Love and sex at the Met

'I believe in eroticism ... because it’s truly a rather widespread thing throughout the world, a thing that everyone understands.' – Marcel Duchamp





That statement reflects the heart of “Surrealism: Desire Unbound,” a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, being shown through May 12. The exhibit includes works by Man Ray, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Giacometti and Salvador Dalí, among others. Much of the informative wall-text about the artists quotes Marcel Duchamp.

Having opened just in time for Valentine’s Day, “Desire Unbound” is a rather racy exhibit for the Met. Most people think of Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory,” a landscape showing melting watches, or René Magritte’s “Golconde,” which shows men in black coats and bowlers raining down from the sky, when they think of surrealism. Neither is shown in this exhibit, which points to our puritanical past’s creating a great misunderstanding about surrealism: most don’t know that its primary premise is that love, desire and freedom of imagination are the salvation of humanity.

Magritte is instead represented in this exhibit by, among other paintings, “The Lovers,” showing a couple blinded by the wrapping around their heads – Magritte’s statement about relationships – and “Le Viol” (the rape), which has a figure shaped like a viola. Typical of surrealism, the painting is a pun and also expresses a darker side.

Surrealism is not just a visual arts movement, but embraces literature, philosophy and politics. Its main proponent was a poet, André Breton, whose work is included in the exhibit.

The movement started after World War I. People were escaping years of Victorian repression and were fascinated by the works of Freud. The war’s brutality stripped away the comfort of conventional thoughts and mores. Surrealists focused on love. Duchamp said, “Breton loves as a heart beats. He was in love with love in a world that believed in prostitution.”

The science of photography had been developing for years. The visual arts departed from making accurate or flattering representations of people and events and explored what had been a secondary aspect, the instigation of emotional response. Surrealists looked to free the imagination.

When one learns to draw, one draws nudes in order to see how a body is constructed and how clothing will fall on it. When one can construct a body and combine that with imagined placement and pose, it is a very small jump to erotica.

In fact, Hans Bellmer created doll whose parts could be assembled many ways, which he then photographed. Breton called the doll “the only original Surrealist object with a universal, provocative power.” One of the photos shows the doll with two sets of hips and legs, one where they normally are on people, the other instead of a chest, head and arms. The figure not only has a symmetry, but is solely about sex.

This is not an exhibit for the prudish, and do not bring children. In among Miró’s paintings of sensual relationships, or Giacometti’s frightening sculpture, are explicitly erotic works. There are drawings of amorphous shapes covered with genitalia. Some of the pieces indicate transgender or fetishism. Some surrealists claimed de Sade as a predecessor.

While many of the works are troubling, there are some very beautiful works in the exhibit. Man Ray’s photographs of nudes are stunning and Miró’s Automatism experiments (similar to automatic writing) in which an artist drew intuitively, supposedly without thinking about the end result, nevertheless resulted in perfect compositions. A large iconographic statue, “Cat Woman” by Leonora Carrington (one of the few women represented), is fascinating.

A supplementary program of lectures and films includes Luis Buñuel’s famous Un Chien Andalou (www.metmuseum.org for further information).

– –Karen Moy–