The deep impact of the Surrealist movement on Latin American art is made clear through a major exhibition in Florida.
The Surrealist movement was born in France but found a congenial home in Latin America. Some key European Surrealists, fleeing the Nazis, took refuge there, especially in Mexico, before and during World War II, and some of them stayed permanently. In addition, a good number of Latin American artists took up the cause of Surrealism, either becoming bona fide members of the movement or, more frequently, creating works that owed a great deal to Surrealism without necessarily following all of its rules. Beyond that, though, one could say that there is something inherently surreal about Latin America itself, attributable to its startling juxtapositions—of European and Native American cultures, ancientness and modernity, wealth and poverty—as well as to the magical strangeness of its landscapes, whether harsh desert or tropical forest.
Starting this month, the diversity of Surrealist activity throughout the region will be on full display in an exhibition at the NSU Art Museum (part of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) titled “I Paint My Reality: Surrealism in Latin America” (November 17, 2019–June 30, 2020). All the works in the show come from the museum’s permanent collection and from a trove of works promised to it as a gift by South Florida collectors Stanley and Pearl Goodman. “The depth and high quality of NSU Art Museum’s Latin American collection made it possible for us to organize a comprehensive exhibition of Surrealism in Latin America drawn exclusively from our holdings,” says Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of the museum. The Goodmans, she explains, “assembled an extensive collection of approximately 100 works with the intention of donating it to the museum where it would be a source for multiple exhibitions exploring this rich period of art history.” Clearwater adds, “The museum’s substantial collection of contemporary Latin American art and art by South Florida artists makes it possible to follow the influence of Surrealism, magic realism, and art of the fantastic through today.”
And indeed, the present exhibition casts a wide net, taking in not only works of official Surrealism (and it should be remembered that despite its subversive nature, Surrealism was very much a regulated industry, with leader André Breton accepting, rejecting, and sometimes expelling members based on their adherence to explicitly enunciated principles) from the period of the movement’s official existence in the 1930s and ’40s, but also works of contemporary Latin American art that are inspired by Surrealism or allude to it in some way, as well as earlier works by artists who were never formally members of the movement but could be considered as fellow travelers and shared some of the Surrealists’ concerns.
Among the Surrealist exiles in Latin American, Leonora Carrington looms large, not only for the quality of her work but for the strong influence of Mexican culture that it evinces. Carrington, from a wealthy family in England, was introduced to Surrealism by her lover Max Ernst and after a precocious start, had a breakdown that ended with her confinement in a mental hospital in Spain. She fled from there—and from the relationship with Ernst—in search of artistic and personal independence, which she found in a community of avant-garde artists in Mexico starting in the late 1940s. Carrington’s painting Artes 110 (1942) depicts, in an atmosphere of mythic fantasy, the artist (or her symbolic stand-in) flying through the air from the strife-torn Old World (which is carried on the back of a rat) to the New World, where a disembodied horse’s head, a mysterious red-robed figure with a six-pointed star for a head, and three colorful birds promise a life of magic and creativity. Carrington lived that life, remaining in Mexico until her death in 2011 at age 94.
Among her circle there were some other artists whose works appear in the FSU exhibition. The photographer Kati Horna, who became a naturalized Mexican citizen, started as a photojournalist alongside her friend and fellow Hungarian Robert Capa. Like many left-wing engagé photographers of the time, she brought Surrealism into her work without ceasing to be a documentarian, and while in Mexico she continued to shoot for news magazines while creating fine-art photographs. One of the latter, From the series Ode to Necrophilia (1962), shows a woman in black, her head and face completely covered by a black cloth, standing by an unmade bed on which there is a pillow with a white mask resting on it. The uncanniness of the hidden real face, the conversely visible false face, the French window functioning as a portal into the unknown, and the eerie shadows are all familiar Surrealist tropes.
Remedios Varo, from Spain, was another Surrealist who embraced Mexico and the “magical realism” of its mythic images. Her El Minotauro (1959) takes a favorite Surrealist subject from Old World myth (memorably employed by Picasso and Masson) and remakes it as a female (or at last androgynous sorcerer figure, emitting a silvery glow and seeming to have stepped through a crack in reality to rest on a chessboard that perhaps symbolizes the game of life. Wolfgang Paalen, who was born in Austria and died in Mexico, found his chief inspiration in the art of Native America, both North and South. His Totemic Landscape (1937), painted before his arrival in Mexico, demonstrates the hold that Northwest Coast carvings had on his imagination; later, his enthusiasm for Pre-Columbian works yielded rich crops of both art and scholarship.
Among the Latin-American-born artists in this exhibition, the earliest in terms of chronology is Joaquín Torres-García, an Uruguayan who spent his formative years in Europe. There he absorbed the principles of modernism from the de Stijl artists and devised a mathematically-oriented, architecture-influenced approach all his own. Later, returning to Uruguay, he became the apostle of a movement to make South American art stand on its own, deriving inspiration not only from modernism but from native roots. While not Surrealist strictly speaking, Torres-García’s artistic project shared with Surrealism a desire to find new uses for old symbols and to tap into areas of consciousness other than the everyday rational one. His Railway Station II (1931) is a typically gridded painting crammed with characters from a symbolic alphabet of his own devising. Torres-García’s influence as a teacher was wide, and can easily be seen in an undated work by his fellow-countryman Manuel Pailós, Constructive with Fish and Ship. Roberto Matta, born in Chile but educated mainly in Europe, created amazing, mind- and sense-bending paintings such as The Prophet (1948), which is on view at FSU along with two other Matta works. Although Matta’s influence on Surrealism in the New World was felt more strongly in North America than in Latin America, there is no question that a show of Latin American Surrealism would be much poorer for his absence. Another Latin American native in the exhibition is Wifredo Lam, a Cuban who immersed himself in the School of Paris. His strange figures, which seem to straddle the human, animal, and vegetable worlds, are eminently Surrealist. The title of the exhibition comes from one of the most famous Latin-American-born artists, Frida Kahlo, who disclaimed the moniker of “Surrealist” claimed that she was painting not dreams or visions but reality—her reality.
The contemporary artists in the FSU exhibition show their indebtedness to Surrealism is ways to diverse to summarize here, but from Ana Mendieta in the 1970s down to Pablo Cano and Luis Gispert today, they adhere to a concept of realism that is faithful to experience but stubbornly resistant to literalism. In Latin America, the surreal is right here and now.
By John Dorfman