For years, the common misconception about Surrealism was that it was mainly a European movement, with René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and others as its leaders. Gradually, that notion is changing. Feminists have added to the Surrealist canon female artists like Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Méret Oppenheim, and acclaimed surveys outside the U.S. have brought increased attention to figures like Wifredo Lam, Hervé Télémaque, and Remedios Varo. As a new kind of surrealism takes root among today’s younger female painters, a new understanding of the movement is also blooming.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Surrealism Beyond Borders” reflects this momentum. Curated by Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale with Lauren Rosati, Sean O’Hanlan, and Carine Harmand, the show, which heads to Tate Modern in London after its run in New York, aims to prove that Surrealism was hardly confined to Europe. If anything, this survey suggests that, once Surrealism got its start in Paris in the ’20s, the movement’s influence could not be contained. Surrealism’s tendrils wound their way from France to the Philippines and back again, and in the process caught the eye of curious artists who sought to reproduce—and subvert—European Surrealism’s Freud-inspired dreaminess.
“Surrealism Beyond Borders” does feature works by well-known artists—Dalí, Tanning, Lam, and more are well-represented. Yet the overwhelming majority of the 300-plus works on view are by artists who are hardly household names in the U.S. And indeed, many of these artists hail from far beyond Europe. Below is a look at how five lesser-known artists took Surrealism into their own hands and rendered it anew.
Within Europe, Surrealism was commonly regarded as a rejection of reason in favor of the irrational and the unexplained. Outside the continent, some artists regarded that focus as misguided. Japanese artists who picked up on the Surrealist movement viewed reason as a concept derived from the Enlightenment that was of little use to them. Viewing the strain of Surrealism coming out of Western Europe as a plaything of the middle class, they sought not to do away with reality, but to embrace it in all its weirdness. “If we first oppose the objections of the proletarian artists to the internal contradictions of Breton’s school of Surrealism,” poet Takenaka Kyūshichi wrote, “we can achieve an even higher form of Surrealism—a new Surrealism which is Scientific Surrealism.”
Among the exponents of that style was Koga Harue, whose paintings dovetailed with another emergent artistic trend in Japan known as kikai-shugi, or machine-ism, which viewed the unfeeling quality of gadgetry as something to aspire to. In paintings such as Umi (The Sea), from 1929, Koga offers a bizarre seascape in which it is unclear where land ends and ocean begins. His marine scene is populated with striped fish that swim amid a bisected submarine and what appears to be a factory. Meanwhile, a woman wearing a bathing suit appears to jump off a staircase. The composition, with its flattened perspective and its incongruous elements, is deliberately off-putting and quite unlike life itself. If this is meant as a vision of reality, it is clearly Koga’s own take on the subject.
Just as many foreigners were being lured to Paris by the promise of being close to the Surrealists, some Europeans were spurred to the leave the country for non-Western nations, occasionally with the hope of tapping environments that they considered to be exotic and therefore more conducive to Surrealist art-making. One such artist to depart the French capital was Alice Rahon, who left in 1939 as World War II was beginning. That year, Rahon, along with her romantic partners Eva Sulzer and Wolfgang Paahlen (all three were in a relationship together), traveled to New York and the Pacific Northwest, where encounters with Indigenous peoples inspired her to create art. Following in the footsteps of Frida Kahlo, who had by then become a sensation in Europe, they ended up in Mexico City.
A poet in addition to a painter, Rahon wound up developing a long-term friendship with Kahlo, whom Rahon memorialized with her 1955–56 painting La balada para Frida Kahlo (The Ballad for Frida Kahlo). In this work, a procession of tiny figures appears to walk amid a city, which is rendered largely as a series of nondescript buildings set against a cool blue background. While the painting contains a fantastical quality present in many other Surrealist works, La balada para Frida Kahlo is couched in reality. Rahon drew on a walk that she once took with the artist through Mexico City’s Plaza de Coyoacán, where she witnessed a festival taking place. With works such as this one, Rahon aimed to summon the power of cave paintings she witnessed in Altamira. “In the earliest times,” Rahon once wrote, “painting was magical.”
In Egypt, Surrealism took hold during the late ’30s in the form of the group Art et Liberté, which more commonly went by its Arabic name, al-Fann wa-l-Hurriyya. (An exhibition that began at Paris’s Centre Pompidou in 2017 helped revive interest in the group in Europe.) The group was never a formal one, and its members took numerous different approaches with their art. Binding them, however, was a determination that Egyptian Surrealism ought to be demarcated from European Surrealism, and that often meant that the artists made explicit their concerns about colonialism, the oppression of women, and bourgeois aesthetics. Artist Yusuf al-‘Afifi, for example, considered the label of Surrealism as “nothing more than a modern, technical term for what we call imagination, freedom of expression, and freedom of action, and the Orient has been the home of all this since time began.”
To Western eyes, some of the works produced by these artists appear not so dissimilar from ones being made in France, Spain, and elsewhere. Paintings by Inji Efflatoun, Ramses Younan, and Kamel El Telmisany tend to include the same contorted bodies and mysterious beings that can be seen in works by Salvador Dalí. Where these works differ is that they repositioned the violence so that it referred more directly to struggles facing Egypt.
Born in Port Said, Egypt, to Greek and French parents, Mayo bore witness to some of the conflicts facing his home country. In his painting Coup de batôns (Baton Blows), from 1937, a chaotic arrangement of bodies with arcing legs and arms refers to police brutality at a street protest over class divisions held in Cairo by labor groups and student unions. The composition loosely resembles what Mayo himself personally observed while sitting in a café as the action took place.
Paris had been the epicenter of artistic movements like Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and, naturally, Surrealism, and so the French capital became a destination for aspiring artists of all stripes during the first half of the 20th century and in the postwar era. Skunder Boghossian, who hailed from Ethiopia, was among the artists lured to the city by its rich history. While working in London and Paris, Boghossian was able to see works by artists associated with André Breton, but it was the work of the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam—who was himself an expat living in the French city—that left the strongest mark. Observing Lam’s repurposing of images more commonly linked to Afro-Caribbean traditions like Santería and Vodou, Boghossian said in 1966 that he was so “impressed by the dramatic play of forces and the supernatural quality” of that artist’s work that he received a “bodily shock” when looking at it.
Right in line with Lam, Boghossian drew on his own heritage and combined it with tropes derived from Surrealism. For a painting like Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964), Boghossian nods toward the blends of man and animal that are often seen in European Surrealist works. Amid starbursts, two beings with owl-like faces and elongated bodies are shown traveling across darkened sky; Boghossian has collaged the canvas to make it feel rougher and more textured. The scene could be viewed as a metaphor for Boghossian’s own condition, given that he once said that he viewed himself as an “African artist in ‘time and space’ in search of himself and his roots.” In addition to nodding to works by Max Ernst, Boghossian also had in mind the magical realist fiction of Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola.
Hernando R. Ocampo
The writings of Sigmund Freud loomed large for the Surrealists, who drew inspiration from the psychoanalyst’s investigation of man’s hidden desires. Not all artists outside Europe were quite so taken with Freudian psychology, however. Within the Philippines, Hernando R. Ocampo was among the artists who believed his work did not contain “a conscious intention of producing Freudian symbols,” as he once told the poet and critic Emmanuel Torres. A member of a group known as the Thirteen Moderns, which helped spur the growth of a modernist art scene in the country, Ocampo was self-taught and interested in lending Surrealism an overtly political context.
In works like Glooming (1939–49), Ocampo made prominent use of Catholic imagery within fantastical universes. Catholicism has a complicated history within the Philippines, where, in the 16th century, Spanish colonialists forcibly converted people living in the country, and where, in the early and mid–20th century, Filipinos used their religion as a form of resistance. Glooming features in its foreground an ominous-looking shadow of a crucifix before a giant woman’s head that is cleaved in two. Her disconnected arm pokes out of the ground near her, and in the distance are tall buildings. Paintings like Glooming did not appeal to the French avant-gardists, who strongly opposed the use of Catholic imagery within art.