Looking at Surrealist Art in Our Own Surreal Age

In his 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism,” the writer André Breton defined the term most succinctly as an attempt to resolve “these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory,” though its true origins came earlier, with the rise of Dada, an artistic movement that emerged in Zurich in 1916, and which favored the absurd over the logical.

Certainly, there are parallels between the 1920s and now: The United States has just extricated itself, messily, from a war; nationalist fervor is part of the political mainstream; basic rights are being revoked; and some version of a pandemic that has killed millions lingers from one month to the next.

Also, Taeuber-Arp’s career preceded and outlived Zurich Dada, which fizzled out in the early 1920s, as those who’d sought refuge in the city during World War I went their separate ways, but she was an artist who looked inward as a means of arriving somewhere unfamiliar: “Only when we go into ourselves and attempt to be entirely true to ourselves will we succeed in making things of value, living things, and in this way help to develop a new style that is fitting for us,” she wrote in 1922.

AT THE METROPOLITAN Museum of Art, “Surrealism Beyond Borders” is juxtaposed with a rendering of wood planks at the work’s left border.

So what is Surrealism’s legacy a century after its founding? Classic Surrealist works — such as “Téléphone-Homard” ,” in which a young girl in a hotel corridor stares down a massive sunflower — may feel a bit old-fashioned, but the idea that the means of rebelling against the present are already within us, if only we can learn to pay attention, is, in 2021, highly resonant.

Perhaps this is partly what Taeuber-Arp meant when she wrote of her belief that “the wish to produce beautiful things — when that wish is true and profound — falls together with striving for perfection.” She made work up until her death in 1943, during another world war, and her nimble, irrepressible creativity is a reminder that art making, especially in times of strife, is an inherently optimistic act.

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