A new exhibition reveals how Surrealism, the movement that captivated the art world from the 1920s through the 1940s, was held captive by war.
Of the aftermath of World War I, the renowned German-born artist Max Ernst said, “We young people came back from the war in a state of stupefaction at the absurdity, the total swinishness and imbecility of what had gone on for four years. We had to get back somehow at the ‘civilization’ which was responsible for the war.”
Like so many other artists of his generation, Ernst fought in World War I. He served in the German army from nearly the inception of the conflict until its end, and his discharge, in 1918 (among his ranks he was nicknamed “the man with the iron skull” for being impervious to even the heaviest blow on the head; several of his comrades in art, such as August Macke and Franz Marc of the “Young Rhineland” group, were not so lucky, however, dying during the first weeks of combat). Though he somehow managed to make art during wartime, even showing work in Berlin in 1916, it wasn’t until fighting’s end that his career and the normal functions of the art world could officially begin again. For Ernst, “getting back” at the civilization responsible for the war meant creating provocative and even troublesome work, first as part of the Dada group (a Dada show in Cologne of which he was a part was shut down by the police), and soon after, following his move to Paris in 1922, as a star in the firmament of the budding Surrealist group.
Surrealism rose from the wreckage of World War I. The movement’s forefather, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (he coined the term “surrealism” in 1917 in reference to the work of composer Erik Satie) died of the Spanish flu in 1918 after being wounded in the war. The group essentially formed two factions in the early ’20s—one led by André Breton, the other, by Yvan Goll (for what it’s worth, Breton served in the war; Goll escaped conscription in Switzerland). However, Breton’s penning of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 served as an official foundation for the movement. With an emphasis on the unconscious, abnormal psychology, and the writings of Freud, the movement sought to re-imagine the landscape of art amid a fractured world.
But what began as a reconstruction soon evolved into a warning and later, a coping device. As Surrealism grew into an international phenomenon throughout the ’20s and ’30s, so did fascism, and eventually, with the advent of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, the movement found itself responding to war yet again.
The influence that fascism and conflict had on the Surrealists is the subject of “Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s,” an exhibition co-organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). The show, which runs at the Wadsworth through January 13 (before opening at the BMA and later the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville), examines the way in which totalitarianism was dealt with in the work itself. It also showcases how war influenced the lives of the artists, with many of them fleeing to America as tensions rose in Europe. The exile of these artists had a hand in expanding the audience for Surrealism and in turn growing the movement even further.
In 1942, shortly after his move to the United States, Breton delivered a lecture at Yale University on the one-year anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In his talk he said, “I insist on the fact that Surrealism can be understood historically only in relation to war; I mean—from 1919 to 1939—in relation at the same time to the war from which it issues and the war to which it extends.” It was necessary, noted Breton, that his generation rethink every previously held norm in the wake of World War I. In the exhibition’s catalogue Oliver Shell, associate curator of European painting and sculpture at the BMA and Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles curator of European Art at the Wadsworth, refer to this lecture, writing, “Following Breton’s thinking, Surrealism is thus best understood as a kind of intellectual research project that sought to comprehend the dominant impulses produced by war. Opposed to the nationalism that had led to the horrors of both world wars, Surrealism universally championed revolutionary and Leftist causes. Concurrently, it embraced individualistic modes of thought by exploring the unconscious.”
When reviewing the breadth of the Surrealist movement, the curators found that as the 1930s wore on and nationalist sentiments increased in Europe, so did the presence of monsters and mythological subject matter in Surrealist works. Though the group had long been fascinated by classical mythology and the imagery of dreams and fantasy, these figures seemed to take on a more prescient tone over time. As the exhibition makes clear, the curators deduced that these monsters were metaphors for fascism. Minotaurs, demons, human-animal hybrids, deformed or menacing figures, and unsettling manipulations of space—either through crowding or emptiness—all served as dark omens, harbingers of war, and stand-ins for corruption and evil.
Ernst began using bird-like figures in his work in the late 1920s. Culled from childhood memories and steeped in personal mythology, these figures took on ominous connotations, especially when coupled with apocalyptic landscapes, which they often were. John Russell, in his biography of Ernst, pinpointed these figures as expressions of the artist’s fear of an impending world war. In The Barbarians (1937, oil on cardboard), which comes to the exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two hulking figures, one a birdlike female and the other an octopus-like male, take threatening strides across a verdant landscape. Grotesque creatures perch on their limbs. Their skin, which appears rough and scaly, was created using Ernst’s pioneering method of grattage—in which the artist pressed objects into wet paint in order to produce various textures. Below their enormous feet, a tiny figure of a woman clings to a strange winged creature. The painting, which is part of a series, is thought to represent democracy’s dissent into barbarism. The bird with her right hand stretched heavenward seems to be holding up the earth; the male figure meanwhile is armed for a melee.
With paintings such as Europe After the Rain I (1933), Ernst attracted the disfavor of the Nazis nearly from the beginning of their rise to power. He fled to Avignon, France in 1938 with the painter Leonora Carrington, only to be deemed an enemy alien by the French at the onset of World War II. He escaped to New York in 1941 with Peggy Guggenheim (who would become his fourth wife). Representing this period is Europe After the Rain II (1940–42, oil on canvas), which is in the collection of the Wadsworth. A highlight of the exhibition, the painting is thought to have been begun in France and finished in America. It depicts a ruined, apocalyptic landscape in which a helmeted birdlike figure prods a female figure with a spear. As with its precursor, which was a sort of relief map of a devastated Europe, Europe After the Rain II appears to be the aftermath of the biblical flood or a reign of terror. Its craggy forms, achieved again through grattage, are the sharp remains of an inhospitable world, the land and the inhabitants of which are all monstrous.
Salvador Dalí’s stance on fascism was not initially clear, and in the early 1930s, Breton even accused the artist of defending Hitler. Dalí proclaimed, “I am not Hitlerian neither in fact nor intention.” In 1934, Breton mounted a council in Paris in efforts to oust Dalí from the group, which likely spurred on a talk Dalí led in Barcelona two months later with a left-wing youth group, denouncing fascism and backing leftist causes. But his true opinions on despotic leadership aside, Dalí went on to create several works during this time that dealt with the threat of war and corruption of power.
On the eve of the Spanish Civil War, he created Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936, oil on canvas), a work that comes to the exhibition from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this painting, a giant, grotesque figure towers above the Catalonian landscape. Thought to be an allegory for the Spanish conflict, the figure rips itself apart in agony, while severed limbs crowd the ground below it. Dalí described the picture as a “vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation.”
The exhibition investigates the preponderance of the figure of the Minotaur in the work of the Surrealists. In Greek mythology, and later as explained by the Roman poet Ovid, the half-man, half-bull figure is trapped in the labyrinth, a complicated maze designed by the architect Daedalus under command of King Minos of Crete. The creature is slain by Theseus, the son of Aegeus, the King of Athens and enemy of Minos. Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, who falls in love with Theseus, helps the Athenian navigate the maze using a ball of string. The Minotaur and all its related imagery—the labyrinth, bull, toreador, and bullfight—found its way into the ideology and artwork of the Surrealists, while also coming to symbolize its fight against fascism. The Surrealist journal Minotaure, which was overseen by Breton, ran from 1933 through 1939. In October 1942, an exhibition in New York titled First Papers of Surrealism featured a labyrinth of twine, which led nowhere—an apt metaphor for the cycle of repetitive history the Surrealists experienced between the two world wars.
Pablo Picasso’s Minotauromachy (1935, etching on cream laid paper), which is in the collection of the BMA, is featured in the show. This inclusion suggests a tonal alignment with the Surrealist group during this period. Picasso was fascinated by the mythological figure and depicted it often, as on the cover of the Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1933, and, perhaps most notably, in his masterpiece Guernica (1937). Though his use of the Minotaur is thought to be largely apolitical, it appears in the latter as part of protest against the fascist bombing of Guernica, a Basque market town, in April 1937.
The French artist André Masson, whose work was condemned by the Nazis as degenerate during the German occupation of France, dubbed the era “Minotaurian.” He used the figure quite a few times, influenced in part by a sojourn to Spain in the mid-1930s, when the country was on the cusp of civil war.
“Monsters & Myths” features several works by Masson, which were bequeathed to the BMA by Saidie A. May. The BMA mounted a retrospective of the artist at the museum in 1941, soon after Masson fled to the United States, and has thus had a long relationship with his work. Tower of Sleep, which was painted in 1938 after Masson’s return to France from Spain, though thematically surrealist, takes cues from both Cubism and abstraction. It features a massive, flayed figure at its center, whose exposed muscles and tendons ripple as it storms through a cacophonous, burning tower. This destroyed architectural monstrosity courses with violence as it devolves into sputtering, senseless abstraction. Masson said that the figure represented “the memory of war,” of which the artist surely had some, having served in World War I. Monstrous, nearly alien figures populate the other Masson canvases in the show, such as The Metaphysical Wall (1940, watercolor with pen and black ink over traces of graphite on wove paper) and There is No Finished World (1942, oil on canvas).
By Sarah E. Fensom