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article imageGetting Away From The Rational - Surrealism Lives Again In Paris

By Siegfried Mortkowitz     Mar 20, 2002 in Lifestyle
PARIS - In 1928, filmmaker Luis Bunuel and his Spanish compatriot, the painter Salvator Dali, collaborated on a film that would be as fantastic and original as the creative method they used.

First, Bunuel recounted later, he and Dali told each other their dreams. Then they set to work, adhering to only one rule.

"No idea or image that might lend itself to rational explanation of any kind would be accepted," Bunuel said. "We had to keep open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us without trying to explain why."

The result of their collaboration was "Un Chien Andalou" (An Andalusian Dog), which produced precisely the kind of scandal Bunuel and Dali had hoped it would.

Moviegoers in 1929 were especially shocked by a scene that showed a woman's eyeball being sliced open by a razor blade as a thin, dark cloud slides languidly across a full moon, perhaps the first use of black humor as a visual metaphor.

Now, Parisians and visitors to the French capital can watch this scene, screened in a continuous loop, and more than 600 other works of surrealist art in the Centre Pompidou's homage to arguably the most influential - and certainly the most subversive - art movement of the 20th century.

Entitled "The Surrealist Revolution", the show is one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of the movement ever staged, and may become the most important cultural event of the year in the French capital. It runs until June 24.

Included among the more than 60 artists in the show are Dali, his compatriots Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso, Philadelphia-born Man Ray, Belgian Rene Magritte and the German Max Ernst.

The works on exhibit were selected from surrealism's "golden age", roughly between 1918 and 1943.

The timeframe selected by curator Werner Spiess is far more than a formal covenience, for surrealism was first of all a reaction to the barbarity of World War I. And the Nazi occupation of Paris during the Second World War forced many surrealist artists to flee to the United States.

The senseless slaughter of World War I induced many artists to reject "realistic" forms of expression in favour of a form that might lead to a new reality, aesthetically, politically, morally.

As Bunuel put it, "The purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself."

The writings of Sigmund Freud on dreams and the human unconscious as a source of creativity pointed the way.

If rational thinking and bourgeois complacency not only helped create the war but also justified it, the thinking went, then the antidotes would be irrationality and shock.

The very first room of the Paris exhibition reveals the two methods the surrealists used to reach their aims.

The visitor passes several paintings by the Italian Giorgio de Chirico, a surrealist forerunner who juxtaposed wildly unrelated objects - such as bananas, the head of a Greek statue and a distant railway train, in "La reve transforme" (The Transformed Dream) - to create a dream-like atmosphere immune to rational explanation.

On a nearby wall hangs Max Ernst's "Au premier mot limpide" (At the first clear word), a "landscape" composed of forms so bizarre that they resist description by any words, clear or not.

The French writers Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, surrealism's self-anointed publicists, described the movement's aesthetics in 1938 as follows:

"The most powerful surrealist image is the one that presents the highest degree of randomness, the one that takes the longest to translate into practical language."

How to explain, for example, Magritte's "Jeune Fille mangeant un oiseau - Le plaisir" (Young Girl Eating a Bird - Pleasure), in which a young girl is depicted tearing open a small bird with her teeth.

And what did Miro wish to express with the odd-shaped doodles that form his 1933 work "Peinture" (Painting)?

To museumgoers accustomed to classical or even Impressionistic art, surrealism must have struck them like a custard pie between the eyes. Is it a joke? Are we being put on?

If we are less shocked by the works today, it is only because surrealism has not only influenced much of the art exhibited today, but has also seeped into mainstream western culture.

Surrealistic art appeared in Hollywood cinema as early as 1945, when Alfred Hitchcock used Dali to design a dream sequence in his film "Spellbound".

In the 1950s and especially 1960s, surrealism provided both a language for political rebellion and a background for the fantastic visions induced by mind-expanding drugs.

And Terry Gilliam's fantastic animations for the British television show Monty Python's Flying Circus are excellent examples of what could be described as modern surrealist slapstick.

It attests to the force of many of the works in the show that they still leave visitors shaking their heads, frowning in perplexity or simply rubbing their eyes.

As the French surrealist poet Benjamin Peret put it in "Real Life": "An eye of suede/promises me a sheet metal patch/gives me a newspaper/and cuts off an arm."

(La Revolution Surrealiste - The Surrealist Revolution, at the Centre Pompidou, place Georges-Pompidou, Paris. Daily except Tuesday from 1100 to 2100; Thursday until 2300.)
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