From its earliest days, Surrealism’s goal was to subvert the things that most people believed to be the very foundations of modern civilization: logic, convention, and reasoning. Surrealism promised intellectual freedom to its adherents – first writers, and later visual artists. These artists wanted to open doors to worlds that political authorities cannot penetrate: imagination, impulses and dreams.
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And subsequently a story was told by scholars to define surrealism. This involved a condensed cast of (mostly male) heroes, including movement father André Breton, who wrote the first surrealist manifesto in 1924. These were mostly his followers – artists like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Max Ernst . It also became intimately linked to Western cities: notably Paris and New York.
“That’s how stories are created and simplified for people to understand,” Matthew Gale, curator of Surrealism Beyond Borders, an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, told BBC Culture. “Historians complicate them by doing research.” This research, which was undertaken by Gale, her co-curator Stephanie D’Alessandro and a team of scholars, involved going back to original publications and exhibition catalogs, and uncovering many lesser-known artists who deserve attention. be reconsidered. “We approached it from a transnational and transhistorical point of view”, explains Gale, “surrealism is not a style, it is a state of mind which leads to free individual creativity”.
To demonstrate this new perspective, Matthew Gale reveals how artists from six continents – Australasia, Asia, Europe, North America, Central America and Africa – drew inspiration from Surrealist techniques and ideas.
Tusalava (1929) by Len Lye, New Zealand
One of the most extraordinary works in the exhibition is Tusalava (1929), a 10-minute animated film directed by New Zealand-born Len Lye. In it, primordial worm-like forms wriggle out of the void, give birth to a humanoid figure, and then defeat it. Lye was inspired by tales of witchcraft from the Arrernte people of Central Australia and used imagery inspired by Maori and Samoan art. But these intercultural interests were combined with a technique dear to the surrealists. “It’s painted directly onto the film, so it’s kind of a doodling automatism done directly onto the celluloid,” says Gale. Automatism is a characteristically surreal process that involves “free” writing or drawing, in an attempt to dissociate expression from conscious control. The film, the result of two years of meticulous work, brings the spectacle of automation to life in a breathtaking way.