Surrealism beyond borders

Philip Kane reviews the major exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders has opened at Tate Modern, following on from its run at new York's Museum of Modern Art at the end of 2021.

It’s interesting that the exhibition is being promoted as an examination of Surrealism as a revolutionary movement. This feels like quite a radical approach, because if there has been an overarching theme in the attitude of the art world – academics, critics, historians, the market system of galleries and auctions and wealthy investors, and most artists themselves – to Surrealism, it is to treat the Surrealist movement as a dead animal. A cadaver to be picked over by vultures.

Surrealism Beyond Borders gathers together a  wealth of Surrealist work, including such gems as the hand-drawn world map The World in the Time of the Surrealists. Welcome as it is, and as groundbreaking as it is in showcasing the work of lesser known Surrealists such as the Ethiopian artist Skunder Boghossian, it risks playing into the same art world game. With one exception, Surrealist works created since the late 1970s do not appear to be included (the exception being a collective work organised by Ted Joans, Long Distance, which was still in circulation and evolving after his death in 2003). This might be in part, at least, due to the requirements of the major art museum; usually, artists and artworks must be recognised by academics, and previously shown, to qualify for inclusion. And of course much, if not all, of contemporary Surrealism exists outside that closed system, still being the perennial outsider.

The fact is, however, that Surrealism does continue as an international movement. At the time of writing there are active Surrealist groups in Paris, the Middle East, London, Leeds, Chicago, Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Athens, Portland, Seattle, St.Louis, and Buenos Aires, just to name the ones that come immediately to mind. There are also many individual Surrealists around the world, as far afield as Wiltshire and India. As active Surrealists, and as Surrealist activists, these comrades constitute a broad body of revolutionary thought, revolutionary action, and above all revolutionary imagination that is both a continuation of a distinct Surrealist tradition and an alchemical laboratory within which Surrealism is being continually renewed.

Surrealism, as a poetic method, sets out to transform society by liberating the human imagination. “Poetic”, in this context, does not merely refer to versification, but to an analogical process that is generally applicable – whether in writing, in painting, or in everyday life – to our understanding and awareness of the world as it is and of the world as it may be. In this sense, Surrealism can be seen as a path of permanent revolution. It is, most importantly, a form of praxis rather than a fixed system.

If Surrealism Beyond Borders has a special value, it lies not so much in the presentation of some interesting artefacts (useful and interesting though that is) as in its highlighting that Surrealism has always been precisely an international movement of revolt, one linked by multiple threads of communication and collective activity. It remains a highly relevant movement in a 21st century world under the triple threats of authoritarianism, war and climate catastrophe.

Surrealism Beyond Borders continues at Tate Modern until 29th August 2022

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