Surreal. It’s one of those words like insane or awesome that’s taken a beating from aggressive misuse. I’ve heard the term applied to both a bus driver wearing a funny hat and the sight of the second plane hitting the tower. “It was so surreal,” that long e sung out like an animal’s cry of distress, is one of the more commonplace characterizations of any even vaguely untypical experience. The show currently at the Morgan Library and Museum, Drawing Surrealism, affords an opportunity to get reacquainted with the ideas and art behind the now overly familiar adjective.
The show’s emphasis on drawing — a practice that can express immediacy and indeterminacy more readily than painting or sculpture — puts viewers in touch with the core Surrealist tenet of bringing the unconscious as purely to the expressive fore as possible. Also in evidence is the primacy early Surrealists such as André Breton, Francis Picabia, Robert Desnos, and Man Ray placed on technique. Via methods — automatic drawing, collage, frottage, exquisite corpse, “rayographs” — designed to ease the transformation of unconscious ideation into the pictorial, these artists pioneered a number of technical innovations that have endured well past the movement’s heyday. Form may have been meant to serve their content, but those forms remain vitally alive decades after Breton issued his last manifesto. The show acknowledges this fact with its inclusion of early work from Jackson Pollock, William Baziotes, and Ellsworth Kelly.
The notion of any artistic practice being open to automatic expression is arguably a dubious one; just how much control can be relinquished while writing, or drawing, or dripping isn’t clear. Nor is it clear that something called the “unconscious” fills in where craft has presumably fled. Many of the show’s “automatic drawings” — purportedly produced in a state Breton described as “a deep trance,” can be viewed as case studies of this question, rather than as images sprung wholesale from the artist’s inner recesses.
Since André Masson’s “Délire Végetal” offers recognizable figures — body parts, genitalia — that already populated his work we can surmise the technique didn’t bring forth new visions. And the image is carefully constructed with shapes and lines that remain discreet from one another and in overall balance. The tumult feels carefully rendered. On the other hand, an untitled drawing by Salvador Dalí comes closer to what one might imagine a pen directed from a hypnotic state might produce. Hectic and indecipherable, the drawing features blotches and squiggles of ink that messily collide. Still, no line skates off the page and there are borders at the corners, which suggest a higher level of intentionality than automatism, at least in Breton’s declarations, should evidence.
Henri Michaux disdained the ideal of pure automatic drawing and called for a “fusion of automatism and volition.” The result can be seen in “Alphabet,” collection of what could be ideograms for an unknown language. Long lines of “letters,” hundreds of them, each particularized in the minutest detail suggest a scholarly document or archeological fine such as Rosetta Stone. A playful variation animates the figures as they mutate from unidentifiable shapes to plants and stick men. But the organizational conceit contains and lends context to the artist’s inventive pen. Even though it is literally writ small, the automatism acquires greater salience when fitted within a device — an abecedarium — firmly in the artist’s control.
The sheer physical process of collage — selecting, cutting, pasting — makes it surprising that these works embody the spontaneity that some of the drawings lack. Hans Bellmer’s collage presents torn bits of newspaper and pen work showing a woman’s face, bustling dresses, and a stocking-clad leg. Initially, the effect is that of an accident, as if someone doodled on desktop scraps. On closer inspection, though, we see the newspaper fragment is plausibly shaped like a woman’s body, a dancer caught in mid-leap. The off-handedness is merely a ploy, but that such intentionality only heightens, via contrast, the appearance of chaos, the sense of the uncanny at play.
A graphite frottage (a drawing medium is rubbed on paper placed over an articulated surface) by Max Ernst, “Quand la lumière la roué” (“When Light Cartwheels”) has a dreamlike quality that owes to the vagueness of line and the way the image “emerges” from the paper. (Shown only in the catalogue.) The image of a machine part, a wheel of sorts, is poised somewhere between rising and receding — an apt analogue for the waking state. Ernst considered frottage a “real equivalent of … automatic writing” and he described himself as a “spectator” during the creation of the work. The pressure applied, the vigor of the rubbing, the direction in which it was done — these actions that have more in common with scrubbing a floor than painting a Madonna might very well be more open to behavioral and physiological impulses, if not some deeper mental realm.
The collage cadaver exquis done by Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Jacqueline Lamba is no less entertaining for looking like a stereotypical Surrealist image: The legs of a Renaissance painting figure prance on a scale, even as his or her torso and head have been replaced by a coiled mechanism, shoes, arms, birds, a carrot, with the whole teetering assemblage topped by an upside-down hot air balloon. In the year of its creation (1938) the collage was no doubt seen as improbable, baffling, even comedic. But decades hence, the improbable has long been assimilated into the colloquial visual vocabulary. Whether in music videos, TV ads, or on billboards, you can easily find visual concatenations more scrambled and more inventively so than anything Breton et al. could have cobbled together. The logos and graphics for any NFL broadcast share the kinetic energy and unpredictable mutability of the best art in this show.
Of course, these contemporary images are expressly designed to serve commercial purposes—they attract the eye in the hope of opening the purse. In doing so, one wonders if at last the Surrealist impulse is accomplishing its originators’ intention: by activating our acquisitive impulse the unconscious is truly being tapped.
Drawing Surrealism continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 21.