Shock Absorbed

Surrealism: Desire Unbound

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Jennifer Mundy
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 6–May 12, 2002. Princeton University Press, 349 pp., $65.00; $55.00 (paper)

La Révolution Surréaliste

Catalog of the exhibition by Werner Spies
an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, March 6–June 24, 2002. Paris: Centre Pompidou, 440 pp., $56.00

What stands between us and the wholehearted enjoyment of Surrealism today? For it was surely once more enjoyable than it is now—more shocking, more absorbing, less shock-absorbed. That an art might fall victim to its own success is a familiar possibility, yet we do not turn away from all painting that has been cursed with immense popularity. Rembrandt remains unprofaned. Botticelli, seen whole, turns spikey and unfamiliar. Impressionism, as a subject of inquiry, proves abundantly fruitful: it “returns our calls” and it accedes to our various requests. We ask it to be realism. It becomes realism: it documents a society. We ask it, per contra, to herald that moment when the artist self-consciously applies his paint to the canvas in such a way as to emphasize the two-dimensional picture plane. Very well, it replies, I will herald that moment. We ask it to prophesy abstraction, and sure enough Monet’s Haystacks, seen the wrong way up, set Kandinsky’s thoughts racing. All in all, taken as a movement, it is most obliging.

But then at the heart of Impressionism there are artists who, in their superb way, do not so complaisantly return our calls, who are not so easily co-opted for some grand conceptual scheme. It is enough to mention the names of Degas and Manet, for, in either case, such is our faith in their exellence, when we come upon one of their works which seems at first puzzling or unsatisfactory, we know better—or we certainly should by now know better—than to reach for the tag “failure.” If a certain painting or (more usually) sketch seems at first sight to be a failure, we should like to know what the pursuit was that led the artist down this apparent impasse. Why did he stop? Was it something he saw, or something he failed to see? And how can this failure be a failure if it so commands our respect?

Surrealism resembles its rough contemporary Expressionism in this: that it gave a multitude of artists (painters, poets, photographers, and so forth) the opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves. It handed out badges that were gleefully worn. It also tore the stripes off its perceived renegades, for it was clamorously factional, politicized in the worst sense. Of all movements it should have been most free (it was antibourgeois, it dealt with an unruly subconscious), but it had phases of willed instrumentality. It wanted, in such moments, to be good for society. It should have stuck with wanting to be bad for society.

Surrealism in poetry had a wide and lasting influence, which spread into popular culture and was welcomed as a kind of licensed insanity. But something of the kind had always lurked in certain backwaters of the vernacular. People may have begun by shaking their heads, but they did not shake them for long, when the Beatles sang “I Am the Walrus”:

Yellow matter custard
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Parliamentary priestess
Singing Hare …

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