Dali’s lobster telephone. Magritte’s bowler-hatted men. Klee’s strange fish. When we think of surrealism, our minds tend to drift towards Europe.
Zoom in further and you’ll probably end up in Paris, the spiritual home of surrealism in the way Florence is the home of the Renaissance, or Britain the home of the industrial revolution.
This sprawling, slightly unwieldy collection brought together by the Tate Modern and New York’s MOMA casts a light into the pockets of surrealism that sprung up elsewhere: in Cairo and Cuba and Chicago, places often reacting to authoritarian regimes or human rights abuses (British colonialism, American military aggression and the civil rights movement respectively, for the three listed here).
Not only does it highlight these alternative scenes – it also studiously traces the links back to the European surrealists. It tells the tale of how American jazz musician and black power activist Ted Joans met surrealist poet André Breton at a bus stop, sparking a decades-long collaboration; or how British-Mexican artist Leonora Carrington’s tarot- and folklore-inspired paintings developed during her time in France (where she lived with German surrealist Max Ernst until the onset of WWII); or how Egyptian Antoine Malliarakis’ tangles of pastel limbs were influenced by his connections to the Paris surrealists.
The volume of works brought together is dizzying, spanning 80 years and 50 countries, including paintings by Picasso, fabric sculptures by Dorothea Tanning and photographs by Man Ray and Dora Maar. I picture bleary-eyed curators standing in front of a cork board filled with lines of red thread, attempting to make sense of the mountain of art they’ve accumulated.
This process is made all the more difficult by the amorphous nature of surrealism. Its formative Paris group celebrated artists who did not consider themselves surrealists and rejected others who did (even surrealism poster-boy Salvador Dali was expelled from the group in 1934 after either failing to denounce Spanish fascist General Franco, or for falling out with André Breton, depending who you ask).
On one level the Tate’s rigorous analysis feels at odds with the works themselves – the surrealists rejected rational interpretations of the world, yet here we see attempts to bring coherence to the incoherent, order to chaos, logic to the illogical. Some of these incredible works feel boxed in by the sheer volume of information attached to them. Rooms dedicated to surrealism in Tokyo and Mexico City could be the basis for entire exhibitions.
If you have a week to spare, you could learn a huge amount here, but with only an hour or so I felt slightly panicked by the sheer weight of it all. Still, to criticise a show that contains so many rare gems seems churlish – Surrealism Beyond Borders is stacked high and wide with some of the most important paintings of the 20th century; if you learn something while you’re here, that’s a nice bonus.