Drawing Surrealism, Morgan Library, New York

Surrealism is a condition, a sensibility, a political attitude. It was also a movement whose only goal consisted of total brain liberation. Inspired by Freud but boldly defying him, the Surrealists insisted that repression of any sort was bad – and so was the civilisation it enabled. They smashed the confining limits of intellect, pressed toward the outer limits of irrationality, and plumbed the crudest wellsprings of creativity. Their holy grail, proclaimed guru André Breton, was “the true process of thought, free from the exercise of reason and from any aesthetic or moral purpose”.

In pursuit of that goal, they championed drawing, a medium they saw as a virtual X-ray of the unconscious. Some, pens in hand, luridly transcribed the concrete metaphysics of their dreams. Others aimed to channel the more elusive murmurings of the unconscious, inventing extravagant techniques to set the creative process free from intention. “Fingers gave birth to involuntary figures, most often troubling, disquieting, indescribable,” wrote André Masson.

Yet the singular role of draughtsmanship in the movement has only rarely been examined, which is what makes the Morgan Library’s heady selection of Surrealist works on paper so essential and enlightening. Organised by Leslie Jones, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the show launched last October, and Isabelle Dervaux at the Morgan, Drawing Surrealism classifies its many gems according to the radical methods the group pioneered, such as decalcomania, fumage, frottage, exquisite corpse, grattage, collage and rayograph.

Some of those techniques have since become such creative staples that it’s hard to believe a gang of dapper Parisians invented them not so long ago. Most kindergarteners, for instance, follow Masson in dripping skeins of glue across a page, sprinkling sand or glitter on the gooey surface, and then blowing away the detritus to create an “automatic drawing”. Primary schoolers take a cue from Max Ernst when they rub paper against a mottled surface to create evocative patterning, or muster magazine cut-outs into disorienting composites. Art students of all ages are taught, via Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy, to draw spontaneously without looking down or lifting the pencil. Surrealism’s modus operandi has become mainstream, and so has its way of seeing. Teenagers and reporters routinely (and accurately) describe the world around them as surreal.

Among the most effective means for removing agency from artmaking were frottage and decalcomania. The first, invented by Ernst, meant placing a sheet of paper on top of heavily grained wooden floorboards or spools of unwound thread, then rubbing with a soft lead pencil. In the random designs that resulted, Ernst would find the makings of landscapes, birds and mammals. “I was surprised,” he noted, “by the sudden intensification of my visionary faculties, and by the hallucinating succession of contradictory images.”

In decalcomania, popularised by the Spaniard Oscar Domínguez, artists slathered pigment on one surface and then smudged it against another. The spongy outcomes served as trampolines for the artists’ obsessions. Georges Hugnet added a touch of pink to his experiment, achieving a lunar landscape dotted with what look like blooming azaleas. Domínguez accented the outlines of a bicycle in his blotch. Breton himself was a purist, advising artists to find meaning in aesthetic chaos.

“All you need to do now is study the resulting image long enough for you to find a title that conveys the reality you have discovered in it, and you can be quite sure of having expressed yourself in the most completely personal and valid manner,” Breton instructed.

In other words, a well-worded title is worth a thousand pictures. Mainstream modernists scoffed at this dependence on literary conceits, but the Surrealists didn’t care; they just kept translating their dreams into palpable form. At the same time that Mondrian was ascetically reducing the landscape to primary-coloured rectangles, Savador Dalí, Hans Bellmer, José Caballero and others looked boisterously back to the Old Masters, rendering paranoid hallucinations or nighttime horrors with photographic accuracy. “My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialise the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision,” Dalí wrote.

Dalí’s wizardly command of shading, line, and the marble heft of flesh can be seen in two of drawings here: the eye-fooling “Study for ‘The Image Disappears’”, where a topless female torso melts into a moustached face; and the stunning “Les 50 Secrets”, a page from a children’s reading primer that teems with little monsters, like the emanations of a poor student’s frustrations. The curators have also dug up an obscure trove of other works inspired by the Catalan trickster. These include Federico Castellón’s “Her Eyes Trembled”, featuring a giant hand alighting on a beach, unfurling taloned fingers to reveal a meticulously drawn mouth, a nose and a dead cat on a chain.

The Surrealists were Romantics who adhered to the age-old ideal of feverish inspiration and imbibed bohemian prejudices against inhibition. But they were at their best when they allowed a dry collective sense of humour to infiltrate their fervour. The show contains a wall full of cadavres exquis (exquisite corpses), works of collaborative whimsy. A sheet of paper would be folded in sections and each artist would draw a fraction of a humanoid figure, sometimes embellished with animal features or mechanical limbs. No one could see what the others were doing, and the result is often an inspired pastiche. A bookstand sprouts an elephant-headed creature above, while below it flows into a snaking river on a map. Each Surrealist may have thought he was unleashing his psyche, but actually he was yoking it to the calculated lunacy of his peers.

Until April 24, www.themorgan.org

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