The Centre Pompidou brings the surreal to Tokyo

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

In its passage from the art world into everyday speech, the word “surreal” has ended up as mere shorthand for the bizarre and the unusual. But it originally referred to something deeper.

Coined by the French poet Guilaume Apollinaire from the words “sur” (“beyond”) and “realisme” (“realism”), “Surrealism” was adopted by another poet, Andre Breton, who described it as “thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations,” in his “The Surrealist Manifesto” of 1924.

Breton and the other original Surrealists were poets, but their ideas soon emerged in the visual arts, just as the movement spread internationally from its original base in 1920s Paris.

“Le Surrealism: Exposition organisee par Le Pompidou a partir de sa Collection” at The National Art Center, Tokyo brings together more than 170 Surrealist artworks, mainly paintings and drawings but also sculptures, from the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. These include big names, such as Salvador Dali and Man Ray, as well as lesser-known practitioners. It also highlights 120 books, periodicals, photographs and other documents relating to the movement.

The exhibition opens with a tip of the hat to the Dada movement, which was based in Europe during and after World War I, whose members countered the absurdity of the destruction around them with equally absurd artworks, performances and nonsense poems.

“Bottle Rack” (1914), a rack used for drying bottles by fringe Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, is considered the first true “readymade” — an everyday object elevated to the status of an artwork simply because the artist designated it as such. A replica of the long-gone original is displayed here, showing off its curious, spiky shadow.

The Surrealists emerged from the ashes of Dada, armed with Dadaist radical non-conformity as well as Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, where our deeper fears and desires concerning death, sexuality and violence linger.

Also featured are a few haunting and enigmatic paintings from a full decade before Surrealism, by the Greek-Italian Giorgio de Chirico, who was adopted by the Surrealists as one of their own. Like many of de Chirico’s works, “Melancholy of the Afternoon” (1913) wrenches objects from their everyday environment and renders them mysterious in a new context. Here, two huge cabbages sit in a cityscape with a train billowing smoke in the distance.

One of the many artists de Chirico influenced greatly was the Belgian Rene Magritte, loosely associated with the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s, whose works exemplify the visual and logical paradoxes and dreamlike qualities they promoted.

The exhibition showcases half a dozen of Magritte’s works, including two that are somewhat disturbing: “Red Model” (1935), which depicts a pair of lace-up boots that morph into a pair of human feet, and the 1945 version of “Le Viol,” showing a face composed of the private parts of a woman.

The exhibition also looks at other techniques the Surrealists used, such as the “exquisite corpse,” involving an artist drawing part of a picture, folding it over so it can’t be seen and passing it on to the next artist to continue with. This at times created fantastic hybrid creatures that no artist could have invented alone. The technique was adapted from the Surrealist poets, who would alternately write a line or a few words of a poem.

Similarly, the paintings of Joan Miro and the drawings of Andre Masson are a pictorial equivalent of automatic writing — texts unrestrained by grammar or logic. Masson in particular often worked when exhausted, after deliberately depriving himself of sleep, or otherwise attempting to bypass the conscious to enter his unconscious mind.

The rhythm, energy and unplanned results of such approaches ultimately led to one of Jackson Pollock’s techniques — dripping paint directly onto canvas as the spirit took him. Pollock’s slightly more figurative “The Moon-woman Cuts the Circle” is included toward the end of the exhibition, alongside the work of a new generation of Surrealism-inspired artists who continued to work after the original members had split or had passed on.

This last section illustrates a few missed opportunities. For an exhibition in Japan, there is no inclusion of Japanese artists influenced by Surrealism, and it is also arguably more interesting to look not so much at those who gamely continued with the style within the fine art world, but more at how Surrealist ideas affected our wider visual culture through comedy (Monty Python anyone?) and especially advertising.

Nonetheless, “Le Surrealisme” successfully brings together a huge range of Surrealist output in the largest exhibition of its kind ever staged in Japan.

“Le Surrealism: Exposition organisee par Le Pompidou a partir de sa Collection” at The National Art Center, Tokyo runs till May 9; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Tue. For more information, visit www.nact.jp