Surrealism Made Fresh

Drawing Surrealism

an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October 21, 2012–January 6, 2013; and the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, January 25–April 21, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition by Leslie Jones, with contributions by Isabelle Dervaux and Susan Laxton
Los Angeles County Museum of Art/DelMonico/Prestel, 239 pp., $60.00
Private Collection/Museum Associates/LACMA/Michael Tropea. © 2012 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Right
Salvador Dalí: Study for ‘The Image Disappears,’ 20 1/4 x 26 inches, 1938.

“Drawing Surrealism” is an exhibition that puts us in two minds, which befits an art movement that sought the release of unconscious drives. The Morgan Library and Museum’s show, organized with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is one of the few major efforts ever to look at the wide range of drawings, collages, and other kinds of work on paper done both by well-known associates of Surrealism such as Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte and by the many other artists and writers drawn to the movement at the time. Including pictures made by figures from Eastern Europe, the Americas, England, and Japan, it is a jampacked, illuminating, and lavishly engaging event. Even before getting close to the drawings, which were made primarily from the middle of the 1920s into the 1940s, one is given the pleasure, simply in walking into the galleries at the Morgan, of seeing many smallish Surrealist works, sporting frames of every description, hung—as if in the living room of a knowing collector—in invitingly rhythmic ways.

Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
Max Ernst: Les hivernants de la Grande Jatte (The Winterers of La Grande Jatte), 3 1/4 x 5 1/8 inches, 1929

On one wall, for instance, we find a cluster of drawings of heads by André Masson (a crisply linear robotic mask), Jacques Hérold (a softly grayed charcoal of a headlike shape suggesting fossils and woodlands), and Lee Mullican (meticulously drawn thorny leaves forming an armored visage). There are also an expansive John Graham drawing of a smiling and prepossessing woman with crossed eyes and a Pavel Tchelitchew drawing of a young man’s head with visible blood vessels everywhere turning his face into a jungle. Bringing together a group of heads may be an obvious idea. Here, though, where each work is subtly different in texture, tone, and size from the others, the effect is to kindle an interest in artists who are probably little known to most viewers.

The works in the show in general, however—especially as Leslie Jones, in her essay in its accompanying catalog, guides us through the meanings they held for these artists—were intended to be formally pathbreaking and imaginatively disorienting, even discomforting. Does this mean that the pictures have lost their sting and are items that we merely savor? To a degree, yes. On the other hand, the exhibition, in its informality and intimacy, gives Surrealism a freshness and excitement that an all-encompassing presentation of the art, which would include a huge variety of paintings and photographs—and the…

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