Ivan Kraus in Jan Švankmajer’s film The Flat

Jan Švankmajer

Ivan Kraus in Jan Švankmajer’s film The Flat, 1968

“The surreal today is measured on the scale of our defeats.” Georges Henein, a founding member of a Cairo group of Surrealists, was responding to a questionnaire that a Paris review had sent him concerning the state of the movement in 1946, twenty-two years on from André Breton’s inaugural Manifeste du surréalisme. What defeats had Henein in mind? For him and his painter colleagues in al-Fann wa-l-Hurriyya (Art and Freedom), the recent clashes of foreign armies on Egyptian soil had not been the issue. Rather, what they faced now, as the war against Nazism made way for Stalin’s triumph and the age of atomic terror announced at Hiroshima, was a pervasive global power system more outrageous in its operations—in that sense, more “surreal”—than anything artists could dream up.

Henein’s sympathies were with the politics of Leon Trotsky, as were Breton’s, and the socialist cause now seemed terminally cornered, if socialism entailed “the right not only to bread but to poetry” that the Russian revolutionary had demanded. As Henein went on to explain, “Nearly everything we still consider desirable is claimed or bargained away by the current state of the world. The result is this everyday surreality, made of all the moves not made by us.” When it came to those desiderata, Breton had defined them as “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality.” Completing a further questionnaire, Henein held out for some “point of extreme purity at which literature replaces life.”

The Coptic intellectual’s impossibilism offers one prospective handle on an exhibition about a creed of bewilderment that has itself been designed to bewilder. “Surrealism Beyond Borders,” jointly conceived by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Stephanie D’Alessandro and Tate Modern’s Matthew Gale, has now moved from her museum to his in London. Across eleven galleries, the curators have tumbled out a delirium of films, photos, drawings, paintings, pamphlets, and what Alberto Giacometti liked to call “disagreeable objects.” Besides a wooden assemblage by that artist—his so-called Cage—you may chance upon Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone, Max Ernst’s painted construction Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, and sundry other curios by those who, between the world wars, joined Breton’s table at Montmartre’s Café Le Cyrano.

Pieces by the luminaries they looked up to, Picasso and Duchamp, also feature. But a greater swirl almost submerges these fixtures of Paris-centric art history: the surrealisms of Korea, Mozambique, Haiti, the Philippines, and Turkey—a constellation of nonconvergent points across the globe. D’Alessandro and Gale are proposing that the thoughts voiced by Breton in 1924 were latent in multiple disparate urban centers, only awaiting his coining of a movement identity.

Their curiosity, trained chiefly though not exclusively on the succeeding half-century, has been heroic. They have hunted down, for instance, some photocollages that illustrated a self-help column in a 1950s Buenos Aires women’s weekly; a magazine that was handmade in the home of a Utrecht artist during the Nazi occupation of Holland—a single copy per issue; and some tiny Polaroids discreetly transmogrified by the filmmaker Kaveh Golestan not long before the Iranian Revolution.

The chase runs wild. As it happens, Golestan, so a Tate caption informs me, “did not identify with Surrealism.” Nor, the curators concede, did others whose works have been included, such as Rafael Ferrer in Puerto Rico. But no matter. When, as cited in the catalog, the Argentinian artist Julio Llinás argued in 1952 that “Breton must be shown that Surrealism is not him,” he was only continuing a tussle with the intellectual impresario that was as old as the movement itself and that had likewise been pursued by Breton’s Paris adversary Georges Bataille. For every printed “declaration” (and the Tate’s vitrines exhibit many), there awaited a contradiction.

In which case, let confusion flourish, and let D’Alessandro and Gale, who boast that their survey is “neither singular in its narrative nor unbroken in its chronology,” have license as its connoisseurs. Staggered but persuaded by their assiduity, I accept that the show’s incoherence gathers a certain cohesive flavor.

What tang might that be? If something is “beyond borders,” it is not to be defined. Yet a characteristic tactic united, say, the African American “Surrealist jazz poet” Ted Joans cutting away the heads from shots of social occasions to create “outographs,” Artur Cruzeiro Seixas in Luanda inscribing verses on a shell fragment mounted on a buffalo’s hoof, and the Tokyo-based artist Koga Harue painting a Pop Art–like montage of imported publicity materials.

The Surrealist, as characterized by D’Alessandro and Gale, liked to posit an x, a variable not in algebra but in discourse and visual culture. His or her gesture was to reach for anomalous content and hold out a handful of the bizarre or the serendipitous that could be brandished as nonnegotiable. In theory—and Breton was a voluble theoretician—that item in its uncanniness could serve as a release valve for the unconscious, but how many Surrealists actually kept Freud in their sights is uncertain. What was more constant was the background for the gesture, and here Henein’s perspective has purchase.

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You opened your eyes and looked around—supposing that you were young and critically alert, wherever you might stand in that constellation of twentieth-century urban centers—and a diagnosis suggested itself. You were witnessing an accountancy-driven compression of human potential within a global interlock of power, money, mechanization, and mass media. This condition, which Breton termed “rationalism,” seemed to underpin all extant forms of governance, whether capitalist, Stalinist, colonial, or fascist. (A sliding scale, argued the Martinican Surrealist Aimé Césaire, for the violence the Nazis inflicted on Europe simply built on the precedent of violence inflicted by Europeans on others.) Surrealism offered a certain route out of that historical claustrophobia. Flaunting your anomaly—your disobliging, disagreeable x—you not only affirmed your personal intransigence but also signed on to an energizing counterconspiracy.

Most famously, via the collaborative drawing game invented by the original Surrealists that was known as cadavre exquis. Joans’s largest project, pursued over three decades, was to persuade every sympathizer he encountered to sketch little caprices—spooky, sexy, or sardonic—onto slips of computer paper that could be pasted together to form a single continuous strip: the result, nearly thirty-five feet long and involving 123 friends and luminaries, is as near as the exhibition comes to a backbone. A great feat of organization on Joans’s part, it is clear, and in fact the corporate nature of the Surrealists’ collective adversary is suggested by the way they aped its administrative procedures—their fretting over membership lists and directives and questionnaires; their “Bureau de recherches surréalistes” in Paris, staffed by officials who were required to keep the doors open six days a week from 4:30 to 6:30 PM; their resourceful media strategies. Which might lead to public success, which in turn might lead to Surrealism’s co-optation by the world as it stood, “claimed or bargained away” by the very forces it opposed. For this worldwide subculture, defeat forever hovered in the wings.

Dream and reality would regularly hook up, decades before Breton launched his dating agency, within the medium of cinema, and it is in the film shorts on view that you most dramatically face the tensions of Surrealism—the tug between the wish to escape reductive definition and the expectation that you must eventually submit.

At Land, shot on Long Island in 1944 by the young Ukrainian-born cinéaste Maya Deren, puts forward some characteristic Surrealist promises. A protagonist, a dreamer—Deren herself—emerges from the sea, a castaway dashed by waves onto a beach, and finally exits into the light, a figure fleeing over its sun-dazzled sands. In between she meets shape-shifting impediments. Dead branches over which she clambers lead to a dining table across which she crawls, amid oblivious chattering socialites. From a chessboard on that table a pawn drops, only to reappear on the shoreline after other figures—a walking companion of inconstant visage, a father dying in a shroud-draped bedroom—have passed by on the heroine’s cryptic pilgrimage, while harsh rock faces and burdensome stones likewise confront her. All is obstacle, yet she herself remains inviolate, assured in possession of her own photogenic allure. In Deren’s romantic salute to spiritual freedom, the object world and the social world are themselves no more than contents of a dream.

The Flat, the product of another young filmmaker—Jan Švankmajer, in the Prague of 1968—inverts the tale of me and not-me into nightmarish slapstick. The door slams behind a sublimely hangdog comedian (Ivan Kraus; see illustration at beginning of article), leaving him trapped inside a moldering apartment in which everything—via Švankmajer’s stop-motion legerdemain—contradicts his demands. He turns on a tap and it spurts not water but coal. He hungrily raises a soupspoon and it drains like a colander. A mirror merely shows him the back of his head. The bed he lies down in crumbles, burying him in sawdust, and then between battered doorways a mysterious mustachioed maître d’ glides through, vouchsafing him an axe.

Our hero uses the axe to break down one of the doors, only to face a wall on which many a previous prisoner has penciled his name. “JOSEF,” he dejectedly adds, and the film closes just as he begins the downstroke of the succeeding letter “K.” This arch nod to Kafka’s The Trial merely underlines what the film’s Keaton-era styling and dowdy decor imply—that retro is never to be escaped and that déjà vu is another form of the uncanny. Švankmajer’s was an old, old Prague, and the sources of his phlegmatism lay far deeper than the passing political dramas of 1968.

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In fact Surrealists, on this exhibition’s evidence, generally preferred dilapidation to lucid form. The weathered and the fractal looked promising as ways of resisting “rationalist” modernity. And yet the sensibilities on display could twist the styling quite otherwise. One of the earlier pieces included is a ten-minute animation released in London in 1929, the debut of a New Zealander named Len Lye. Flaunting a radical new graphic idiom, his Tusalava is as brash and immediate as anything by Disney. Its screen is split into vertical bands in contrasting shades. Seed-shaped blobs swim up them, then link to form wriggling water-worms, whose insides and outsides, nuclei and membranes, then emerge. A pod in the dark band swells and multiplies and spews into the white a twisting spawn. Suddenly these two separated entities crystallize into schematic skeletal figures. Now the son’s pincer arms lunge backward to pierce or possess the mother in her lair. A mortal struggle ensues, climaxing in explosion: rings burst, collapse, recede to a final black hole.

A still from Len Lye’s animated film Tusalava

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision/Len Lye Foundation

A still from Len Lye’s animated film Tusalava, 1929

Lye was not an enrolled group member, but he had certainly read his Freud. He had also, en route from Christchurch to London, spent time in Samoa and in a Sydney library studying books about Aboriginal art. He was fusing its dots, concentric loops, and “X-ray” figures with the graphics of cellular biology to present a myth of evolution in fast-track: a myth not of upward progress but of circular self-cancellation. Tusa lava, Lye explained, is a Samoan phrase implying that whatever may happen, the same situation at last returns.*

Here, then, was an artist from settler stock leaning on Oceanic traditions. Elsewhere, because of the reverence that Surrealists felt for it, we are shown Picasso’s Three Dancers (1925), an achievement ultimately informed by African art; and then we are shown Wifredo Lam’s Bélial, empéreur des mouches, a similarly large canvas from 1948 in which the Cuban quasi-Surrealist redirected Picasso’s example to deliver a fresh mythological synthesis, more answerable to his own African roots.

The curators’ global outlook entangles them in the convoluted debates about “primitivism” that these examples could prompt. Facing Tusalava they place a wall text lamenting the “fantasy of shared perspectives” in which works from local traditions across the world, “included for their perceived aesthetic value within a European context, were stripped of place, maker and their original meaning.” As far as it concerns the makers themselves, the “stripped” in that phrasing is an idle reproach. This is simply what artists are always bound to do: look at what other artists have been making, wherever it may have come from, and make products in response that will inevitably bear differing connotations.

In fairness, however, an exhibition examining a cultural movement interprets artifacts that have already been interpreted, and in the case of the Surrealists, this was by voices so insistently political that their rhetoric can hardly go unquestioned. Some of the clamor came from makers voicing their own agendas, yet the overall tone—despite the curators’ wish to decenter the narrative—stemmed from the so-called Pope of Surrealism himself. For it is remarkable how Breton is rarely more than one degree of separation away, whichever regional nexus the survey alights on. His persiflage—portentous, prickly, shot through with flashes of warmth—inspired cardinals of the church ranging from Henein and Joans to Eugenio Granell, a fighter for the Spanish Republic who, following its defeat, fled to the Caribbean, where he propagated Surrealism among many an island flock.

And from pontiff to village priest, this creed was anticolonialist and—as Effie Rentzou argues in her catalog essay—“universalist.” She attributes Surrealism’s “exceptional longevity” to its willingness to take on the fundamental question “What is man?” The more it “bypassed national structures” and rationalist mores, the more it amassed “ethical urgency.”

We might feel awkward about these ambitions with hindsight. We might berate—along with Partha Mitter in his catalog essay—the Café Le Cyrano seditionaries for imputing a naive expressivity to non-European art, rather than the sophisticated agency these Parisians considered themselves to possess. We might reckon that the Surrealists’ fondness for Trotsky was for a mere mosquito politics of scant social benefit. But such judgments fall in with a “conventional time-based narrative” that D’Alessandro and Gale want to escape with their “transhistoric” project, and at points they do convey what it’s like to break free.

Most spectacularly, they include a seven-minute clip from a documentary made by the New York filmmaker William Klein about the Pan African Festival that was held in Algiers in July 1969. This event, staged by the Organization of African Unity at a moment when it looked as if familiar hegemonies might be upended, became a crossroads for a hundred postwar dreams of liberation, drawing in the hopeful from across the Sahara, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. We meet Joans again, now on stage with his friend Archie Shepp, who, djellaba’d and raining sweat in the roasting summer night, rips deep gouges on his tenor sax, his footholds on the wall of percussion behind him—Gnawa drummers from the Maghreb, beating rhythms sideways to jazz.

Klein’s camera cuts to onlookers: pale Parisian hipsters in their shades; jet-set girls in beehives and slinky Motown-style outfits; Black Panther brothers raising fists in zealous awe; lines of haughty Tuareg women, scowling in dark satins. That disdain of theirs only underlines the message that this is a night that has veered into the radically unexpected and that normal time has broken down. Here, if anywhere, we witness the triumph of the Surreal.

That is not exactly what the exhibition’s static imagery has to offer. I was introduced to many haunting little photographs and to a few arresting paintings—in particular, to Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (1961) by Remedios Varo. Her canvas depicts a Gothic aerie in which a sisterhood sits stitching, obedient to an abbot with a book and an alembic who is himself surveyed by a shrouded background watcher. The needlewomen’s handiwork winds through apertures to descend into the mists outside—fabric that unfolds to become our physical world below. If Plato had stopped penning his allegory of the cave to pick up a brush instead, the results might have looked somewhat similar—not simply because of the shared idealism, but because it is expressed through such an intricately developed artistry. The micro-engineering of Varo’s tower workshop and her beeswing-fine veils of siennas and cold blues stretched my expectations of what a twentieth-century painting might deliver.

Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle; painting by Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo/Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco/© 2022 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VEGAP, Madrid.

Remedios Varo: Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, 1961

Varo was a Spanish artist painting in Mexico City, having arrived there by a path crisscrossing those of many Surrealists: early years in a Barcelona cenacle who styled themselves “the logic-fearers”—los Logicofobistas; departure for boho life in Paris with Breton and gang; then leaving Marseilles, come 1941, on a boat bound for the New World. Her turn to the esoteric—she joined a Gurdjieff group—was hardly out of step with a movement that claimed to seek “magic,” and the rebuke to outward reality issued by her painting overlaps with that of Deren’s film.

From the buoyant art scene that Varo settled down in we are also presented with a tremendous still life by Maria Izquierdo, closer in manner to those of the Mexican muralists. Elsewhere, there is the classically ambitious Wifredo Lam, among other modernizers of the business of figure composition. And disarmingly, a trompe l’oeil executed by the Parisian circle’s Marcel Jean greets you in the show’s opening gallery—wardrobe doors opening onto distant horizons, a delightful touch of magic indeed.

But the longer I browsed the framed canvases that succeeded, the more a frustration set in, as if from eating too many spicy snacks with no entrée in sight. Surrealism, being a cult of surprise, worshiped play, generating many a new game to be explored: yet for the artists who subscribed to it, an agenda of work still remained, delivering gallery items by which to earn a living. The dominant format for these items—the main dish—is represented in the show by that canvas the Surrealists looked up to, Picasso’s Three Dancers. Here, as elsewhere in the easel painting tradition, you are invited to relish a rectangle’s worth of internal formal relationships and to freight them as you will with your knowledge of the world.

The distinctively Surrealist aim, however, was to thwart that process of imaginative digestion, as if to insist, “This painting is not about what you already know.” Of necessity, the rectangles they put up for sale retained formal relationships, but Surrealists tended to deal with these in an offhand or parodic manner. The show’s sole Magritte, his steam-train-through-fireplace canvas entitled Time Transfixed, provides an obvious instance. A fine stand-alone shock: but shocks in multiplicity hardly amount to a fulfilling diet. I began longing for richer fare, in line with those many painters who moved on from youthful Surrealism to a deeper respect for the terms of their own trade.

It is not that the exhibits here lack savor. You encounter so many different defiances as you tour what virtually amounts to an alternate history of the twentieth century: the paintings of Henein’s 1940s colleagues, for instance. The concerned young Egyptians of al-Fann wa-l-Hurriyya—men and women, from both Muslim and Christian stock—adopted, as a vehicle for their anxieties about the nation’s predicament, the naked female figure. Fouad Kamel mutilates her, Kamel el-Telmissany nails her to a tree, Amy Nimr dissects her corpse. Their sour post-sunset palettes of red and yellow stains against cyan and black ratchet up the pathos. It is like overhearing a distressing conversation, glimpsed through a door ajar that you might not wish to fully open. But part of the pathos is projected: it turns on the fact that you stand outside and are not quite sorry to remain so.

Whatever “everyday surreality” our digital age may possess is different in texture to that of the foregoing century. In this sense, not all that much of “Surrealism Beyond Borders” achieves a “transhistoric” liftoff, away from the piquancy of retrospect. But then, it is exactly history’s business to be handed the last word.