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Look around the public plazas of America and you’ll find Surrealism’s legacy hidden in plain sight. Public sculptures all over the country carry forward traces of the 20th century’s most notorious art movement. Surrealist DNA is still legible even in sculptures that have strayed from the familiar biomorphic phenotypes of Picassos, Mirós, and Calders. The blood of André Breton is not yet spent.
It once ran as thick and hot as molten magma. “Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York,” a smart survey at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, tracks the volcanic explosion of new concepts in form and composition and the sanguine passions that drove them. It’s a reminder that we should blush at the public works inspired by the Surrealists—whose blood boiled over in the interwar years.
The showstopper in an exhibit chockablock with moments is a tense room of early sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. The grouping crackles with negative energy. “Woman With Her Throat Cut” (1932) is the crux of one of the arguments put forward in this show by Valerie Fletcher, senior curator for the Hirshhorn: namely, that Surrealists embraced a sometimes-grisly attitude toward sex and women’s bodies.
“Woman With Her Throat Cut” is one of the more jarring sculptures the museum has ever shown. It’s a loosely female figure that appears to be splayed open from her sternum to her pelvis. Lying prone on the floor—yet still distantly foreshadowing the spindly totems for which Giacometti would become known—the sculpture reads like an open bear trap. It’s the locus of similar sentiments throughout the room: the disproportionate uterus of “Spoon Woman” (1926), the erotic violence of “Reclining Woman Who Dreams” (1929), and the bathetic look of shock and confusion on the face of the woman who reaches out, grasping nothing, in “The Invisible Object (Hands Holding the Void)” (1934).
Another sculpture, “Man” (1929–30), appears to capture Giacometti’s vision of masculinity: a flattened but brooding figure (one that’s shaped like the purple McDonald’s creature, Grimace) bearing just one facial feature, a slack open mouth. It’s worth noting that the most sex-positive work in this set, “Reclining Woman Who Dreams,” was originally titled “Woman in Bed with Someone Else.” But even Giacometti’s darkest moments are undeniably vigorous formally.
Some Surrealists were more or less Meninists: Hans Bellmer, a German sculptor and photographer, dismembered and recombined the parts of plump dolls for his photographs and sculptures, an assortment of which are on view. His interest in the erotic possibilities of dismemberment is barely disguised; as his work progressed, he assembled adult-sized dolls using prosthetic limbs. “The Doll” (1934) might be his most disturbing achievement (although the contest is tight). One photo shows a close-cropped doll’s face peering over her (its) shoulder at the camera (viewer); there is another photo that depicts the limbless amputee doll lying on the floor, her (its) neck evidently snapped.
The viewer begins to wonder whether the “Marvelous Objects” alluded to by the show’s title might be women’s body parts. Fletcher’s unflinching curatorial tour of Paris in the 1930s reveals artists embracing Freud’s theories and even weaponizing them with their unrepentant male gaze. The Hirshhorn show recreates an installation from the International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in 1938 in which Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and other artists dressed up mannequins as works; several are on view. (Duchamp’s “1,200 Coal Sacks,” another piece from the 1938 show, is also installed here, but it’s a non-sequitur.) The Surrealist fraternity was formally, compositionally, psychologically, and (plainly) psychosexually obsessed with the manipulation and availability of the female sex. The works range from dark to comic to shocking. Seeing them gins up the same discomfort as listening to American murder ballads, produced a world away in Appalachia: works that can be as breathtaking as they are uncomfortable.
Can an art exhibit be feminist if it doesn’t feature women artists? Only three of the two dozen artists in “Marvelous Objects” are women, and they are responsible for only a smattering of sculptures on view. Rather, women are the subjects of nearly all of the works. Some works by women that should be included in the show are missing in action, namely Méret Oppenheim’s “Object” (1936). A construction by another woman missing from the exhibition, Valentine Hugo, also called “Object” (1931), appears alongside Oppenheim’s famous furry teacup in the show’s catalog.
“Marvelous Objects” doesn’t take women for granted, however. What might be a straightforward blockbuster show in another context—featuring sculptures by Henry Moore, Joan Miró, David Smith, and other heavyweights—takes the time to preface Surrealism as a structural attitude toward women. That’s a significant step for a historical show.
Of course, “Marvelous Objects” isn’t short on lighter moments: Dalí’s “Lobster Telephone” (1938) and “Venus de Milo with Drawers” (1936) as well as Man Ray’s “Object To Be Destroyed (Indestructible Object)” (1932) are irresistible icons of the era. The Hirshhorn has done a good job of managing the flow of the exhibition. The museum removed the permanent-collection sculpture installation from the inner ring of galleries, for example, so as not to confuse viewers about what’s what.
Between the focused rooms, viewers move through larger galleries filled with objects. These bigger galleries don’t provide a lot of handholding. (What really needs to be said about Henry Moore’s work anyway?) In some ways, “Marvelous Objects” serves as a counterpart to “Dada,” the sprawling 2006 survey at the National Gallery of Art, a splendid academic treatment that never felt as fun or free, exactly, as its subject matter.
Two rooms in “Marvelous Objects” may inspire multiple return visits. A series of sculptures (or paintings?) by Jean Arp look as formally provocative today as they must have when he debuted them in the 1920s. “Objects Placed on Three Planes Like Writing” (1928), a framed painting-like assemblage of simple, animated, biomorphic forms seems like it might have inspired dozens of artists, from painters Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis to sculptors Louise Nevelson and Lucio Fontana. Works like “Shirt Front and Fork” (1922) helped to bridge the gap between figurative still-life work and the bizarre menagerie of Surrealist compositions. The Arp display raises another curatorial tentpole in Fletcher’s show: the viral spread of biomorphic imagery, the universal vocabulary for modern art.
The second room that viewers will want to set aside time to see is sadder. During World War II, Isamu Noguchi voluntarily interred himself in a Japanese-American prison camp in Arizona. The artist turned to the stars. “Lunar Landscape” (1943–44) and other sculptures on view show how Noguchi, working in relative isolation, transported himself far away from his circumstances through sculptures that read like landscapes. Another piece from this period, “This Tortured Earth” (1943), is a black desert sculptural tableau marked by dull gashes. The room is a testament to both Noguchi’s irrepressible spirit as an artist and the malleability of the Surrealist language: The gallery is both haunting and hopeful. At least one other work in “Marvelous Objects,” Alexander Calder’s “The Spider” (1940), appears to directly address the seismic changes happening in Europe.
For most artists, Surrealism was not an ends but a means. Early works by Calder, Joseph Cornell, and David Smith—each of whom earns considerable focus in “Marvelous Objects”—traces the development of mid-century sculpture from the primordial soup of Surrealist forms. Seeing this evolution as it happens, step by step, is one of the best revelations in the exhibition. Works like “Big Bird” (1937) and “Apple Monster” (1938) show where Calder started with the diatoms and planktons of Surrealism, before he stringed them into mobiles and stabiles. “Saw Head” (1933) and “Swung Forms” (1937) demonstrate how biomorphic compositions influenced Smith, before he hammered his forms into cubes. What Surrealism means to Cornell is a little less clear, but no matter: His boxes from the 1940s featuring vials are mesmerizing. And one Cornell piece is straight-up funny: “Bel Echo Gruyère” (1939), a piece of cheese wrapped in foil that “moos” when it is lifted.
Exhibitions on Surrealism can feel daunting for the sheer amount of print material involved. Breton and his confrères produced an enormous amount of content, from journals and magazines to letters and photographs. This history is rich and illuminating, and there is plenty of it in “Marvelous Objects,” tactically tucked away in the connective spaces between or aside galleries or reproduced in the catalog. But Surrealism wasn’t made to be scrutinized so clinically by the viewer, and “Marvelous Objects” is the rare show that tries to affect some of that original sensationalism—not put it behind glass.
“Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Feb. 15. 700 Independence Ave. NW. Free. (202) 633-4674. hirshhorn.si.edu