It's been surreal; Finding a new perspective on a modern art movement that's too often dismissed
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 November 2015)

Surrealism often feels like a marginal outsider among the movements of modern art. The textbooks never fail to mention it but they seldom give it the prominence and praise they lavish on Cubism and Abstraction. Most of Surrealism has always existed in an unmapped country somewhere between the defiant radicalism of Marcel Duchamp's experiments and the easy fraudulence of Salvador Dali's slickness. It hasn't helped that half the advertising art directors in the world have adopted Surrealist tricks, generating thousands of ads that sell everything from perfume to shoes while reminding us of something we once saw in an art gallery. If Surrealism works so well at selling products, it's hard to take it seriously.

That being the case, the show that opened last week at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington (and continues until Feb. 16) looks like the announcement of a new and refreshing way to think about Surrealism. Valerie Fletcher, the Hirshhorn's senior curator and the author of books on Isamu Noguchi and Alberto Giacometti, calls her exhibition and her substantial catalogue Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York (Prestel Publishers).

Her strategy is to extend what the word Surrealist means. Rather than just gathering the names always associated with the movement, she ropes in a dozen distinguished artists who adopted the attitudes of Surrealism and produced work that shows a substantial debt to the movement - even though they are seldom called Surrealists.

A curator of considerable imagination, Fletcher redefines her subject and puts before us a wonderfully rich, provocative and surprising collection. In her system, Henry Moore turns out to be as much a Surrealist as René Magritte, Alexander Calder as much as Man Ray, Noguchi as much as Jean Arp.

Fletcher has pulled them together in one big show that convincingly demonstrates how much they have in common. Creating this fresh context, she makes most of the artists more interesting and engaging than they look on their own. I found that Calder's mobiles, for example, have to be taken seriously when set down with similar work. Isolated, they have often seemed trivial to me.

In a way that museums seldom manage, Fletcher leaves Surrealism richer and more interesting than she found it.

The movement's name began in the French language, as Surréalisme, coined by Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet and friend of Picasso who was wounded in the First World War but died in 1918, a victim of the influenza pandemic. André Breton adopted the word as his own and over the years wrote a series of manifestos attempting to combine it with the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and the politics of Karl Marx. At one point he collaborated with Leon Trotsky and Diego Rivera on a book about revolutionary art.

The ideas that grew up originally around Breton were seen as a rejection of the smug civilization that had blundered into the nearly suicidal First World War. Having watched a supposedly logical and progressive Europe unleash four years of senseless horror, the new artists turned away from reason. The bizarre grouping of incongruous and unassociated images was a way of rejecting the thinking of a civilization that had failed.

Breton saw the new art as a channel to the hidden corridors of the mind. Dreams became a common subject of painting and sculpture. Admirers of Surrealism searched through cultural history for predecessors of the movement, such as Lewis Carroll and Giuseppe Archimboldo.

And later generations used similar techniques to reflect their feelings. Noguchi, Fletcher notes, was traumatized not by the First World War but by the results of the Second. His tortured sculptures reflected his experience of an internment camp for Japanese in Nevada. If Fletcher's exhibition gives Surrealism a new sense of unity and coherence, she also focuses fresh interest on the institution she serves and its creator, the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the Washington Mall. Certainly Hirshhorn would have approved of this show. He was a legendary figure, famous for his intense curiosity, the most copious buyer of modern art anywhere.

Born in Latvia in 1899, the 12th of 13 children, he arrived in the U.S. at the age of six with his widowed mother. At 14 he went to work as an office boy on Wall Street and in three years became a well-paid stockbroker. He sold off investments shortly before the 1929 crash, coming out $4 million ahead. Then he opened an office in Toronto and turned his attention to Canadian mining. He helped uncover rich uranium deposits near Blind River, Ont., and helped found the town of Elliot Lake, which included Hirshhorn Avenue. By 1960, he had made about $100 million from uranium.

He gave the impression that he felt no day complete if it didn't include a purchase for his art collection. He housed it in a warehouse in Brooklyn, overseen by a professional curator whose job was to photograph and catalogue everything acquired. The curator told me one time that he was falling behind because Hirshhorn bought faster than anybody could catalogue. In London for a business meeting, he would nip out at lunch and buy a Henry Moore. He spent no time pondering his choices, arguing that if you couldn't decide immediately there was something wrong with the art or the collector.

Once, at the opening of a Toronto exhibition of pre-Columbian sculpture from South America, he bought out the entire show, a couple of dozen pieces. In Toronto he often toured the new galleries that were beginning to appear, sometimes buying three or four paintings on one visit.

In 1966 Hirshhorn donated 6,000 paintings and sculptures, along with a $2-million endowment, for which the Smithsonian set up the museum and garden. When Hirshhorn died in 1981, he willed 6,000 more works of art along with a $5-million endowment.

Over the years the museum has become known not only for his collection but for developing its own original shows, offering fresh ideas about modern art. Marvelous Objects, with its exhilarating approach to Surrealism, continues that tradition.

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