Surrealism, the artistic movement that embraced the monstrous

To be on the Internet today is to confront disturbing images – of war, of climate change, of humanitarian crises. Weird visuals also appear. A YouTube algorithm provides me, for example, with a godsend videos popping pimples, or a series of videos in which young men eat glue. If disturbing sensory experiences abound on a daily basis, why go looking for more? This question might be asked of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibit, an exhibit filled with grotesque depictions of political upheaval and private horror, but also incredibly bizarre displays of imagination and beautiful.

The Met’s exhibition aims to show a non-chronological and non-geographic view of Surrealism, which became a transnational aesthetic phenomenon after being formally established in Paris in 1924 and spreading throughout the world throughout the 20th century. Its founder, André Breton, defined surrealism as a pure “psychic automatism”, in which the vagaries of the artist’s unconscious direct his artistic creation. The artists deployed surreal techniques to deal with demons, both internal and external, but also to challenge conventional thinking (is a pipe really a pipe, as René Magritte asked?) and to express fantasies of artistic or political liberation. The idea influenced by Freud was that by freeing the unconscious, artists could assert the independence of their inner world and that of their spectators. Radical nonconformity was a central tenet, which led some artists to use form to challenge the pressures and constraints of oppressive regimes.

Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya (known professionally as Malangatana) adapted the surrealist tradition in this way. In the 1960s, as Malangatana fought in Mozambique’s protracted war for independence from Portugal, the surreal touch was vital – it allowed his images to be legibly brutal without being (perhaps incriminatingly) specific. At the Met, an untitled work from 1967 features a compressed pack of shiny and wild spooky beasts. The central figure is devoured alive, blood streaming down his chest, his eyes wide in horror. The sounds of a binge eating seem to be buzzing. The characters appear to be in a hellish prison landscape, as Malangatana himself was arrested only four years ago for groundbreaking activities.

Like all good art, however, the image is wide in its implication. This could suggest the exploitative ferocity of the ruthlessly power-hungry Portuguese colonizers, or the psychological state of the Mozambicans, who were driven to war with their oppressors (as Malangatana shared in a 2007 interview, during the struggle for independence, the Mozambicans had no means outside). The varied readings of these wild figures add to the surreality of the work. Pain in painting transcends the specifics of its time and place. It rises to the level of the archetype, representing a broader spectrum of violence and unease. If one feels a strange kinship with these demons, this is exactly the kind of pact that surrealism allows.

The form, however, can be charming as well as edgy, as is the case in Puerto Rican artist Frances del Valle. Guerrero and Esfinge (“Warrior and Sphinx”), in sight near the Malangatana. Del Valle’s 1957 painting makes me laugh. In it, a huge sphinx silhouette kneels not only sexually over what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Egyptian sight. The sphinx represents a crouching, twisted warrior who, apparently, has just sprayed his head. The image is confusing, strangely divine. Its forms are irresistibly fluid. The massive sphinx looks both fetal and futuristic, and the warrior’s ravaged head – a cluster of hot pink – looks like a knotted placenta. But the horrible is softened by del Valle’s thick, luminescent paint. The pearly members are reminiscent of unicorns, fairies. The softness of these textures, combined with the tyrannical posture of the sphinx, transforms the painting into a cryptic but seductive enigma. Del Valle reveals the perverse attraction of facing confusion.

Rape (“The Rape”), by René Magritte, 1934, from the Menil Collection, Houston (WikiArt)

Perhaps the most confusing and entertaining image of surrealism is Magritte’s painting of 1934 Rape (“The Rape”), permanently housed in the Menil Collection in Houston. Like that of Malagatana Untitled, it has the power to disturb, and yet, like del Valle’s work, it also evokes a strange sense of cheerfulness. Rape is sort of a figurative portrait, except with bare breasts in place of eyes, a navel in place of the nose, and a sparkling-haired crotch in place of the mouth. Rendered by the attentive hand of Magritte, these parts become so expressive that the nipples seem to squint, the navel seems to breathe, the penis seems to smile. If a viewer laughs, they’re not just laughing at the sudden vividness of these features. Instead, they can also respond to a dissonant synthesis: the absurdity of the image coupled with the declarative violence of the title and the absolute seriousness of the painting method. In Rape, each brushstroke is done with careful deliberation, resulting in a heavy stillness reminiscent of the Mona Lisa.

That we can laugh while watching this kind of work is the key to the machinations of surrealism – making us do and feel things that we didn’t know we could do or feel. The experience prompts questions: if the nipples, too, can suddenly blink, see, judge, move – if all parts of the body teeter on the verge of animosity – what do we really do when we touch them? How much Following violent is every violation?

Magritte freely exploited the distress capacity of surrealism. “A truly vivid image should make the viewer sick,” he once told his art dealer. Indeed, during the Met show, this sustained observation of biomorphic shapes and crowded limbs can destabilize a person. And although many art historians consider surrealism to be over – often citing different dates in the second half of the 20th century – its legacy, or at least the unease it inspires, continues to evolve.

Before the Met show, my most recent of these unsettling experiences coincidentally involved yet another encounter with breast and eye imagery. Last April, at Sotheby’s in New York, I turned a corner and came across the Kenyan-born American artist Wangechi Mutu Histology of the different classes of uterine tumors (2005). The artwork consists of 12 surreal-inspired collages in which anatomical diagrams are overlaid with images from fashion broadcasts, pages from African art books, and images taken from National geography, forming distorted female faces. In one case, protruding breasts are overflowing with droopy eyes; in another, a bent knee becomes a fleshy nose; in yet another, a vagina suffocates the upper third of a woman’s face and her masqueraded eyes blink like jagged cysts. In other words, visual chaos.

Mutu’s use of layered images echoes the barrage experience of the digital world. Everything about the collages seems to be happening at the same time. To process the work, you have to slow down and decode each face, treat each cut with suspicion. The result, paradoxically, is that the collages appear surprisingly clear. In one case, what appears to be an upside down fennec fox sits between the nose and upper lip of one of Mutu’s women: Never have I approached an animal with a more fierce sense of questioning. The artist apparently paused my quick visual input, showing me the building blocks both individually and as a neatly organized whole.

Mutu is not the only one among contemporary artists to perpetuate the surrealist vein. American artist Juliana Huxtable, for example, masquerades as a sexualized shit cow in Cow 1 (2019). The shy pose is slightly reminiscent of del Valle’s sphinx, as are the vibrations of the chalky, technicolor pink unicorn. Here, the face of the cow is that of the artist. As she defecates, she makes a face not of embarrassment but of exhausted sexual invitation. Huxtable mimics the self-shaping that thrives on social media. His, however, is both more knowledgeable and more self-deprecating. Likewise, in Aperitif (2017), French painter Julie Curtiss lays a severed (and impeccably manicured) finger on sushi rice in a macabre distortion of shrimp tempura. As in Huxtable’s work, the organized body is repackaged and hyperconscious. Sushi with cut fingers asks, Don’t I look tasty? And the answer is, oddly, Yes, kind of.

In the 21st century, surrealism may no longer be the dominant movement in the art world, but it is uniquely positioned to slow down the absorption of what we would otherwise find familiar. By transforming everyday imagery into monstrous, or simply infusing it with a quirk, surrealism offers a new clarity of vision. These works of art require that we actively process what we see; that we stop looking at the pictures and start questioning them. If today’s surrealism hurts us a bit, we know it works.

Christopher S. Washington