Sex, violence and surrealism

Issue 

Surrealism: Revolution by Night

Art Gallery of NSW

July 30 to September 19

Reviewed by Zanny Begg

Salvador Dali's famous utterance "the only difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad" seems, in a peculiar way, to define the blockbuster exhibition which is touring Australia Surrealism: Revolution by night.

The exhibition leads you into a strange, nocturnal world where time melts and the unexpected predominates, where shadows defy the sun and dreams merge with reality. The Surrealists walk you along the fine line between madness and the mundane.

The overwhelming impression one gets from the exhibition is of the huge diversity of surrealist art. The works range from mysterious portrayals of the subconscious to comic and irreverent depictions of everyday objects. Surrealism itself was never a style. What defines the Surrealists is their exploration of the unusual and their rejection of conformity. According to Conroy Maddox the Surrealists discredit completely "the world of immediate reality".

The Surrealist rejection of reality came at a time when it seemed reality had gone mad. The horror of the First World War had devastated Europe. Surrealists recoiled from the irrationality of war and human destruction into the more private realm of dreams and the subconscious. They called themselves revolutionaries. They rejected bourgeois culture and middle-class values. They sought to subvert what was "respectable" in society and expose what they saw as corrupt and hypocritical. The second manifesto of the Surrealists declared "Surrealism has no fear of making as its dogmas absolute revolt, total refusal to submit and sabotage in principle".

But if the reality the Surrealists recoiled from was violent and irrational the subconscious world they explored was no less disturbing. In running away from the horrors of World War I the Surrealists discovered their own fantasy world was also filled with prejudice and disgust. In a violent world our dreams are necessarily polluted by violence.

The Surrealists struggled for complete individual liberty. This gave many of their works a unique and fascinating quality. But when the struggle for complete individual freedom is not accompanied by an understanding of the need for collective liberation of the oppressed it can lead to ridiculous extremes: "The simplest Surrealist act", wrote Andres Breton in 1929, "consists in going down into the street, revolver in ones hands, and firing at random, wilfully, into the crowd".

This pessimistic sadism is a far cry from the whimsical fantasy often associated with Surrealist artists like Miro and Magritte. But in an exhibition of this depth it cannot fail to filter through and dominate. Man Ray's Imaginary portrait of D.A.F de Sade (1938) is a disturbing example of the darker side of Surrealist art. Count ois, the Marquis de Sade was jailed 11 times for his sexual cruelty to women making him the namesake for the term sadism, and yet he was regarded by the surrealists as a great "revolutionary moralist and poet". Man Ray's portrait shows him in front of the bastille where he was imprisoned —strong and impressive, a symbol of uninhibited violence.

Sexual violence was an ongoing theme. Max Ernst's La joie de vivre (1936) depicts an ominous jungle of the subconscious. Lurking in the jungle is a praying mantis. The praying mantis became a symbol for the Surrealists because in the act of mating the female devours the male. Women's sexuality was seen as evil and predatory.

The Surrealists attempted to challenge the sexual taboos that predominated at the beginning of this century, but they were more interested in exploring violence then really questioning the taboos surrounding sexism and homophobia.

In 1928 the magazine La Revolution surrealiste conducted a survey into attitudes to sexuality which was remarkable for its candor. Group sex, sexual preference, masturbation and voyeurism were all discussed. The survey revealed, however, how limited the tolerance of the surrealists really was. Andre Breton, the father of the Surrealist art movement, was exposed as deeply opposed to male homosexuality (he threatened to discontinue the conversation if the topic was further raised) and in favour of masturbation only if women were the subject of the fantasies. Rene Crevel, the only openly gay member of the surrealist literary clique, was the only one to refuse to debase women in any way.

Women are portrayed as fragmented and violated throughout the exhibition. Duchamp's Please Touch (1947) reduces women to a single breast sliced from the body and mounted on velvet. Hans Bellmer's The Top (1938) shows multiple breasts clustered on a block. Other Surrealist works show Jack the Ripper's victims or women with their throats cut.

Much surrealist art shows women as faceless and anonymous. In contrast Magritte's The Rape (1934) challenges this trend. The Rape has the ultimate faceless woman —her face is replaced by her torso. She is mute, her mouth replaced by her pubic hair. The title of this work, however, shows that Magritte wanted to achieve more then just shock value. He was criticising the de-humanisation of women in society. Magritte's painting and a handful of others provide welcome relief from the misogyny of much of the exhibition.

The Surrealists wanted to create a revolution. They flirted with Marxism. The surrealist poet Paul Eluard declared that "we have united to ruin the bourgeoisie [and] refuse along with the proletariat to be exploited". However very few of the Surrealists exhibited any understanding of the forces of exploitation or the means to fight them. They wanted to accept Marx, Freud and the Marquis de Sade all at the same time. Their revolution by night failed to see the light of day. The Surrealists instead revealed that the subconscious is a realm very much affected by the conscious world of reality.