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The appeal of the surreal comes to Tate in massive new Surrealism show

It will be the first major exhibition devoted to Surrealism in over 20 years

Its influence on pop culture and advertising has probably been greater than that of any other modern movement, but Surrealism has not been the subject of a major exhibition in London since the Hayward Gallery’s Surrealism and Dada show 23 years ago. And despite its subsequent influence on major modern movements such as Abstract Expressionism and on contemporary stars such as Louise Bourgeois, its critical reputation has fluctuated wildly over the past half century.

Tate Modern’s major new exhibition, “Surrealism: desire unbound”, is in part an attempt to clarify the misconceptions that have sprung up around the movement, including its relationship with literature and its responsiveness to matters concerning love and sex.

Tate Modern’s exhibition has been curated by Jennifer Mundy, the senior curator of international art 1900-60, with Professor Dawn Ades of the University of Essex in an advisory role. It is divided into 13 sections, comprising some 450 items, almost half of these being works of art, the rest items of primarily documentary interest.

Ms Mundy hopes to establish the central importance of poetry and other forms of writing to the Surrealist artists, so one of the rooms will be “a kind of arcade of showcases in which we’ll be displaying 80 books. It will be very visual,” she is quick to add, “because the writers had a visual sense too, and there are some wonderful collaborations.”

But far from confirming the old allegation that Surrealist art merely illustrated notions that were essentially literary, Ms Mundy hopes the display will show that the influence was two-way and enhanced both art forms. (Tate Publishing is releasing a book to go with the exhibition, entitled Surrealist love poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws, including poems by Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, André Breton, Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Pablo Picasso and others.)

“The literary aspect,” says Mundy, “is not marginal, it’s central. My feeling is that the artists wouldn’t have made the formal innovations they did if it weren’t for the inspiration of working with the poets. But artists feed off all sorts of sources, and the collaboration between the artists and the poets led the painters to challenge and test the official language. That collaboration between them is a hallmark of the movement. Although it has been seen in modernist criticism as a weakness in Surrealist art, it was a source of innovation.

“The books we’re getting,” continues Ms Mundy, “are very special. Some were by the poets themselves, to which they added special documents about the relationships that inspired them.

“For example, Paul Eluard’s copy of Au défaut du silence (for want of silence), which he published in 1925 anonymously, was illustrated by Max Ernst. Eluard had met [his wife] Gala when they were teenagers in a Swiss sanatorium and they married very young... For a time Gala [who later married Dalí], Eluard and Ernst lived together as a ménage à trois, and the two men produced this volume of poetry illustrated by Ernst’s portraits of Gala. It was about their relationship together and the love they felt for her.”

Half of Tate Modern’s temporary exhibition space has been transformed for the show by architects McCormack Jameson Pritchard in a way which Ms Mundy hopes will “explore aspects of the workings of desire... The outer galleries have been conceived as representing the upper layers of consciousness, and in the middle of the exhibition space will be a dark centre, a metaphor for desire.”

Many of the Surrealists were originally involved with Dada, the “anti-art” movement that arose after World War I. But where Dada was nihilistic in spirit, Surrealism was more sanguine in its view of human possibilities, both individual and social, and it is this aspect that Ms Mundy wants to explore through the exhibition’s overriding theme, “desire unbound”.

“Desire was the key to having an optimistic vision of life. Rather than accepting a view of man as a wage slave, a tool of society and Church and religion (and remember this was a generation that went through World War I), they wanted to believe that man was ever desirous of love, of poetry and of freedom.”

But of course the Surrealists’ celebration of desire had darker implications, too, and the Tate show will include works by artists—Dalí, Bellmer and Bourgeois, for instance—which suggest the more disturbing aspects of the desiring unconscious.

As a whole, the exhibition will include works by most of the major artists who were, at various times, involved with the movement. Nine works are from the Tate’s own collection, whose Surrealist holdings derive largely from the collection of the late Sir Roland Penrose, who was involved with the Surrealists in Paris.

Surrealism has been disparaged for its over-reliance on the theories of Sigmund Freud, but Ms Mundy believes the recent discrediting of much of Freud’s thinking in scientific circles should not muddy our response to the movement.

“The Surrealists themselves,” she says, “were sceptical about certain aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis. They took on board and accepted his vision that we were sexual animals and that we are driven by sexual instincts, and they used his writings for explanations of certain aspects of behaviour. But they did not accept Freud’s notions of what was normal, nor did they accept the therapeutic aspects of psychoanalysis. They basically saw psychoanalysis as an adjunct to what they as poets and creators were doing.

“And so, although Freud is being discredited or being thought of as more of a creative writer than a God-like scientist, that actually chimes in with their surrealist vision. Everyone can explore the psyche and it’s not a question of being subject to the rules of scientists.” As to the suggestion that a lot of Surrealist rhetoric manifested itself in sexism or misogyny, Ms Mundy says: “I think we need to bear in mind that the social and economic position of women in that society is not what it is now. What is striking is the independence and creativity and the free-living aspects of the Surrealists, both men and women.”

“Aspects of Surrealism,” says Ms Mundy, “are still being explored today...[but] for a whole generation of exhibition visitors in London, this will be the first chance to see a major survey of Surrealism.”

“Surrealism: desire unbound” at Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG, % +44 (0)20 7887 8000 (20 September to 1 January, 2001). Catalogue by Jennifer Mundy (Tate Publishing, London, 2001), 352 pp, 252 col. ills, £75 (hb) ISBN 1854374044), £29.99 (pb) ISBN 185437365X. The exhibition travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (6 February 2002-12 May 2002).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'I want you: the appeal of the surreal'