Understanding the fun side of Surrealism

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Part of the reason for the success of Surrealism in the 1920s and ’30s was its sexual dimension. This element, covered over by a veneer of respectable intellectualism, had a powerful attraction at a time when sexuality was much more circumscribed by social morality than it is today. Although many Surrealist artworks are not sexual, one of the things that defined the movement was its general atmosphere of eroticism and amoral liberation.

In view of this, it is interesting that the Sompo Japan Museum of Art has chosen to slant their exhibition of Surrealist art in the direction of children. “Jeux Surrealisme: An encounter that changes people’s lives” brings together around 200 surrealist works that the organizers claim promote an atmosphere of child-friendly play.

“At this exhibition,” the museum website says, “we have focused the spotlight on the ‘play’ factor in surrealism, marked by innovation and light-heartedness.”

With school trips and special workshops being organized and free entry for anyone under high school age, the exhibition is sure to be seen by a large number of kids. Of course, coming into this exhibition from an environment where sex is much more culturally prominent than it was in the time of the Surrealists, it is not likely that any child’s morals will be hurt by what’s on display here, although Salvador Dali’s odd, voodoo-like sculpture “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” (1933) might give some of them bad dreams.

The most sexually explicit work on display is a photographic print from Man Ray’s 1933 “Erotique Voilée” (veiled eroticism) series. Ray photographed his fellow artist, Méret Oppenheim, naked with an inky printing press with some of the ink rubbing off on her. Oppenheim, who was 20 at the time, would later create one of the most famous Surrealist works, “Lunch in Fur,” a 1936 sculpture consisting of a fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon, which invited Freudian analysis. Alas, this is not included in the exhibition.

Although Surrealism is mainly remembered for its art, in France, where it was based, it was also a literary movement in which puns and poetry played important parts. Indeed, the movement’s leader, André Breton, was not an artist but a writer and poet. Breton appears in several of the photographs and in a very atypical painting by the German surrealist Max Ernst called “A Friends Reunion” (1922). This shows many of the great names of the movement in a group painting that mimics the style of a children’s illustrated encyclopedia.

Most of the literary side of Surrealism is lost on anybody who doesn’t have an elementary grasp of French, but here are some traces of this literary side in the titles of several of the artworks, most notably in Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” a 1964 ‘reissue’ of a work he originally did in 1919, when he scrawled a moustache on a cheap postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa, along with the letters “L, H, O, O, Q.” Read in French, these sound out a sentence that means “She has a hot ass.”

Of greater interest than this piece of artistic graffiti are the collages by Ernst. These are the kind of works that, when you see them, you immediately think, “Yes, I could do that,” but which are intriguing nonetheless. These take old prints from books and incorporate elements from other prints to create humorous twists. These are complemented by a series of similar photographic collages by the Japanese artist Toshiko Okanoue.

Collage is just one of several techniques that the artistically inventive Ernst pioneered. In 1925 he also invented a technique called “frottage,” where paper or canvas is placed over a textured surface that is then rubbed with a pencil to create random images that he then “interpreted” to produce paintings, such as his “Petrified Forest” (1927).

Collage and frottage are two techniques that could readily be applied to the museum’s declared goal of inspiring children’s creativity, but the exhibition also carries an unwittingly negative message. Covering the entire history of Surrealism, it also demonstrates how a movement once so fertile in inspirations could also burn itself out. Perhaps the main reason for this was its cynicism and a lack of any real ideals beyond the desire to appear clever.

The last great hope of Surrealism was the Chilean painter Roberto Matta, who is well represented here. But his colorful biomorphic forms seem to writhe around on their airless alien worlds in a hopeless search to find meaning — pathetic remnants of a movement once distinguished by its overweening confidence.

“Jeux Surrealisme: An encounter that changes people’s lives” at the Sompo Museum of Art runs till Aug. 25; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.sompo-japan.co.jp/museum