PARIS — Reality bites — even in the dreamy world of surrealism, the 20th century’s key artistic movement involving Andre Breton and Salvador Dali.
So in 1927, when the Paris-based surrealists decided to engage with hard reality and join the French Communist Party, it nearly spelled their end.
How could a movement that was, after all, defined by escaping to imaginary landscapes, subconscious automatic writing and dreams ever survive the shock of Marxist politics in between the wars?
A new exhibit titled “Surrealism and the Object,” which opened Wednesday at Paris’ Pompidou Center, attempts to answer this impossible question.
It draws on the world’s biggest surrealism archive to tell the untold story of how artists reconciled their fantastical dreaming with materialist Marxist politics by channeling their artistic message through poor, everyday — communist-friendly — objects such as blocks of wood, string, mannequins and umbrellas.
The surrealist-Communist chapter is little known, but it changed the face of 20th century art.
“This is the key story of surrealism that has never been written. This is the realist story of surrealism. Suddenly they decided to join the ranks of the Communist Party and they had to deal with the real, after years of opposing reality,” curator Didier Ottinger said.
“It was a crisis. (Communism) opposed commercial artwork, the idea of an artistic genius, and any ideas that were not based on the material reality. It opposed the very definition of surrealism. What was the solution?” added Ottinger.
It was surrealist leader, writer and poet Andre Breton who solved their existential crisis, argues the exhibit. He told its adherents to channel their subversive, disturbing and dreamlike message through this Socialist bric-a-brac, thereby securing surrealism’s future in the face of the seemingly opposing leftist ideology.
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Functional objects such as Alberto Giacometti’s block of wood, Salvador Dali’s stiletto and Man Ray’s spiked iron that feature in the exhibit were not originally made by an artistic genius, cost next to nothing to buy and were grounded in the real world.
“The celebration of this low-culture was irresistible for artists across the century, and even today you see it everywhere” artist Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux said.
Such was its new object-obsessed allure after 1927 that it even went on to draw in non-surrealists like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro right up until the 1980s.
Breton was inspired by the Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp who was the first to turn poor and cheap objects, such as a urinal, into high art to protest against the rich and bourgeois establishment.
Duchamp would be disheartened to know that his famed art piece “Bottle Rack,” which would have cost next to nothing when he first presented it in 1914 and opens the exhibit, might well fetch a bit more if sold today.