“Surrealism Beyond Borders” in New York

By Andreas Robertz

Surrealistic painting was also used in Mozambique: excerpts from “Esperando da Paz” by Malangatana Ngwenya. (imago / Zuma Press / Stephen Chung)

Artists like René Magritte or Salvador Dalí are well known. The MOMA wants to show that surrealism was a worldwide movement in which women were also involved. And presents works from Cecilia Porras to Malangatana Ngwenya.

The French Marcel Jean’s surrealist wardrobe from 1941 is programmatic in the entrance to the exhibition “Surrealism Beyond Borders” in New York. Its doors are painted with half-open doors, behind which the open sky waits.

It is the fascination with this world beyond the mundane, the rational and the conscious that began in Paris in the early 1920s and has inspired generations of artists around the world.

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André Breton, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí – these names are closely connected to the prevailing notion of surrealism in Europe and the USA, explains curator Stephanie D’Alessandro. Artists like the Colombian photographer Cecilia Porras or the Mozambican painter Malangatana Ngwenya, on the other hand, are almost completely unknown here.

What is happening in the rest of the world?

“I’ve been a curator for 20 years and I’ve always wondered why we value certain moments in an artist’s career more than others. Why do we always look at the same work and tell the same stories when we talk about certain trends or artists? Before Covid, we thought about what was actually happening in the rest of the world and questioned our Euro-American perspective. With surrealism, it made sense to do this in a cross-national and cross-historical way, “says curator D’Alessandro.

In 14 exhibition rooms, the exhibition shows such an immense wealth of works as if a surrealist bomb had exploded in the middle of the Met: paintings, drawings, sculptures, films, radio plays, magazines, photographs, travel diaries and of course manifestos from Paris, Mexico City, Cairo, Martinique and Chicago.

“This is not an exhibition that begins with the origins of Surrealism and ends with a period like the end of a sentence. We thought of places that stand for many others. We thought of people, whether they were travelers or people who found something in surrealism that allowed them to think beyond their circumstances. We set themes that enabled us to show even more artists, “explains D’Alessandro.

Topics such as dreams, poetic objects, bodies and lust, the uncanny, exile and travel or violence and revolution. They give the exhibition organizers the opportunity to put works in direct dialogue with one another.

Student riots and the struggle for freedom

For example, in the “Violence and Revolution” themed room, a picture by Joan Miró hangs next to one by Malangatana Ngwenya from Mozambique.

“Miró, already an old master of surrealism in 1968, paints a work that is a reflection of the student unrest at the Sorbonne. He uses this graffiti style with spray paint and adds his own palms as if to be part of it. And then Malangatana Ngwenya, who finds a way to tell of his imprisonment from his time in the liberation movement, of the hunger and vigor of the people who are fighting for their freedom from Portugal, “said D’Alessandro.

Both pictures were taken almost at the same time. Malangatana Ngwenya uses rich, bright colors, his picture is a labyrinth of figures of children and beasts with fangs. The central figure is a boy with leaked black eyes, his arms are in wide open mouths. The missing hands in this picture are facing Miró’s palms – an interesting connection.

Surrealism as a space of possibility

Curator Stephanie D’Alessandro explains why surrealism was so attractive to so many artists: “Surrealism offered many people opportunities to imagine different things, be it a different sexual orientation or identification or a political place or an affirmation. They can be found many examples of artists who found the possibility in surrealism to affirm their black identity or to fight against oppression or colonial institutionalism. I think, with surrealism, all of these things are also possible for us today. “

In its abundance and diversity, the exhibition is overwhelming and irritating – in the best sense of the word. Here cultural diversity became part of the program. In the end, there is an even richer understanding of why surrealism became so important to various artists in the world.

“Surrealism Beyond Borders”
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
until January 30, 2022



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