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The 1938 Surrealist Exhibition
Imagine walking into an art exhibition past a taxi in which two mannequins inside are being constantly hit by jets of water. Or finding the main exhibition hall looking something like a cave with 1200 bags of coal hanging from the ceiling. Okay, perhaps this sounds pretty tame beside what some artists are doing today, but imagine how it must have struck the Paris art crowd in 1938. The occasion was the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme. The Water Taxi was the product of the fertile mind of Salvador Dali, and the tons of coal hanging from the ceiling, that of Marcel Duchamp. The exhibition was organised, not by an artist, but by the poet, André Breton, something of the intellectual guiding force of the Surrealist movement. Held in January, the show was a big hit, talked about for years afterwards, but sadly, perhaps because of the war, never held again.

Paul Delvaux displayed is metamorphic painting Aurora, in which the rising sun turns tree trunks into nude women. Chagall contributed his A Midsummer Night's Dream wherein a lovely bride seems about to marry a half-man, half-goat while egged on by a red, devilish cupid. It was here that Salvador Dali's Premonition of Civil War or Soft Construction with Boiled Beans was first displayed. It was as apocalyptic as it was prophetic. Dutch artist, Rene Magritte, contributed The Treason of Images, an exquisitely detailed depiction of a brier pipe under which he'd written, "This is not a pipe." The inscription made the silent point that it was a picture of a pipe. Also displaying at the exhibition were Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Man Ray, and a dozen other artists that had taken up Surrealism at the time.

The whole point of the show was to force the viewers to look at things differently--even radically. It attempted to impose new demands on bourgeois manners and fears about, "What would people think?" The Surrealists wanted to free themselves and others from traditional ways of thinking, not just about art but about life. It was a political as well as artistic movement with the members espousing every left-leaning political doctrine that was fashionable at the time. However, disciplined political action was not the strong point of free-spirited men such as these and the art has long since outlasted any political meaning that may once have been attached to it. One lasting item that did come of the show however was A Dictionary of Surrealism, containing sarcastic biographies of the artists and the lexicon needed to understand them.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
24 December 1998


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