Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

How Monsters and Myths Helped Surrealists Deal with War

  • Andre Masson - Tauromachy
January 20, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The third decade of the 20th century saw the rise of the right-wing politics especially after Hitler sized the power in Germany in 1933. The artists already sensed that the social climate changed rapidly and so they reacted either through their art or by participating in leftist circles mostly gathered around the Communist parties across Europe.

One of the most dominant movements of that period was indeed Surrealism. It gathered an array of artists of different creative visions; however, a great majority of them produced compelling artworks served to articulate the horrors of the previous war as well as the later atrocities of Spanish Civil War and World War II.

The Baltimore Museum of Art decided to organize an extensive exhibition specifically focused on the European and American Surrealist production of the 1930s and 1940s which was embedded in mythological and fantastical or rather monstrous imagery.

Salvador Dali - Soft Construction with Boiled Beans
Salvador Dali – Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936. Oil on canvas, 39 5⁄16 x 39 3⁄8 in. (99.9 x 100 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950 (1950-134-41)

The Horrors of War – Exhibition Context

The appearance of the Surrealist movement is a sort of a continuation of the experiments and approaches introduced by the Dadaists, and a reaction of slightly younger artists to WW I. Namely, a number of them participated in the Great War and after witnessing huge casualties and a complete absurd of the conflict, they became anti-nationalist and anti-militarists. These artists naturally took interest in the human psyche as well, so Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, dream analysis, and free association became the crucial source of inspiration. The mythological imagery encompassing the representations of demons and other creatures became appropriated in order to serve as a metaphor for the violence experienced in the war.

As the Nazi regime started prosecuting intellectuals and artists unfitting for the regime, many of them fled to the United States. The works of Europeans dazzled young American artists such as Rothko, Pollock, and Tanning so much that they started experimenting with similar artistic techniques and themes. The majority of the works were published in the Surrealist magazine called VVV, edited by David Hare in collaboration with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, that was produced in New York from 1942 to 1944.

Left Maria Martins - The Two Sacred Ones Right Joan Miro - Summer
Left: Maria Martins – The Two Sacred Ones, 1942. Bronze, 46 x 36 x 32 in. (116.8 x 91.4 x 81.3 cm). The Baltimore Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift / Right: Joan Miró – Summer, 1938. Opaque watercolor on paperboard, 14 1⁄4 x 10 3⁄4 in. (36.2 x 27.3 cm). The Baltimore Museum of Art, Bequest of Saidie A. May

The Selection of Works

The installment in Baltimore will gather a number of ninety works by artists who were affected by the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Thematic sections will focus on prominent subjects such as the Minotaur, as well as other sections exploring the artists’ critical responses to the mentioned conflicts in chronological order – Premonition of War, The Spanish Civil War, World War II, and Surrealism in the Americas.

Picasso’s Minotauromachy (1935), Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of a Civil War) (1936), Ernst’s Europe After the Rain II (1940–42), and Masson’s There Is No Finished World (1942) will undoubtedly be among the highlights of the upcoming exhibition. Along with them on display will be the works of American artists responding to the war such as Rothko’s The Syrian Bull (1943) and Tanning’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1945/46).

The installment will also include two significant films Un Chien Andalou from 1929 by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon from 1943.

André Masson - There Is No Finished World, 1942
André Masson – There Is No Finished World, 1942. Oil on canvas, 53 x 68 in. (134.6 x 172.7 cm). The Baltimore Museum of Art, Bequest of Saidie A. May

Monsters & Myths at the BMA

In addition to all stated above, it is important to underline that this outstanding exhibition is jointly organized by the BMA and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. Namely, these institutions promoted the Surrealist production in the States from early on. In 1931, The Wadsworth presented the first U.S. exhibition of Surrealist art, while the BMA owns a some of the most interesting works by Surrealist and other European and American avant-garde artists thanks to one of its donors Saidie Adler May.

The museum’s Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture Oliver Shell, who curated the show, stated:

This exhibition features art created in dark and truly horrifying times. What is remarkable is the vulnerability and resilience of these artists both in their personal lives and in their efforts to investigate, at times through myths, those areas of the mind where the propensity for violence lies.

Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s will be on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art from 24 February until 26 May 2019.

Featured image: Pablo Picasso – Minotauromachy, 1935. Etching on cream laid paper, 22 7⁄16 x 30 9⁄16 in. (57 x 77.6 cm). The Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of Israel and Selma Rosen, Baltimore; André Masson – Tauromachy, 1937. Oil on canvas, 32 x 39 1⁄2 in. (81.2 x 100.3 cm). The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland. All images courtesy The Baltimore Museum of Art.