Provocative Monsters and Myths at Wadsworth

Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s
Bouke de Vries/Matrix 180: War and Pieces
Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut
Through January 13, 2019 (de Vries through January 6)

{Note: The only photos taken by me are from the Matrix 180 installation, as the Wadsworth does not allow photography in Monsters and Myths.}

Oelze, "Expectations"

In November, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World war I. What does this have to do with an art exhibit? In the case of the Wadsworth's current show Monsters and Myths, just about everything.
Max Ernst

We often assume that artistic creativity flows forth from an inner wellspring. Some of it does, but we should also consider how art and society mirror one another. This is especially the case for surrealism, which frequently induces mixed reactions from viewers. Some find mirth in the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, and others. Still others avert their eyes, as they find surrealist images disturbing, even grotesque. Why, for example, does Picasso give us a frightful depiction of a monstrous but vaguely human figure tearing itself apart? Why would still other artists dehumanize the human body and reduce it to geometric shapes with hints of breasts or eyes peeking through? Why did Max Ernst produce nightmare scenarios that one up medieval depictions of hell? The tones of Richard Oelze painting that opens the exhibit are rightly described as "sulfuric." Why such unappealing colors? It might have something to do with the rise of fascism!

There are three reasons why surrealism looks as it does. First, modernism freed artists from the shackles of representationalism and unleashed perspectives that were impressionistic, expressionistic, metaphorical, and abstract. Second, artists were deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud. For the first time, Western thinkers considered the possibility that the human psyche had hidden recesses that could be glimpsed. Probing the unconscious was all the rage, as were explorations of darker human impulses. Psychoanalysts and artists also pondered dreams and their meanings.

Consequently, we often consider surrealistic artists in Freudian terms. The adjective "nightmarish" is often described to their work. What on earth, we wonder, led Dali to create "Apparition of Face and Fruit?" What's up with Ernst's bird-like figures? Surely, we imagine, such images must have come from disturbed psychosexual impulses.
Dali (Actually a visual mind-bender and reflection of his friend Lorca's murder by Franco)

Yes. And no. Society often gets the art it deserves. Artists are often less inventive than we think; theirs is often an expressive form of sociology. The third factor in producing surrealism is war. If you have traveled in Europe, you know that there is scarcely a village or town of consequence that lacks a monument to the Great War (WW I), a conflict that shattered the continent and destroyed all vestiges of old regimes based upon hierarchies of birth and illusions of noblesse oblige. The Great War should have been called the Great Obscenity. The conflict cost 40 million casualties, unleashed diseases that killed even more, and robbed the world of an entire generation of young men. Thousands who managed to make it home were walking monsters troubled by shell shock and marred by unspeakable disfigurement. Surrealists did not need to imagine fragmented bodies, skeletons robed in decaying flesh, horses blown to smithereens, putrefaction, ruin, or horror. It was literally all around them.

World War I ended on November 11, 1918. Except it didn't. The bones were scarcely stacked into charnel houses before fascism arose, the Spanish Civil War erupted, and then World War II. In the shadow of such obscenity, what were artists to do? Dadaists embraced the fundamental absurdity of life in a world in which, as Scott Fitzgerald famously put it, "All gods are dead… all faiths in mankind shaken."  Surrealists created monstrous imagery that makes us wish to avert our eyes, lest we are ultimately forced to conclude that we are the monsters upon which we gaze. Isamu Noguchi used real bones in one of his sculptures. As well he should have. 

Bouke de Vries

World War II ended in 1945 and many of the Surrealists visited or immigrated to the United States. There they continued to create provocative images because, of course, World War II never really ended either. The Wadsworth puts a sly exclamation point to this in a seemingly unrelated exhibit titled War and Pieces. Bouke de Vries invites/forces us to imagine nuclear war. His installation is constructed of white porcelain, but de Vries smashes its purity into shards. We also see body parts and mutations. Sound familiar?

The two exhibits are akin to passing a gruesome accident. We are disturbed; we are fascinated. We look away from artists such as Andre Masson, and then we look again. We hate this sort of painting, yet we secretly love it. Sometimes we laugh about it and call it whimsical. Then we shudder. There is a reason why so many surrealistic monsters look vaguely human even when the parts are severed, distorted, and randomly strewn.

Have you ever noticed that surrealistic monsters and grotesques generally roam over open spaces, or occupy private worlds within public places? Freud has gone out of fashion, but few have better explained how difficult it is to keep our monsters contained in the unconscious. Nothing bespeaks the truth of this louder than the detritus and utter devastation of war. We may externalize monsters all we wish, but there is but one species on the planet that engages in blood lust for its own sake. We create war memorials, but there is no glory. There is no honor. Just horror. In its own coded and oblique way, surrealism is the world's greatest antiwar art.

Rob Weir

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