Surrealism USA: Shocking Images Haven’t Aged Well

In the history of modern art, nothing dates more rapidly than audacity. Every fresh shock marks a new beginning for a rising generation eager to overtake established elders. The art that challenges orthodoxy in one generation is embraced as a classic by the next and soon absorbed into the realm of established convention. As a consequence of this accelerated aging process, aficionados of modernist innovation often find themselves in the odd position of serving as antiquarians of an avant-garde rapidly receding into history and respectability.

Something very like this happened to the Surrealist movement as soon as it established itself in the United States. In France, where the movement originated in the 1920′s (the offspring, so to speak, of the French poet André Breton’s love affair with Dada), Surrealism was seen as a fierce criticism of life, with a concentrated focus on sex and politics and a heavy debt to Freud and Marx.

In America in the 1930′s and 40′s, however, Surrealism was more benign-an art of the museums, the galleries and the high-profile collectors who dominate the art market. This gave the movement access to a larger public, but at the cost of becoming institutionalized-an unwelcome fate for a movement that proudly declared itself to be “in the service of Revolution.”

Indeed, it’s one of the marks of the movement’s institutionalization that there’s virtually nothing in the Surrealism USA exhibition on view at the National Academy Museum that’s likely to shock today’s experienced museumgoers. The meticulous depictions of sexual fantasy that loom so large in Surrealist art are no longer a novelty; neither is the movement’s obsession with lurid imagery and spooky objects. The combined impact of the advertising industry, “adult”-rated movies and the sexual revolution has had the effect of making even the most audacious imagery of the Surrealist painters and poets familiar territory. As a result, we’re more likely to be amused by their work when we have a key to the Surrealists’ sometimes recondite in-jokes.

Consider, as an example, one of the Breton’s best-known volumes of poetry, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares. For the cover design of the original edition, which is reproduced in the catalog for Surrealism USA, Marcel Duchamp used an altered image of the Statue of Liberty in which Breton’s face is substituted for that of Lady Liberty, thus transforming a public symbol of political liberty into a private icon of sexual appetite. The joke gets better when we remember that the Statue of Liberty came to this country as a gift of the French nation.

Moreover, the very title of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares harbors a reference to Breton’s private life. In Marshall N. Price’s “Chronology of Surrealism in the United States, 1931-1950″ in the catalog, we’re informed that “in 1946 André Breton publishes a bilingual anthology of his poetry Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares. Breton stumbled across the phrase by chance in a horticulture book. (It’s also an allusion to David Hare’s affair with Breton’s former wife, Jacqueline Lamba, who ultimately became Hare’s second wife.) Marcel Duchamp designs the cover and Gorky provides the illustrations.”

However amusing the gossip quotient of Surrealism, much of the art has proved to be short-lived in its appeal. With its heavy reliance on anecdote and illustration, Surrealist painting often seems to have more in common with the discredited conventions of academic tradition than with the radicalism of authentic modernism. While the subject matter is often provocative, the pictorial aesthetic is decidedly retardataire-a sop to bourgeois taste. It is this, I suppose, that accounts for the popularity that Surrealist paintings continue to enjoy in certain quarters of the art world.

Surrealism USA remains on view at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through May 8, and it’s accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalog whose essays are often more interesting than the exhibition itself.