Art exhibition review: Surrealism Beyond Borders at Tate Modern 

Yesterday I attended the press view of Surrealism Beyond Borders at Tate Modern, a ground-breaking exhibition that reveals the broad scope of this radical movement, moving beyond the confines of a single time or place. 

I felt inspired and motivated after seeing the work of artists who proclaimed their freedom and expressed their true selves without fear. Through this exhibition, I have understood that Surrealism is not a style or just an artistic movement – from a specific moment in history – but a state of mind and a way of life. I now believe that at the core I am also a Surrealist. That comes with a deep rebellious spirit that does not and cannot conform with mainstream thinking. Everyone should be a Surrealist and as parents we should teach our children to become surrealists by encouraging them to express their feelings and emotions through the visual and music arts or any other form of expression of their choice.

Surrealism aims to subvert reality. To find the uncanny in the everyday. To tap into our unconscious desires and bring dreams to life. And for many artists around the world, it has been a way to challenge authority and imagine a new world.

The exhibition showcases an array of artwork that is ‘labelled’ surrealistic. Based on extensive research undertaken by Tate and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Surrealism spans 80 years and 50 countries to show how Surrealism inspired and united artists around the globe, from centres as diverse as Buenos Aires, Cairo, Lisbon, Mexico City, Prague, Seoul and Tokyo. Expanding our understanding of Surrealism as never before, Tate Modern shows how this dynamic movement took root in many places at different times, offering artists the freedom to challenge authority and imagine a new world.  This landmark exhibition effectively rewrites the history of the revolutionary art movement and reveals the broad scope of this radical movement, moving beyond the confines of a single time or place. 

A revolutionary idea sparked in Paris around 1924, Surrealism prioritised the unconscious and dreams over the familiar and everyday. While it has often generated poetic and even humorous works – from Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone to René Magritte’s train rushing from a fireplace – it has also been used by artists around the world as a serious weapon in the struggle for political, social, and personal freedom.

Featuring over 150 works ranging from painting and photography to sculpture and film, many of which have never been shown in the UK, this exhibition explores the collective interests shared by artists across regions to highlight their interrelated networks. It also considers the conditions under which they worked and how this in turn impacted Surrealism, including the pursuit of independence from colonialism and displacement caused by international conflict. Among the rarely seen works are photographs by Cecilia Porras and Enrique Grau, which defied the conservative social conventions of 1950s Colombia, as well as paintings by exiled Spanish artist Eugenio Granell, whose radical political commitments made him a target for censorship and persecution.

Familiar Surrealist themes such as the exploration of the uncanny and unconscious desires are repositioned from a fresh perspective. Visitors can see iconic paintings such as Max Ernst’s Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale 1924 alongside lesser known but significant works including Antonio Berni’s Landru in the Hotel, Paris 1932, which appeared in the artist’s first exhibition of Surrealist works in Argentina, and Toshiko Okanoue’s Yobi-goe (The Call) 1954, addressing the daily experience of post-war Japan. Photographs by Hans Bellmer focusing on the female body are contrasted with Ithell Colquhoun’s Scylla 1938 – a double image exploring female desire – and works by both French Surrealist Claude Cahun and Sri-Lankan-based artist Lionel Wendt, whose radical photographs present queer desire outside of a Western context.

The exhibition also considers locations around the world where artists have converged and exchanged ideas of Surrealism. From Paris at the Bureau of Surrealist Research; to Cairo, with the Art et Liberté group; across the Caribbean, where the movement was initiated by writers; in Mexico City, where it was shaped by the creative bonds of women artists; and Chicago, where Surrealism was used as a tool for radical politics. Special loans including the photographs of Limb Eung-Sik and Jung Haechang from Korea and a film by Len Lye from New Zealand, will offer further insight into the adaption of Surrealism across the globe. For the first time in the UK, Ted Joans’ incredible 36-foot drawing, Long Distance 1976-2005 is displayed, featuring 132 contributors from around the world. Accompanying Joans on his travels, this cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) drawing took nearly 30 years to complete and united artists located as far apart as Lagos and Toronto.

Surrealism Beyond Borders opens at Tate Modern on 24 February. People and families will be able to visit until 29 August 2022.

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