The history of art has Pablo Picasso to thank for René Magritte. "You see, like many young painters in the 1920s I wanted to live in Paris," Magritte once told a pair of journalists visiting his picket-fence cottage in suburban Brussels. "And in Paris, there was this wild Catalan who was doing all there was to be done with technique. I could tell there wasn't going to be any technique left for the rest of us to invent. So that's when I decided I was going to paint ideas"
Both Magritte and Picasso, and their very different ideas, figure prominently in "Surrealism 1919-1944," the show that's breaking attendance records at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. So do Dali, Miró, Ernst, Arp, Tanguy, Giacometti and a host of others belonging to the movement that curator Werner Spies is not afraid to call the most important of the 20th century "because all the greatest artists of the century were connected with it." With 500 paintings and sculptures, the show documents the whole range of Surrealism's vast output in pursuit of surprise and mystery. It even exhibits an entire wall from the Paris studio of Surrealism's ideological father, André Breton, hung with 44 years' worth of his bizarre memorabilia and his own collection of Rousseau, Kandinsky and Miró.
The group portrait Max Ernst painted of his Surrealist mates in 1922, Rendezvous Among Friends, shows all l7 of them then as well as Renaissance master Raphael in a cameo appearance posing in suits and ties beneath some peaks of the Tyrolean Alps. Writer-artist Breton poses in the middle with his arm upraised to show who's boss. It was Breton who cracked the whip, writing in 1928: "Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be."
The show gives due attention to Surrealism's initial period of automatism, which by means of rubbings, collages, and trance-like binges of "automatic writing" sought to capture pure, unconscious impulse. In 1923 Ernst took time off from automatism to paint his big surprising "lost mural," At The First Clear Word, on two adjoining bedroom walls of Surrealist poet Paul Eluard's house outside Paris. The show reunites the long-separated panels for the first time, to tantalize us with apparent riddles about the ménage à trois in which Ernst and Eluard were engaged with Eluard's beautiful wife Gala. One panel depicts a hand clutching a ball and extending through a window, its fingers twisted into what could be a woman's Gala's? torso. The other depicts a row of almost military-looking plants that might represent Ernst and Eluard. "Surrealism never gives you the answer," observes Spies, a former director of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. "The great Surrealist paintings are disturbing forever."
In the late 1920s came the movement's narrative period, in which Magritte and Salvador Dali excelled. Magritte's 1926 The Threatened Murderer could practically serve as a film storyboard. It depicts two menacing life-sized detectives wearing Magritte bowler hats, to be sure waiting in hiding to pounce on a respectable-looking murderer still hovering near the nude body of his female victim. The picture seems spookily sympathetic to the murderer. The Surrealists, in fact, sometimes admired criminals as creative rule breakers.
One of the paradoxes of Surrealism lay in the fact that a movement dedicated to liberation could be so doctrinaire. Not surprisingly, some of its most forceful personalities eventually clashed with Breton. Joan Miró's worship of "hallucination," for example, and his use of biomorphic forms like those in Figures with Stars, seemed right out of the Breton handbook. But in 1933 Miró declared: "I am always concerned with the composition of a painting, not just the associations that is what [now] separates me from the Surrealists." Magritte himself ditched the Paris circle after Breton, at a gathering of the fraternity in his studio, asked Magritte's wife to remove the crucifix from around her neck.
Picasso was a special case. By the early 1930s he had grown particularly close to the Surrealists, as demonstrated by such works as The Kiss and the bulbous, dismembered forms in Woman Throwing a Stone, which is said to owe a lot to Miró. But after about 10 years he went his own way. Spies was a close friend of both Ernst and Picasso in the 1960s and recalls stark differences. "Ernst was utterly cultivated. I remember he was always reading poetry, natural science, everything. Picasso? I felt he could have lifted a book to his eyes without opening it and absorbed it through its cover with instant X-ray vision."
By the time the movement's members had fled Nazi-occupied France for exile in the U.S. in the 1940s, they were reverting to their old automatism, darkening their works, and starting to disperse. Dali, who had married Gala Eluard, was conspicuously excluded from their last hurrah, a big far-out exposition in New York in 1942. Too much of a publicity hound, Breton and the others felt. Dali's earlier The Lugubrious Game, in fact, is so over the top with explicit carnality and scatology that even his fellow Surrealists were shocked by it.
"Surrealism 1919-1944," however, lets Dali more than redeem himself by spot-lighting his seldom exhibited knockout of a picture from 1944, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate One Second Before Waking Up. It depicts a Venus-like Gala reclining nude above some rocks. Above her, two cinematic tigers leap out of a goldfish's mouth and seemingly out of the canvas. It is so strikingly circus-like it seems almost to make sense.
In a not always rational time we've come to accept a lot of Surrealism's illogic. One visitor at the show was reminded of how with his children recently, he'd watched a Disney cartoon in which Mickey Mouse and his friends saunter across a field of Dali's melting watches. What else is new?