The term "surrealism" is used now so often to refer to anything out of the norm that we might underestimate just how shocking the philosophy was in its early stages. The movement followed in the path of Dada, which was a response to the horror and destruction of World War I.
Breton and his followers sought "a new mode of pure expression" that explored the real process of thought, without constraints of reason, aesthetic or moral concerns. The world of the unconscious, which could be tapped via dream analysis, automatic writing and the random juxtaposition of disparate objects would lead the artist to the highest form of creativity. The movement flourished during the turbulent decades of the 1930s and '40s, and its influence can still be seen in the work of contemporary artists.
"I'm continually struck by not only the breadth of Surrealist subject matter — themes that artists continue to mine today — but also by the range of experimental art-making techniques that find their roots in the movement," explained Jodi Roberts, Cantor's curator of modern art.
As might be expected from an exhibition devoted to ideas "beyond realism," there are some pretty trippy objects to behold. The exhibition begins with one of the artists most associated with the movement, Rene Magritte. His work, realistic yet enigmatic, is wonderfully represented here with the 1953 painting, "The Wonders of Nature." Two life-sized half-fish, half-human figures sit contentedly on a rock at the seaside. It's fun, funky and wildly imaginative. In contrast, Dan Baum's 1965 "The Babies of Della Robbia," is a three-dimensional nightmare of plastic baby dolls, ghostly white with eyes closed or missing, contained within a wooden pediment. It's a clever, if creepy, tribute to the ceramic art of the Renaissance master.
Photography also is well represented. The exhibition includes the quietly evocative Paris street scenes of Eugene Atget, the haunting self-portraits of Francesca Woodman and Lee Friedlander's homage to Magritte, a picture of a television with a huge eye looking back out at us. Those who are squeamish might want to pass by the screen showing Luis Bunuel's Un Chien "Andalou." (Yes, it does include the scene with the woman getting her eye sliced open.)
Cindy Sherman's 1989 "Untitled #188," is a large-scale color photograph of a blow-up doll, nestled amid a background of cast off objects. Deflated, her face smeared with red lipstick, she is more contemporary than Bunuel's woman but equally unsettling.
San Francisco artist Jess offers up a fascinating accumulation of found objects in "Midday Forfit: Feignting Spell III." The collage consists of magazine pictures, puzzle pieces and bits of wood placed around a swatch from a Rococo-era tapestry that depicts a boy and girl on a swing. There are so many disparate images joined together here, from Indian deities to cars to mattresses to stained glass, that the eye is completely bombarded; the juxtapositions make no sense but they are nonetheless completely riveting. As the wall label indicates, it is another example of "surrealist archeology."
The exhibition ends with Alexander Calder's 1957 "Chariot (Sixteen Black Leaves)." As part of the Cantor's permanent collection, it is usually installed elsewhere. When placed in this context, we can see just how the idea of chance plays into the surrealist method. The mobile moves almost imperceptibly with air currents, changing in ways the artist could not have predicted. In addition, the shadow it casts on the wall behind becomes a secondary point of interest and an object in and of itself.
"I think surrealism gave later generations permission to challenge the limits of traditional artistic categories, materials and modes of production," Roberts said.
What: "The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism,"
Where: Pigott Family Gallery at the Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford
When: December - April 3
Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu.
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