Art of Dreams and Desire

Dada and Surrealism take over the Cincinnati Art Museum

Feb 11, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Like many angst-ridden teenagers in the 1980s, I was a huge fan of Surrealism. Most idolized Salvador Dalí, but I loved René Magritte and his paintings of massive boulders hovering over the sea, the locomotive that churned forth from a fireplace and the pipe that wasn’t a pipe at all.

His dreamlike juxtapositions and interrogations of reality piqued my interest in art history. In college I discovered Marcel Duchamp and the irreverent Dadaists. To me, their seemingly nonsensical art represented a way to buck the system with humor and intelligence. Of course, that was just part of their intent.

Museum-goers will get the chance to explore the complexities of these enigmatic art movements when Surrealism and Beyond: In the Israel Museum, Jerusalem opens this Sunday at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM).

While there are a few stellar examples in the CAM’s permanent collection (most notably Joan Miró’s Mural for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, which hangs across from the café), Cincinnati is not a Surrealism and Dada stronghold. This makes the upcoming exhibition especially exciting. It features more than 200 works and provides a comprehensive survey of major artists including Dalí, Magritte, Duchamp, Miró, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hch.

From paintings to sculpture, automatic drawing to collage and assemblage to “readymades” — mass-produced objects selected, modified and presented as art by Duchamp, who maintained that art was the idea — the works on display paved the way for many of today’s artists.

Stephen Jaycox, the CAM’s creative director, offered me a sneak preview while the installation was still in progress, and the show promises to be dynamic and innovative.

“Readymades” will hang from the ceiling with films projected behind them. A mirrored platform displaying small objects will spread out like a reflecting pool before Magritte’s “The Castle of the Pyrenees,” one of the show’s signature pieces. Works will be arranged thematically rather than chronologically, with five categories highlighting major currents from the beginnings of Dada in 1916 through contemporary artists influenced by Dada and Surrealism.

Much of the work comes from the Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection, which the couple donated to the Israel Museum in 1998. Arturo Schwarz, a worldly book and art dealer, scholar and collector, befriended many of the artists. These personal relationships strengthened the collection — a Man Ray photograph in the exhibition, for instance, is just one of many works created especially for Schwarz.

CAM Curator of European Painting, Sculpture and Drawings Benedict Leca identifies the show as being a perfect fit for the museum’s mission.

“It is especially rich in material that is not often seen in this part of the world,” Leca says. “As a museum curator, you think about the kind of material and what impact it’s likely to have. While many people are accustomed to the Old Masters, which will always have their place here of course, we are also committed to challenging people with things that might not be as familiar.”

Artists that preceded Dada and Surrealism based their work in observation of the world around them. For example, the Impressionists, while radical compared to earlier 19th-century artists, still founded their paintings in visual perception.

“Dada and Surrealism were movements against empiricism, against pure observation,” Leca says. “It was no longer about the eye looking out, but about closing your eye and looking within. They believed the dream, the unconscious, chance and desire were as important as what we see outside ourselves.”

Cincinnati should count itself fortunate to have this exhibition.

“It isn’t likely that you’ll see another comprehensive grouping of this kind again,” Leca says.

Don’t miss it while it’s in town — the show’s only other stop is Helsinki.

SURREALISM AND BEYOND: IN THE ISRAEL MUSEUM, JERUSALEM opens at the Cincinnati Art Museum on Sunday and continues through May 17. Get museum details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.