The Surreal World

Untitled (Horse) by Federico Castellon

Technology and inhumanity and greed, oh, my!

Those wild beasties have been lurking in the shadows alongside the yellow brick road to progress for generations. Spend some time at the spirited "Surrealism USA" exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum, and you'll realize we were worried about the dark side of our shiny modern world long before the current geopolitical nightmare. Nowhere was this anxiety made plainer than in surrealism, an early 20th-century art-world ism, born in France, that blended psychology with fears of a manmade apocalypse into an art style that has been imitated on a thousand album covers. Even if you don't know the textbook definition of surrealism, you know its ingredients: floating objects, nonsensical juxtapositions, anthropomorphic machines, desolate landscapes that seem to have come from a nightmare. You also know its adolescent ethos: Linear thinking is bad, dreams are good, and anything risqu is cool.

This exhibit of 120 works by an all-star cast of surrealist artists who worked in the United States between 1930 and 1950 will show you where all that freaky-deaky imagery got its start. Organized by the National Academy Museum in New York, the show is the first major survey of American surrealism in 25 years. Phoenix is the only place outside of New York where it will be shown. Works by Salvador Dali (of course), Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, Robert Motherwell and David Smith, among others, take you on a tour of the movement that has left a lasting mark on our culture and thought. Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. the late Ted Geisel), of all people, owes a huge debt to surrealism. The treeless moonscape inhabited by the Lorax, and the machine the Cat in the Hat used to clean up after Thing 1 and Thing 2, could have jumped out of a Kurt Seligman drawing.

For all the wacky imagery, though, surrealism sprang from a grim world view. Appalled by the mechanized mass death of World War I and fascinated by the brand new science of psychology, surrealists were convinced that reality was hopelessly outdated, and the only way to find truth was to look inward to the part of the brain that had a primal connection to the world: the unconscious.

Sure, that sounds cheesy in 2005. And some of the works in this show are as melodramatic as a 13-year-old's art project. But whether the work and the ideas behind them are good or bad isn't the point. One of surrealism's basic tenets was that such snotty aesthetic distinctions didn't amount to a hill of melted watches. It's an idea that lives to this day in popular culture.

The show is mercifully light on Dali, the best known and most overexposed surrealist. And it includes a cameo appearance by a Jackson Pollock drip painting. The 1943 Composition With Pouring II is next to one of Pollock's earlier, surrealist works. It's believed to be the second drip painting Action Jackson ever exhibited, and you can see his tentativeness in the rivulets of paint. Tentative and Jackson Pollock aren't words you ever see in the same sentence. But there's uncertainty in this painting. You can imagine Pollock, disgusted, cigarette in mouth, drink in hand, throwing down his brush and saying, "Let's see how it looks if I just pour some damn paint over this fucking piece of shit."

Some of the work hasn't aged well. Many of the politically themed paintings from the 1930s seem more silly than scary in 2005. Walter Quirt's The Future Is Ours features gun-toting Okies, a WWI doughboy in a gas mask, a half-human, half-machine beast, and a sinister sailor cavorting on a cross that morphs into a yardarm and hangman's noose. It's as bombastic as a thrash-metal band's tee shirt, but a fascinating glimpse into an earlier generation's idea of avant-garde.

But Frida Kahlo's lone piece in the exhibit has traveled the years beautifully, partially because of the story that goes with it. In 1938 a failed actress named Dorothy Hale leapt to her death from her suite in a Manhattan hotel. She did so the morning after hosting a "going-away" party for herself to which she had invited her unwitting friends. Clare Booth Luce, the editor of Vanity Fair and a friend of the Hale family, thought it would be nice to commission a portrait of the tragic young woman as a gift for Hale's mother. So she hired none other than Frida Kahlo to do the painting.

Understand, this is like hiring Marilyn Manson to perform a love song at a wedding. Kahlo had no use for veiled emotion, much less polite sentiment. She created a painting showing Hale's actual leap to death, in a sort of time-lapse imagery. At the top of the image, Hale's tiny form can be seen silhouetted against the clouds and the building from which she jumped. Below that is another image of Hale; this time she is larger and upside down, plummeting to earth and looking the viewer squarely in the eye. At the bottom of the image Hale's body lies in a pool of blood. Blood oozes from her mouth, her ears, and down the frame of the painting. She looks straight at the viewer, accusingly.

A horrified Luce never gave the painting to Hale's mother. Luce even had her name painted out of the inscription. The Suicide of Dorothy Hale ended up in the permanent collection of our very own Phoenix Art Museum in 1960, donated anonymously, as if its owner was still embarrassed by the painting's graphic nature. That's too bad, because the 1939 painting remains a frightening image, as wrenching as the video footage that would come 63 years later of those poor souls leaping off the burning towers of the World Trade Center. It's one case of surrealism standing the test of time.

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