The first thing to be noted about the mammoth Surrealism exhibition that has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is that it was not organized by the Met itself. Surrealism: Desire Unbound, as this misshapen behemoth of a show is called, is a production of London’s Tate Modern, where it has already been seen. This means, among much else, that aesthetic considerations are everywhere discounted in favor of thematic motifs and provocative subjects. As there was never any lack of provocation in the Surrealist movement in its heyday–the 1920’s and 1930’s–and there was frequently a radical impoverishment of aesthetic probity, Surrealism: Desire Unbound must have been a perfect fit for Tate Modern, where aesthetic considerations are now under a virtual ban. (If you doubt it, think of the rubbish that the Tate has consistently honored with its Turner Prizes in recent years.)
At the Met, however, we have come to expect a different order of priorities, and we are not usually disappointed. Yet on this occasion, the museum has embraced an exhibition that is so determined to create a sensation–not a difficult task when the subject is Surrealism–that it scarcely pays any attention to significant artistic achievement. As a result, Surrealism: Desire Unbound is, more often than not, less interesting as an art exhibition than as an overscale social documentary of Surrealism as cultural history–one of those heralded “new narratives” that have now supplanted an interest in art itself at Tate Modern, and a good many other museums specializing in modern art.
Consider, for example, the exhibition’s treatment of Joan Miró, who was surely the greatest of the Surrealist painters. Except for two works on paper from the artist’s Constellations series (both 1941) and a single example of a peinture-poème picture– A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (1938)–there is little in Surrealism: Desire Unbound that attests to the full range of Miró’s pictorial powers. None of the three paintings from 1925 that we see in the room devoted to the theme of “Automatism” is an important example of his work–and none, by the way, is automatist either in spirit or in execution. But this is the way it often is with these thematic “new narrative” exhibitions: Authors of the wall-text narrative say one thing, while the pictures selected to illustrate the text say something else.
There is, in any case, a good deal of muddle here about the concept of automatism in painting. It was often more of a theory or a pretext than a practice in Surrealist painting, and Miró himself was at some pains to explain why. Writing in 1948, he made a clear distinction between the “free, unconscious” element that “may suggest the beginning of a picture,” and the “disciplined work” that went into the making of a painting. “Even a few casual swipes of my brush in cleaning it may suggest the beginning of a picture,” he wrote. “The second stage, however, is carefully calculated. The first stage is free, unconscious; but after that the picture is controlled throughout, in keeping with that desire for disciplined work I have felt from the beginning.”
The “desire for disciplined work” is not, of course, the kind of desire that is alluded to in the title of this exhibition, for “disciplined work” in art is never unbound. In the realm of sexual fantasy, however, anything goes–anything that the imagination can conceive of–and this is what the current exhibition is mainly about: the sexual fantasies of the Surrealist painters and poets. As so many of these fantasies are fairly putrid, I shall not attempt to describe them here. Suffice to say that a robust appetite for voyeuristic experience is likely to be amply satisfied.
Most of the art, however, is pretty bad. Unless you have an unbounded taste for perverse subjects rendered in a pompier style, the many works here by Salvador Dalí–more than a dozen–and Max Ernst are likely to leave you cold, if not indeed shuddering. Their female imitators–among them Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning–are even worse. But then, so are many of their male imitators. Attempting to determine the very worst painting in this exhibit is hard work, but my first choice would be Oscar Dominguez’s Electrosexual Sewing Machine (1934), with Roland Penrose’s Winged Domino: Portrait of Valentine (1938) a close runner-up. This is the kind of thing you find yourself thinking about in a show of this size, which numbers more than 300 items.
This is not to say that there aren’t some fine things in the show, too. The first room is entirely devoted to Giorgio de Chirico–not a Surrealist, to be sure, but a huge influence on many painters who were. De Chirico’s magic may have worn a little thin, but his paintings nonetheless remain vastly more appealing than those of his imitators. After the de Chirico room, however, it isn’t until you get to the eighth room in the exhibition, with the work of Picasso and Giacometti, that you get to see something really worth seeing. The next room then descends into the underworld of sexual perversion, with illustrations of the writings of the Marquis de Sade–a great favorite of the Surrealists–by André Masson and Roberto Matta, and the sex dolls of Hans Bellmer, my nomination for the single most repellent artist in the show.
This is followed by a room mostly devoted to the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Much as I admire Cornell, it strikes me as ridiculous for an exhibition of this size to devote a room to him while the work of Jean Arp, for instance, is represented by two very minor works. But it’s true, of course, that Arp’s work doesn’t minister to either perverse or voyeuristic tastes.
Finally, in the last room, there is Arshile Gorky’s beautiful Diary of a Seducer (1945) and a stunning picture by William Baziotes called The Flesh Eaters (1952). But by then, alas, one is grateful to be able to leave this botched exhibition. For anyone old enough to remember the exhibition called Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, which William Rubin organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968, or more recently, the wonderful Miró retrospective that Carolyn Lanchner organized at MoMA in 1993-94, the way they differed from the debacle of Surrealism: Desire Unbound is certainly striking. For these earlier exhibitions concentrated on artistic achievement. As I recall, Mr. Rubin was attacked by Harold Rosenberg in The New Yorker for failing to convey the revolutionary aspects of the Surrealist movement–in 1968, of course, revolution was all the rage–in an exhibition that concentrated on aesthetics. Were he still around, I think Rosenberg would have loved Surrealism: Desire Unbound , which remains on view at the Met through May 12.