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Surrealism in a City Increasingly Surreal

What was once shocking is now part of pop culture, especially in L.A. So what do we make of the rebels' witty work today?

September 29, 1996|William Wilson | William Wilson is a Times art critic

European Surrealism was launched in 1924 with a manifesto by its leading Parisian avatar, Andre Breton. Intended as a kind of shock treatment for the art world, it reintroduced literary ideas previously banished in a welter of formal innovations centered around Cubism.

At the time, its preoccupation with irrational juxtapositions of image and idea was startling. So was its sense of humor. Max Ernst did a cheeky series called "Long Live Fashion, Down With Art." Now, 70-odd years later, you often can't tell them apart. Today, Surrealist ideas are tightly interwoven with the everyday cultural fabric in everything from pop psychology to sci-fi special effects films. L.A. is such a surreal place that Surrealism tends to look like plain realism here. Thus, hearing of an exhibition called "Visionary States: Surrealist Prints From the Gilbert Kaplan Collection" immediately makes one wonder if the old champagne will still fizz.

The show is on view at UCLA at the Hammer Museum and Cultural Center. A traveling affair put together by Cynthia Burlingham, curator of the organizing Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, it includes about 120 images by 23 artists ranging from pioneers such as Giorgio de Chirico and Marcel Duchamp to masters such as Miro and offbeat characters such as Hans Bellmer or Paul Delvaux.

Kaplan is, by trade, a New York publisher. According to an essay by Riva Castleman in the very informative catalog, he was part of a "second generation" of American collectors inspired to acquire Surrealist works by two '60s-era exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, a Rene Magritte retrospective and "Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage." Kaplan became so involved he later collaborated with dealer Timothy Baum to produce a catalogue raisonne of Magritte's print works. He continues to collect Surrealist prints to this day. Some of those here have never before been publicly shown.

In present context, the show tends to act as a background introduction to the concurrent main-stage exhibition, "Rene Magritte: The Poetry of Silence." In practice, they are exhibitions of equal merit that enrich one another. In fact, Magritte is included among the classic and rare prints with double-take images, such as "The Labors of Alexander." It depicts a tree stump with a root holding an ax so it looks like it chopped itself down.

Anybody familiar with both Surrealism and printmaking will immediately recognize that "Visionary States" is a donnish but very pithy pun. The process of making most prints involves taking interim impressions to see how the work is coming along. These are called "states." Of course, the word also has other implications that resonate simultaneously. A "state" can be a mood or condition of being, as in "I was in quite a state yesterday." "Visionary State" might also describe a place like California, for example.

The reason the use of a punning title is particularly delicious here is that it both illuminates the most fundamental Surrealist strategy and elevates our respect for word play. Decoded, almost all Surrealist works are either puns or double-entendres that bounce around between verbal associations triggered by imagery and vice versa. The best Surrealist works are profound. Therefore puns are not silly. They are rather subversive derailments of normal trains of thought that reveal suppressed meaning or basic truth.

Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q." is on hand to bear witness. The image is his famous Mona Lisa with added mustache. We've all seen her a million times, yet the thing is still funny. Why do we wince and smirk conspiratorially in spite of ourselves? It's like a reflex. I think it's because the best Surrealist work does trigger something akin to being tapped on the knee with a hammer. We're always a little surprised at the resulting jerk. Why?

The Mona Lisa is overridingly an image that calls for reverence. It's a sacred cow concerning the timeless mystery of the female. By tarting her up to look like a cheap Parisian gigolo in drag, Duchamp was not so much disrespectful to women as he was reminding us of the dangers of veneration. Holding things merely human in unfixed awe prevents us from seeing them for what they really are. It's as if Duchamp is saying that all of the romantic dreams that crystallize around the Mona Lisa concept are linked to the human biological drive to procreate the species. At bottom, that's a reflex. He taps our irreverence button and we laugh every time. It's healthy.

Surrealism is about the fundamentals of the subconscious, so naturally there's a lot of sex. Bellmer's images, for example, are based on a Lolitaesque jointed doll he fashioned that is the very embodiment of kinky fetishism. The most common reaction to such work is either repulsion or attraction. Both keep us from asking what such work is really about. Examined coolly, Bellmer's imagery is freighted with muffled terror. It shows the girl's fear at being turned into a sex object; it broadcasts the artist's guilt and anxiety.

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