico, its continuous dynamism propelled by a revolutionary spirit. Traditionally understood as a rebellion against the rational mind, and, by extension, the rules of a society deemed oppressive, Surrealism championed unconscious thought, resulting in works that focused on interiority. At the same time, many Surrealists were committed to works that included real-world engagement as a means to navigate social change—an urgent project that is still unfolding.
Surrealism Beyond Borders—the extensive survey of this boundless phenomenon organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tate Modern, where it is now on view—spans fifty countries and includes over 150 artists and presents Surrealism as transnational and multifarious at its core. Moving far beyond the recycled narrative relating to Breton, Dalí, and Magritte, to name just a few of the European figures whose names have become synonymous with the movement, the exhibition repositions Surrealism as a cultural inclination, adopted and revised by artists all over the world, throughout the 20th century, refuting the notion that Parisian Surrealism was simply exported and disseminated.
© Estate of Wifredo Lam
There are some meaningful discoveries here which, despite displaying routine Surrealist strains, present the movement’s tropes in new contexts. Helen Lundeberg’s "Plant and Animal Analogies" (1933–34) is a masterclass in juxtapositions, where anatomical specimens are positioned next to what appear to be their botanical counterparts. In the corner, a knife has just been used to cut some cherries. The provocative sequence extends to the painting’s background, where a mother helps her infant to walk. Lundeberg organized the Los Angeles “Post Surrealists” in 1934, Southern California being the unexpected home of many European emigres, such as Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann, most of whom arrived under political duress. The only interwar Surrealist group in America, their manifesto is illustrated with this painting.
Across another ocean, the photorealist painting "The Sea" (1929), by the Japanese Surrealist Koga Harue, is another enthralling mix of a composition that features, among other things, a jubilant depiction of the actress Gloria Swanson, shoals of tropical fish, an airship and a submarine. Amalgamating found printed images, Koga transformed these individual pictures into a scene that relays the pleasures and technological breakthroughs of modern life. Created nine years before Magritte’s celebrated "Time Transfixed" (1938), which hangs nearby, Koga’s painting was Pop art before the term existed.
Courtesy of the artist
What becomes noticeable, as the exhibition unfolds, is the way in which Surrealism becomes used as a radical tool by artists. The further away we are from Breton and his Paris-based circle, the more likely we are to see artists embracing Surrealism as part of a wider anti-fascist and anti-colonial project—rather than one which revolves around dreams or the unconscious. As the Japanese Surrealist Takenaka Kyushichi noted in 1930: “True Surrealism cannot follow Andre Breton’s authority. The faddish kind of ‘Surrealism’ starts from Breton and never goes beyond Breton.”
In the Americas, Surrealism swirled with existent schools, as well as political exigencies. One of the galleries draws connections between Surrealists in Cuba, Haiti, and Martinique, including the writers Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, who were critical to the Négritude movement, and the painters Wifredo Lam and Hector Hyppolite. The vivid, streamlined portraits made by Hyppolite, based on mythological figures (Ogou Feray, c.1945), embody the malleability of Surrealism. In these works, surrealism takes shape through Haitian folklore. Above them, on the wall, is a quote by Suzanne Césaire dated from 1943: “Our Surrealism will enable us finally to transcend the sordid antinomies of the present… Surrealism—the tightrope of our hope.”
And as New York took over from Paris as the capital of twentieth-century art, French-born Surrealism mixed with a distinctly American art form—Jazz. Painter, musician, and Black Power activist Ted Joans proclaimed: “Jazz is my religion, and Surrealism is my point of view.” For the Illinois-raised artist, Surrealism was also armor and ammunition, as art historian Joanna Pawlik notes in the exhibition’s exceptional catalog, necessary to survive and overcome life in a racist society. Joans once lived with Charlie Parker, and commemorated him in the painting "Bird Lives!" (1958), which centers on a hunched, black silhouette, seen from behind. It hangs high up on the wall, its distance inflating the composition’s melancholy.
The section on Joans is undoubtedly one of the exhibition’s peaks, and "Long Distance" (1976–2005), an “exquisite corpse” drawing produced over 30 years and involving 132 participants on three continents, is its defining object. Joans’s version of this archetypal automatist game, where one contributor’s drawing is followed by another’s, involved the writers John Ashbery and Amiri Baraka, the poet Octavio Paz, and artists David Hammons, Dorothea Tanning and Betye Saar, to name just a few. Extending along the wall for over 30 feet, the drawing powerfully embodies the extent to which Surrealism traveled.
As it moves across continents, decades, and art forms, Surrealism Beyond Borders explores the movement’s far-reaching implications—many of which are only now beginning to be understood.