It's a surprise to glimpse the worried faces of Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck flickering across a wall in the midst of an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. But Surreal Things (to Aug. 30) is a surprising show. It's an engrossing, revealing essay in what we can call Applied Surrealism, the process by which avant-garde European artists started out as revolutionaries and ended up as fashion designers, advertising artists and all-purpose idea mongers.
An enemy of Surrealism could say that this far-ranging collection of outlandish objects proves that the Surrealists became handmaidens of consumerism by turning art into a comic turn. An admirer, on the other hand, could argue that they simply made themselves useful according to the standards of their (and our) time. Either way, they stretched their influence far beyond the Parisian art world where their ideas were first cobbled together.
In Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 thriller, Bergman and Peck play a psychiatrist and her amnesia-victim patient. Scenes from that film appear at the AGO because Hitchcock hired Salvador Dali to design the Peck character's dreams. Dali of course turned out Dali-esque nightmares that Bergman decoded, saving her patient and solving a murder.
Dali was the man for that job. He loved to blur the borders of art and show business and loved to play with Freud-inflected images. He emerges as the undoubted star of Surreal Things -- and deserves to, no matter what we think of his art. A large constituency has always restrained its enthusiasm for his painting. Even in his best days, each Dali picture would begin as a sensation, develop into a curiosity and then calcify into a bore.
His pictures are slick, superficial and forgettable -- less interesting by far than Max Ernst's paintings, less memorable than René Magritte's, less piquant than Man Ray's.
Even so, Dali emerges as a titan in any account of how the Surrealists infiltrated the fashionable imagination. When artists rushed to the marketplace like 21st-century geeks auctioning their great ideas for computer games, Dali led the pack. In the mid-1920s, he was a newly minted Spanish Surrealist, alive with what looked like inflammatory desires. By the mid-1930s, in New York, he was designing windows for Bonwit Teller, a high-end dress shop on Fifth Avenue. Using Surrealism as a marketing tool, he titled his first window, "She was a Surrealist Woman. She was like a Figure in a Dream."
The most numerous and memorable of the things in Surreal Things are Dali products, like the loveseat that reproduces Mae West's lips, the telephone with its receiver shaped like a lobster and a brooch in the shape of a mouth with lips of ruby, teeth of pearls. Dali illustrates the thesis of Ghislaine Wood, the curator who put the show together for the Victoria and Alberta Museum in London two years ago: The very themes of Surrealism lent themselves to commercialization. (The AGO gift shop gets right into the spirit by offering "Parfums Salvador Dali.")
Wood took the show to Rotterdam and Bilbao with great success and presents it here in a somewhat altered version, with some 40 pieces from the AGO's own collection and several other North American museums, most notably the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., which became, in the 1930s, the first North American museum to take Surrealism seriously.
"Surréalisme," coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 to describe his own writing, was later confiscated by André Breton for his plans to free humanity from the twin curses of capitalism and sexual repression. Ideally, Surrealism would create a culture of unfettered dreams. Humanity, granted this intellectual and spiritual liberation, would build a revolutionary society.
A wall text at the AGO illustrates the conflicts that followed: A statement from Breton and Louis Aragon (later a Stalinist) says "It is inadmissible that ideas should be at the behest of money."
But once Dali elbowed in, and Elsa Schiaparelli produced Dali-inspired garments and Giorgio de Chirico began designing for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Surrealism was off its ideological leash, more a free-floating adjective than a school of art. By the time it was 25 years old, the word meant grotesque chaos. In 1942, Evelyn Waugh used it in Put Out More Flags: "I should have thought an air raid was just the thing for a surréaliste ... limbs and things lying about in odd places."
Dali's description was open-ended and fashionably puzzling-- "I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like in a dream." He argued that the world (in the 1930s) needed more fantasy; it was becoming too mechanical. Surrealism would make the fantastic real -- more real than reality itself.
The Surrealists were the sly, decadent, mocking enemies of everything in modern culture that encouraged simplicity. They celebrated nature by redesigning it, and turned their work into an updated version of Art Nouveau, far more florid than the original. They saw sex as it might appear in a Dali dream, with its ambiguities and terrors exuberantly disclosed. Speaking with the authority of the subconscious, Surrealism answered the puritanism of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Piet Mondrian with a furious "No!"
In this battle, simple, direct, "pure" modernism won an easy victory, especially among architects and city builders, reproducing itself as if by DNA from Berlin to Beijing over six decades. It was far more practical, requiring at its worst almost nothing in the way of imagination.
But in another sense, the Surrealists won the war. They infiltrated culture where it was most vulnerable, in the mass media. As Ghislaine Wood writes, Surrealist style deployed "juxtaposition, displacement and fetishization."
For juxtaposition, look at Monty Python's humour and all it led to, such as 30 Rock. For displacement, consider the way rock videos leap effortlessly from the real to the unreal, the essence of surrealism. For fetishization, see the conical breasts of Madonna and the garments that turn runway fashion shows into haute pornography.
Surreal Things exhibits work done by the Surrealists themselves. Had the V&A decided to extend the range of its exhibition to the uses of Surrealistic fantasies up to this moment, the exhibition would have filled a whole building. But that's a show to be done sometime in the future. For now, Surreal Things, fascinating and educational and endlessly entertaining, is more than enough.