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André Masson, “Allégories féminines” (“Feminine Allegories”) (circa
1925). Ink on paper, 15 ¾ x 12 ¼ inches. Private Collection, Paris.
Courtesy Jean-François Cazeau, Paris, France. (Image via California
Literary Review)

How much more powerful to say “drawing surrealism” than something like “surrealist drawings.” It gets the action into the art, which is, often, exactly where it is. Unweighted by color, untrammeled by, oh you know, something like the history of painting and how the surrealists (in whatever grouping you choose to deal or not deal with them) dealt with that history. Very often, not at all.

Edith Rimmington; now there’s one of the surrealist women (so many of them, so interesting in their lives and works and everything else) has this slithering snake advancing toward a jetty with an immense chain moving out along it. Chains and coils and serpentine lines. These drawings set your mind to snaking.

Some of the drawings call out for narration, and what a delight not to have to supply one!

I very much enjoyed the untitled Joan Miro charcoal and graphite pencil drawing with the ladder and the cascade of drops: this is the kind of work that might make you think it was asking for a narration, but leaves, provoked by its non-spelled-out drama, spaces for the imagination.

Among my personal old favorites, the André Masson “Battle of Fishes” of 1926 — this was the first of his sand paintings I ever encountered, and the traces of “Blood on the Sand” (“La Goutte de Sang” of 1927) brought into the encounter all sorts of desert films, Ava Gardner pleading about something or other, someone drawing a rapid gun. But I had not seen the “Drop of Blood” work just above it, so powerful and so rarely seen, since it belongs in a private collection.

About ownership:  Giorgio de Chirico’s very grand drawing of “The Poet and the Philosopher”  of 1913, that made its way into the Minotaure, that glossy magazine of the 30’s, was owned by André Breton, and Paul Eluard, and finally by Roland Penrose, the English surrealist, once married to Lee Miller, that brilliant and beautiful photographer. Understated, this very lovely drawing.

On the opposite side of understatement, the overdrawing or superposition of faces in Francis Picabia’s “Olga” brings back to every surrealist reader those superpositions in Breton’s Nadja and elsewhere: overstatement, as in the surrealist shout of the manifestos and over-the-top position papers.

So much, indeed, of surrealism seems overstatement that this large but subtly conceived exhibition seems just the right touch, slithering toward us.

Should someone ask: so what does the idea of, the practice of surrealist drawing repose on?

You could do worse than to answer: try Alberto Giacometti’s “Surrealist Table”: just be sure the female figure stands there to hold it all together and up.

* * *

Drawing Surrealism for the second time

André Masson, “Leaf, Feather, Drop of Blood” (1927). Oil and feather on canvas, 25 3/16 x 31 inches. Indiana University Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. G. David Thompson. (Image via Indiana University Art Museum Provenance Project)

Something very extraordinary happens upon your return to an exhibition: you have been through it; you have seen it all, probably in one great spurt; and you have the privilege of being able to revisit it.

Invoking that privilege, having just lingered and lingered in the Proust exhibition as if it were the opening to this wonderful Surrealism moment, I rushed in. What do you see when you have, say, a half an hour, to revisit something you have loved? Well, you glom on to one or two objects. For me, it was the right-hand corner of the exhibition, in the first room: again, on the first wall, the really lovely untitled Arp collage of 1919, with its red and black and pink squares, on a slight, lopsided turn against the light brown paper, with a big green square in the lower right corner. Perfect entry into the utter simplicity of the Massons, which would blow me over anytime. And in particular this time.  Those amazing Massons, all of them, the three like some trinity of drawing, automatic, with hands and feet and grasping fingers, all from 1925.

These allegories féminines abound with figures and faces and birds and containing lines. And yet remain legible and uncrowded.

I remembered from the last time — how not? — the two works I came to see. On top, the “Drop of Blood,” from a private collection so I may never see it again, but ah, would I love to see it often.

It is at the extreme of understatement, in line and color, and below it, my from ages-ago favorite, the “Battle of Fishes,” on which the glue was spattered at random, and then the sand tossed upon it, so it would stick on the glued surface. Traces of blood, adorable faces of fish, lines you want to trace, and the wonderful jotting by the painter: bursts, puddles, something that made no sense but that could provoke … and all that done with the speed of a toss.

The whole thing about speed is crucial: you keep thinking of the speed fascination of Breton and Philippe Soupault doing their magnetic field writing — you write quickly to void intrusion of the intellect. Many of these works seem to depend on speed, and I myself had only about five minutes to consecrate to another work, and was torn between a lovely Miro of 1924, with a ladder and something falling like teardrops, then a series of Man Ray rayographs (which he later gathered in Les champs délicieux of 1922, referring back to Les Champs magnétiques of 1919), and Max Ernst’s “Very Pretty Elongated Forest” of 1928, with its stretched trunks — I’d give all the redwoods for this any time.

How glad I am to have returned!

Drawing Surrealism continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 21.

Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws teaches in the English, French, and Comparative Literature programs at the Graduate School, CUNY, and writes on art and text whenever she can. She also translates French poetry. She recently published short biographies of Picasso...