Surrealism has been on the art world’s mind recently, lurking around the collective consciousness of institutions, curators, gallerists and collectors with the gift of foresight. Arguably, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art kicked off the trend last year when it opened the show Surrealism Beyond Borders (now on view at Tate Modern, until 29 August). The show demonstrates that, while the movement is generally thought to be tied to a specific time and place (like so many things, France in the 1920s), it grew far beyond its Western European roots and was embraced by revolutionary artists from Asia to Latin America and Africa.
That proliferation makes sense. Surrealism was, in part, a reaction to the First World War, an at-the-time unimaginable event filled with terrible new technology that prompted writers, poets and eventually artists to explore their unconscious for a more fantastic, innocent version of the world. The world now is similarly flooded with new technologies that we only think we understand and our collective blood pressure is uncomfortably high as terrible futures increasingly become not just possible but likely.
At Kasmin, an exhibition of works by the artist Dorothea Tanning makes clear through one person’s practice how vital Surrealism and its dreamy offshoots are today, how vibrant a life can be and reductive it is try to label an artist. The exhibition, which spans four decades and includes works on loan from both museums and private collections, features paintings and works on paper that follow Tanning’s career from her Surrealist roots in the 1940s to her prescient work in the 1980s, which has the same spirt and aesthetic as some of today’s most sought-after young artists and market darlings (Cecily Brown or Dominic Chambers come to mind) though they were made by a near-octogenarian.
"Though Tanning’s early work can be categorised as Surrealist, most of her oeuvre was totally distinct in its visual language—dynamic, varied, and informed by her introspective observation of the great painters of the past. Evoking themes such as conflict, turmoil, love and the archetypes of mythology, Tanning's work takes the long view of history," says Emma Bowen, a director at the gallery. "She remains enormously influential to contemporary painters."
In the gallery, one is surrounded by Tanning’s swirling, deep-hued work. Some of the pictures push the limits of abstraction, with paint distributed on the canvases in such a way that the brush strokes could be floating in water or drifting on a light breeze, but there is always some hint at the figurative, an anchor that lets you know these images came from an earthly body. Aux environs de Paris (Paris and Vicinity) (1962, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art) seems to exist only as thick black smoke with a smouldering red core in the lower half of the canvass, but within the fire is physical movement, a body reacting to its environment.
Later in her career Tanning’s figurative took a more prominent role, but these figures always live within her fluid, cumulostratic reality. Door 84 (1984), which was painted in New York City after the artist spent decades in France, fully embraces the figurative without leaving behind any of her Surrealist dreaminess, and adds a tangible element of tension. Two figures, each on either side of a found door that protrudes from the centre of the work, push against the barrier, one with desperate force and the other with composed confidence. The picture evokes such force one would be forgiven for thinking it was made in the pandemic era, both figures striving to make it through some kind of forced-upon stasis while surrounded by a squall of energetic yellows, reds and wispy greens.
The exhibition has been in motion for many years, spurred by Paul Kasmin's love of the work. It opens just shy of the two-year anniversary of the gallery founder's death, and is well timed. Works by the women of the Surrealist movement have increasingly taken the spotlight from Magritte, Dalí and company, earning their creators the curatorial and art market recognition they have been due for years. In November 2021, Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo sold for $31m ($34.9m with fees) at Sotheby’s, smashing not only her record but the record for any Latin American artist.
The Surrealist artist Remedios Varo, too, has seen a sharp increase of attention with two works recently acquired by major institutions, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. In the summer of 2020, Sotheby's set a new auction record for her work, when her enigmatic 1956 self-portrait Armonía (Autorretrato sugerente) doubled its high estimate to sell for $6.1m (with fees). Works by Varo will also be included in the central exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale alongside pieces by fellow female Surrealists Tanning, Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington.
In fact it was a book of fairy tales by Carrington that provided the title for the Biennale exhibition, The Milk of Dreams. That titular billing follows a recent string of recognition for the British-Mexican artist, whose Mexico City home will be converted into a museum, it was announced last year. In 2018 and 2019, her paintings were acquired by major museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, SFMOMA and the National Galleries of Scotland.
And while many of the Surrealist works getting renewed attention are by female artists, Tanning vehemently rejected the idea of being labeled a “female painter” or a “woman artist”. She believed there should be no distinction between artists and that gender is of no importance. Art, for her, was an examination of life, thought and what all that which lies beneath. "Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity,” she once said. “I don’t see a different purpose for it now.”