Marvel and Mysticism at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s Surrealism Exhibition

Chloe Aridjis considers surrealism’s resurgence and how its magical qualities provide a framework for positive transformation

BY Chloe Aridjis in Exhibition Reviews , Opinion | 21 APR 22

More and more, our world seems to resemble a painting by Hieronymus Bosch: dystopian landscapes, barren, flooded or ablaze; sinister figures who, like beasts of the apocalypse, wield tremendous power; infernal war conducted with a medieval brutality. Mass migration patterns land and sea, and the poetry born from chance collisions no longer seems startling – by now we know (how can we not?) that everything is connected, in dialogue with every other form of existence.

Bosch recognised the Doomsday drive in humankind, but also a penchant for folly, fantasy and the grotesque. His spiritual heirs, the surrealists, also saw how reality itself seemed fuelled by a dream (or nightmare) logic of its own. Wary of the ever-more modernized, mechanized, rationalized world that encroached on the individual and spirited up the horrors of two World Wars, they created a freer, more expansive and more spontaneous grammar of existence. Now, a century later, and in a world even more colonized by screens and technology, surrealist art is experiencing a resurgence, and, as it re-enters our galleries and museums, speaks with wisdom and foreboding to the terror of times in which it feels increasingly difficult to distinguish dream from reality. Yet as a movement that has long since navigated those twin terrains, it also offers a liberated way of seeing, one that throws open the doors necessary for change.

Leonor Fini, Ends of the Earth, 1949, oil on canvas, 35 × 28 cm. Courtesy: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

War displaced many of the surrealists; they lived and worked in a state of exile. Like the hybrid creatures they created, they spoke their own language, embodied an unlikely blending of cultures and traditions, and possessed a certain adaptability and engagement with the new. A number of these artists fled Europe for Mexico, where the country’s merveilleux supplied them with abundant examples of the marvellous within the everyday. And it was Mexico’s inherent magic – fantastical quotidian scenes, markets selling spells, the powerful presence of the pre-Hispanic – that notably inspired émigré artists such as Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. In magic they found the ideal metaphor for the mysterious act of creation, a space in which esoteric thought could be granted new shape, as well as a proto-feminist realm over which the woman artist had total control.

Leonora Carrington, The Pleasures of Dagobert, 1945, egg tempera on masonite, 86.7 × 74.9 cm. Courtesy: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

This year’s Venice Biennale, which opens this week, is named after Carrington’s Milk of Dreams (2012), an illustrated children’s book containing tales of transformation transposed from the nursery walls. Similarly playful and enigmatic figures inhabit the Carrington paintings included in the new exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice: ‘Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity’. Dating from the 1920s through to the ’50s, this wonderful collection of works depicts the myriad ways in which surrealism was in dialogue with the occult, and the imaginative overlap between a movement that found expression through the unconscious and a set of practices and beliefs similarly dictated by elusive forces often concealed. Following on from Tate Modern’s ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’, which offers a welcome widening of the surrealist project by framing it in a less gendered and Eurocentric context, the Guggenheim show explores how certain artists turned to magic and myth not only as a source of freedom and enchantment but as a way of getting closer to the very essence of things, to a state of consciousness that preceded discursive and logical reasoning.

The aftermath of war reverberates through many of the works here, yet they often contain strange oracular (and ocular) presences that seem to possess a form of secret knowledge, an arcane knowledge that could be psychic or prophetic: ravaged landscapes surveyed by sphinx-like figures and floating sinister eyes (Leonor Fini); tall, bird-headed beings in brittle mineral landscapes that resemble dead coral reefs (Max Ernst); a tree-like woman in a decimated terrain, a train of ivy cascading from her head (Paul Delvaux); magnetic storms that produce a thicket of ghoulish currents (Wolfgang Paalen). We also see figures engaged in strange rituals, towering moon-faced goddesses and sagacious animals (Carrington); dream-like medieval architecture and remarkable vehicles and machines that seem enactments of a mental process (Varo); refashioned Tarot cards that assert the artist’s control over his or her destiny (Victor Brauner, Óscar Domínguez); and animistic beings dancing, twirling and soaring in mythic space (Kurt Seligmann). With their cacophony of symbols, these works seem to be announcing themselves in the manner of dreams and puzzles that invite decipherment while at the same time suggesting they could only ever really be deciphered by an ethereal soul in possession of secret gifts and powers.

Kurt Seligmann, Baphomet, 1948, oil on canvas, 147.6 × 122.6 cm. Courtesy: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The surrealist universe is one of unlikely thresholds, gestures and encounters. It respects the mystery of existence, leaves room for the unknown. Every accepted narrative, particularly those that have ceased to make sense socially or politically, is there to be subverted as the boundaries between the human, non-human and vegetal, between the animate and inanimate, shift and dissolve. In our time of endless crises and convulsions, this way of re-envisioning the world is still exhilarating and emboldening, assuring us that even what seems most immutable remains in a state of flux, while reminding us that the things that do appear in flux may also be products of our immutable passions, tendencies and idées fixes.

Paul Delvaux, The Call of the Night, 1938, oil on canvas, 145 × 110 cm. Courtesy: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The surrealists’ conception of change is surely a way of thinking we must tap into on behalf of our beleaguered planet. The climate emergency demands it, and the shape-shifting we can find within surrealist art and magic must translate into paradigm shifts in the material world. The artist is a living barometer of the trauma and fluctuations of the times but also a self-empowered caster of spells, an intermediary between realms, turning base materials into something incantatory and profound. And any act of magic, we must remember, requires belief in the possibility of transformation.

For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main Image: Max Ernst, Europe after the Rain II, 1940–42, oil on canvas, 54.8 × 147.8 cm. Courtesy: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Chloe Aridjis is a writer who lives in London, UK. Her latest novel is Sea Monsters (2019).