I am writing this near the end of October 2021, a little after the anniversary of Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism, and only three years short of its centenary. In New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the major exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders has opened, and that exhibition will be coming to Tate Modern in London in February 2022.
Such context is important, because if there has been an overarching theme to the approach 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, 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, ends up playing the same game. With one exception, Surrealist works created since the late 1970s do not appear to be included (the exception being Ted Joans’ long cadavre exquis, which was still being circulated after his death in 2003). This might be in part, at least, due to the requirements of the art museum; 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.
The “virtual opening” of Surrealism Beyond Borders at the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be viewed below
Further Reading below-
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