The art movement that embraced the monstrous

To be on the Internet today is to confront disturbing images – of war, climate change, humanitarian crises. Strange pictures also appear. For example, a YouTube algorithm gives me videos of a pimple-blowing bonanza or a series of videos where young men eat glue. If disturbing sensory experiences abound in everyday life, why go and seek out more? That question can be asked to visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts exhibition “Surrealism Beyond Borders,” a show filled with grotesque representations of political upheaval and private horror, but also with intriguing bizarre and beautiful demonstrations of imagination.

The Met’s exhibition aims to show a non-chronological and non-geographical view of surrealism, which became a transnational aesthetic phenomenon after being formally established in Paris in 1924 and spread globally through the 20th century. Its founder, André Breton, defined surrealism as pure “psychic automatism” – where whims from the artist’s unconscious control their art production. Artists used surrealistic techniques to process demons, both internal and external, but also to challenge conventional thinking (is a pipe really a pipe that René Magritte famously asked about?) and to express fantasies of artistic or political liberation. The Freudian idea was that artists, by unlocking the unconscious, could assert independence from their inner worlds and those of their viewers. Radical nonconformism was a central tenet that prompted some artists to use the form to challenge the pressures and constraints of oppressive regimes.

Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya (professionally known as Malangatana) adapted surrealistic tradition in this very way. Throughout the 1960s, when Malangatana took part in Mozambique’s protracted war for independence from Portugal, the surrealistic imprint was crucial – it allowed his images to be readably brutal without being (perhaps stressfully) specific. At the Met contains an unnamed work from 1967, a compressed package of bright and wild, phantasmagoric beasts. The middle figure is eaten alive, the blood drips down over his chest, his eyes wide in horror. The sound of food madness seems to be buzzing. The characters appear to be in a hellish prison landscape – fittingly, as Malangatana himself was arrested just four years earlier for revolutionary activities.

Like all good art, however, the picture is broad. It could indicate the exploitative violence of the Portuguese colonizers, ruthlessly thirsty for power or the psychological state of the Mozambicans, who were pushed into war with their oppressors (which Malangatana shared in a 2007 interview during the struggle for independence, Mozambicans had no choice). The varied readings of these wild characters contribute to the surreality of the work. The pain of painting transcends its own time and place. It rises to the level of archetype and represents a wider spectrum of violence and unrest. If one feels an eerie kinship with these demons, it is the exact form of covenant surrealism allowed.

However, the shape can charm, even if it irritates, as is the case with the Puerto Rican artist Frances del Valles Warrior and sphinx (“Warrior and Sphinx”), seen near Malangatana. Del Valle’s 1957 painting makes me laugh. In it, a huge, sphinxy figure kneels not just a little sexually on what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Egyptian view. The Sphinx emerges a huddled, twisted warrior who has apparently just been forced to pulverize his own head. The image is confusing, strangely divine. Its forms are convincingly fluid. The massive sphinx looks both fetal and futuristic, and the warrior’s ravaged head – a cluster of bright pink – resembles a knotty placenta. But the horror is done gently through del Valle’s thick, luminescent paint. Pearl-like limbs reminiscent of unicorns, fairies. The softness of these textures, paired with the tyrannical attitude of the sphinx, makes the painting a cryptic, yet alluring allure. Del Valle reveals the perverse appeal by confronting the confusing.

Rene Magritte, Le Viole (The Rape), 1934
Rape (“The Rape”), by René Magritte, 1934, from Menil Collection, Houston (WikiArt)

Perhaps the most confusing and amusing image in surrealism is Magritte’s 1934 painting Rape (“The Rape”), housed permanently in the Houston Menil Collection. Like Malagatan Without title, it has the power to disturb, and yet, like del Valle’s work, it evokes a strange sense of cheerfulness. Rape is a figurative portrait of the kind – except with bare breasts instead of eyes, a navel instead of a nose and a frothy hair in the crotch where the mouth would be. Reproduced in Magritte’s gentle hand, these parts become so expressive that the nipples appear to squint, the navel appears to breathe, the sexy appears to smile. If a viewer laughs, they not only laugh at the sudden liveliness of these features. Instead, they can also respond to a dissonant synthesis: the absurdity of the image coupled with the declarative violence of the title and the complete seriousness of the painting method. IN Rape, each brushstroke is made with careful consideration, resulting in a weighty silence reminiscent of Mona Lisa.

Being able to laugh while looking at these kinds of works is the key to surrealism’s input – making us do and feel things we did not know we could do or feel. The experience raises questions: If the nipples can also suddenly blink, see, judge, feel – if all parts of the body tilt on the edge of animation – what do we actually do when we touch them? How much more is any violation violent?

Magritte freely exploited the ability of surrealism to become distressed. “An image that is truly vivid should make the viewer feel sick,” he once told his art dealer. In fact, on the Met’s show, the constant display of biomorphic shapes and messy limbs can disturb a person. And although many art historians consider surrealism to be complete – often with reference to different dates in the latter half of the 20th century – its legacy, or at least the discomfort it gives rise to, continues to evolve.

Prior to the Mets show, my most recent of these disturbing experiences happened to involve another encounter with images of breasts and eyes. In April, at Sotheby’s New York location, I turned a corner and came across Kenyan-born American artist Wangechi Mutu’s. Histology of the different classes of uterine tumors (2005). The work consists of 12 surrealistically inspired collages, where anatomical diagrams are layered with images from fashion magazines, pages from African art books and images taken from national geography, forming distorted female faces. In one case, fat breasts run out from drooping eyes; in another a bent knee becomes a fleshy nose; in yet another, a vagina suffocates the upper third of a woman’s face, and her masquerading eyes twinkle like recessed cysts. In other words, visual chaos.

Mutu’s use of layered images reflects the barrage-like experience of the digital world. Everything in the collages seems to happen at once. To process the work, slow down and decode each face, treating each carved bit with suspicion. The result is paradoxical enough that the collages appear surprisingly clear. In one case, what appears to be an inverted fennec fox sits between the nose and upper lip of one of Mutu’s women: I have never approached an animal with a more violent sense of interrogation. The artist apparently paused on my quick visual intake and showed me the ingredients, both individually and as a devoted curated whole.

Mutu is not alone among contemporary artists in keeping the surreal vein afloat. American artist Juliana Huxtable, for example, poses as a sexualized man who shit a cow in Ko 1 (2019). The calm pose is a bit reminiscent of del Valle’s sphinx, as are the chalky pink-and-technicolor unicorns. Here, the cow’s face is the artist’s own. As she defecates, she makes a face not out of embarrassment but out of exhausted sexual invitation. Huxtable mimics self-fashion bred on social media. Hers, however, is at once more knowledgeable and more self-ironic. Similarly in Starter (2017), French painter Julie Curtiss lays a severed (and immaculately well-groomed) finger over sushi rice in a macabre distortion of shrimp tempura. As in Huxtable’s work, the cured body is repackaged and hyperconscious. The sushi with the cut finger asks: Do I not look delicious? And the answer is, oddly enough, Yes, you do, so to speak.

In the 21st century, surrealism may no longer be the ruling movement of the art world, but it is uniquely positioned to slow down the uptake of what we would otherwise find familiar. By twisting everyday images into the monstrous or simply adding whimsy to it, surrealism gives a new clarity to the vision. These works of art require us to actively process what we see; that we stop looking at pictures and start questioning them. If today’s surrealism makes us feel a little sick, we know it works.

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