‘Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s’ Review: Our Irrationality Laid Bare

Hartford, Conn.

‘Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s,” at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, presents a vivid array of paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and prints by artists who harnessed one of the most profound intellectual movements of the century to capture the physical and psychological violence of the war-torn decade that stretched from the Spanish Civil War through World War II. The exhibition of 64 objects includes major works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Max Ernst and Isamu Noguchi, as well as less well-known artists including Hans Bellmer, Maria Martins, Wolfgang Paalen and Kay Sage.

Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Through Jan. 13, 2019

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Founded in 1924 by the poet André Breton, Surrealism was a repudiation of the cultural norms and political agendas that had caused World War I. Many of the artists associated with the movement, including André Masson, Ernst and Breton, had seen the devastation of the war firsthand, and they turned to Freudian theories of the unconscious to explore the irrationality they witnessed and the nature of the human psyche.

One of the masterpieces on view, Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain II” (1940-42), encompasses the full span of these experiences—from the artist’s memories of serving in the trenches to the Nazi conquests and his narrow escape to the U.S. in 1941. Coaxing his monumental composition from the chance effects of decalcomania (a commercial process Ernst adapted by pressing a sheet of glass against freshly painted canvas and then separating the two layers to produce unpredictable shapes), Ernst created a panoramic landscape of overwhelming decay and dissolution. Among the few survivors in this melting world is Europa, a woman whose rape by the Greek god Zeus (in the body of a bull) is recorded in myth and here stands for the violation of an entire continent.

Max Ernst’s ‘Europe After the Rain II’ (1940-42)
Max Ernst’s ‘Europe After the Rain II’ (1940-42) Photo: © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/ARS, NY/ADAGP, Paris

Only an exceptionally committed museum director could have purchased such a disturbing painting within weeks of its completion during one of the bleakest years of the war. Yet the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., bought it in the spring of 1942. Austin had already presented the first major exhibition of Surrealism in the U.S., in 1931. “Myths & Monsters” explores the fascinating story of the Atheneum’s longstanding dedication to the movement through a display of evocative photographs and other documents.

The exhibition is a partnership between Oliver Tostmann for the Atheneum and Oliver Shell for the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was also a rare early supporter of Surrealism and presented an important retrospective of Masson’s work in 1941. By teaming these two institutions, “Monsters & Myths” reminds us of the remarkable collections of sometimes overlooked museums across this country. After closing in Hartford the exhibition travels to Baltimore, Feb. 24-May 26, and to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, June 21-Sept. 29.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Minotauromachy’ (1935)
Pablo Picasso’s ‘Minotauromachy’ (1935) Photo: © Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS,

Unlike Thomas Hart Benton and other artists of the Regionalist movement who dominated American art in the ’30s and ’40s, the Surrealists generally avoided straightforward realism. Instead they sought to challenge the viewer’s imagination and deepen the significance of their commentaries on contemporary events by wrapping them in foundational myths of European culture, to probe, for example, the nature of war rather than a particular battle.

”Monsters & Myths” primarily displays a panorama of the Surrealists’ evocations of contemporary traumas as timeless myths. As Spaniards deeply concerned about their homeland, Miró, Picasso and Dalí responded quickly to the unrest that lead to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936. Depicting a monumental figure literally tearing itself apart, Dalí’s “Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)” (1936) announces the torment that would extend through the following decade.

 Salvador Dalí’s ‘Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)’ (1936)
Salvador Dalí’s ‘Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)’ (1936) Photo: © Funacío Gala Salvador Dalí

As civil war grew into world war, the Surrealist outcry intensified. Fleeing the Nazis, the Austro-German artist Wolfgang Paalen evoked the horror of that time in “Battle of Saturnian Princes III” (1939), an aerial combat of two pterodactyl-like creatures that echoes from prehistoric times through the dogfights of contemporary aircraft. Amid the violence Miró achieved hard-won moments of peace. His “Acrobatic Dancers” (1940) attains an astonishing balance between intricate linear patterns and brilliant colors that transcends the chaos of that time.

After several of the leading Surrealists escaped Europe for the U.S., they spread the movement to young American artists who would become the Abstract Expressionists. The year after Masson arrived in this country, he completed “There Is No Finished World” (1942), a monumental depiction of constant metamorphosis whose triad of three mythological creatures culminates in the Minotaur, the half-bull and half-man who embodied the Surrealist’s conception of humanity’s dual nature. The Baltimore Museum’s great patron Saidie May snapped it up at its first exhibition. In the final gallery, Mark Rothko’s “The Syrian Bull” (1943) and paintings by Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky demonstrate the transformative impact of the Surrealists on American art. Don’t miss Noguchi’s “Monument to Heroes” (1943)—a funereal black cylinder shot through with bones and sticks.

Painted dark gray and structured in a series of short walls pointing in unexpected directions, the galleries of “Monsters & Myths” thrust us into the Minotaur’s labyrinth of those tragic years.

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