In the face of cruel horrors or pure joy, words tend to fail us. The uncanny and the sublime also render us speechless. To what do we turn then to capture what our conscious minds cannot grasp? For the Surrealists of the 1930s and 1940s and contemporary artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, it is the subconscious that offers the precise visual language for their visceral expressions. On display at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) are two concurrent exhibitions, Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s and Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg/Delights of an Undirected Mind.
The pairing of the two exhibitions is a conscious choice. “[W]e emphasize art’s embeddedness in the socio-political fabric of history in order to make it matter to our visitors,” says BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director Christopher Bedford in an email. “The pairing of the Djurberg & Berg exhibition with Monsters & Myths reflects precisely this position.”
Responding to decades of wars, including the two World Wars, the Surrealists turned inward for inspiration. The mind became their muse. The horrors that appear on the canvases of Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, or Joan Miró often take the shape of monsters that are the stuff of nightmares — unbidden terrors that lurk in the recesses of one’s mind. Similarly, Djurberg and Berg draw on Surrealist influences to probe the subconscious. But instead of wars, they tackle taboos. As Director Bedford summarizes, the artists’ sensory experiences make the unconscious visible and connects the uncensored and unabashed inner life with the outside world. In my opinion, the pairing of the two exhibitions successfully answers the question: why should I care about Surrealist art from 90 years ago?
Monsters & Myths begins with Dalí’s 1936 “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War),” which encapsulates the grotesque drama unfolding throughout the exhibition. In the label, Dalí describes the painting as “a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of auto-strangulation.” A fitting metaphor for the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), this giant human-like figure appears to fight against itself even though the best possible outcome is merely the desecration of its own body.
Like an ever-tightening vice, the rest of the exhibition does not let up. From the anxiety of continuous flux embodied in André Masson’s “There is No Finished World” (1942) to a melancholia for a ruinous “Europe After the Rain II” (1940-1942) by Max Ernst to the mutilated bodies of Hans Bellmer’s “The Doll” (1935), Monsters & Myths is unrelenting in barraging the visitors with expressions of violence, pain, and the grotesque. Yet, at the end of the exhibition, I am gifted a little respite from the monsters. I encounter instead the abstractions of Jackson Pollock, and even Mark Rothko’s “The Syrian Bull” (1943). Although these works share Surrealist techniques and motifs, the fact of their abstraction removes the viewer from a direct confrontation with the formal realism of the monsters — terror becomes theoretical in Pollock’s and Rothko’s hands.
Delights of an Undirected Mind offers a counterpoint to Monsters & Myths with oftentimes playful, whimsical but no less visceral imagery and experiences that push the visitors out of their comfort zones. What Djurberg and Berg’s artworks do best is tease out the fears and pleasures already loitering in the visitors’ subconscious.
A case in point: the exhibition opens with an installation of about six large ceramic urns spotlighted across a narrow, darkened space. Without a word of text to prepare me, I approached the closest ceramic slowly because, frankly, I didn’t know what I would find: a facsimile of dead bodies? Live animals? Or puppets jumping out at me à la Jack-in-the-Box? As it turns out, this installation, “Gas, Solid, Liquid” (2014), features animations based on themes from an Arabian Nights tale. As my heartbeat slowed, I realized that nothing can be scarier than what my own imagination can conjure up.
Similarly, nothing is more harrowing than confronting your own secrets and desires. A standout work in this exhibition is the stop-motion film, Delights of an Undirected Mind (2016). The film opens with a child’s room filled with toys. Yet, this room is at once a bedroom and the child’s subconscious, as viewers watch a young girl discover her sexuality — her erotically charged thoughts manifest as animated toys and anthropomorphic characters engaging in whimsical debauchery. The text asks, “is it a fantasy, a fever dream, a drug-induced nightmare, or that moment just before awakening?” I can hear chuckles and murmurs amidst the possibly nervous shuffling of bodies from the other viewers in the darkened room. Perhaps I am projecting my own anxieties onto their reactions to the film, as I recognize on the screen similar thoughts that I had grappled with during my own budding sexuality a lifetime ago.
The historical-contemporary pairing of the two exhibitions also makes the case for the subconscious as a timeless and eternal wellspring of horrors, delights, and creativity.
Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s, curated by Oliver Shell, BMA Associate Curator of European Art, and Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg/Delights of an Undirected Mind, curated by Laura Albans, Assistant Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, both continue at the Baltimore Museum of Art through May 26.