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Do You Love Dreams?

A splash of Dada and Surrealist shows coming to L.A. offers a chance to unleash the id and drift awhile in ethereal environs.

September 15, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

What should we make of the fact that six exhibitions of Surrealist art open in Los Angeles this month? Is there something millennial afoot? An insider plot to manipulate the art market? Couldn't anybody come up with an idea for something new to show?

The answer is more elemental than any of that. Officially launched in Paris in 1924 with the publication of Andre Breton's "First Surrealist Manifesto," Surrealism pivots on the idea that knowledge of true reality can only be gained through insights of the unconscious mind.

Largely a figurative school, it continues to be one of the most accessible and greatly loved art movements of the 20th century for the simple reason that we all dream. Speaking in a conspiratorial whisper, Surrealism validates our glimpses of other realms and urges us to unleash the id and drift for a while in the ether, where desire is the law of the land. It's an attractive invitation, and these six shows--three at the Hammer Museum and three in commercial galleries--will no doubt be well attended.

Originally a European school that began to fracture with the onset of World War II, Surrealism nonetheless has an auspicious history in Southern California, which has always had a reputation as a haven for dreamers and kooks. The subject of an exemplary exhibition curated by Susan Ehrlich and mounted last year by the Hammer Museum ("Pacific Dreams: Currents of Surrealism and Fantasy in California Art, 1934-1957"), Surrealism was introduced to the West Coast by the community of European intellectuals and artists who sat out World War II here. Traditionally dismissed as a hick town in terms of culture, L.A. rose to the occasion of their presence and embraced Surrealism with a staunch, if small, circle of advocates that included avant-garde collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg (who moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1924), dealers Frank Perls and Paul Kantor, and artist, art dealer and collector William Copley. (An heir to the Copley newspaper fortune, Copley, who died this year, is one of the great unsung heroes of L.A.'s nascent avant-garde.)

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 16, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Art exhibitions--A box accompanying a story about Surrealist art published in Sunday's Calendar gave the incorrect opening date for "Rene Magritte: The Poetry of Silence," "Visionary States: Surrealist Prints From the Gilbert Kaplan Collection" and "Jean Arp Sculpture: 5 Forms," at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. The exhibitions open on Tuesday.

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Most of the original players are gone now, but as can be seen in this flurry of exhibitions,the work lives on. First up is "Rene Magritte: The Poetry of Silence," opening today at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, which offers Angelenos their first substantial look in more than 30 years at work by the great Belgian Surrealist.

Assembled by Hammer curator Elizabeth Shepherd, the art on view is largely drawn from Houston's Menil Collection, which lent 33 of the 45 Magritte works on view. Spanning the artist's entire career, the exhibition attempts to illuminate specific aspects of his sensibility.

Says Shepherd of the artist, whose work was first seen here in 1948 in a show at the Copley Galleries: "I wanted to give a sense of Magritte's evolution; the early work is filled with a sense of apprehension and can be quite disturbing, while the late work tends to be more serene and has less of the dark edge common to the paintings he made as a young man."

One of three sons born to a middle-class Belgian couple, Magritte was severely traumatized at the age of 14 when his mother drowned herself in the Sambre River near their home. He stood on the riverbank and watched as his mother's body, her nightgown wrapped around her head, was dragged from the water; that image--of a head shrouded in cloth--was to turn up in several of his paintings.

Inspired by the work of Giorgio di Chirico, Magritte began in the 1920s to develop the Surrealist themes and images he's become known for: incongruous juxtapositions; the blurring of the line that distinguishes interior and exterior settings; commonplace items such as combs and matchsticks swollen to gigantic proportion; birds, clouds, businessmen in bowler hats and boulders that appear to be levitating. The implied subtext in nearly all his work is that we mustn't rely on what our eyes tell us in our quest to unravel the mysteries of life.

"The marvelous thing about Magritte was his ability to use commonplace things to stimulate thoughts on highly complex issues," says Shepherd of the artist, who has a second exhibition now on view at the Montreal Museum of Art that is slated to travel to Dusseldorf, Germany, this fall. "At a glance, his work can seem like a simple visual pun, but on a deeper level he's exploring complex philosophical issues--reality versus perception, for instance, or the relationship between abstract thought and the physical world."

Opening in an adjacent Hammer gallery is "Visionary States: Surrealist Prints From the Gilbert Kaplan Collection." A New York-based publisher and amateur conductor specializing in the compositions by Gustav Mahler, Kaplan began collecting graphic work by the Surrealists in 1970 when he was smitten with a work by Magritte.

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