Desire Unbound

      At the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Art review by Lee Klein



Men Shall Know Nothing of This, 1923

Max Ernst



The All star corps of an exquisite corpse/becomes a corpse/What becomes an exquisite corpse most One should walk into "Desire unbound", the survey of work from the late Surrealist movement (which originated at the Tate Gallery in London and now at the time of this writing in a re-charted version at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York); as one should walk into any exhibition -or for that matter into a dream. Therein having dropped as many preconceptions as possible one should in the best of all possible worlds at least try to re-examine what is before one under the new parameters set up for them to take in the art.


Then one might remember that this was the stuff of our dreams of nearly three quarters to a half century ago and that the widely ridiculed and sometimes self serving epoch of late-post-modernism, attempted as one of its trajectories to update the vocabulary of the subconscious and the mass consciousness in its re-implementing of lyricism in art.


All said this exhibition (as indicated by the wall texts) seems to go hand in hand with a very deliberate catalogue meant to explain the rather didactic title "Desire Unbound". The aforementioned publication indeed goes the distance in attributing desire's unwinding in the visual realm to surrealism. Further in doing so it as if the curators opened the Victorian bodice from which this era of new-found risqué emerged and allows it to fall back between the buxom breasts of its rapidly aging polemical mistress.


Then the tome follows into endless essays filled with communist, occultist, and feminist propaganda -but propaganda nevertheless. Thus we find out that here it all starts according to our friends when surrealism's pope Andre Breton passed by a Parisian gallery on a bus one day after spotting Giorgio De Chirico's "The Child's Brain". Therein he saw the precursor for surrealism in this particularly chimerical (some would say androgynous) canvas in the metaphysical opus of this Italian painter.


This direct interpretation (leaving out Guilliame Appollinaire's naming of the word in describing the Massine/ Diaghelev/ Cocteau/ Picassso/ Satie collaboration "Parade) and its' issuing by the curatorial hand in allegiance to Breton is in effect the entombment of a movement. So for the most part others provided the surreal and Breton provided the ism (and in the end you cannot forces dreams into the prison of an ism and this is what in surrealism provided for schism after schism).


The direction of Jennifer Mundy, the Tate Museum curator (William Lieberman stepped in at the Metropolitan to take credit for the Americans-though Louise Bourgeois was in London and out in New York) under the post haste influence of Monsieur Breton is too strong- the submission to Breton is mentioned everywhere- (i.e. Breton didn't write about Magritte until a date late in the extent movement but he considered the Belgian's canvas "Rape" one of surrealism's most important works).


The show proceeds in a manner altogether more plotted then the more freewheeling exhibit of the collections of Daniel Filipacchi and Neshui Ertegun at the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue a few years back. This inspired spiraling deployment of the two gentleman's holdings ostensibly covered some of the same ground (albeit ramped up and unwinding in the grand Lloyd Wright manner). However that exhibit while it was noted that it suffered form the inevitable prejudices of private collectors and noticeable inclusions of those not necessarily surreal was much more like the dreams with which we expect that surrealism was once engaging.


"Desire Unbound" would have done well to imitate the Fillipachi-Ertegun exhibit by celebrating the individual creators with their own sections rather then corseting them into prearranged sub-textual rooms made to go according with this exhibition's text (though Cornell, DeChirico, and Bellmer do get their own rooms but they are the exception which proves the cafeteria)- Picasso and Giacometti come off like guest stars on the love boat.


After all the recipe for the surreal in art was implicit in the hallucinatory and symbolic interrelation of subjects and action in pre surrealist artists such as Breughel, Moreau, Redon, Knoph and Ensor( just to name a few). It was just that the surrealists added the Freud. Then even Dr. Freud when he was served up with the art and ideas from the poet Breton was confused…. as to what to make of Breton and his adventures in the field of art.


The catalogue and what it has to say it feels fresh as Lenin's corpse. So that once one gets to the essay by Annie Le Brun which gets back into the poetics of the movement the feeling one gets is as if one has been hanging around in "Moby Dick" for the god damn whale to show up.


Though on the other hand it could be said that the proposition of founding and moving forth with an enterprise based on so ephemeral a base of reasoning and artistic creation one would need a strong leader. Surrealism as movement died with Breton even as he had convened two final international surveys of it in the nineteen fifties and sixties and then declared it mort before his own demise.


In one of the most interesting area of the exhibit the surrealist object Salvador Dali (who truly outclassed the rest of the ever-changing surrealist pack) took hold with his lobster telephones and other surrealist objects which included a patent leather woman's pump "Scatological object acting symbolically".


Albeit Dali has been accused of taking some of the elements of his hyper perspectival accentuated state in parts from Yves Tanguy and Mr. De Chirico. But still Dali incorporated and then surpassed. Then upon further reflection on Dali's surrealist objects including the exhibition mascot 'Venus with Drawers" seemingly they mirror spatial and compositional issues in painting-lets just say Dali was quick on his trans-literal feet.


It has been discussed first how many female artists were included in the surrealist pantheon while at the same time as how women were treated by the male artists as objects of desire (thus both affording for desire unwinding and desire unbound). The women artists exhibited herein include Lee Miller; Dorothea tanning, Leonora Carrington, Leonora Fini, Frida Kahlo, Claude Cahun and Maria Martins (plus Marcel Duchamp's alter ego Rose Selavy).


Peter Schjeldhal in the New Yorker wisely pointed out that the Jackson Pollock in the final gallery of the exhibit 'surrealism in the Americas" is in a sense the pivotal work in this effort in that it ends the narcissistic route through Freud from Man Ray's photographic nudes and Desadean frolics into Bellmer's transfer of erotic desire into dolls and mannequins into Kahlo,Tanning, and Delvaux's haunted rooms with all manner of things crawling out from being behind locked doors into the hallways of dream action.


This new world old world interchange onto the other foot into Jung and the mass consciousness is then seen mirrored in the works of Baziotes; Arshile Gorky, and Roberto Matta. Further into this exhibition ending room is indeed an interesting look at psychohistory and the change in world power. The aforementioned conceits are manifest in both the societal psyche and art. A work by Andre Masson ( who came over to and painted in the United States during and after WW ll) can be seen to foreshadow the work of Pollock who he indeed influenced.


Perhaps the place where the breath of fresh air is freshest is in the surrealist book section. Here displayed are various collaborations which occurred as inspiration and amorous complicity traveled through the core of the movement in interchangeable tandems. So that with the physical manuscripts and art pieces married the hand visible gives a more live dimension then what elsewhere is seen here.


Its Been over a decade and a half since my mother first bought me a Robert Descharnes book on Salvador Dali with many color plates. I was enraptured and would spend long summer nights reading and ingesting as much as I could. Here was a mind on fire and able to translate this creative inferno to canvas while dancing around movements and even take a quixotic swipe at time. In short here was art considered surrealist which was fresh. In other words everything desire unbound which could be renamed surrealism undone is not


What in effect I attempt to do here is not to diminish the art but to address the contextaulization as surrealism is repackaged for a new century and another generation of foundlings.


Then after long deliberation I finally got it this exhibition is stale.


Lee Klein 2002