Thursday, March 5, 2009

Surrealism and Beyond: The Israel Museum's treasure trove in America

When a friend in Cincinnati found out that I was coming home for a weekend, and called to invite me to the opening of an exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum, I could not have predicted how serendipitous the invitation would turn out to be.

I'm not usually one for art museums. It's not that I don't appreciate art, but I tend to connect more to auditory over ocular stimulus. From the start, though, I knew Surrealism and Beyond, had the potential to be different.

I decided to give the exhibit's curator in Cincinnati, Dr. Benedict Leca, a call to find out exactly what I was in for.

First of all, the exhibit, which features Surrealist and Dadaist art from the first half of the Twentieth Century, is on loan from the Israel Museum and is making its first American debut in Cincinnati in large part to a connection between the head of the museum (who is also an MOT). The show was originally conceived by Adina Kamien Curator of Modern Art at the IMJ, and is one of the largest and most well respected collections of surrealist art in the world.

The majority of the collection comes from Arturo Schwarz, an Egyptian-born Jew who lived along side many of these pioneering artists as a friend and came to acquire much of their work. In 1988, Schwarz donated the collection to the Israel Museum.

Only fairly recently has much of the work been examined seriously and the exhibit represents a big win for the Cincinnati Art Museum.

In my conversation with Dr. Leca, the context of the artwork was brought to life. Most of this artwork is relatively unknown, said Leca, "but I think that once people see it, they will appreciate it."

Much of this work has been hugely influential and represents a shift from the importance being on the structure and process of creating art, to the idea of the art. In this way, it is also a reaction against the ocular, and in many ways, against geometry. Many of the pieces are impossible objects, a floating mountain, wisps of thought, things of dreams. The content is complex and often controversial, but Dr. Leca believes that this is essential to expand the museum's audience.

One thing that I found incredibly interesting was that many of the other pieces in the exhibit were donated by Jews from around the world to the Israel museum. This is important for several reasons. The art is very much a reaction against and rejection of Nazism and Fascism. But it also illustrates the important place that Jewish patrons of the arts have had, as well as the idealism that accompanied the utopian ideal of Israel as a 'light unto the nations'. These donated works were meant to be part of a cultural cache, and the symbolism rings loud and clear.

The exhibit itself is organized into five themes, and although without order, I'll start with 'Marvelous Juxtopositions'. This theme looks at chance and bringing together disparate objects, an example of which is Man Ray's 'Chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table' (owing its name to a line from Ducasse, whose 'poetry in prose' made him a hit with the Surrealist movement).

There is 'Automatism', which was very important for the surrealist painter. The idea was to strip away the preconceptions that hinder the artist to get closer to what was in your head. The process was supposed to be more responsive to the mind.

In 'Biomorphism and Metamorphosis' paintings are almost automatic, with circles and amoeba like forms which symbolize a return to natural state pre culture/civilization. Dr. Leca also described the theme as a return to childhood, and many of the paintings reflected that in their simple, child-like nature. The theme also encompassed body like forms, distillations of pure organic forms. These represent a vitalist world view in which bodies morph but are never realized, always shifting, said Leca.

Then you get to 'Desire' which deals with unrealized fantasies and final frontier of the human mind. The work in this area was meant to shock the ordinary citizen and upend social norms. Sex played a large part of this desire to shock. There was a deeply political impetus in body of work. What we accept as proprietary and shocking is codified in conventional norms. We aren't shocked by naked antiquities, but tie some rope around a recreation of Venus Di Milo, and suddenly it challenges people's sense of propriety. "What we accept as propriety is socialy constructed and somewhat arbitrary," said Leca.

The final theme is 'Dreamscapes', which is closely related to the other themes, "they flow into each other," points out Dr. Leca. The political dimension is a basic point and it is the upending of conventions (artistic and social) which is politicized. Entrenched aesthetics are enforced by those in power, so an artistic revolution against those aesthetics is a revolution against those in power.

Leca explained, "It is really meant to point to the illogic. This movement is against the ocular and the finely rendered real. You have to close your eye and look inside. 'Dreamscape' ultimately is trying at some level to recreate that landscape of the mind. When you imagine peering into your head, seeing the figures that morph then actualizing the unconscious and making it into a landscape."

All this before even reaching the exhibit!

When Sarah and I arrived, we were excited to see that the turnout was high. We each ran into several family friends and parents of friends (it is an exhibit from the Israel Museum, after all). We were introduced to Roni Rabner, the exhibition designer, who was responsible for laying out the exhibit so that it didn't have a specific start or finish, much like the themes.

The art work is really interesting. Especially after all of the background that Dr. Leca provided. It is perhaps the first time that I felt effected by visual art as it had so many levels of meaning and connection with history that I consider to be a part of my narrative.

The exhibit is executed quite nicely and left my mind whirring. Find out more about the exhibit here

To learn more about the Cincinnati Art Museum, click here

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You make it sound worth checking out! and this from a guy who connects to auditory over ocular stimulus right. Is the exhibit worth checking for real? might have some time before peseach BTW you dont WRITE like a drummer - what happened?