July 29, 2021

In Marseille, the exhibition “Surrealism in American art”, a repressed movement

These are the kinds of questions that arouse controversy for political rather than aesthetic reasons: what is the role of surrealism in the development of the arts in the United States before, during and after the Second World War? Topic for specialists? Not only, because it touches closely on American artistic nationalism, for which it is important that nothing European does not intervene in a history which would be made in the USA.

In this patriotic tale, surrealism is embarrassing. That an exhibition returns to the subject in France today is thus, in itself, an interesting fact, as long as it is placed in the context of the cultural relations between the two countries, most often placed under the sign of rivalry, envief or contempt depending on the circumstances. That it is called “Surrealism in American Art” and not, for example, “Surrealism in the United States”, only accentuates the provocation. Its master builder is Eric de Chassey, who likes to sail in strong winds since he is the author of the exhibition Napoleon? Again ! at the Invalides which aroused the ire of some “Napoleonolaters”.

Read also In pictures: surrealism in American art is exhibited in Marseille

“Surrealism in American Art” takes place in Marseille, which makes sense. It is here, in the Villa Air-Bel, that part of the group gathers after the capitulation of June 1940. Jacqueline and André Breton and their daughter Aube are housed there, in the company of Max Ernst, Benjamin Péret or Victor Brauner . They work there a little and especially prepare their exile far from France of Pétain. On March 25, 1942, the Breton family embarked on the Captain-Paul-Lemerle, which also carries Wifredo Lam and Claude Lévi-Strauss. They arrive in New York with difficulty at the end of May, Lam having decided to stay in Cuba. They find André Masson and his family there, Yves Tanguy and his partner Kay Sage. Ernst disembarks the following July 14.

The most active of the avant-garde

When they arrived in New York, surrealism had already been known there for a decade thanks to gallery owners Julien Levy and Pierre Matisse – sons of Henri -, to the first purchases of private collections and to the exhibition. Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, in the winter of 1936. It also owes a considerable part of its public notoriety to the extravagances of Salvador Dali, who came there for the first time at the end of 1934 and multiplies the spectacular demonstrations, cover for Time Magazine or showcase for the Bonwit Teller department store. It is therefore not surprising that younger artists, some born in the United States like Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman or Jackson Pollock, others having emigrated there in the 1910s or 1920s like Arshile Gorky, Willem De Kooning and Mark Rothko, have a developed knowledge of surrealism, in which they see the latest and most active of the international avant-garde.

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