My five favourite Surrealists

Lizzie Bisley, Curator Modern Art, Te Papa

“Modern art tried to break away from what had come before, and to look at the world in an – often radically – different way,” says Te Papa’s Curator Modern Art, Lizzie Bisley.

“Modernist artists, writers, and designers held huge conviction about the power of their work to shift viewpoints, or change the way we live and think. I find their ambition and their irreverence exhilarating, and also hopeful.”

Surrealism was launched in Paris in 1924. The movement was playful, provocative, shocking. It wanted to open up a new kind of reality, and took the world by storm.

In Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which opens at Te Papa in June, 180 surrealist works are on display, ranging from paintings and photographs to books, sculpture, and film.

Lizzie says, “It’s always incredibly exciting when the artworks start to be unpacked and installed into the galleries – this magical moment when the stories that we’ve spent so many months crafting become real, and the connections between different artworks, the design, the films, the text, all take on a life of their own.”

Lizzie’s pretty busy preparing for the exhibition, but she took the time to tell us about her five favourite Surrealist artists.

Hugo Ball in Dada costume, 1916, Zürich, Switzerland. Unknown photographer. Image retrieved via Wikimedia Commons

Hugo Ball

This wonderful photograph is of the German poet Hugo Ball. It was taken in 1916, at a nightclub in Zurich called the Cabaret Voltaire. Ball’s costume was made of colourful, stiff cardboard – the cape scarlet on the outside and gold on the inside, the legs electric blue. He wore this costume to recite his nonsense poem Karawane, a mesmerising series of sounds and made-up words that evade meaning. The legs of the costume were so stiff that Ball couldn’t walk in it, and had to be carried sideways onto the stage.

The Cabaret Voltaire was founded by Hugo Ball and the artist Emmy Hennings in 1916. It became a meeting place for a group of artists, writers, and musicians who had fled to Switzerland during the First World War. Furious at the devastation of the war, these artists banded together in protest, creating anarchic performances, poetry, and art that came to be known as dada. In the face of the war’s terrible violence and loss of life, dadaists rejected society’s ideas of reason and progress. They revelled instead in nonsense, chaos and dark humour.

Dada erupted around Europe in the last years of the war and early 1920s. Many dadaists went on to become surrealists, and surrealism adopted lots of dada’s most provocative ideas. In Surrealist Art we will bring the sounds and sights of dada to life, with film, poetry, music, and more.

Group portrait of Dadaists, 1920, by unknown photographer. Back row from left to right: Louis Aragon, Theodore Fraenkel, Paul Eluard, Clément Pansaers, Emmanuel Fay (cut off). Second row from left to right: Paul Dermée, Philippe Soupault, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. Front row from left to right: Tristan Tzara (with monocle), Celine Arnauld, Francis Picabia, André Breton. Purchased 1985 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds. Te Papa (O.003570)

André Breton

The French writer André Breton is photographed here with a group of dadaists in Paris in 1919. He is sitting at lower right, wearing round glasses and a dark suit.

André Breton as a medical student worked with shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War. There he began to get involved with dada, gripped by its radical, revolutionary purpose.

In October 1924, as dada was declining, Breton published the manifesto that launched surrealism. This 21-page handwritten manuscript championed dreams, the irrational, and the marvellous. Breton believed that surrealism could create a new reality, one that would break down the walls between the conscious and unconscious mind. He saw surrealism as way of escaping the confining controls of reason, logic, morals, and aesthetics.

André Breton wrote his Manifesto of Surrealism in a Paris flat that he shared with his first wife, the artist Simone Collinet. This flat became a busy centre for surrealist activities, with friends gathering there for discussion and experiments, to share writing and drawings, and to describe dreams or hallucinations. Breton, typically clad in a bottle green suit with matching shirt, and carrying an ornate cane, cut a striking figure in the streets of Paris’ artistic Montmartre neighbourhood. Famously (and mockingly), dubbed “The Pope of Surrealism”, he became the undisputed leader of the surrealist group.

Marcel Duchamp, 1923. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz. Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University Library

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp began life as a painter, but made a radical shift in the early 1910s, when he started to challenge the idea of what art was. Believing that art should be for the mind, not just for the eye, Duchamp created a mind-bending series of “readymade” sculptures – where he would choose an object, and name it as a sculpture, and in that moment of naming it would become an artwork. The most notorious of these was a urinal that he signed “R. Mutt” and submitted for exhibition in New York in 1917. The urinal was rejected from the exhibition. Duchamp’s work was often playful and witty – he had a female alter ego called Rrose Sélavy, who signed many of his works and who he cross-dressed as in portraits. In the late 1930s, Duchamp began a series of works called the Box in a suitcase (Boîte-en-valise). Consisting of small reproductions of all of his works, these cases are like miniature museums, or showcases for the wares of a travelling salesman. At the time that he made the first suitcases, Duchamp had to flee Europe and the start of the Second World War. He headed to New York, carrying his life’s work with him.

E.L.T. Mesens, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, and Paul Éluard at Lambe Creek, Cornwall, 1937. Photo by Lee Miller. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved.

Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington is known for her magical, fantastical surrealist paintings. This fabulous photograph, taken early in her career in 1937, shows Carrington with her lover and fellow surrealist Max Ernst resting his head on her shoulder. In the background is Belgian surrealist ELT Mesens; French poet Paul Eluard is on Carrington’s right. The photo was taken by American photographer Lee Miller. It captures beautifully the net of friendships and love affairs that tied surrealist circles together.

Carrington was born in England in 1917 to a wealthy family of textile manufacturers. She grew up in a stately home and her childhood was full of nannies, boarding schools, and debutante balls. Suffocated by this constrictive, conservative existence, Carrington ran away to Paris at 19, having seen a surrealist art exhibition at London’s Burlington Galleries. She spent a number of years in France where she lived with Max Ernst. At the start of World War Two, in 1939, Ernst and Carrington fled separately from the German invasion of France. After a harrowing journey through Spain, during which she had a mental breakdown and was treated with brutal convulsive therapy, Carrington eventually made her way to Mexico City where she built a close community of women artists. She spent the rest of her life in Mexico, painting prolifically and writing short stories and plays.

Salvador Dalí, 29th November 1939. Photo by Carl Van Vechten via Wikimedia Commons. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection. Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2021

Salvador Dalí

Recognised around the world for the shape of his moustache, and for his mysterious, hyper-real paintings, Catalan artist Salvador Dalí is one of surrealism’s most colourful, magical figures.

Dalí was unbelievably versatile. Although best known for his paintings, he also made films, sculptures, drawings, prints, and illustrations. He designed domestic interiors and collaborated with the Italian couturier Elsa Schiaparelli on textiles and fashion; he created a dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound, made an animated film with Walt Disney, and designed surrealist furniture.

Born in the Spanish province of Catalonia in 1904, Salvador Dalí grew up in a middle-class family. He was fascinated by art from a young age and spent much of his childhood poring over reproductions of historic paintings. After studying art in Madrid, Dalí met the French surrealists in 1929, when he came to Paris for the release of a short film that he had made with his friend Luis Buñuel. Titled An Andalusian Dog (Un chien Andalou), this disturbing and nonsensical film has since been recognised as one of the masterpieces of surrealist cinema.

Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is at Te Papa’s gallery, Toi Art, from 12 June to 31 October. It includes artworks by Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Leonora Carrington and more.

We’ve got a copy of Surrealist Art, edited by Els Hoek and Lizzie Bisley, to give away.

The catalogue of the major 2021 Surrealism show at Te Papa includes a substantial essay about the Surrealist movement and its leading artists, and reproduces all the works that appear in the exhibition, Surrealist Art: Masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

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Competition closes and winner will be contacted on 17 June.


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