ST. PETERSBURG — Stroll through the entrance to “Midnight in Paris: Surrealism at the Crossroads, 1929” and you’ll find that the gallery has been divided in two, each side marked with an Art Nouveau Paris Metropolitan sign. There’s no right or wrong way to go, but you’re encouraged to “get lost” in the exhibition to discover the artworks, a very Parisian thing to do.
And there is much to discover in the exhibition that explores a moment in the Surrealist movement when ideals were being challenged, told through a host of works from the movement’s leading artists from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Dalí is the exclusive U.S. venue for this exhibition.
In case you don’t have time to brush up on Surrealist history: The movement was started by poets André Breton, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon in Paris 1924. They sought to liberate thought and language from rational control. They were joined by artists and writers who placed emphasis on the unconscious mind, automation and dreams. These facts are spelled out on helpful wall texts throughout the gallery.
In 1929, Salvador Dalí arrived in the group, when he and collaborator Luis Buñuel debuted their film, Un Chien Andalou. Excerpts from that film, with the iconic eyeball slice fakeout, run on a loop with clips from other Surrealist filmmakers, including Hans Richter, Man Ray and Germaine Dulac, the exhibition’s sole female artist. The footage shares the Surrealist inventions of collage, splicing images, reverse motion and extreme light and dark.
Breton welcomed Dalí into the group, but when the artist’s exuberant panache gained the movement international attention, other members lapped up the sudden fame. Breton was against this, as he felt that ambition was the wrong motive for creating art. He wanted art to be revolutionary and would expel members from the group at will. This created a fissure in the group. Literary figure Georges Bataille started the journal Documents, which united many of the Surrealists that opposed Breton.
Breton rebutted with vitriol in the December 1929 edition of La Revolution Surrealiste with his Second Manifesto on Surrealism. This is on display in a case with Documents, as well as a copy of a Belgian publication called Varietes. It’s a special issue on Surrealism and features René Magritte, whose painting of shoes becoming feet, Le Modele Rouge (The Red Model), is on display in the exhibition. It also contains a book of pornography by Man Ray (don’t worry, it’s turned to a nonrisque page) that was created and sold to finance Varietes. These journals were critical to the movement.
Images of the key artists, many taken by Man Ray, are blown up on the walls with their famous quotes. A snarky exchange between Breton and Bataille happens here.
“Mr. Bataille professes to wish to only consider in the world that which is vilest.” — Breton
“It is regrettable that nothing can enter into Mr. Breton’s confused head except in poetic form.” — Bataille
The museum tapped local actor and playwright Roxanne Fay to write and star in a short film imagining a conversation, well, argument, between Gala and Breton over Dalí. A small theater was created in the gallery to screen the film. Breton thinks the movement should align with communism and create revolution and that art for art’s sake is useless. Gala argues that artists need freedom, and that Ernst, Miro and Dalí are the new faces of Surrealism. Its captivating dialogue crystallizes the opposing viewpoints. Take the time to watch the whole thing.
The Surrealists were shaking things up with their approach to creating art, inventing new modes. Max Ernst was an early adopter of collage, and in 1929 he published his first collage novel, La Femme 100 Tetes (The Hundred Headless Woman). He cut out the engraved illustrations from 19th century magazines and arranged them in a nonsensical narrative. In other works, Ernst developed techniques that would become Surrealist trademarks, including grattage (scratches) and frattage (rubbings).
Joan Miró was challenging painting in his technique, made evident in his 1930 piece titled simply Peinture (Painting). He worked from small sketches and then blew them up on canvas, resulting in an off-kilter composition.
Alexander Calder was an American artist in Paris in 1929, and instead of the mobiles you normally associate with him, his wire Masques (Masks) create line drawings on the wall in shadow. Using a simple material in such a way was also a departure.
Photography was an important part of the movement, making the ideas of the ordinary surreal or hyper-real. Included in the exhibitions are Brassai’s images of street graffiti, Eli Lotar’s brutal series from a slaughterhouse and Jean Painlevé's sublime image of a starfish.
It’s standard today, but at the time, incorporating other materials into paintings was an affront to the tradition. Dalí used sand and gravel in L’ane Pourri (The Rotting Donkey), a piece that is on loan from the Centre Pompidou.
An early double image painting of Dalí's Dormeuse, Cheval, Lion Invisibles (Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion) encompassed where Surrealism should be at the time: based in both the inner life and the real world.
“For we Surrealists, we are not quite artists, nor are we exactly true men of science, we are the caviar, and caviar, believe me, is the very extravagance and intelligence of taste.” — Dalí
IF YOU GO
Midnight in Paris: Surrealism at the Crossroads, 1929
The exhibit is on view through April 9 at the Dalí Museum. $25, $23 seniors/military/police/firefighters/educators, $18 students/kids 13-17, $10 kids 6-12, free for children 5 and younger. After 5 p.m. Thursdays, $12, $8 kids 6-12. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays. 1 Dalí Blvd. (Bayshore Drive and Fifth Avenue SE), St. Petersburg. (727) 823-3767. thedali.org.