A Century of Rhapsody: Unveiling the Dreamscapes of Surrealism

Salvador Dali’s “The Lobster Telephone” is macabre and captivating, René Magritte’s “Magic Mirror” presents an uncanny tableau, Joan Miró conjures “Dream Painting” amidst deprivation, Alberto Giacomé Ti bestowed upon his sculpture the chilling epithet “Woman with a Severed Throat”, and Max Ernst etched fantastical vistas of “ocean” and “forest” upon the canvas…

The year 2024 marks the centenary of the Surrealist Manifesto’s publication. In February, the Shanghai Pudong Art Museum unveiled the new exhibition “A Hundred Years of Rhapsody: Surrealist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Scotland.” Over a hundred dreamlike and enigmatic artworks beckon the audience into the realm of surrealism, offering glimpses into the psyche of the rhapsodists amidst the tumult of war. Revolution — the fusion of seemingly disparate elements — evokes the sentiment, “How exquisite, akin to an encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine on the dissecting table.” (excerpt from “Song of Maldoror”)

The emergence of Surrealism at the outset of the 20th century was a poignant rejoinder to the tragedy of war and the multifarious perils of modernity. It burgeoned, resonating profoundly within the cultural milieu. Inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis, Surrealists forsook conventional artistic methodologies, delving deep into the recesses of the subconscious. Their untamed imaginations and nonsensical expressions not only allegorized reality with profundity but also facilitated a liberating interplay between the tangible and intangible realms. Works delving into the human psyche often appeared peculiar, enigmatic, and occasionally unsettling. Yet, in the words of André Breton, the vanguard of Surrealism, artists are “visionaries who dare to defy the status quo,” urging humanity to disrupt its perceptions of established orders, to traverse the uncharted, to discover anew, and to “become prescient selves.”

“This era of ignominy has not laid claim to our reverence.”

“Our tavern serves as a gesture. Every uttered word and sung lyric herein underscores one truth: this era of ignominy has not vanquished our dignity.” (Hugo Ball, founder of the Dada group)

From 1914 to 1918, the First World War claimed the lives of over 10 million individuals. In response, a cohort of writers and artists congregated in the neutral haven of Switzerland to evade the ravages of war. In 1916, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and their compatriots founded the Dada group at Zurich’s nocturnal haunt, the “Café Voltaire.” Bedecked in bizarre attire, they subverted expectations through absurd recitations of poetry and musical performances, eliciting varied reactions from their audience. Their objective was social upheaval, encapsulated in the meaningless mantra “Dada,” symbolizing their anarchic literary and artistic pursuits. Confronted with the grotesque carnage of war, Dadaists espoused the notion that the only fitting response was to expose its absurdity.

Soon, Dada’s ethos of anti-art and anti-establishment fervor disseminated across Germany, France, and the United States, exerting a profound influence on the Surrealist movement. Coined by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the term “surrealism” made its debut in the preface to his 1917 poetic opus “The Breasts of Tiresias”: “Man initially sought to mimic ambulation; the resultant wheel bears scant semblance to a limb. Thus, surreality is unwittingly engendered.”

In the early 1920s, French poets André Breton and Paul Éluard, erstwhile members of the Dada group, broke away to establish the Surrealist movement. While they shared Dada’s disdain for the prevailing political climate, Surrealists eschewed its inherent nihilism, endeavoring instead to effectuate political and personal transformation through the active exploration of the subconscious and the repudiation of rational thought in their creative endeavors.

“Surrealism, epitomizing the unconscious machinations of the mind, constitutes a modus operandi for articulating thoughts via oral, written, or any other medium. It is wholly beholden to cognition, emancipated from rational constraints, and unfettered by aesthetic or moral imperatives.” In 1924, André Breton’s seminal “Surrealist Manifesto” heralded the advent of Surrealism in Paris. “In my estimation, it shall not be long before the ostensibly incongruous states of dream and reality coalesce into an absolute reality, or ‘hyperreality.’ It is this hyperreality that I pursue ardently; to taste even a modicum of its delights within my lifetime would render my sojourn complete.”

Originally a literary movement championing “automatic writing” — the spontaneous, unfiltered transcription of thought devoid of preconceived narrative or meaning — Surrealism coalesced under the leadership of Breton. A fortuitous encounter with likeminded artists such as Max Ernst of Germany and Joan Miró of Spain led to their inclusion in the Surrealist fold. In 1925, their works graced the “Exhibition of Surrealist Painting,” the inaugural showcase of Surrealist art, held at Galerie Pierre in Paris.

The first segment of the “Century of Rhapsody” exhibition in Shanghai, titled “1916 to 1929: From Dada to Surrealism,” envelops visitors in a dusky, violet-tinged ambiance, evoking the pall cast by World War I. It highlights the seminal contributions of Ernst and Miró, showcasing numerous seminal works from this epoch by visual artists affiliated with the Surrealist movement.

Breton lauded Ernst as “a paragon of boundless imagination.” His oeuvre brimmed with creativity and fecundity. Serving on both the Eastern and Western Fronts during World War I, Ernst encountered the Dada movement while perusing Paul Klee’s exhibition in Munich in September 1919. Enthralled, he returned to Cologne to coalesce a local cadre of Dada adherents, becoming a leading figure in the regional Dadaist milieu from 1919 to 1920.

Upon affiliating with the Surrealist group, Ernst embarked upon explorations of “automatic” creative techniques, including frottage and grattage, which evoked unconscious imagery, propelling artistic expression into the profound depths of surreality. Reflecting on a rainy day in 1925, Ernst recounted his epiphany with frottage in a hotel room in Brittany, western France: “I beheld the floor with fevered eyes, seized by an overwhelming sense of fixation emanating from its grain — a texture honed by innumerable scrubbings, now accentuated. Thus, I resolved to plumb the symbolism of this fixation… and haphazardly transferred it onto paper. With soft pencil strokes, a myriad of drawings materialized. As I scrutinized these renderings intently, I was astonished to find my imagination unfurling, giving rise to a deluge of contradictory images that coalesced in a hallucinatory phantasmagoria — reminiscent of love’s memory, imbued with the ephemeral essence of eternity.”

When creating his masterpiece “Sea and Sun” in 1925, Ernst “scraped” on the uneven surface, using wet paint to outline circles and lines. The image produced by this mechanical-like movement molds the sun into a god-like eye of true knowledge, and paints its dim reflection into a dark, lifeless opposite. Ernst once said: “I firmly believe that the most beautiful thing is to close one eye and look inside. This is the so-called inner eye. The other eye is used to look directly at the real world around you and watch everything that happens. .”

Unlike Ernst’s exploration of technique, Miró “forced” himself into a creative state through fasting. Breton believed that Miró was “the most surrealist among us”. Miró believed that he could enter the unconscious spiritual world and use art to shape it. After moving to Paris in 1920, Miró began to paint a fantasy world full of strange insect images. Everything seemed to be suspended in the air, showing a certain primitive state where the biological characteristics were not clear. Soon, this wonderful symbolic language became a hallmark of Surrealist art.

Miró’s series of abstract works, which he called himself “Dream Paintings,” were not based on real dream memories, but improvised graffiti in his trance state. He said frankly: “In 1925, my paintings were almost entirely based on hallucinations. At that time, I worked every day Just eating a few dried figs…Hunger was the main trigger of these hallucinations. I would spend long hours sitting in my studio, staring at the bare walls, trying to capture those shapes on paper or burlap.”
“The delicate corpse needs new wine.”

“I’ve always tried to use the photograph the way I use color, or the way a poet uses words.”

In 1920, the German artist Hannah Houck produced a large-scale photographic montage “Using a Dada knife to cut off Germany’s last Weimar beer-belly cultural era” for the Dadaists’ exhibition in Berlin. The collage of various elements reveals the political chaos, social tensions, and pervasive sexism in art in postwar Berlin, creating a powerful visual statement.

Hawke joined the Berlin Dada group after World War I. The socially critical photographic montages she created were consistent with the left-wing political stance held by Berlin Dada, and in line with the anarchism and absurdism held by Dada groups elsewhere. The techniques are different. In 1922, she became close to the Dutch Mannerist artists, who expressed their artistic and social ideas through the language of geometric abstraction.

At the “Century of Rhapsody” exhibition in Shanghai in 2024, the first unit of the exhibition hall presented a small-scale photographic montage “From the Collection of the Museum of Ethnology” by Hawke, which she began to create in 1924. In the series, the center of the work is the torso of a child, with a Benin mask and the eyes of an adult woman affixed to the face. The figure in the painting sits on two low wooden legs, one of which is a furniture leg. Hawke attempted to challenge male cultural dominance by empowering women with a table knife called “Dada.”

As a strong advocate in the field of visual art during the Surrealist revolution, Breton did not consider himself a gifted artist, but he enthusiastically embraced various creative techniques, and collage was also one of his favorite methods of artistic expression. At the exhibition, you can see a small collage “The Decline of Bourgeois Society” created by Breton in the 1930s. The painting consists of a playground wooden horse, butterflies and a pot of blue hyacinths. There are flowers growing between the legs of the central horse. Ye, he really wanted to use this collage to celebrate popular culture, the beauty of nature and the liberation of the working class.

For most surrealists, surrealism is not only an attitude and outlook on life, but also a way of creating art. Sometimes, forms of stimulating serendipitous creation include collective collaboration and games.

At the end of 1925, Breton played the collective game “Exquisite Corpse” with the artists Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp and the poet Jacques Prévert who also gathered in Paris. It was inspired by the 19th century “Aftermath” of the old crossword puzzle popular at century indoor parties. In the game, the first player writes a sentence on a small note, then folds the note (so that no one can see the words inside) and passes it to the next player, who then adds a word on it. Then pass it on. Soon, the group of surrealist artists turned this word-writing game into a form of collaborative painting, often creating weird and awkward human bodies composed of heads, bodies, and feet drawn by each of them.

What started as a game has since developed into an important creative technique, in which artists enter a state of collective unconsciousness and create random combinations of juxtapositions. They use a set of words they used when they first made the game, and they have extended this technique to The resulting “composite” image is titled “Delicate Corpse Drinks New Wine.” Breton explained: “We allowed the ‘exquisite corpse’ to continue to develop, and finally, an impeccable creative method was born, which overrides the rational judgment of our minds and completely liberates its metaphorical power.”

In 1927, the Belgian artist Reni Magritte moved from Brussels to the suburbs of Paris and lived there for three years. In addition, he lived in Belgium almost all his life. Unlike most Surrealist artists, Magritte was not very interested in entering the subconscious through “automatic” techniques, but loved to think about how to present unique philosophical ideas in his Surreal paintings. For example, in order to answer the question “How do I draw a glass of water like a genius?”, he completed “Hegel’s Holiday” with a weird combination of a glass and an umbrella.

There is a work called “Magic Mirror” at the exhibition site. In “The Magic Mirror”, Magritte explores the complex and mysterious referential relationship between words and images by showing two French words “corps humain” (human body) and integrating them into the painting. In 1929, he created his masterpiece “This Is Not a Pipe” using a similar game of words and images.

“It seems to me that thought consists only of visible things, and it can be made visible through painting.”

Magritte’s artistic creations, from conception to presentation, all reflect the prudence and skill of an academic painter. He often depicts everyday things in a highly realistic manner, but uses strange settings, unbalanced proportions and strange combinations to create a strange dream. . In the summer of 1929, Magritte lived in Dalí’s house in Cadaqués, Spain, and created “Severe Weather”, which clearly demonstrates the contrast he deliberately created between his painting techniques and the subject of the painting. In the painting, Magritte’s descriptions of the beach, ocean and sky appear dull and plain, but he painted the three huge clouds as a combination of a female body, a tuba and a seat. It seems to be an illogical and charming scene, but it is An unexpected shocking effect.

After the war, Magritte continued to create various visual puzzles. He used traditional brushwork to depict those misguided appearances, making impossible dream illusions seem extremely real. In 1950, Magritte once again used the chair as the theme to create the important work “Legend of the Century” in the middle of his career. In the painting, he played with scale and material, painting a chair “made” of stone, which resembled a wall of boulders; another chair of normal size was stacked on top of this giant stone. On the chair – in Magritte, everything operates on contradiction, derealization undergoes transformation, forming a cold victory of irony.

In April 1937, Nazi Germany sent warplanes to bomb the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. This atrocity aroused widespread condemnation. Magritte responded with creation. “I painted a painting called ‘Black Flag’ to give people a glimpse of the terror brought about by flying machines, and I was not at all proud of how well I painted it.”

Entering the exhibition hall of the second unit of the exhibition, “1930 to 1938: The Expansion Period of Surrealism,” the scene is filled with dark red, which is reminiscent of various atrocities in the war. Magritte’s “Black Flag” hangs here. The strange “aircraft” in the painting seem to be unmanned. One of them has a porthole window and even a curtain. The strange picture further shows the sinister intentions and evil intentions of these “monsters”. Huge lethality. Magritte originally named this work “The Hidden Dungeon in the Night.” The title he later changed to “Black Flag” also pointed to anarchism and a stance of not supporting any country.

In 1936, Ernst created a painting “Joy of Life”. The title of the work seems to be some kind of irony on Matisse’s 1905 painting of the same name – in that famous painting, Matisse’s people are indulged in the sensory world. The vulgar taste, the bright colors flashing with joy. But Ernst’s works are terrifying if you think about them carefully: the lush green leaves and light white flowers in the painting seem to be filled with pastoral atmosphere, but if you look closely, you will see that there are many vicious insects hidden in the green plants, and they are exposed one by one. Sharp fangs, the vague harmony seems to be about to be shattered by a life and death battle.

Ernst was living in France at the time, and his native Germany had been under Nazi rule for three years. The Nazis believed in the survival of the fittest idea of ​​”Social Darwinism” rather than universal social harmony. The scene depicted in Ernst’s painting makes people feel some ominous omen – war and violence are about to engulf Germany and most of Europe.

In the early 1930s, Swiss artist Giacometti studied sculpture in Paris and had a close relationship with the Surrealists. The war was looming. At that time, Giacometti tried to release the fear and desire in his heart through creation, and implanted the darker and more sensational sex and violence in life into the artistic practice of Surrealism. “What interests me is no longer the external form of things, but how I feel in life.”

In 1932, Giacometti created one of his most disturbing sculptures, “Woman with a Cut Throat”: a dying woman shaped like a dangerous insect, with her right leg curled up aggressively under her abdomen. Her arched body can be interpreted as an expression of sexual ecstasy, or as a trap with traps. Some people interpret it as meaning that the female mantis will eat the head of the male mantis during mating. It is said that Breton was I have a praying mantis as a pet at home.

Surrealist works are full of various “metamorphoses”, including mantises and lobsters.

“I’m curious why when I order grilled lobster in a restaurant, I never get a call that it’s done. I don’t understand why champagne is always refrigerated and why we’re in the habit of having such a horrible, warm and annoying call But not in a silver bucket with crushed ice.” In his autobiography “The Secret Life of Salvador Dali”, Dali revealed his motivation for creating “The Lobster Phone” in a joking tone.

“The Lobster Telephone” is one of the most famous masterpieces of Surrealist art. It is a typical “auxiliary readymade”: an everyday object that changes it in a specific way and gives it a new meaning. To stimulate a reaction in the audience, Dali transformed an ordinary telephone so that the user’s mouth would be exactly opposite the lobster’s genitals. As a result, the sexually suggestive “lobster phone” became the “symbolic item” he expected.

In early 1938, Dali also exhibited a version using a real lobster. In July of the same year, he met with his British patron Edward James and decided on a whim to make a real working lobster phone for James’ residence. James commissioned him to make 11 plaster lobsters (7 white, 4 red), each of which fit perfectly into the telephone receiver.

Before joining the Surrealist group in Paris, Dalí had achieved international fame but also controversy. He is known for his self-proclaimed “paranoid critical approach” – subverting people’s conventional understanding of the world by taking paranoid delusions seriously. There is a small painting “Signal of Pain” with delicate brushstrokes at the “Hundred Years of Rhapsody” exhibition, which shows the “joke” deliberately created by Dali: the hair of the woman with her back to the audience can also be seen as the face of an elderly man with a bulbous nose. . When people only see women, the scene in the painting is a typical male sexual fantasy; but when the woman becomes an old man, this fantasy is instantly broken…

In the summer of 1936, the historic “International Surrealist Exhibition” was held in London. Dali shocked the audience with his appearance: he was covered in a bulky diving suit and had several Russian wolfhounds by his side. The dramatic scene is that people came to watch Dali’s “performance” and almost forgot that his diving helmet was waterproof but not breathable. He almost suffocated because of it. It was the young surrealist British poet David Gascoigne who saved him. Got him. After recovering, Dali breathlessly explained his costume: “I just want to show that I have ‘deeply penetrated’ people’s thoughts.” The next day, Dali made the front page of the news.

After World War II, the terrorist threat of nuclear war pervaded the world, and Dali created many works based on the imagery of nuclear explosions. In “Raphaelite Broken Head” in 1951, he integrated the head of the Virgin painted by Raphael with the internal structure of the Pantheon in Rome. Both are well-known and eternal cultural symbols. The head explodes into a whirlwind of fragments, which point to another material that fascinated Dalí: the rhinoceros horn, considered a sacred source of origin because of its logarithmic spiral growth.

When guiding the “A Hundred Years of Rhapsody” exhibition, Simon Grom, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Scotland, spoke highly of this work: “There are visible things in the painting – elements of Raphael’s classical portraits, The majesty of Roman architecture, but also that invisible force, all in the same painting, Dali once again opened up a stunning multiplicity of images.”
“I’m warning you, I refuse to be a plaything”

“[Her works] are bright and tinged with a dark and ominous light, just like her inner world.”

In the 1930s, Surrealism spread from France to other countries. In 1934, a Surrealist group was established in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Breton visited the group in 1935 and became its supporter and close friend. He spoke highly of the work of artist Toyin.

Toyn is the founder of the Czech Surrealist group and the most representative artist. She left home at the age of 16 and went to a soap factory to make a living. She describes herself as a “homeless” lone wolf. By joining the anarchist movement, Toyin protested against bourgeois conventions, family, social and cultural authority, and in 1923 she gave up her birth name, Marie Cherminova, and gave herself the gender-neutral name Toyin ( Toyen), which is said to be derived from the abbreviation of “citoyen” (Citoyen) during the French Revolution. Some people believe that it is a variation of the Czech phrase “to je on” (it is him). Toyin tried to break away from the “shackles” of traditional women by the world. She cut her hair short, wore a tuxedo and a tie around her neck, and was active in the art circle and various social activities.

“Message from the Forest” presented live in this exhibition is the largest and most important work created by Toyin. In the painting, a giant blue bird with gorgeous feathers stands abruptly in the thickly painted gloomy forest, holding a girl’s head at its feet… Toyin never gives an explanation for his works. Ghostly ghosts, fragmented girls and animal figures are classic elements in her surrealist paintings. In any case, these frightening nightmarish images must be related to war…

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Surrealist group in Paris gradually disintegrated, and artists either went into exile or returned to their home countries. In the exhibition hall of the third unit “1939 to the late 20th century: Surrealism during the exile and post-war period”, the first thing that catches the eye is a portrait of Ernst painted by the British artist Leonora Carrington. . Surrealism offered personal and political liberation to like-minded fellows, but some women artists and poets suffered from being treated as muses rather than equals by their male counterparts, and as Carrington said, “I warn you , I refuse to be a plaything.”

At the age of 19, Carrington entered London’s Austrian Academy of Fine Arts to study. At a dinner party, the young girl met Ernst and fell in love with him. After moving to Paris in 1937, Carrington met many important members of the Surrealist group and participated in the landmark “International Surrealist Exhibition” in Paris in January 1938. Carrington was “gentle, but with a hint of mockery in his eyes.” Like most women in the art world at the time, she was regarded as a muse, but Breton called her a witch.

In 1938, Ernst left his wife and moved to the south of France with Carrington. Around 1939, she created this “Portrait of Max Ernst.” In the painting, Ernst is wearing a dark red feathered cloak and bright yellow striped stockings that resemble bird’s paws, because he often compared himself to the image of a bird, and named this bird that symbolized his other self “Loplo”. “Loplop”; Carrington often compared horses to horses in his paintings and short stories. In the portrait, Ernst holds a lantern with a pony inside. The meaning of the scene is unclear: the horse may be leading Ernst forward, or it may be trapped in a cage and at the mercy of others. The background of the picture is a land of ice and snow, indicating that the road ahead for the two of them will soon be frozen.

The outbreak of World War II essentially ended the lovers’ relationship. Ernst was a German who was first imprisoned by the French as an “enemy citizen” and later imprisoned by the Gestapo as a “degenerate artist”. Carrington fled from France to Spain. The sensitive Carrington was sent to a mental hospital by her family and experienced imprisonment, electric shocks and other tortures. Her dreams were filled with painful and violent images, and these elements would appear repeatedly in her works in the future.

Eventually, Carrington and Ernst escaped to New York by different means. Ernst fled to the United States with the help of collector Peggy Guggenheim (the two married in 1942), and Carrington obtained asylum from friends at the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal, and obtained a visa to the United States.

After the war, New York became the new center of Surrealism. Dorothea Tanning was a self-taught artist born in the American Midwest. While visiting the “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” exhibition in New York in 1936, she realized that her creations had something in common with the liberating power of Surrealism: “I thought, Oh my gosh! I can keep doing what I’ve been doing. It’s something you’re doing!”

From then on, Tanning began to paint in a surrealist style, and her art caught Ernst’s eye. The two married in 1946, and she became Ernst’s fourth wife. Ernst raised a Lhasa Apso named “Kachina”. This dog originally belonged to his ex-wife Guggenheim. In a strange way, it became the relationship between Ernst and Guggenheim. Part of the divorce agreement became a symbol of Ernst and Tanning’s emotions. The dog appears in several of Tanning’s works. In the 1954 “Life Painting”, it is in a standing position, holding a woman in its arms: is it domination? Or love and protection? The original French title of this work means “Embrace” or “Binding,” a metaphor for the ambiguous relationship between dogs and women. The painting was one of Tanning’s favorite works and she kept it hanging above her desk.

In the 1960s, Tanning also began to create “soft sculptures”. The “Original Seat” at the “Century of Rhapsody” exhibition is a surrealist sculpture transformed from an antique chair. She had used the chair while living in France, and shortly after returning to the United States in 1979, she rewrapped it in animal print fabric and added a tail. “I had a little bit of material left, so I added a tail to it. Tail.”

In her long career, Tanning has tried painting, sculpture and printmaking. The collection of works “Seven Species of Haunted Danger” that appeared in the Shanghai exhibition hall this time is her first attempt at lithography. An atlas of dangerous situations. Compared to the seven deadly sins, I prefer the seven dangerous situations that hide ghosts and ghosts. There are more dangers than sins in life.”

Indeed, in that war-torn era, surrealist dreamers fell into various dangers. In 1942, Carrington moved from the United States to Mexico, where he lived for the rest of his life. After experiencing war, physical and mental torture, this brave woman finally gained “freedom” in artistic creation. She wrote in “Underground” published in 1944: “The war must be stopped and the world must be liberated. It will Being ‘stuck’ like I am.”

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