A blockbuster exhibition, "Surrealism: Desire Unbound" at the Metropolitan Museum through May 12, documents the art of pure imagination that had its roots in Dadaist visual puns of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and had its final flowering in the abstractions of Joan Miro and the pre-drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.
The story, a fascinating one marked by an adolescent obsession with anything risqué, is told by more than 300 paintings, sculpture, photographs, films, poems, manuscripts, books and pamphlets, some of them pornographic. The show is an adaptation by the Metropolitan of an even larger exhibit organized by the Tate Gallery in London last year.
Surrealism, which influenced poetry and prose, was the first major art movement that openly addressed a wide range of human sexuality and coincided with an upsurge of interest in the writings of Sigmund Freud. Artists freed themselves from the scruples of lingering Victorianism and explored the subconscious where desire could be liberated to find fulfillment in a world of magnificent muses and ambivalent monsters.
Their quest for a new artistic freedom is summed up by one painting in the exhibition, Max Ernst's 1940 "The Robing of the Bride," which makes veiled reference to Medieval witchcraft and the Roman Catholic inquisition and was selected for the cover of the show's catalog (Princeton University Press, 352 pages, $65).
It depicts two ripe nude female figures, possibly sorceresses, one of them fabulously robed in a red feather cloak with an evil bird's head hood, the other wearing only a flaring fan-like headdress. They are attended by a green heron carrying a broken speak, representing an inquisitor in the act of exorcising a hermaphroditic monster.
The painting is full of mystery, which is part of the fascination of Ernst's paintings as it is of most Surrealist work, particularly the paintings of Dali. It is the essence of the works of an Italian Metaphysical painter, Giorgio de Chirico, whose spare, classic dreamscapes did much to inspire the Surrealist style.
French poet and critic Andre Breton, who was to become the promoter-spokesman-philosopher of Surrealism, is said to have glimpsed a de Chirico painting in a gallery window from a moving bus in Paris in 1916 and couldn't wait to buy it as a model to which young painters of his acquaintance could aspire.
This pivotal painting, "The Child's Brain," is in the show. It depicts a nude, exuberantly mustached nude male figure in a classic setting of pillars and arches confronted by a closed yellow book with a red bookmarker, a father figure of threatening yet seductive power. If Surrealism represents a revolution in art, then this odd work must be the equivalent of the storming of the Bastille.
The show opens with a Dali fantasy, "Venus With Drawers," a 1936 white plaster Venus de Milo with her body punctuated with six drawers, and moves on to Duchamp's famous "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even," a delicate painting on glass of strange mechanisms representing the pushes and pulls of desire that the artist worked and reworked between 1915 and 1923.
A selection of Man Ray photos illustrates how he took household objects like an egg beater and transformed them into erotic imagery not unlike the paintings of spark plugs by Francis Picabia relating to male procreativity. A series of squiggly, semi-abstract paintings by Andre Masson introduces the Surrealists' occasional practice of automatic painting in a trance state as a means of tapping into the subconscious.
Miro's paintings from the 1920s with amoeba-like floating figures in the act of union or some other suggestive activity adds a touch of humor to the Surrealist depiction of sex. Yves Tanguy is represented by a series of ink drawing that would have delighted the Marquis de Sade (whose books fascinated he Surrealists), and Robert Matta's "120 Days of Sodom" in crayon and pencil satirizes deviant sex.
The show includes two of Rene Magritte's most famous works, "The Eternal Evidence," a female nude broken up into five framed paintings, and "The Rope," a clever rendition of a woman with a female torso as a face. This work was used on the title page of Breton's "What is Surrealism?," published in 1933 and considered the definitive work on the subject.
The show wouldn't be complete without examples of art by several women who painted in the Surrealist style.
Pablo Picasso's mistress, Dora Maar, is represented by close-ups of parts of the female body, Leonora Carrington by a weird self-portrait with three horses, Frida Kahlo's by a self-portrait with cropped hair, Dorothea Tanning (one of the few American Surrealists) by a painting of a woman with a winged monster, and Leonor Fini by a woman rising from a lake studded by floating bird skulls.
Many of the European Surrealists and their leader, Breton, sought a safe haven in the United States during World War II and some were nurtured and exhibited by mining heiress Peggy Guggenheim, who had her own art gallery in New York.
Breton tried to hold the movement together with a huge retrospective exhibition in Paris in 1959. But most artists either returned to realistic painting or drifted further into abstraction, leaving Surrealism to advertising artists, theater and movie directors, and designers of music videos who have tried to put a fresh face on what had become a tired art form.