February 09, 2013

"Drawing Surrealism" at The Morgan

When I think of The Morgan, my first thoughts are of J. Pierpont Morgan's fantastic collection of early books, including three Gutenberg Bibles, housed in his sumptuous study and library and surrounded by exquisite examples of Renaissance art.  So I was a little surprised when it was announced that they would be co-hosting an exhibition curated in conjunction with the Los Angles County Museum of Art and dedicated to Surrealist drawings.

All skepticism quickly disappeared when I went to see the show presented in two large galleries in The Morgan's new Renzo Piano designed exhibition space.  "Drawing Surrealism" is a chronological survey of Surrealist works on paper with thematic sections dedicated to various drawing techniques, the evolution of the movement and its international influence.  The exhibition presents 165 works by such masters as Salvador Dali, RenĂ© Magrette, Joan Miro and Max Ernst, as well as many other unsung but still important artists of the period, drawn from major private and museum collections including quite a few from The Morgan's own reserves.

The Surrealist Movement, an offshoot of Dada, officially began in 1924 with the publication of AndrĂ© Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto" and continued as a major "ism" until the 1940s when it was overtaken by abstraction.  The tenets of Surrealism stem from Freud's theories of the unconscious, 19th century mysticism and Symbolist art and literature all of which emphasize dreams, chance and liberation of the mind.  The act of drawing was the perfect method with which to express spontaneous ideas and allowed artists unparalleled freedom to embody these thoughts through images.

The exhibition traces the evolution of the Surrealism through a variety of drawing techniques all seeking to achieve "pure psychic automatism".  One of the earliest expressions was through "automatic drawing" in which the artist simply allowed his or her hand to move across the sheet, but so quickly that it could not be guided by conscious thought.  "Dream imagery" was more academic in approach but allowed free-form imagination to create fantastic illusions while "vivid imagery" produced more grotesque and diabolical metamorphoses.  "Frottage", "fumage" and "decolomania" were three more methods that allowed the image to be determined by chance - frottage by using a pencil or charcoal to create a rubbing, fumage by holding a prepared canvas over the flame of a candle and allowing the smoke to create the image and decalomania entailed applying wet paint to a sheet of paper which was then pressed against another.  When the two sheets were pulled apart, the resulting pattern suggested the image.

Wolfgang Paalen "Untitled - Fumage", 1938

Oscar Dominguez "Untitled - Decalomanie", 1936-37

The Surrealists also played an art game called "exquisite corpse" that was the ultimate in chance and collaboration.  Here, several artists would each make a drawing on a section of folded paper without seeing the other drawings.  When the paper was unfolded to reveal the final product the effects were strange and wonderful at the same time!

While the exhibition's definition of a drawing may seem a little diluted with the inclusion of photographs, collages and watercolors, the overall impact is impressive and altogether it offers an informative perspective on Surrealist art.  I think Mr. Morgan would be pleased!

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