La riscoperta di Dada e Surrealismo—introducing Daniel Gallagher, our new Rome correspondent

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Harry Carlsson (Danish, 1891-1968), Le triomphe de l’amour (1936)

Harry Carlsson (Danish, 1891-1968), Le triomphe de l’amour (1936)

La riscoperta di Dada e Surrealismo, Complesso del Vittoriano (Rome) until February 7

After a stroll through the Roman Forum, visitors to the Eternal City these days are just a few steps from one of the most impressive and comprehensive exhibitions of dadaistic and surrealistic art ever realized. Noted art historian and theorist Arturo Schwarz, curator of the exhibition underway at the Vittoriano and once owner of many of its pieces (since donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem), has brought together over 500 oil paintings, drawings, sculptures, readymades, collages, assemblages, and photomontages to showcase the enormous variety of twentieth-century avant-gardism. Having befriended André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, and Man Ray, he knows Dada and Surrealism as well as anyone. In the introductory video to the exhibit, Schwarz explains that his primary goal is to highlight a major difference between Dadaism and Surrealism: while the former openly rejected the past, the latter maintained a keen interest in both ancient (Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles) and modern (Hegel, Freud, and Marx) philosophy. Entitled “La riscoperta di Dada e Surrealismo”, the collection presents both movements as serious cultural and political revolutions rather than merely artistic genres. The title “rediscovery” also refers to the enormous number of artists who worked in the surrealist mode, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of any style in the history of art.

The exhibition begins with a few pre-Dada pieces by Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, and Duchamp. An unmistakable indebtedness to Cézanne can be detected in Duchamp’s Jeune homme et jeune fille dans le printemps, along with his frustrated attempt to imitate the modern master’s technical prowess. The visitor is then introduced to the importance of play and randomness in Dadaism and Surrealism through works produced by cadavre exquis (“exquisite cadaver”), a game in which several artists collaborate on a single piece by adding a section based on nothing but a partial view of what the previous artist has contributed. Games like this were highly prized by Dadaists for having no immediate productive end, for facilitating a study of how the unfettered mind works, and for helping strangers get to know one another quickly.

Flocking to more famous works like L.H.O.O.Q., Fountain, Bicycle Wheel and Le Chateau des Pyrenees, visitors unfortunately miss out on other fascinating pieces including Marcel Janco’s Seiltanzer, Joan Miró’s Donna avvolta dal volo di un uccello, Francis Picabia’s L’ombre, Jean Arp’s Torse à la tête de fleur, Max Ernst’s La mer, André Masson’s Le peintre e les temps, and Yves Tanguy’s Deux fois noir. Of considerable interest are several drawings and paintings that make use of a combination of words, lines, and figures in syntactical and non-syntactical ways, giving us a glimpse of the interplay of language and image so important to Dadaism and—despite its own claims to the contrary—Surrealism. Francis Picabia’s Paroles and Tristan Tzara’s Calligramme are fine examples of this. The technique of weaving and circling typography across the page was also practiced by fellow Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Most scholars consider it an experiment in poetry rather than picturing, but seeing so much of this art in one place demonstrates the bidirectionality of the experiment: it was meant not only to free words from their purely referential function, but also to foreground the narrative quality of Surrealism. This holds true even for the most abstract paintings in the collection, many of which demand narrative interpretation by superimposing lines and arrows—if not words themselves—onto an otherwise purely expressionistic background.

Harry Carlsson’s (Danish, 1891-1968) Le triomphe de l’amour (1936) is a outstanding example of the surrealist reliance on narrative. The picture’s title cloaks it in a veil of irony, yet takes nothing away from its narrative force. A woman, presumably caught in a fit of passion, morphs into a crayfish and devours herself in the process. As her legs dangle from the creature’s menacing pincers, she nonchalantly cradles a cigarette-turned-vigil-light between her right thumb and forefinger, signaling the ritualistic aspect of the transformation—as if it happens every Saturday night. Her hair, face, neck and exposed breast are compellingly reminiscent of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, though now inverted not only in posture but in the photographic “negative” created by her dark hair and features. Her languid eyes and slightly exaggerated lips suggest a modern disenchantment with the shallowness of romantic love and a diffident subversion of Plato’s idealized kalon. Whereas Venus rises gracefully from the sea poised on a shell, this woman is lifted off a cushion by the swelling crustacean, and Botticelli’s lightly falling flowers are replaced by pins, needles, scissors, and other odds and ends falling from within rather than without. The bright blue and stifling interiority of Carlsson’s painting sharply contrast with the soft turquoise and open horizon of Botticelli’s. Striking too is the heavily clad, diminutive man in the corner who “orchestrates” the scene with a jazzy incantation played on his double-bass. For all its hallucinatory and nightmarish character, Le triomphe de l’amour tells a tale equally as evocative as The Birth of Venus, but leaves the viewer to fill in the details. Whereas the latter visualizes ideal beauty through the iconography of classical mythology, the former, just like Marivaux’s 1732 comedy with the same title, inverts the ideal, and with it the cult of reason.

Indeed, this vast collection prompts the viewer to reflect upon the role of reason both in artistic production and in especially in human love. Everyone knows that Dadaism was born out of a deep suspicion of reason and that Surrealism was a self-proclaimed cultural revolution. Yet long-standing internal disagreements continue concerning the desired aim of each. The importance of automatism, for instance, remains unclear both for creative writing and the visual arts. Many leading figures, including Breton, later acknowledged that what passed for automation was just as often the result of meticulous deliberation. Moreover, as Le triomphe de l’amour illustrates, Surrealism’s ambivalent stance towards human reason goes far beyond the execution of the artwork and touches upon the very notion of love. Left to raw impulse, love becomes distorted, yet it cannot help but crave for intentionality, purpose, and commitment. It “triumphs” both through immolation and projection, never resting in itself but reaching out through the irrepressible dynamism of the human spirit. In short, Dada and Surrealism were never able to do away with logic and rationality in toto, for they had to rely on human reason in the very attempt to capture the unconscious.

The ubiquity of reason is manifested in the very arrangement of the exhibition. The organizers claim that the dense, chaotic presentation of the pieces is deliberately in keeping with the spirit of Dada and Surrealism. At the same time, the artworks are carefully sequenced chronologically, divided into pre- and post-war periods and further subdivided according to the major surrealist expositions up to and including the Exposition Internationale du Surrealism of 1960. That show, which linked Sade’s eroticism to the “obscenity” of modern politics, was planned as part of a concerted campaign against French foreign policy in Algeria, and it seems to have been successful: many people were politically motivated in its wake, including leading anarchists Jean-Jacques Lebel and Jean Benoit. The event did much to stimulate the schizophrenic oscillation between artistic individualism and political collectivism that came to full force in the revolutionary chaos of 1968.

Eschewing any particular aesthetic idea or artistic technique, Surrealism has always prided itself on a high respect for uniqueness and the individuality of imagination and expression. Yet it also inexorably brought like-minded individuals together in the common cause against the political and cultural establishment of the day. Moving through this expansive collection at the Vittoriano, one gets the feeling that Surrealism blissfully declined to resolve this ambiguity and opted to wallow in a monotonous repetition of works basking in adolescent escapism and a surfeit of sexual innuendo. Its initial promise of unfettering the imagination and unleashing the power of ingenuity—both artistically and politically—seems to have precipitated into a study of isolation, self-pity, and solipsism. It wanted to free itself from logic but was unable to dispense with reason. Indeed, it had to face the reality that to dream as a human being is to dream as a rational being, and that the dreams humans dream have the power to make them more “reasonable”, not less. Romeo could not have been more correct in his quick retort to Mercutio’s “dreamers often lie”, quipping “in bed asleep, while they do dream things true” (Romeo and Juliette, Act I, Scene iv).

About the author

Daniel B. Gallagher

Daniel Gallagher has taught philosophy and theology and is the author of numerous articles in metaphysics and aesthetics. He is particularly interested in the overlapping issues of classical, medieval, and modern theories of beauty and art. A catholic priest, Monsignor Gallagher is currently stationed at the Vatican.

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